Though often treated as distinct phenomena, Jewish education and secular education both share in the education of American Jews. To talk about one is to reveal implicit truths about the other. As long as American Jewish leaders could articulate their visions for Jewish education without conflicting with their appreciation of public education, all was well. But as questions of suburbanization, desegregation, ethnic identity, and middle-class values all took on greater urgency during the late 1960s, the tacit agreement began to fray. By the end of the decade, both the Reform and Conservative movements embraced day schools, raising new and uncomfortable questions about the relationship between education, ethnicity, religion, and socioeconomic status.
This article seeks to understand how leaders in non-Orthodox American Jewish communities squared an emerging affinity for Jewish day schools with their liberal commitments to public education. Focusing on the period between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s, and taking 1968 as a turning point, this article explores the ways in which American Jewish leaders understood and formulated a new vision for Jewish education that could allow for both an increased commitment to the education of Jews within exclusively Jewish contexts, yet did not compromise their liberal political commitments to public education. Sensitive both to claims of antisemitism and to fears that they would be seen to endorse "white flight," American Jewish leaders carefully constructed a vision of day school education that they hoped would align both with liberal political commitments and to a concern for the transmission of Jewishness to the next generation.
In so doing, they used financial resources to stabilize the tension between ethnicity and politics. They advanced a vision for Jewish schooling that presented Jewish day schools as an option that neither rejected nor competed with public schools for either resources or time. This vision was only available to them once they felt prepared to call upon the middle-class stability and institutional resources of the community at large, though they understood that they had to do so without appearing to abandon their civic commitments in favor of voluntary, if gilded, educational ghettoes. Tracking the shift in attitudes toward Jewish day schools reveals a political economy of Jewish education in which concerns for communal vibrancy came to rely, in large measure, on the financial resources of the Jewish middle class.
Until the middle of the 1960s, advocates for Jewish education favored an integrationist approach. In that context, however, integration did not refer to schools or classrooms. (2) Instead, it was part of an educational vision that favored students who could integrate Jewish knowledge and values into their American social and cultural contexts. (3) If integration was the desired outcome, American Jewish leaders still divided on what would be the best delivery mechanism for it: could it be best realized through a model that embraced Jewish and secular subjects within the parameters of Jewish private school, or was it best achieved through a complementary arrangement between public schools and supplementary schools?
The integrationist approach held even those who advocated for Jewish private schools. Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, founder of the Ramaz School, explained his belief that Judaic and secular studies classes should be intermingled, to help "integrate American and Hebraic cultures, or to achieve a blending of Judaism and Americanism." (4) Dr. Joseph Kaminetsky, a leader in Torah Umesorah, the society for day school educators that served as faculty at Orthodox schools, explained that day schools "are committed to the raising of a generation of Jews who will be loyal to the democratic way of life. The leadership of these schools strives for integration of the best of American culture and Jewish value in their students." (5) In 1960, critic Milton Himmelfarb criticized Jewish schools for their inability to foster integration and their failure to provide "Jewish learning that connects with the rest of culture." (6)
By contrast, non-Orthodox Jews tended to favor the complementary approach though they held to the same integrationist vision. As Jonathan Krasner has argued of Samson Benderly and his students, "their archetypical American Jew was a model of integration who lived affirmatively and fully in both the Jewish and American spheres, and who embraced an expansive view of the points of intersection ... Moreover, they insisted that Jewish survival in America was facilitated by integration, or, more accurately, that integration constituted the sole route toward an expression of Judaism sufficiently compelling to engender the will to survive." (7) Their vision of integration contrasted with a more assimilationist approach, which Benderly and his students believed failed to adequately both protect Jewish interests and articulate a Jewish commitment to broader American values. "The problem before us was to form a body of young Jews who should be, on the one hand, true Americans, a part of this republic, with an intense interest in upbuilding American ideals and yet, on the other hand, be also Jews, in love with the best of their own ideals, and not anxious merely to merge with the rest and disappear among them ... It is not merely a religious, but a civic problem." (8)
Motivated by this vision of Jewish education, Benderly advocated for the creation of modern synagogue schools that did not compete with public schools but would partner with them within a "dual school system." (9) This way, Benderly believed that Jewish students could participate fully in the civic educational efforts of public schools while still receiving Jewish instruction in a Jewish milieu. Although he understood the limitations on synagogue schools (too little time, weak curricular materials, undertrained teaching corps, funding pressures, and so on), he stridently opposed the creation of private Jewish schools because, he argued, to follow the model of Catholic parochial schools would run counter to the trajectory of Jewish enlightenment and emancipation. "What we want in this country, is not Jews who can successfully keep up their Jewishness in a few large ghettos, but men and women who have grown up in freedom and can assert themselves wherever they are. A parochial system of education among the Jews would be fatal to such hopes." (10) Benderly's vision of Jewish schooling revealed an understanding of American Jewish education that took its civic commitments as seriously as it did its Jewish ones.
Benderly's vision dominated non-Orthodox Jewish educational efforts. At the end of the 1950s, 88.5 percent of Jewish children enrolled informal Jewish education attended schools "under congregational auspices." (11) Part of Benderly's success can be traced to its unique formulation of Jewish education that aligned with a belief in public schooling. (12) Krasner notes that Benderly and his students took for granted the "Jewish community's romance with the public school," that expanded in the years following the Civil War. (13) Part and parcel of the spread of public education was an effort to "secularize" public schools, an effort in which prominent Jews played a significant role and which Jonathan Sarna argued "represented the triumph of the Protestant model of education in American Jewish circles." (14) Once established, the vision of a Protestant-informed and avowedly secular public educational system became "enshrined in ideology," as American Jews increasingly saw public schools as "temples of liberty," "a synecdoche for America itself," and as passageways to American culture, society, and middle-class attainment. (15)
This integrationist vision persisted even as the Conservative movement laid the groundwork for its day school network, named after Solomon Schechter, during the mid-1950s. In 1957, Rabbi Simon Greenberg explained his rationale for investing in day schools by highlighting their emphasis on integration. "The Jewish religion, rooted in the Bible and in the Rabbinic tradition, is the highest and noblest principle for the integration of the life of the individual Jew and of the Jewish community, and that in this land we have the opportunity to make it the center around which to develop the Jewish version of American Civilization." (16) Greenberg found it necessary to qualify his departure from the beloved "dual school" model by explaining that creating Conservative Jewish day schools would not mean abandoning American values or withdrawing from American society.
We are not turning our faces away from Americanism and walking into a corner of our own. On the contrary, we are rather thinking in terms of putting our hands to a great and glorious task. It is great and glorious both in its emphasis upon the Jewish religion and upon American civilization for which it is to serve as such an integrating principle. (17) A decade later, Dr. Morton Siegel, executive vice president of United Synagogue of America, offered a more thorough formulation of Greenberg's concept. In an article pointedly entitled "What Kind of Child Do We Want to Produce in the Solomon Schechter School?" Siegel explained that "the child who attends a day school finds himself in an educational system which provides a complete integration of Judaic and general studies so that the two worlds which exist for the child who attends public schools and congregational schools--the secular world and the religious world--do not exist for the day school child." (18) Siegel hoped that students would become "contented person(s) living in one, and not in two worlds, with a consistent pattern to guide him in his life." (19) Only by attending a single school that held to both "secular" and "religious" values, could a Jewish student encounter a coherent, integrated worldview. Attending...