Published on August 3, 2020
Every so often in history, a series of great disruptions—unrelated at first in their nature and origin, accidental in happening all at once or in rapid succession—changes the fundamental landscape of nations, peoples, and cultures. We are living in such a moment in modern America: our citizens in masks, our economy in turmoil, our American heritage under fire, a new left and new right simultaneously emerging, a series of major Supreme Court decisions about the role of religion in American public life, and the rapid normalization of digital learning technologies that will endure for many years to come. All this has occurred in a mere matter of months. Nearly every institution of American culture and society stands to be altered, often for worse and perhaps eventually for better. And no web of institutions will be altered more profoundly—and with greater long-term civilizational significance—than our schools and colleges.
For American Jews, education is an existential issue; immersion in Jewish customs, ideas, and practices is the only reliable guarantor of a living Jewish civilization from one generation to the next. And before the Great Disruption, American Jews had plenty to worry about in this sphere. The vast majority of young Jews were receiving little or no Jewish education at all, certainly not of any real gravity. Modern Jewish day schools faced year-to-year struggles to balance the budget, to offer a dual curriculum that combines general studies and Jewish depth, and to educate a spectrum of students with vastly different educational needs and capabilities, from learning-disabled kids to academic all-stars, often in small, communal schools. The yeshiva world was bursting at the seams—with pop-up schools in trailers to accommodate over-enrollment—but often struggling to offer a high-level program of general studies and facing their own relentless economic challenges. And many American universities had become bastions of anti-Israel and increasingly anti-Jewish sentiment, with plenty of kosher food and beautiful Hillel buildings but little tolerance, within the larger college environment, of traditional Jewish belief or Zionist commitment.
None of this should diminish the heroic efforts of many Jewish educators, or the remarkable generosity, hard work, and creativity of many lay leaders and philanthropists, or the sacrifice many parents make to provide their children with a full-time Jewish education. There are surely oases of excellence in the American Jewish educational world: rabbis, teachers, and students, clustered within myriad Jewish institutions, who believe in the sacred task of transmitting Jewish exceptionalism. But the hard truth remains: these oases of Jewish vitality are still islands in the assimilating American sea, and the cultural and economic tide is pushing hard against them. This was our state of affairs, well known to concerned Jewish leaders, before the Great Disruption.
And then COVID happened: a viral disease that forced schools to shut down all in-person learning for months. In response to the crisis, many Jewish schools demonstrated, yet again, the remarkable Jewish genius for adapting to adversity on the fly. SAR and Westchester Day School in New York were among the first schools in the nation to shut down because of the pandemic. Within days, they had their students (my own children among them) learning live on Zoom, while so many public and non-Jewish schools (often with much larger budgets and administrative staff) took weeks or months or never got there at all.
Now, as summer turns to fall, parents face frightening uncertainty about the upcoming school year. Jewish day schools—like all schools—are expending incredible energy trying to figure out what to do: redesigning their buildings, often at considerable expense; crafting complex schedules that minimize the number of students in school at one time, with students and teachers sometimes together in person and sometimes at home; adhering to evolving regulations from federal, state, and local agencies; and living with the ultimate uncertainty: will the coronavirus numbers spike in the fall, and at what point do we shut down again, scrapping the complex protocols we spent all summer devising? Staff plans are similarly up in the air, with younger and middle-aged teachers trying to figure out what will happen with their own school-aged children, and older teachers worried about surrounding themselves with dozens of potentially contagious students. Much of the executive energy is focused—by tragic necessity—on what to do rather than what to teach, on social distancing, Purell dispensers, and air-conditioning ducts rather than math, Hebrew, and history.
These challenges are only compounded by the economic and enrollment uncertainties facing Jewish schools amid this crisis. With the economy weakened, more families will seek financial aid, while the ability of other families to bridge the budget gap through donations has become more tenuous. Families on the fence may decide to send their kids to public school, because they cannot afford to do otherwise or because they don’t believe remote learning is worth the high tuition price; or they may decide to create home-school “pods” for younger kids, so that they have childcare and in-person learning in place when the schools likely shut down, knowing from months of experience that Zoom learning is often ineffective for the very young. For smaller Jewish day schools, the difference between survival and closure may turn on whether a dozen or so families decide to stay or to go.
