When it comes to the Jewish community’s recent focus on Jewish education, you can thank the Conservative movement.
That’ll be the rouse-the-faithful message of Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Ismar Schorsch at his annual state-of-the-movement address next week in Jacksonville, Fla.
Previewing the speech in an interview with The Jewish Week, Schorsch cited as examples of the movement’s influence, community adult education programs like the Melton mini-schools, and Boston’s Me’ah program, which require sustained commitment to weekly classes over long periods of time, and the explosion of Jewish Conservative and community day schools at the elementary and high school levels.
“These are largely Conservative founded, funded, attended and led,” Schorsch said. Participants in the adult education programs “largely come from Conservative homes,” he said, and are the single most significant non-Orthodox day school population.
Of the 200,000 or so Jewish day school students in the United States, he said, 50,000 are Conservative-affiliated, with the balance coming from Orthodox homes. Half the Conservative students are in the 75 Solomon Schechter schools, which are affiliated with the movement, and the other half are in the 75 community day schools nationwide. The number of day school students from other movements, Schorsch said, “is negligible.”
High schools are a particular area of Conservative influence, Schorsch said. A decade ago, when the Schechter high school of Manhattan was founded, and then housed at JTS, there were only two other Jewish high schools in the country, he said. Now there are five in the New York metropolitan area alone which have opened their doors or soon will, including schools in White Plains and Teaneck, both connected with Conservative congregations there.
What’s more, the first liberal Jewish boarding school for high school students, the American Hebrew Academy, which is scheduled to open in September in Greensboro, N.C., and offer free tuition is being funded by a Conservative Jew, Chico Sabbah, said Schorsch.
Conservative Judaism is also influencing a younger population, he said.
JTS’ Davidson School of Education has begun a program, now in place in New York and in Detroit, to enrich the Jewish fund of knowledge of early childhood educators in anticipation that this will transform how they teach.
“The three years of early childhood have been almost totally overlooked in terms of serious Hebrew and Judaic content, yet this is the period when youngsters absorb language like a sponge, and parents are most interested in doing everything right,” Schorsch said. “If you can transform the nursery school into a deeper Jewish experience, you can transform all the Jewish education above it.”