Proliferating Reform day schools signal growth and ambivalence

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NEW YORK — In many ways, Rodeph Sholom School looks like any other elite Manhattan private institution.

Walls are covered with colorful student art and the small courtyard playground is meticulously maintained. Dressed-for-success, cell phone-toting parents clamor into the kindergarten classroom for a special program where their children show off what they have learned about dinosaurs.

But alongside the pictures of nature and New York hang crayoned illustrations of Bible stories and Jewish family trees.

At the "dinosaur breakfast," kindergartners don't just show off the fossil replicas they have created, but proudly present miniature handmade "Torah" scrolls that contain a page about each Jewish holiday.

Rodeph Sholom — which enrolls 530 students in nursery school through sixth grade — is part of a small, but slowly growing network of Reform day schools, which are increasingly being regarded as training grounds for the movement's future leadership.

Seen as an antidote to the Jewish community's assimilation woes, day schools — which offer secular and Judaic studies under one roof — are proliferating throughout North America. But while day schools have long been accepted in the Orthodox and Conservative communities, Reform Judaism has had a more ambivalent relationship to them.

When a small group introduced the idea of Reform day schools in the 1960s, opponents argued that day schools were "inimical" to Reform Judaism, Michael Zeldin wrote in a 1997 article for a Reform Jewish publication.

"As a modernist movement committed to democratic principles and integration into the life of the community, Reform Judaism could not support a system of schools that separated Jewish children from their non-Jewish neighbors," wrote Zeldin, a professor at the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, describing the opponents' argument.

At a 1969 gathering of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, leaders soundly defeated a proposal that would have encouraged the experimental development of Reform day schools.

Nonetheless, two Reform synagogues — Temple Beth Am in Miami and Rodeph Sholom — opened day schools one year later. Others gradually followed suit and in 1985, with eight schools already in operation, the UAHC softened its stance somewhat with a resolution endorsing "the concept of autonomous, self-supporting Reform Jewish day schools as a valid educational option."

Today, the die-hard opponents have been silenced and 22 Reform day schools exist in North America, including one that opened in September at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles.

Yet Reform day schools still face problems finding broad-based support.

Although the Wilshire Boulevard school launched a kindergarten at its west campus and schools in Dallas and Philadelphia are entering their second years, two others — Los Angeles' Temple Isaiah and Chicago's Rosenwald School — recently closed.

And in the past 15 years, Reform day schools in Detroit, New Jersey and the New York area have not gotten off the ground or have broken off from the movement.

"There are still mixed feelings among Reform Jews and the Reform movement about day schools," HUC's Zeldin said.

"There's not an unequivocal endorsement of day schools as the preferred avenue for Jewish kids, so not every school has the unqualified support of its community."

There is a growing consensus that in order to succeed, a Reform day school has to have grassroots support from members of Reform institutions.

"One of the lessons we've learned is that you have to begin by drawing on the Reform congregations, giving them a sense of ownership and making people feel the school's success is dependent on them," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the UAHC and a vocal champion of Jewish day-school education.

That may explain why the majority of Reform day schools, unlike most Orthodox and Conservative ones, operate out of synagogues.

Having the security blanket of a congregation ensures that the school has a solid base of institutional, financial and rabbinic support, said Irwin Shlachter, headmaster of New York's Rodeph Sholom.

Shlachter describes his school as one that aims to "compete effectively with the best private schools, but do the learning through Jewish eyes."

Rodeph Sholom's critics often describe it as more of a fancy school with Jewish students than a Jewish day school.

But Michelle Singer, who directs the school's Judaic studies curriculum, said the curriculum — once limited to "celebrating holidays through art projects and food" — has become quite rigorous.

"In terms of what we do in class, it's not that different from Conservative or Orthodox schools," said Singer, herself a graduate of an Orthodox day school.

"We learn texts in Hebrew, have Shacharit [morning prayer] services and try to integrate the social-studies curriculum with Judaic studies, so that it's woven throughout.

"It's a delicate balance to make sure all the parents are comfortable. A lot of parents are asking for more Hebrew and Judaic studies, but others worry about losing time for secular studies," she said.

The changes in the school reflect a larger change in Reform Judaism, according to Shlachter.

"I used to call it Judaism in the closet — don't give too much, be like other private schools. But now they want more," he said.

Shlachter and leaders of other Reform day schools believe their schools play a critical outreach role, mostly because marginally affiliated families find them less threatening than traditional Jewish day schools.

Bonnie Morris, educational director of the Solel School outside Phoenix, said, "It doesn't bother me if their motivation in enrolling their children isn't Jewish education.

"The fact that they've walked in the door" is an opportunity to engage the child and family in Jewish life, added Morris, who also serves as president of the Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools, PARDeS.

Solel. founded in 1991 and based in a synagogue, has intensified its Judaic curriculum over the years.

Though Reform day schools vary considerably in their atmosphere, outlook and size, all wrestle with just what a Reform day school should be.

Leslie Litman, former Judaic studies coordinator at Boston's Rashi School and now the liaison between PARDeS and the UAHC, said questions of how observant, or even how Jewish, a school should be often surface at the schools, particularly at new ones worried about scaring off potential parents.

The "struggle between communal norms and individual rights is more prevalent in Reform day schools" than Conservative ones, she said.

Family education programs can help alleviate that struggle, she added. To that end, HUC's Zeldin is directing a pilot program called "Day Schools for the 21st Century" to help Reform and nondenominational day schools maximize their potential for engaging parents and students.

He believes Jewish day schools can foster entire communities and have the power to "invite Reform Jews in to a new vision of what Reform Jewish living is."