The crisis is real, and there is no virtue in ignoring it. The pressure on day-school leaders and boards is relentless, and the immediate question is how to keep our existing educational institutions afloat. But the strategic challenge is to imagine “the new normal”—including the new possibilities—born of this multifaceted crisis. In short: how do American Jews—and Americans in general—eventually turn this tidal wave of disruptions into (as the great social thinker Joseph Schumpeter put it) “a gale of creative destruction” in the Jewish education sphere? Looking beyond the current crisis, can we fashion new models of Jewish schooling that are intellectually, culturally, and economically stronger than ever? And can Jews serve as a light unto other traditional communities in America, who face similar challenges?
To weather the current storm, the Jewish community needs to focus nearly all its energy—and philanthropic resources—on American Jewish schools. There are many worthy recipients of Jewish dollars: hospitals, orchestras, myriad social causes. There are also many seductive misuses of Jewish money, including donations to most American colleges and universities (more on this later). But under duress, Jewish day schools should come first, in the belief that only American Jews can sustain these indispensable institutions, and that our first responsibility as Jews is the perpetuation of Jewish life one school-aged child at a time.
Yet even as we rally—rightly—to sustain our existing Jewish schools, the current moment invites us to think anew about some long-standing challenges. Can we build viable schools that prepare traditional American Jews to live in an untraditional age? Can we integrate modern technologies of learning while opposing the excesses of modernity? Can we lower costs while promoting Jewish excellence? Can we win access to public funding without succumbing to the deforming regulations of the administrative state? And will we resist the progressive, anti-religious, anti-Zionist wave of elite American culture, or will we capitulate to our own gradual demoralization and demise? These are not easy challenges, but as the wealthiest and freest Diaspora community in Jewish history, we can take solace in knowing that Jews have faced much grimmer circumstances before.
I. Experiments in Exile: Ancient Texts, Zoom Seminars
Like so many other American institutions, Tikvah—the publisher of Mosaic and the educational institution and think-tank that I help lead—was forced to shut our office and send our staff into exile. Our conferences and in-person seminars were abruptly canceled; and our residential summer programs for high-school and college students quickly went from questionable possibilities to obvious impossibilities. So we did our best to adapt, like so many other innovative Jewish institutions. And painful as it was to cancel longstanding programs, we also came to recognize new educational possibilities for the first time, all with potentially long-term implications for the Jewish educational world as a whole. A few examples may be revealing.
The first event we were forced to cancel was the inaugural lecture in a new series on “Jews and Politics” by the former Harvard professor and Tikvah senior fellow Ruth Wisse. The event was oversubscribed for our intimate lecture space in Manhattan, with 150 people registered. A month or so later, we offered the same lecture—streaming live from Professor Wisse’s apartment—as a webcast. More than 4,000 people registered. To be sure, the communal experience was lost: the informal conversations before and after the presentation, the chance to shake Professor Wisse’s hand or ask her to autograph the new edition of her book Jews and Power. But we also expanded our reach twentyfold. This technological possibility was long there, waiting to be taken advantage of. But the exigencies of exile provoked us to broadcast live, and the normalization of our followers tuning in for Zoom events seems likely to stay.
Another COVID-19 casualty was a four-day conference we convene every August for around 40 rising college freshmen, right before they matriculate. We try to identify young Jews with long-term leadership potential, and our aim is to prepare them for life as Jews and Zionists on today’s college campus, with practical advice about how to seek a genuine liberal education in the postmodern multiversity and how to stand up for Jewish and pro-Israel values in a sometimes hostile college environment. Forced to cancel, we converted the entire program into a “virtual townhall” on Jews and the future of college in America. More than 7,000 people have registered for these live conversations, including hundreds of young students and thousands of parents. Again: something genuine was lost, including the chance to introduce these rising Jewish freshmen (in-person) to courageous Jewish upperclassmen at their soon-to-be campuses. But something was also gained: a larger national discussion about Jews and universities, including whether Jews need to rethink—morally, economically, intellectually, and religiously—the value of enrolling in standard, high-cost, secular American colleges. (More on this later.)
Yet it is my final example that is potentially the most revealing and consequential. Before the pandemic, Tikvah had never worked with younger students—all of our programs began around the senior year of high school. But we were itching to try. With students suddenly in exile this spring—often with partial school schedules and no extracurricular programs—we started a little experiment: high-level seminars—meaning ten to twelve students per class, led by gifted professors—for 7th and 8th graders. The first class was on the difference between Jewish and Greek understandings of human nature: that is, the “Jerusalem and Athens” question, at a middle-school level. Then we added a class on Jewish ideas and the American founding. Then we announced a suite of classes on everything from the meaning of the Six-Day War to the book of Jonah, from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice to the dynamism of the Israeli economy, from heroism in Homer to Israeli military strategy. Demand exploded, leading to roughly 100 online classes, all in small groups, throughout the summer: the unexpected birth of Tikvah Online Academy.
