The nonsensical rationalization after the My Lai massacre in Vietnam in 1968 — “it became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it” — echoes in a current day school debate.
One of the most horrific incidents in the Vietnam War was the massacre at My Lai, when American soldiers summarily shot between 347 and 504 civilians on March 16, 1968. In a linguistic malapropism expressing the ultimate in rationalization, an American major commented after the fact:
“It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.”
Something along that line crossed our minds when we read in this newspaper a JTA report two weeks ago (Sept. 20, page 7) that some Jewish day schools, “in order to survive,” have opened their enrollment to non-Jews.
We are told:
“The move toward more schools opening up in this way has been driven by the pragmatics of declining Jewish demographics in certain cities” (Ravsak, a network for Jewish community day schools).
“Between the money they bring in and accessing scholarship services, you’re talking about $200,000-plus per year” (Tucson).
“There are going to have to be some hard decisions the board is going to make” (New Orleans).
And (summing up):
“Is the Jewish day school a viable long term school?” (New Orleans).
We are reminded of the debate in Denver in the 1960s at the JCC about whether the JCC should open up to gentile members, again for pragmatic reasons. For the sake of survival, this was a necessary if controversial step, the proponents of open membership argued.
Now, there is no debate. In fact, it is forgotten that there ever was such a debate. Also forgotten is this: Not only Orthodox Jewish families wanted their children to have access to an exclusively Jewish social and athletic environment. The current distinction between the goals of the Orthodox and the goals of the non-Orthodox was, in major respects, unknown. Given that Jewish kids were amply exposed to general society in public schools, most Jewish parents highly valued the availability of a Jewishly safe environment for their children, and found it at the JCC.
With some 50 years of open membership at JCCs around the country, assimilation, meltaway and intermarriage have skyrocketed. These developments were not inevitable. Decisions made by Jewish communal leaders of the time had consequences. It was not “fate”that led American Jewry to its current state. Needless to say, it was not only the change in the Jewish exclusivity of JCCs that accelerated assimilation, but the decline of an exclusively Jewish social environment has been a contributing factor.
So, what is the alternative to a financially stricken Jewish day school?
What should not be an alternative is to blame non-Jewish parents for wanting a Jewish day school education for their children, given that this education is often superior and always culturally enriching. The fault for undermining a Jewish day school education is surely not theirs. The alternative to the admission of non-Jewish students is grounded strictly in internal Jewish integrity.
One possible alternative to a financially stricken day school is to admit non-Jews — “to destroy the school in order to save it.”
A second possibility is to close the school.
The late Rabbi Nathan Bulman did this when he left the rabbinate in a small town in Virginia in the early 1960s because he saw that without his leadership the school would drift away from Jewish values and practices. Excruciatingly painful as it must have been, he placed his values above his own efforts and above institutional loyalty. It was a courageous move, prioritizing integrity above all. Perhaps because of that statement, there is now a flourishing day school in this community today, and the school is not contemplating the admission of gentiles to remain financially viable.
The third possibility is to balance the pragmatics.
Take the New Orleans school, whose director of admissions is the one who asks, “Is the Jewish day school a viable long-term school?” Here is a school that opened its enrollment to non-Jewish kids, and then saw its Jewish population drop to 15 out of 50; and then saw its total enrollment drop to 29; and, along the way, lost its communal rabbi — the very person who had rebuilt the community after Katrina. What the hurricane could not do — that is, drive the rabbi out of town — the compromised Jewish school did do.
He wasn’t about to enroll his children in a Jewish day school that was, putting the matter bluntly, not a Jewish day school. What was seen as a pragmatic move turned out to be the exact opposite.
Bottom line: What is often seen as “pragmatic” — an extra $200,000, for example — is but short-term glitter that, at the very best, will keep the doors open, but will not sustain the Jewishness of the students and, as is clear in New Orleans, will not likely keep the doors open for too long, either.
Fallaciously, the following words of the head of Ravsak is what passes for the pragmatic approach: “At what point does a notable presence of gentile children dissuade Jewish families from sending their kids there?”
The fallacy here is that if enough Jewish parents can be persuaded to send their children to a day school in order to guarantee a preponderance of Jewish students, then the integrity, the mission and the very worth of the school have been preserved. Not so.
In actuality, the genuinely “hard decisions” that a board has to make are not how many gentile families to accept, or how many Jewish families to dissuade. The real decisions are whether to keep a Jewish school open or whether to close it; or, whether to take into account the long-term attraction of a Jewish community lacking an exclusively Jewish day school.
Can gentiles save Jewish day schools? Not in the long term, and, in most cases, not in the short term, either.
The real answers to the question, “Is the Jewish day school a viable long term school,” are twofold: no, not in every community; and, in most communities, yes, if it is a Jewish school.
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News