Jewish Community High School Education for Everyone; Really? Counteracting Intermarriage and Assimilation

  • by: Rabbi Dr. Chaim Feurman

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, Vol. XIII.
     “School Craze: Jewish High Schooling Goes Boom” reads the title of a recent article in the Jewish Daily Forward1. The article’s author, Gabriella Burman of the Forward staff, hails the proliferation of new non-Orthodox high schools, declaring that, “…No fewer than 15 such schools are due to open their doors in the next three years, increasing the total number by one-third to 45, from 30 today. Twelve of the new schools are community, or non-denominational, schools2…” The proliferation of such community high schools is seen by the author of the Forward article as the “communal response to rising intermarriage rates and a perceived decline in Jewish affiliation.3
This assertion finds validation in an in-depth private long distance telephone conversation that I had with two of the founders of one such community high school. In that conversation, the founders lamented the fact that many of the presumably Jewish adolescents in their community were confused as to their Jewish identity. In many instances only one of the parents of these adolescents was Jewish- often not the mother. They expressed pain over their belief that 50% of the members of the Reform and Conservative congregations in their community were not born Jewish and that the intermarriage rate in their community is 70%. Even more heartbreaking, mourned those founders, is the frequency with which even Orthodox Jewish high schoolers in their community are enrolled in prestigious Christian private schools which require all students to participate in Christian religious instruction as well as in Christian worship services.4 The results they clearly anticipate: a rise in intermarriage and a decline in Jewish affiliation. The founders of this Jewish community high school see the establishment of their school as the means by which to stem these alarming tides of Jewish self-destruction.
The Conventional Community High School Paradigm
The intentions of these noble individuals are as patently pure and selfless as their philanthropy is truly magnanimous. They are deserving of the greatest admiration and commendation. Indeed, if they were thinking in halakhic terms, they would probably consider our time to be an ‘eit la’asot laShem, heifeiru toratekha5. Their school, which reflects the conventional Jewish community high school paradigm in other cities, proposes to provide an educational environment for everyone- one in which all students are embraced, including those whose Jewishness is claimed by patrilineal descent; that is, whose fathers are Jewish but whose mothers are not. It specifically seeks to include Orthodox students in order to preserve the school’s Jewish substance and character, the founders said. It further proposes to recruit a Judaic studies faculty of teachers from all Jewish persuasions and to offer a choice of several kinds of Jewish religious prayer services in which students may elect to participate.
A Serious Concern
I am impelled at this point to raise a serious question and concern. In view of the following considerations, do the proposed well-intentioned actions appear to carry out the noble aspirations for which I have earlier expressed admiration6?
Firstly, in spite of the professed desire to employ Jewish Studies teachers of all denominations at this community high school, Orthodox Judaic studies faculty may be excluded because many will be reluctant to teach Torah to students who are halakhically non-Jewish7. The school, as a result, will be rendered considerably less of a “community” school than intended. If the community high school sincerely seeks to include Orthodox students in order to preserve the school’s Jewish substance and character, the inclusion of Orthodox faculty would appear to be equally desirable for the same reason!
Secondly, by accepting patrilineal descent – without proper conversion – as an indicator of Jewishness the school will only further blur the boundaries of Jewish identity rather than clarify them. Such a policy will serve to validate intermarriage rather than to stem its Jewishly self-destructive tide.
Thirdly, if a student of patrilineal descent who considers himself Jewish attends services and seeks to be counted toward the minyan or to lead the prayers or to be called to the Torah, how will the school respond? Rejecting the student’s request would constitute a humiliation, while accepting it would constitute, in Orthodox terms (Conservative as well), a hypocrisy. Neither could be considered an instance of truly embracing all students.
“Thinking Out of the Box”
A Radical Departure from the Conventional Paradigm
In view of these three considerations, I propose an alternate paradigm which may appear to some to be both radical and revolutionary, but which appears to me to be entirely simple and traditional.8 The paradigm needs to be reviewed carefully by rabbinic halakhic authorities before it can be recommended for implementation, but, in concept, it sets forth four major points:
1. Accept all students including those of patrilineal descent, as originally proposed by the founders of the new community high school cited above.
2. Offer three curricular tracks in Judaic studies, assigning each student to only one track:
a. Orthodox, for all those who are halakhically Jewish,
b. Conversion-preparation for those who are not yet halakhically Jewish, but who wish to prepare themselves for proper conversion to Judaism;
c. Sheva Mitzvot benei Noah for all those who are not halakhically Jewish and who do not wish to convert to Judaism.9
3. Offer only one type of Jewish worship service at school, namely Orthodox, but make participation in school worship services optional. In response to students’ voluntarily expressed interest, instruct those students who are not halakhically Jewish regarding which parts or forms of the tefillah are open to their active participation and which are not yet, until such time as proper conversion takes place.
4. Recruit only Orthodox Judaic studies faculty, but orient, train and equip them to gear classroom instruction toward embracing students from all persuasions.
This, then, is my Jewish community high school paradigm proposal in bare outline. Such a proposed school structure purports to embrace all students in a way that may truly help stem the Jewishly self-destructive tides of intermarriage and assimilation. At the same time it conforms better to standards of Halakhah. I repeat: The paradigm needs to be reviewed carefully by competent rabbinic halakhic authorities before it can be recommended for implementation, but it is presented here as g springboard for what I consider to be sounder thinking along the line of providing Jewish community high school education, which is more realistic for everyone.
1Friday, September 8, 2000, pp. 1, 14.
2 Ibid., p. 1. No specific source for these statistics was cited in the article. It is possible, however, that the statistics were gathered from the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, a partnership of several major philanthropic foundations headquartered in Boston, MA. The Partnership’s executive director, Rabbi Joshua Elkin, Ed. D., is quoted later in the article, p. 14.
3 lbid.
4The founders reported that approximately 550 of the 2,200 students (about 25%) enrolled in the two Catholic high schools in this community are Jewish.