To be sure, many of these students would have been in summer camps under normal circumstances. This would not have happened so quickly in any other summer. But the demand for serious learning—about Jewish civilization and Jewish history, about Zionism and modern Israel, about war and strategy, about economic ideas and political philosophy—was clearly there. And we had discovered a new way to meet it—the Zoom seminar: a technology that we had largely (and stupidly) ignored for years. Instead of the “1619 Project” highlighting America’s past sins, we were studying the Hebraic roots and republican spirit of the American Founding; and while rioters were burning up America’s cities, our young Jewish students were studying Nathaniel Hawthorne’s moving defense of the family hearth as the nursery of patriotism:
In classic times, the exhortation to fight pro aris et focis, for the altars and the hearths, was considered the strongest appeal that could be made to patriotism. And it seemed an immortal utterance; for all subsequent ages and people have acknowledged its force and responded to it with the full portion of manhood that Nature had assigned to each. Wisely were the altar and the hearth conjoined in one mighty sentence; for the hearth, too, had its kindred sanctity. Religion sat down beside it, not in the priestly robes which decorated and perhaps disguised her at the altar, but arrayed in a simple matron’s garb, and uttering her lessons with the tenderness of a mother’s voice and heart.
Again, to be sure, much was lost in not bringing together our high-school and college students in person for the summer: the fast-forming friendships, the long arguments over lunch, the immersive Jewish environment in which spirited singing and serious study mixed seamlessly together. But much was also gained, including the impetus for Tikvah as an institution to educate younger students, the ability to reach far more students at a much lower cost, and a great marriage of eager learners and master teachers in which physical distance was no barrier to (virtual) intellectual community. Against the tide of trying to make Jewish learning “cool,” we opted for traditional texts and enduring human questions; against the tide of teaching Jews to be “nice,” we reminded them that Jewish sovereignty was won on the battlefield; against the modern obsession with “STEM,” we read old books (slowly and carefully) that remain as timely as ever; and against the tendency to separate Jewish learning and general studies, we tried to show young Jews that Jewish ideas lie at the heart of Western civilization at its best. Over time, the fact that we were doing it on a screen became much less significant than the fact that we were doing it at all. This, I believe, is a great opportunity for Jewish educational institutions across the nation, from elementary school to high school to college and beyond.
II. Innovation and Preservation: An Educational Renaissance
To be clear, the educational insight from this period of disruption is not that the difficult work of Jewish (or American) formation can be done entirely on Zoom, or that physical place doesn’t matter, or that virtual schools can replace real schools, or that in-person relationships aren’t essential to our lives. Jewish schools—and all schools—are more than knowledge transmitters; they are epicenters of living Jewish communities, and real community is not virtual. Real community involves praying together, growing together, struggling together, and mourning together. The future of Jewish education will—and must—remain in real buildings, in real places, face to face. And in an age when young people are spending so much time on screens—with all the negative effects on their attention spans, their real human friendships, and their physical vigor—any excessive celebration of the brave new world of Zoom learning should proceed with an abundance of caution.
Yet it would be equally foolish to ignore the novel educational possibilities that Zoom learning—which has become normalized virtually overnight—has now set before us: to increase the available pool of great teachers; to reduce costs and save time; to allow students across regions to study together in specialized clusters according to needs, interests, and abilities while remaining enrolled in small, local, communal schools; to lower the barrier of entry into the majestic world of Jewish learning; and to make the best teachers (yes, albeit on a screen) available to every Jew, no matter who they are or where they live. As with any gale of creative destruction, we cannot yet know what will work and what will fail. We cannot yet separate delusional fads from lasting innovations. But if ever there was a time for Jewish schools to experiment—driven by high pedagogical aspirations and urgent real-world necessities—this is it.
