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  • The Political Economy of Day Schools1
  • Ari Y. Kelman (bio) and Janet Bordelon (bio)

Though often treated as distinct phenomena, Jewish education and secular education both share in the education of American Jews. To talk about one is to reveal implicit truths about the other. As long as American Jewish leaders could articulate their visions for Jewish education without conflicting with their appreciation of public education, all was well. But as questions of suburbanization, desegregation, ethnic identity, and middle-class values all took on greater urgency during the late 1960s, the tacit agreement began to fray. By the end of the decade, both the Reform and Conservative movements embraced day schools, raising new and uncomfortable questions about the relationship between education, ethnicity, religion, and socioeconomic status.

This article seeks to understand how leaders in non-Orthodox American Jewish communities squared an emerging affinity for Jewish day schools with their liberal commitments to public education. Focusing on the period between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s, and taking 1968 as a turning point, this article explores the ways in which American Jewish leaders understood and formulated a new vision for Jewish education that could allow for both an increased commitment to the education of Jews within exclusively Jewish contexts, yet did not compromise their liberal political commitments to public education. Sensitive both to claims of antisemitism and to fears that they would be seen to endorse "white flight," American Jewish leaders carefully constructed a vision of day school education that they hoped would align both with liberal political commitments and to a concern for the transmission of Jewishness to the next generation.

In so doing, they used financial resources to stabilize the tension between ethnicity and politics. They advanced a vision for Jewish schooling that presented Jewish day schools as an option that neither rejected nor competed with public schools for either resources or time. This vision was only available to them once they felt prepared to call [End Page 59] upon the middle-class stability and institutional resources of the community at large, though they understood that they had to do so without appearing to abandon their civic commitments in favor of voluntary, if gilded, educational ghettoes. Tracking the shift in attitudes toward Jewish day schools reveals a political economy of Jewish education in which concerns for communal vibrancy came to rely, in large measure, on the financial resources of the Jewish middle class.

Delivering Integration

Until the middle of the 1960s, advocates for Jewish education favored an integrationist approach. In that context, however, integration did not refer to schools or classrooms.2 Instead, it was part of an educational vision that favored students who could integrate Jewish knowledge and values into their American social and cultural contexts.3 If integration was the desired outcome, American Jewish leaders still divided on what would be the best delivery mechanism for it: could it be best realized through a model that embraced Jewish and secular subjects within the parameters of Jewish private school, or was it best achieved through a complementary arrangement between public schools and supplementary schools?

The integrationist approach held even those who advocated for Jewish private schools. Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, founder of the Ramaz School, explained his belief that Judaic and secular studies classes should be intermingled, to help "integrate American and Hebraic cultures, or to achieve a blending of Judaism and Americanism."4 Dr. Joseph Kaminetsky, a leader in Torah Umesorah, the society for day school educators that served as faculty at Orthodox schools, explained that day schools "are committed to the raising of a generation of Jews who will be loyal to the democratic way of life. The leadership of these schools strives for integration of the best of American culture and Jewish value in their students."5 In 1960, critic Milton Himmelfarb criticized Jewish schools for their inability to foster integration and their failure to provide "Jewish learning that connects with the rest of culture."6 [End Page 60]

By contrast, non-Orthodox Jews tended to favor the complementary approach though they held to the same integrationist vision. As Jonathan Krasner has argued of Samson Benderly and his students, "their archetypical American Jew was...


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