Religion & Ethics Newsweekly
The New York Times, July 21, 2004
by Samuel G. Freedman
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BOB ABERNETHY: Now a special report on preserving the identity of American Jews. For years, most reform and conservative Jews, more than half of the country's six million Jews, wanted their children to assimilate into the larger American culture, so they sent them to secular schools. Jewish day schools were almost exclusively for the Orthodox. But now for more and more reform and conservative parents, helping their children know their Jewish heritage has became as important as assimilation, so they, too, are sending their children to Jewish day schools and learning from them. Our report is from Samuel Freedman, author and professor at Columbia University.
Mr. NORMAN FISHER (Rocky Mountain Hebrew Academy): (To class) Good question. There's a (foreign language spoken). We don't know if she did it before or she did it after or...
Professor SAMUEL FREEDMAN: Fifteen-year-old Lisa Guthery represents the new face of American Judaism. A reform Jew, she has attended religious day schools in her home city of Denver from first grade on. Now she goes to high school at Rocky Mountain Hebrew Academy, or RMHA, one of a new breed of day schools reaching out to non-Orthodox Jews.
Mr. FISHER: Parents are looking around and saying, 'If I want my child to be involved with Jews and marry Jews and they have Jewish values, I have to put them in the best environment for that.'
Mrs. JEAN GUTHERY: I had always had a conviction and a
determination that any child or children that I had would be raised as a Jew
with a solid identity as a Jew, and that was important to me.
Unidentified Boy: (Foreign language spoken)
FREEDMAN: Traditionally, only Orthodox Jews sent their children to day schools. Reform and conservative Jews wanted their children to attend public schools so that they might assimilate into mainstream America, and it worked only too well. More than half of Jews nationally marry outside the faith. In Denver, the number stands at 70 percent. And the Jewish community is widely scattered.
Mr. FISHER: The fact that the Jewish community is becoming so decentralized, with people moving farther and farther out, where there are fewer and fewer Jews in the individual public schools, all the more reason to have them in a Jewish school where their social group, their peer group is made up of Jews.
FREEDMAN: Every Friday, Lisa's parents, Peter and Jean Guthery, share Sabbath dinner at home and then worship at their local reform temple, but they've come to such observance in middle age. Jean is a convert from the Dutch Reform Church, and Peter is the son of Holocaust refugees who downplayed their Judaism.
Mrs. GUTHERY: At first, I thought, 'There's no way I can do this for her. I don't have the background.' I'm a Jew by choice. I wasn't raised Jewish, so I felt like I didn't have the where-with-all to do all of this for her. So my next thought was, 'If I can't do it, then the next best thing is put her with the people who can.'
Mr. PETER GUTHERY: When we approached this for Lisa, I didn't have the experience, and it was a filling of a void.
Unidentified Teacher: (Foreign language spoken)
FREEDMAN: At RMHA, Lisa spends half of her day immersed in Jewish subjects, like Talmud, Bible and Hebrew.
LISA GUTHERY: (To teacher) Were the other ones...
FREEDMAN: In the other half, she turns her attention to
a secular school curriculum, which prepares students to compete for college
admission. The number of day schools began growing dramatically after World
War II, increasing eightfold by the 1970s. Virtually all of those students
were Orthodox. Recently, though, there's been a second boon, this one among
reform and conservative Jews. Over the last decade alone, non-Orthodox pupils
have come to account for 1/5th of all day school enrollment. Here at RMHA,
the story is even more dramatic: 60 percent growth in the last four years.
Like other pluralistic day schools, Rocky Mountain Hebrew Academy aims to instill Jewish identity without requiring Orthodox practice. It transcends the divisions between Jewish denominations, from reform to Orthodox.
GUTHERY: Since we've all been exposed to the other sects of Judaism, we've been able to help each other along rather than see each other as a totally, like, separate sect. We've been able to kind of mesh together. And I know that, since kindergarten, we've had Orthodox, conservative and reform in our classrooms, but it's just being able to accept the different ways that people observe Judaism, I think, that we've been taught to do.
Mr. FISHER: Students come with different backgrounds, different ideas, different perspectives. In each area, we will have a discussion that meets the needs of all the students. A rabbi once told me that it doesn't matter who wrote the Torah. What matters is the role Torah plays in your life.
FREEDMAN: While critics claim non-Orthodox Jews are utilizing day schools to avoid inferior public ones, Lisa Guthery had her choice of Denver's best high schools. She and her parents chose, instead, to pay close to $8,000 a year in tuition, and in return, the entire Guthery family has reaped the spiritual benefits of her education.
Mrs. GUTHERY: You can't send a child to a school like that and not profit yourself, and definitely I know that we profited from her going that.
GUTHERY: I do believe that I am a vehicle from, you know, teaching them things that I learn. I come home sometimes -- and especially last year, I would come home with a Torah portion, or I'd come home with a custom that we would do, like, for example, lighting the candles on shabbat or lighting the candles for Hanukkah that you go left to right or you go right to left. They didn't know about a custom like that.
Mr. GUTHERY: I was being taught; she was teaching. And she -- I don't know, instinctively or otherwise -- really got into that, and it brought me back.
FREEDMAN: Non-Orthodox Jews, like Lisa Guthery, who go the day-school route, remain a small minority, but their numbers seem destined to grow in the future.
Mrs. GUTHERY: When it comes to Jewish identity, I don't think you mess with that. I think you support it, you encourage it, you shore it up. And I think it's a wonderful way to raise a child.
FREEDMAN: For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I'm Samuel
Freedman in Denver.