The combination of urgency and aspiration is not new to Jewish experience. One of the greatest Jewish builders of the modern age is Theodor Herzl; and his two most influential books—The Jewish State and Altneuland—combined diagnosis of the Jewish crisis of his time with practical efforts to imagine the future. He described complex social institutions, economic schemes, ways of organizing the real-life details of a new Zionist state. The fact that many of his specific plans look, in retrospect, misguided or even foolish is far less important than the imaginative effort itself. Herzl transformed Jewish nationalism from a spiritual longing into a set of programmatic, actionable proposals. So perhaps we can take Herzl’s license to imagine, in very practical and hopeful ways, what the future of Jewish education in America might look like:
- Think about the time, energy, and money that many American Jewish students now waste on commuting to the best available (or most religiously aligned) Jewish school. Why not a school in which 7th- to 12th-grade students study in-person, in a Jewish school building, three days per week, and at home, on Zoom, two days per week? Or perhaps a school that offers remote learning on Fridays, allowing both a longer school day and more time at home to prepare for Shabbat? Could such a model allow for more learning, more sleep, and more community service, including participation in synagogue life during the week? Might this new hybrid model, once normalized and institutionalized, expand the range of “close enough to a school” communities in which committed Jews might live, bringing down the costs of Jewish housing? Or transform the space needs of Jewish school buildings, with meaningful cost savings or room to accommodate more full-time students?
- Modern Hebrew instruction in American Jewish day schools is an ongoing challenge. Imagine a new army of well-trained Hebrew-language instructors, based in Jerusalem, or Tel Aviv, or Efrat, or even the Hebrew Language School at Middlebury College, married to a sophisticated Zoom-learning program and regular online assessments to measure how individual students are progressing and how different schools are performing.
- Jewish day schools in smaller communities often lack sufficient scale to maintain high-level faculties in all the crucial areas of learning, or to offer truly differentiated instruction to students based on their needs, interests, and aptitudes. Could we imagine new partnerships among religiously-aligned Jewish schools across the country—in Memphis, Dallas, Phoenix—where certain subject areas were taught via Zoom, especially for high-achieving students? And if such higher-level differentiated learning became more available in so-called “out-of-town” communities, might that lead to much-needed Jewish growth in these areas? Prayer, gym, shared meals, community service, the deeper formation of character: all this is only or obviously best done in person. But in some circumstances, we should be open to the possibility that Zoom learning enables superior learning options within (and across) Jewish schools. Consider a child with exceptional ability in history, math, or Talmud—which option is better: an in-person class that is not challenging, or a Zoom class with fifteen similar students and a master teacher, even if those students are spread out around the nation? Consider a child with moderate dyslexia in a small Jewish day school—which option is better: pulling the kid from a Jewish school altogether, or building a program so that certain language-arts classes are taken with similar students, from around the country, taught by teachers who are properly trained in the most advanced methods? Consider a yeshiva day school with limited budgets for general studies—which option is better: hiring an uncommitted, low-cost, part-time American history teacher, or offering a pre-recorded video class with Wilfred McClay (author of the best one-volume textbook on American history), combined with in-person precepts two days per week, led by a single full-time (and ideologically aligned) teacher who splits his time (and thus his cost) between the local boys and local girls yeshiva?
- For good reasons, religious Jews and religious Christians send their children to separate schools. In these formative years, in which education and religious formation are intertwined, such separation is pedagogically and theologically wise; and in high school, when romantic impulses start to stir, such separation is culturally wise. But could young Jews and young Christians study certain general subjects together, through remote learning, if there were strategic reasons for them to do so? Could we imagine new partnerships between Jewish and Christian schools, who pool their resources to offer math, science, and language-arts instruction together on Zoom, while focusing precious in-person staff and time on religious formation? One could even imagine taking advantage of charter-school funding in various charter-friendly states, grouping such general-studies subjects under the umbrella of a virtual charter school at public expense, yet where Jewish students assemble together in the same building so that they could immediately pivot to privately-funded Jewish instruction. In the current age, religious schools of all types will likely flourish or decline together, and the Jewish-Christian alliance in particular is essential to the political and cultural fate of America, Israel, and the West. Given this new reality, perhaps some level of Jewish-Christian collaboration in the educational sphere is a good idea in general: a way of combining particularist formation within our respective traditions with the outward-looking disposition that American Jews surely need if we are going to defend our political and cultural interests in the broader American arena.
