Are Israeli expatriates showing us the way when it comes to affordable Jewish day school education that puts the emphasis on the foundations (Hebrew, Jewish culture and Jewish history) rather than on religion or prayer? Based on this article concerning the Ben-Gamla school, it would appear so. I found the following to be of particular interest:
Either the courts will close the school preventing this movement from gaining momentum, or the Jewish day school system will collapse.
The students will learn Hebrew, Jewish culture and Jewish history for two hours a day. The curriculum will not include religion or prayer, unless it is organized by students voluntarily. Many of the people attending the school will be Israelis living in the area. They will get what many Jewish parents in this country want: an affordable alternative to the Jewish day school.
Some of the opponents are worried about the danger this project poses to the day school system. Supporters of the school say it could serve as a national model, providing families with a financially accessible option. Many non-Orthodox households, they believe, are opting not to send their children to day schools because of the cost. Some of those people can be persuaded to come back to this moderately Jewish option.
The question is this: if such a model, with all its limitations, brings more people into the Jewish educational tent – but at the same time is creating even more difficulties for the “real” day schools? Is it a good thing?
Firstly, I’m not sure why this would have a negative impact on the existing Jewish day school system. It sounds as if the appeal of the Ben-Gamla model is to those who do not support existing day schools, either for financial reasons or because they have a problem with the Jewish (i.e. religious) content of the schools. It therefore seems unlikely that pupils will abandon traditional day schools in favour of this model.
Secondly, I think it’s time for Reform Judaism to abandon its traditional role as “defender of the constitution” (at least on this issue) and throw its weight behind this particular day school model. After all, Reform and those who identify with it are the most likely to adopt this “Lite” model of Jewish education, which would favour a pluralistic view of Judaism.
Lastly, as regards the “Ben-Gamla model” itself, I’m all in favour of this cultural approach to Jewish day school education. My feeling is that the school should be left to give students a solid grounding in the secular subjects and the core Jewish curriculum, leaving religion to be learned in the home and/or in the synagogue or temple.
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