Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The dramatic changes in patterns of Jewish affiliation in America over the past decade have been well documented. As chronicled in the Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” (2013) and elsewhere, connectedness with organized denominations—particularly, though not exclusively, outside of Orthodoxy—is on the decline, as is the rate of participation in institutions that define themselves primarily through membership in these denominations. Increasingly, individuals are characterizing their own Jewish identities via unique sets of values and practices that they find personally meaningful, rather than through connection to broader movements that offer pre-packaged combinations of these values and practices.

This shift is not limited to individuals within the Jewish community; it has influenced the affiliation practices of institutions as well. The field of Jewish day school education has been affected particularly strongly. Not long ago, families choosing a school for their children could confidently assume that they would understand that school’s philosophies, policies, values, and observance patterns based upon the denominational network with which the school was affiliated. With the 2016 formation of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools, however, this landscape changed dramatically. The product of a merger among the denominational entities PARDES (the network of schools that had been affiliated with the Reform Movement), the Schechter Day School Network (Conservative), and Yeshiva University School Partnership, as well as PEJE (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education) and RAVSAK (network of community day schools), the advent of Prizmah essentially brought to an end the era of movemental affiliation as a defining trait for Jewish independent schools.

Much time has been spent lamenting the demise of these denominational entities, for reasons that are rooted in either nostalgia (many of us grew up in these movements and had our educational worldviews shaped by them, and it is emotional to lose them) or practicality (the loss of a central policy anchor places a great deal of pressure on now-fully-autonomous institutions). In my view, however, this sea change in our field presents an exciting opportunity to re-invigorate our schools. Jewish independent schools now operate in a Post-Affiliation Era, and each individual institution now has the obligation to define its own unique mission and values in this era—unencumbered by potentially misguided assumptions that people may make about the school based simply upon its affiliation.

I see this as such a fruitful opportunity because the 2013 Pew report made clear that while individuals are less inclined to join up with an institution purely for the sake of denominational loyalty, they are still drawn to organizations that stand for a set of principles that they find personally resonant. In the Post-Affiliation Era, it is not enough for a school to describe itself as “Centrist/Modern Orthodox,” “Conservative,” “Reform,” etc.—or even as a “community school.” Aside from being imprecise and not particularly informative, most of these terms no longer signify the underlying connections or shared sets of policies that they once did. Instead, each institution must define for itself the principles that will establish it as a uniquely appealing option for families, particularly in a crowded market. For example, a school’s Jewish ethos might be based in such values as “celebration of traditional Jewish observance, culture, text and language, as well as the land, people and State of Israel”; along with “insistence that academic excellence and intellectual seriousness can coexist with wholehearted, joyful engagement with Judaism”; and “prioritization of the responsibility to base religious action in ethical principles.”

Each school will have to undertake the challenging work of articulating this unique set of core values for itself. Once it has done so, however, the school is likely to find that it has opened itself up to new markets, as the population of families who are energized and inspired by these principles probably extends well beyond the boundaries of the previous denominational entities. Parents of prospective students will have a clearer sense of what the school stands for and are less likely to make presumptions based upon network affiliation (“I know what that school is like! My sister went to a similar one thirty years ago . . .”).

There is indeed much nostalgia and opportunity for lamentation in the decline of the strong networks that defined the Jewish day school field for decades. As a school leader, though, I find the dawning of the Post-Affiliation Era to be both exciting and liberating. As an individual school community, we now bear the responsibility to articulate for ourselves a set of principles that reflect precisely who we are and what we stand for. We will then have the opportunity to provide a welcoming home for all Jewish families—irrespective of denominational affiliation—with whom these principles resonate.

By Michael A. Kay

 Dr. Michael A. Kay is head of school at Solomon Schechter School of Westchester.


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