- There are many important subjects that most Jewish days schools lack the resources to offer at a high level: economics, Latin or Greek, advanced mathematics, Jewish philosophy, art or music history. In the years ahead, programs will abound offering such subjects via Zoom, which could be integrated as electives into Jewish day-schools at very low cost. Not only will this better serve existing day-school students; it might help persuade some non-day-school parents to send their children to Jewish schools, knowing that the educational menu is as rich and vibrant as anything they would get in the best public or secular private schools.
- For students and families in truly small Jewish communities—with no local Jewish day school at all—why not create the best online Jewish academy in the world, forming a nationalized (or even internationalized) virtual “school district.” Such an online school could work with local, small-community rabbis around the country, who might be enlisted as sponsors and mentors for interested young people in their communities. And such students would rightly fight for full access to sports, theater, and other extracurricular activities in their local public schools, so that their whole lives are not centered on Zoom learning alone.
- For students and families outside the day-school world, could we create a much higher level of online supplementary Hebrew schools, with serious seminars on the riches of Jewish civilization, in all shapes and sizes? Sadly, supplementary Jewish learning often ends with the bar or bat mitzvah. And the daily schedule of busy parents and busy kids makes commuting to a separate afternoon or Sunday Hebrew school a practical impediment. But what if we could offer great Jewish educators—teaching live, on Zoom, from anywhere in the world—without the disruptive commute? Might this be an intellectual gateway drug—at least for the most capable and curious Jewish kids—to deeper forms of real-life Jewish community?
It is impossible to know, at this stage, which of these ideas can work. This is true of every entrepreneurial endeavor. And we cannot know, in advance, how the educational landscape will change because of the rapid normalization of remote learning over the past few months. Yet change it will. The rise of Amazon has not put in-person shopping out of business. But it has permanently changed the commercial marketplace, for better and for worse. Zoom learning will do the same thing in the educational arena, whether we like it or not. As American Jews confront the educational crisis of the present moment—as we try to weather the storm—the most creative educational leaders will seize this crisis to design, through experiment, the Jewish schools of the future: all with the enduring aim of preserving our sacred Jewish inheritance from one generation to the next. In these hard times, new light can begin to shine.
Some Jewish traditionalists—precisely in the name of preserving that ancestral inheritance—will oppose such innovations. They will say that the rebbe and his students must learn together in person; that existing institutional forms have latent wisdom we cannot fully appreciate, much like many of the details of rabbinic law itself; that change must be slow and cautious; that the Internet is a dangerous gateway to modern decadence. These are serious arguments, and such opposition is useful in the way that thoughtful reactionaries are always useful: as a check on the utopian overconfidence and over-promising of all forward-looking reformers and as a reminder of what truly matters in the first place.
But the true genius of a living tradition is to know the difference between the shell and the pearl—between the inviolable treasure and the ever-changing ways of sustaining that treasure amid the great disruptions of time. Jewish perpetuation, not modern progress, is the purpose of educational innovation in the Jewish community. And if we remember this Burkean truth, then our experiments will never err too far, and those that fail to preserve what counts—the belief in and practice of Jewish exceptionalism, in full continuity with the biblical revelation at Sinai—will rightly never take root. But those innovations that work—like every preservationist effort in Jewish history, from Yavneh to the modern Jewish day-school movement itself—may have a providential hand in keeping Jewish learning and Jewish life forever vital within the changing realities of history.
III. A Jewish Answer to the College Crisis
The urgency for such Jewish creativity in the current age is not merely structural or economic. It is, in the deepest sense, cultural. For years—indeed decades—we have watched as American colleges and universities have made the ideology of moral liberation into the new dominant culture. We have watched as the radicalism of the 1960s became the new normal. We have watched as so-called “progressives” became increasingly intolerant of dissent. We have watched as the free-speech zealots of the Woodstock era (many Jews proudly among them) became the speech-code police of today. We have watched as this new ideological dispensation has become ever more hostile to traditional Jewish and Christian beliefs (now classified as bigotry) and ever more hostile to Israel and Zionism (now classified as colonialist and racist). And what began in the colleges has now become normalized in our public schools—certainly in the blue-state, upper middle-class towns and cities the majority of American Jews now populate. Being a religious Jew, being a political Zionist, and being a patriotic American: the things we should hold most dear are now under fire. American Jews are—or should be—getting mugged by our new reality.