תהלים פרק קיט (קכו) עת לעשות לידוד הפרו תורתך: רש”י: ורבותינו דרשו ממנו שעוברין על דברי תורה כדי לעשות סייג וגדר לישראל.

[Rashi: Our sages infered from this verse that one may violate the Torah in order to create a hedge and fence (to protect) the Jewish people.]

6My stated position echoes that of the angel in Yehudah haLevy’s Kuzari who remarks: “[Even if] your intention is acceptable to the Creator, your deeds are unacceptable.”
תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף נט עמוד א

ואמר רבי יוחנן: נכרי שעוסק בתורה חייב במיתה, שנאמר (דברים ל”ג) תורה צוה לנו מורשה- לנו מורשה ולא להם.- וליחשבה גבי שבע מצוות! מאן דאמר מןרשה- מיגזל קא גזיל לה, מאן דאמר מאורסה- דינה כנערה המאורסה, דבסקילה. מיתיבי, היה רבי מאיר אומר: מניין שאפילו נכרי ועוסק בתורה שהוא ככהן גדול- שנאמר (ויקרא י”ח) אשר יעשה אתם האדם וחי בהם, כהנים לויים וישראלים לא נאמר, אלא האדם. הא למדת: שאפילו נכרי ועוסק בתורה הרי הוא כהן גדול- התם בשבע מצות דידהו.

[R. Yohanan said: A gentile who engages in Torah is guilty of a capital crime, to wit: “Moshe instructed us in Torah, a heritage for the community of Yaakov.” It is our heritage and not theirs. What of the seven  [Noahide) laws?  R. Meir said: A gentile who engages in Torah resembles the High Priest. To wit: “Which a person should perform and live by them. “It doesn’t specify priests, Levites or Israelites but a person. The conclusion: Even a gentile who engages in Torah resembles the High Priest when he [engages] in the seven [Noahide] laws!)

8A halakhic precedent for this paradigm is found in Responsa Melammed LeHo’il vol. II (Yoreh De’ah) # 77.
9It may appear to some that there is not much of a curriculum for sheva mitzvot benei Noah. In fact, the subject is a vast field of halakhic endeavor, including some burning contemporary issues such as abortion, contraception, artificial insemination, Kiddush Hashem, organ transplants, living wills, divorce, marriage, etc. in which the obligations are different for a ben-Noah as compared to those of a Jew. For the uninitiated, I recommend two books: 1) J. David Davis: Finding the God of Noah: the Spiritual Journey of a Baptist Minister from Christianity to the Laws of Noah. (Hoboken, N.J.: Ktav, 1996; 2) Aaron Lichtenstein: The Seven Laws of Noah (New York: The Rabbi Jacob Joseph School Press, 1986). Both books make it clear that there are many more than seven commandments which benei-Noah are obliged to keep.