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Interfaith families find themselves at home in Jewish community day schools. As the head of Contra Costa Jewish Community Day School in Lafayette, California, I consistently surprise visitors considering the school for enrollment or philanthropy when I tell them that 35 percent of our students arrive each day from homes where one parent is Jewish and one parent is not. The visitors' assumption seems to be that families without both parents devoted to living as Jews would not choose a strong Jewish educational path. But the many interfaith families in our school prove that assumption wrong.* In my experience--for interfaith families who have committed to raising their children as Jews--a community day school education is an excellent fit.
"Community" day schools are a segment of the broader Jewish day school world committed to welcoming a wide range of Jewish perspectives and lifestyles into a pluralistic setting. They are bound by the common commitment to Jewish literacy and emphasize doing Jewish things rather than debating questions of Jewish definition. The challenge is for the non-Jewish parent to share in the universal values of Judaism that are taught at a day school.
When any prospective family comes for a visit I explain that we are a Jewishly diverse community that reflects our county's broader community. This means, I tell them, that we have fifteen Israeli students, ten Russian students, and some families affiliated with our Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox community. I close by emphasizing our high percentage of interfaith families. It is important to let families know at entry point the full character of our Jewish learning community. The more aware they are at this point, the greater likelihood they will stay with us for a long time because expectations are clear.
I go on to explain further, however, that while we recognize the diversity within our midst, our commitment is to Jewish practice. The world outside our school walls is a decidedly non-Jewish one. The day school experience, through its curricular emphases, routines and intensity responds powerfully to this dominant culture and is one of the major reasons why parents come to us--particularly interfaith families.
When the day school provides a solid Jewish experience, children develop the strong Jewish identity necessary to engage positively in non-Jewish settings. This is vital for an interfaith family raising their children to be Jewish who will almost certainly find themselves in Christian-based rituals such as Christmas and Easter.
Interfaith families I encounter often talk about the day school as a partner in the Jewish education of their children. These parents want a unified moral and cultural foundation for their child that a day school can help them establish. Some interfaith partners find that the educational focus of the school serves as better common ground than the religious or biological underpinnings of Judaism.
Still, day schools must not assume that their openness to mixed-married families will connect school and home. Day schools must create opportunities for both parents to connect affirmatively to the Jewish community, such as in community-wide celebrations of Jewish living found in menorah lightings, Israel Independence Day events, and Lag B'Omer sports days. How we teach Jewish practice must take into account the range of families in the school. In our published materials, at back-to-school nights, and during school tours it helps to frame Jewish values, when possible, in a universal light. At the center of the school curriculum are five Hebrew words that inspire lessons to which all parents can connect (the translations we provide are modified to fit our school's needs): LeHakshiv,or Listen actively; Koach Ha'Dibur, or Speak with care, as words have power; Derek Eretz, or Act with kindness and compassion; Shalom Bayit, or Be safe and take care of each other; and Chaim Ruchaneem, or Participate in meaningful Jewish practice.
Meaningful Jewish practice, like anything we make an important part of our lives, requires sufficient time and repetition. Day school parents commit their children to ten to twenty minutes of daily tefillah (prayer) and an education in Hebrew that extends beyond the skill of decoding letters that most American Jews have received. Daily rituals develop a spiritual life that too many American Jews sorely lack. This daily practice, and their Jewish identity in general, will be invigorated by Hebrew fluency that is also a product of the amount of time invested.
Certainly our non-Jewish parents have had neither daily Jewish rituals nor extensive exposure to Hebrew, but neither have many, perhaps half, of our Jewish parents. Therefore, day schools must present this more intense curriculum in a way that parents can appreciate. Further, the school must provide tools for parents to connect with their children who quickly surpass them in terms of Jewish knowledge and comfort level with rituals. Here is where regular communication from classroom teachers and school programming that both welcomes and educates the parents is critical.
A strong Jewish day school also provides Jewish educational programs for the parents in our community. Perhaps the best foundation for developing parent connections to the school mission is in the area of Bible study, which we offer parents every Friday morning in sessions led by our rabbi-in-residence. When day schools engage the Jewish tradition of studying classic Jewish texts as communal act, they provide a welcome mat for all willing to devote themselves to the endeavor. Text study provides a comfortable entry point into Judaism. Many bring text study experience from different settings and the gathering does not require the devotions to a deity found in a religious service. When students see their parents studying at home for discussion in school they raise the level of seriousness they bring to their own learning. Day school students see their parents as valuing Jewish education and respond accordingly.
Jewish demographic trends show that approximately half of all American Jews marry someone who is not Jewish. Many of these families want their children to be raised with a strong Jewish education. These families populate and invigorate the Jewish day school movement.
*The San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation's recently released Jewish community study, based on information provided by 1,600 Jewish households among 50,000 overall households called, found that a higher percentage of children from interfaith families have received "some form of Jewish education" than children of two Jews (85 percent to 77 percent).