To be sure, genius still exists in many American universities. Many great scientists still teach great classes and manage impressive laboratories in our elite universities, and serious scholars—in law, literature, religious studies, history—can still be found in colleges around the country, including little-known small colleges now struggling to survive in the current environment. But the ruling voices in our mainstream universities—especially in the subjects that matter most in shaping the moral and civilizational attachments of our citizenry—are often committed to exposing Judeo-Christian and American civilization as errors. Those professors and university presidents who think otherwise are a beleaguered minority, aging fast, and unlikely to replace themselves within departments they do not control. And while it is true that a typical university degree is still the safest path to a successful career in the modern economy, it is hard to believe that it is worth the hundreds of thousands of dollars it now costs; and it is impossible to believe that four years at an Ivy League school or major state university is the best way to educate future Jewish leaders.
So what is the wise Jewish response to this state of affairs? First and foremost, as Liel Leibovitz has argued, the Jewish love affair with American universities should end, and the current moment—with students poised to return to half-open universities, at full or nearly full price—may finally shake up a higher-education system that is intellectually weak, culturally decadent, and economically insane, charging families $30,000, or $50,000, or even $80,000 per year for a damaged ticket to the American dream.
If the real question is how best to prepare college-aged Jews for their callings and careers, then we should ask some deeper questions: is spending four years living almost solely among their peers really the best way to form responsible citizens? Or would it be better for college-aged students to live again in actual communities, combining intensive study with immersion in real-life among the generations, younger and older alike? Is the kind of training young people need best delivered in four-year blocs, often in large lecture halls, largely isolated from the world of practice? Or do we need a more varied marketplace of strategies for training modern professionals in different fields? And for traditional Jews (and Christians) interested in preparing the rising generation for the adult responsibilities of family and faith, are mainstream secular colleges irredeemably lost, at least for the identity-forming undergraduate years, if not for more specialized graduate schools in law, business, or medicine?
The point here is not to claim that American Jews will suddenly stop going to Michigan, Emory, or Columbia. The lure of the established institutions is understandably still strong. The question is whether some brave cohort of American Jews—and patriotic Americans of all faiths—might attempt to create or strengthen a menu of legitimate alternatives. For Jews in particular, this might include some mix of the following:
- The creation of one-year or two-year residential Jewish mini-colleges—all for full academic credit—that provide young Jews with the fundamentals of a Jewish liberal education. This could be followed by remote learning and apprenticeship programs that prepare them for practical careers, all at a much lower price tag than our established residential colleges.
- The creation of a new Jewish college that admits exceptional students immediately after 10th grade, offering a five year path to the BA degree—partially in the U.S. and partially in Israel, integrating the existing Israel gap-year experience (or even Israeli army service) into the accredited program. This would eliminate two expensive years of full-time tuition, and still prepare these talented young Jews for practical careers or admission to established elite graduate schools.
- The creation of full-time, four-year, undergraduate programs in Israel, offered in a mix of English and Hebrew, designed specifically for American (and other Diaspora) students. (The Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya has already done this fairly successfully, and Shalem College is perfectly poised to do so in the future.) Such colleges could operate at much lower cost than their overpriced American counterparts; they would help build the Zionist identity (and Hebrew fluency) of their American students; and they would deepen the ties between America and Israel. They could also offer academic homes to many superb humanities and social-science professors who cannot get high-level jobs in America or Europe, and they could attract thousands of pro-Israel Christian exchange students who want to study for a year in the Holy Land.
- One could strengthen the ties between the existing yeshiva system and practical BA programs such as Purdue University Global. This would allow Orthodox Jewish students to remain immersed in Jewish learning while also training them for a wider menu of careers.
- One could envision existing institutions, like Yeshiva University or Touro College, creating special “transfer-credit” programs for Jewish students at other universities, offering a richer menu of Jewish studies courses and a more traditional Jewish experience, both in-person and on Zoom.
Yet again, we cannot know which of these ideas might gain traction. But we do know that the existing university model is intellectually, culturally, and economically questionable. In a recent Tikvah townhall discussion, the aforementioned Liel Leibovitz captured this situation perfectly: just as Herzl seemed like a madman when he called upon Jews to leave Europe for what was then called Palestine, asking American Jews to walk away from the elite American universities is an uphill (perhaps Sisyphean) battle. But if no one ever wills it, then it remains only a dream. For years, many proud Jews (and patriotic Americans) have lamented the culture of American colleges while believing there was no real alternative. Today, the universities’ longstanding monopoly on credentialing and shaping the young is more fragile than ever. Perhaps now is the time to attempt to build something different, something better, something cheaper, something that truly advances rather than “problematizes” Jewish identity.
