A Practitioner’s Response to Mr. Steinhardt’s Remarks on The Future of Jewish Day Schools

Davis AcademyBy Rabbi Micah Lapidus, Ed.D.

I deeply appreciate Mr. Steinhardt’s published remarks from the Hannah Senesh Day School Gala last month because they afford those of us that care about the present and future of Jewish Day Schools to engage in conversation with one of the most audacious and forward thinking philanthropic leaders of the American Jewish community. I first met Mr. Steinhardt at a Hillel Leader’s Convention in 2001 where I was taking my first steps into Jewish professional life as a JCSC Fellow at Yale University. I am grateful to Mr. Steinhardt for his support of that wonderful program and for his ongoing investment in Jewish education. My feeling, having reviewed the written remarks several times, is that Mr. Steinhardt’s critique and recommendations are only part of the complex dilemma of why more families don’t ever consider a Jewish Day School education for their children.

For the last eight years and the entirety of my rabbinate, I have served as the rabbi of a remarkable Jewish Day School: The Davis Academy. In our 23rd year, The Davis Academy has the distinction of being Atlanta’s Reform Jewish Day School. It is a school whose visionary founders identified a compelling and enduring need in this community – a need that is attested to by the nearly 600 current students and nearly 1,000 alumni of our school. Davis Academy’s strength today reflects not only our founders’ vision but also the relentless pursuit of excellence in all areas by every professional that is lucky enough to be a part of Davis.

What follows is not an attempt to systematically respond to Mr. Steinhardt’s loving and important critique of Jewish Day Schools. Instead, I offer these observations as a practitioner deeply immersed in a particularly exceptional Jewish Day School who is able to see both the insider and outsider view. The insider view is, as Mr. Steinhardt and others note, a view that most Jews never see for themselves in part because they are convinced that their outsider view is accurate. The outsider view sees narrow parochialism and a backwards-looking focus that Mr. Steinhardt discusses and that many Jews associate with Jewish communal life and Jewish education in particular. The insider view is quite different. Here are a few snapshots.

  • While touring with a prospective family, I wandered into our Idea Lab. After nearly stepping on a LEGO robot, I approached a group of 4th graders engrossed in building a computer. I told them that if they successfully built the computer and then sent me an email from it, I would buy them lunch. We had a great time when pizza was served in my office a few weeks later.
  • Every year approximately 70 Davis 8th graders spend two weeks traveling in Israel. The fact that every Davis Academy graduate has a stamped passport suggests that maybe Jewish Day Schools aren’t as parochial as they might seem. Mr. Steinhardt and others would find The Davis Academy’s Israel trip absolutely fascinating as we strike an exceptional balance of honoring our past while thinking about our individual and collective future.
  • Sitting in the pews of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama with Davis Academy 5th graders, it’s hard to deny that they learn a thing or two about modern heroes, Jewish and non-Jewish, during their academic day. This is one of several touch points in our Civil Rights curriculum, a curriculum that connects directly to one of our five Menschlichkeit values: Tzedek (“Righteousness”).
  • Packaging medical supplies at Medshare, sorting books at Books for Africa, or cooking pancakes at SafeHouse Outreach, alongside their Middle School peers from a local Catholic School, you can see the very definition of what heroism and courage look like blown wide open. That particular day of service culminates with a visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. historical site in Atlanta.
  • The more than 100 students and alumni that have gone to the recording studio to perform on one of our albums of original Jewish music, the more than 180 students that take the stage in our school musical, the digital art students whose portfolios are on display while our Middle School students perform virtuosic songs by Rush and Led Zeppelin at our Spring Arts Night understand that creativity is at the heart of the Jewish people as evidenced by the Torah, the Talmud, Bob Dylan and their own creative endeavors.
  • The 3rd grade student who, during a creative writing themed T’filah, wrote that his soul gave him the message to, “Draw your life in colors,” understands that our human capacity is vastly expanded when we take time to cultivate not only our hearts and minds, but our spirits too.
  • At our weekly Thursday morning Torah service at our Middle School, one of our many non-Jewish faculty members comes to the bimah to share a D’var Torah. Somewhere in the room a student understands that Torah is a source of wisdom and inspiration for all who have the privilege of studying it. Another student understands that the Jewish people have always been and always will thrive when we welcome people of different faiths and backgrounds into our community rather than putting up a wall. That teacher, and her colleagues, demonstrate on a weekly basis that Torah informs us not only of our past, but of our present and future potential.

The list goes on and on (and on). These snapshots are simply the first that pop into my mind as I write. And none of it could happen if The Davis Academy wasn’t, as Mr. Steinhardt rightly notes, exceptional in all areas.

The value proposition of a school like Davis is astoundingly clear to those of us that are insiders. I agree with Mr. Steinhardt that the problem isn’t one of cost, though it must be acknowledged that a Day School education far outweighs any other financial investment a family might be asked to make for a Jewish service. For top-notch schools like The Davis Academy that are already committed to well-rounded and exceptional offerings I think the fundamental challenge resides in the unfortunate fact that when the vast majority of American Jews hear the words, “Jewish Day School,” they consciously or unconsciously construct a mental image that lacks the benefit of an insider’s perspective. Instead of envisioning thriving schools like The Davis Academy that are quite possibly raising the next generation of Jewish Nobel Laureates, they envision the reductionist caricature that Mr. Steinhardt describes.

The inability of American Jews to envision the nuanced and compelling reality that inspires the thousands of students that do attend exceptional Jewish Day Schools coupled with the struggle that these schools face in trying to shatter and reconstruct this pejorative image sadly keeps thousands of Jews from even considering Jewish Day Schools as a viable option for their children’s education. Many will choose equal or lesser non-denominational or Christian private schools before even considering the possibility of a Jewish Day School. I’ve sat with dozens of Davis Academy families that acknowledge that they too had an outdated stereotypic image but are so glad they came and saw The Davis Academy for themselves. Whether on the basis of their own Jewish educational upbringing, their assessment of the state of Jewish organizations in their communities today, the inability of exceptional Jewish Day Schools to successfully get the word out, or out of a sheer lack of caring, the caricature has yet to be replaced by the reality. Until that changes, the chasm between outsider and insider will only grow deeper, to the detriment of exceptional Jewish Day Schools and the many thousands of children and families that would thrive in ways beyond their wildest dreams in our schools. Curriculum redesigns, which Mr. Steinhardt describes with great enthusiasm, might help, but they simply lack the impact to evoke greater interest from those on the outside.

The Davis Academy and other exceptional Jewish Day Schools are in a real quandary that requires truly adaptive leadership that sets the audacious agenda of shattering mental images and changing hearts and minds. On behalf of The Davis Academy I would like to extend an invitation to Mr. Steinhardt to come to Atlanta to help us think through his concerns and our own. We could surely benefit from his candor, knowledge of the Jewish community, and innovative thinking in this area.

Rabbi Micah Lapidus, Ed.D. is the Director of Jewish and Hebrew Studies at The Alfred & Adele Davis Academy, Atlanta’s Reform Jewish Day School. He is a member of the board of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and an alum of DSLTI (Cohort 8).