Photo credit: Hayidion

By Miriam Heller Stern

Why should Reform Jews choose day school? And why does the Reform movement need day schools?

To some, the answers to these questions may be obvious; and for others, provocative. Reform day schools are designed to deliver high-quality education in an authentic, immersive Jewish environment in which Reform ideologies are practiced and celebrated. And yet, historically, the Reform movement championed public school education as part of its commitment to striving for a just and equal society. Reform day schools gained the official endorsement of the Reform movement in 1985, in a statement that simultaneously affirmed the movement’s continued commitment to the democratic value of participation in public schooling.

The competing priorities of investing in immersive Jewish education and supporting public education have made day school advocacy in the Reform movement complicated. During the height of day school expansion in 2004, PEJE convened a group of Reform rabbis and educational thought leaders to explore what it might mean to amplify the Reform movement’s commitment to day schools and expand the network. As Michael Zeldin, then director of day school initiatives at the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, recalls, they reasoned that while the Orthodox and Conservative day school populations were fairly stable, there was tremendous potential for growth in enrollment among Reform families, who constitute about a third of American Jewry.

In their article “Day Schools for Reform Jews, Too,” Zeldin, with Rabbi David Ellenson, articulated the rationale for Reform day school education: “Many Jewish parents, and we include ourselves, feel that an intense exposure for our children to the ethical-religious-national heritage that is Judaism constitutes as invaluable resource for educating and preparing our children for participation in a pluralistic and expanding world. … The values and traditions that our children will learn from a liberal Jewish perspective in [Reform] day schools will cause our children to contribute as Jews to the American public square in an authentic liberal Jewish voice. … If we educate our children in schools that allow for optimal exposure to Judaism, we will foster their maturation as knowledgeable and serious liberal Jews.”

The number of Reform day schools grew to 24 during the day school boom of the early 2000s. In the wake of the recession and the challenge of affordability, there are now only a dozen Reform day schools in the United States and Canada. Even with this decline, communities like Los Angeles, Boston, Atlanta, Scottsdale, Houston, Toronto, New York and Miami still boast strong, values-driven Reform day schools. About two-thirds of the schools reside in Reform congregations, where they are part of a broader Jewish ecosystem inclusive of a preschool, religious school, b’nai mitzvah programming, youth groups and family education.

One challenge in growing the Reform day school population was the small number of Reform leaders who had personal experience with day schools. Many aspiring Reform rabbis had their formative Jewish educational experiences in summer camps, congregational schools and youth engagement, including social justice programming and Israel experiences. As young leaders, they often imagine themselves serving in the types of environments that nourished their own Jewish souls.

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion partnered with PARDES (and now Prizmah) to develop a pipeline of Reform leaders who would understand and advocate for day schools. Rabbinic, education and cantorial students can apply to participate in the Day School Externship, a course that immerses them in a day school, often for their first time. Under the faculty leadership of Dr. Michael Zeldin, Rabbi Sam Joseph, PhD, and Dr. Lesley Litman, the students are embedded in the culture of a day school for a week, where they observe and teach classes, lead tefillah and join celebrations. They participate in the rhythm of the school day from carpool to pickup, experiencing how the school culture is itself a pedagogical tool. They speak with teachers, administration, students, staff and lay leaders. They ask a lot of questions. Their HUC faculty guide them through a week of participant observation and reflection, relationship building, and taking note of educational practices they might incorporate into their own toolboxes. Beth Am Day School in Miami is the 2018 host to 10 rabbinical and education students from the Los Angeles, Cincinnati and New York campuses.

There is some truth to the cliché “seeing is believing”: The opportunity to meet students who love their school, teachers who take pride in the work, and lay leaders who breathe the mission of the school is compelling to HUC students, especially when they are just beginning to imagine the trajectories of their careers and the creative approaches to Jewish learning that they may embrace. Reform day schools are laboratories for tefillah, project-based learning, Hebrew language learning and technology integration. Students come away inspired by the powerful learning and living that takes place.

Reflections by alumni about the externship reveal a deep commitment to the values that day schools embody: a commitment to rigorous learning; kindness and compassion; leadership; and the infusion of Jewish values into everyday living. For participants whose Judaism was fortified at camp, day school is a reminder that an immersive Jewish learning environment can be created year-round. Time is always a limitation in a part-time learning program; graduate students who have not witnessed day school before report being captivated by the potential for deepening Jewish commitment when the time for learning is so dramatically increased. Once they participate in the externship, the students report that they are more likely to recommend a local day school to their congregants or pursue employment in a day school.

There are several practical ways that all liberal and community day schools can increase the Reform presence in their schools. Day schools would benefit from inviting local Reform rabbis and educators to visit and experience the school culture firsthand, including observing classes, participating in tefillah, meeting student leaders, and conferring with lay leaders, founders and parents. Reform clergy and congregational lay leadership could be assets to day school boards. Finally, day school educators and congregational leaders can collaborate to create integrated programs with the congregations’ youth groups and family education programs.

As Prizmah develops each facet of its multidenominational framework, the Reform presence in the landscape of day schools remains essential for supporting liberal Jewish life. The blending of progressive educational values and progressive Jewish values make the school day more holistic and less bifurcated than some dual-curriculum day schools. Their flavor of Judaism can appeal to a wide swath of American Jewry; Reform Jews are more likely to choose schools that espouse their values and customs and make them feel at home. They provide a welcoming space for interfaith families in an immersive Jewish learning context. While the number of Reform schools is small, their potential audience is still great. The HUC-JIR-Prizmah Day School Externship aims to ensure the continued growth of Reform day school education as a visible and viable option for Jewish learners.

Dr. Miriam Heller Stern is the National Director of the School of Education of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

The article originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Hayidion, PRIZMAH’s Journal