IV. The New Geography of Jewish Education
As we are now seeing all around us, the adversary culture of the universities has re-shaped the moral and political sensibilities of many other key American institutions: our large corporations, our major sports franchises, large parts of the Democratic party. Whether we like it or not, we are likely headed toward a more divided America, with progressive states becoming more progressive and conservative states becoming more conservative. At worst, this will be a moment of crisis for the national American experiment; at best, it will lead to the re-birth of American federalism, creating political space for the renewal of traditional life through education. How this evolves matters greatly for the Jews.
In facing the cultural disruption now shaking America, Jews should focus on building up Jewish communities in those parts of the country that most value traditional communities of faith. The largest clusters of American Jews reside in three of the most secular states in the nation: New York, New Jersey, and California. In the years ahead, these states will put ever greater pressure on Jewish institutions to accommodate their rabbinic way of life (or Zionist values) to the new progressive norms; and they are highly unlikely to offer significant public funding—through tax credits, vouchers, or education-savings accounts—to support Jewish families who wish to provide their children with a full-time Jewish education. These states are also high-cost places to live, especially in the most densely Jewish areas, with exorbitant housing prices that place a real burden on Jewish families and high real-estate taxes that pay for the very public schools that many committed Jews do not—or cannot—use at all. This is all old news.
What has changed, however, is the momentous recent Supreme Court decision in Espinoza v. Montana, a long overdue reversal of the anti-religious Blaine amendments that were adopted in the vast majority of US states beginning in the 1870s. In an earlier era of American history, the case for attending public schools—and even for the Blaine amendments themselves—was at least understandable. In an era of high-volume immigration, public schools were seen as the indispensable institutions for forming American citizens, with a shared sense of American identity and a common understanding of American history and ideals. And for newly arrived immigrants—including many Jews—public schools offered a gateway towards living the meritocratic American dream. Mary Antin, in her 1912 memoir of her Jewish childhood in America, captured this beautifully:
The apex of my civic pride and personal contentment was reached on the bright September morning when I entered the public school. That day I must always remember even if I live to be so old that I cannot tell my name. . . . I am wearily aware that I am speaking in extreme figures, in superlatives. I wish I knew some other way to render the mental life of the immigrant child of reasoning age. I may have been ever so much an exception in acuteness of observation, powers of comparison, and abnormal self-consciousness; none the less were my thoughts and conduct typical of the attitude of the intelligent immigrant child toward American institutions. And what the child thinks and feels is a reflection of the hopes, desires, and purposes of the parents who brought him overseas, no matter how precocious and independent the child may be. . . . Let the overgrown boy of twelve, reverently drawing his letters in the baby class, testify to the noble dreams and high ideals that may be hidden beneath the greasy caftan of the immigrant. Speaking for the Jews at least, I know I am safe in inviting such an investigation. [emphasis added]
To learn about George Washington, Antin explains, was like discovering the new Abraham or the new Moses. Tragically, in the current age, a great many public school systems—certainly in the blue-state towns where most Jews live—no longer believe in American exceptionalism. Many public schools, like the colleges that educate their teachers, focus on making sure that every child is fully aware of America’s imperfections, without any appreciation or understanding of what America, warts and all, has achieved, and why it aspires to ideals of justice that compare well with any political order in world history. And this public-school value system is increasingly hostile to Jewish values and Jewish identity, including the Hebraic ideas that helped shaped the American founding itself, with words from Leviticus adorning our Liberty Bell. For the sake of American perpetuation—not merely Jewish perpetuation—it would be better (as Jonathan Silver recently argued at Mosaic) to teach American Jews a genuine love of America within their own distinctly Jewish nurseries of civic virtue, in all the ways that many American public and secular private schools now seem unable or unwilling to do.
The Espinoza decision re-opens the door to the fair and equal treatment of religious families when it comes to access to public education dollars. In states like New York, New Jersey, and California, this new legal possibility is unlikely to mean very much in practice, since the progressive voters in these states seem to have little desire to strengthen religious schools and religious communities. But in more conservative states, we may soon be living through the greatest reformation in the education market in generations. We could see the birth of religious charter schools; or cities and states that convert their entire school systems to vouchers, with religious schools of all types equally free to compete for enrollments. States like Arizona and Florida have already made meaningful strides in creating a freer and more just system of allocating public dollars in ways that permit much greater familial choice, long before the Espinoza decision. And with a major budget crisis now looming for states and municipalities because of the COVID-19-induced recession, a more free-market approach to education financing—aimed at reducing costs through competition—may suddenly get more traction; so might tax credit programs, however modest, that help keep religious schools (especially Catholic schools) in business, lest all those kids suddenly retreat to public schools, ballooning costs without increasing the tax base in any way.
To build up traditional Jewish life in these more tradition-friendly states, Jews should invest in out-of-town fellowships for talented young rabbis and Jewish educators, creating critical mass for meaningful Jewish life. Jewish donors should subsidize start-up yeshivas that attract pioneering families. Then hopefully, over time, market forces—especially the expanding availability of significant public dollars for Jewish schooling—would create a growing and self-sustaining Jewish market. Moreover, as cultural conditions in New York, New Jersey, and California continue to become ever more hostile to traditional Jewish communities, the migration might accelerate. The geographic center of gravity of American Jewry might gradually shift, as traditional Jews move to places that celebrate rather than marginalize them.
V. Jewish Exceptionalism in America
In 1825, the American Jewish leader Mordecai Manuel Noah attempted a bold—and in retrospect somewhat crazy—experiment: to found a Jewish colony in upstate New York. (This story is wonderfully told in an essay by the rabbi and scholar Robert Gordis.) Noah loved America, and he believed that America was the best imaginable home for Jews in a condition of exile. But he also believed that Jewish continuity depended on forming a Jewish state within a state, with its own civic, educational, and political institutions. His ultimate aim was to prepare American Jews, eventually, for the founding of a new Israel in Palestine. But until then, he believed, Jews needed to take every measure—under the generous canopy of American liberty—to “elevate their character as a separate and distinct people.” His colony failed and is now mostly forgotten, but the underlying premise was right.
Years later, in 1843, he published a manifesto calling for the creation of a Jewish college to protect young American Jews from the theological influence of their professors and social pressures of their peers. He believed Jewish schools should emphasize the teaching of Hebrew, married with a classical education that put Hebrew civilization in the larger context of the West. Or as Noah himself put it in one of his speeches: “We have it . . . eminently in our power, by the presence and assistance of a learned and pious rabbi, to instruct our children in the [rabbinic] laws, and in the Hebrew language—that ancient and beautiful language, which our poets, prophets, and warriors, have used with so much effect—a language which God has ordained as his own. With the loss of the Hebrew language, may be added the downfall of the house of Israel.”
Noah’s challenge remains our Jewish challenge today: to form young Jews deeply rooted in Jewish ideas and rituals, Jewish history and Jewish heroes, the Jewish calendar and the Jewish belief in our chosenness, whether by God or by history. The will to innovate—to reform existing institutions and build new ones—depends on sustaining our moral clarity as Jews, knowing what we stand for and what we aim to preserve. If American Jews obsess too much about being accepted by the mainstream cultural elite, we will not only assimilate quietly out of existence, we will betray the deeper contribution that Jews can make to America itself: the Hebraic renewal of a nation in crisis. And if we deform our way of life in the misguided hope of seeming “woke” in the eyes of our new cultural tribunals, we will lose rather than gain the fidelity of young Jews, who will see our civilizational insecurity as the moral and communal capitulation that it is.
For generations, Jews in the United States struggled to gain acceptance in every corner of American life, to participate fully in everything this great country has to offer, to work as engaged citizens to make our experiment in self-government better. There was, and remains, much that is noble in these pursuits. The challenge we face now—under great pressure and in fast-changing conditions—is different: to stand true to our Jewish distinctiveness, even if it means going against the grain of 21st-century America. Such civilizational confidence alone—the willingness to stand our Jewish ground—is what will sustain American Jewry in the difficult days ahead. Even in the face of the Great Disruption, we will fashion schools and colleges that transmit our majestic inheritance. Our most creative and committed Jewish educators—teachers and rabbis, day-school principals and board leaders, scholars and donors—will step forward to advance this great mission. And even if the ultimate fate of the Jewish people lies in Israel, we will find a way to build sacred and sturdy tabernacles in the most welcoming diasporic desert the Jews will ever know: that “almost chosen” nation called America.
Eric Cohen is executive director of the Tikvah Fund. He is the author of In the Shadow of Progress: Being Human in the Age of Technology (2008), editor-at-large of the New Atlantis, and a contributor to numerous publications.