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Spread of Jewish Schools Signals Attitude Change

Education: Opening of Valley facility is part of trend as parents look for teaching of values.

September 17, 2002|MASSIE RITSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Growing up in Chicago in the 1930s, Lisa Greene's grandfather changed his name from Greenstein to disguise his Jewish heritage.

"And now I'm at a school just for Jews," said Lisa, a senior at Tarbut V'Torah Community Day School in Irvine. "It's amazing how things have changed. You can be Jewish so much easier now, and practice what you believe and not hide it."

For an increasing number of Jewish students, practicing what you believe has come to include attending a Jewish high school. It is a significant shift.

For Orthodox Jews, religious high schools have a long tradition. But for most American Jews who are not Orthodox, loyalty to public education has been the norm, at least until recently.

This month, the beginning of the school year brought the opening of a new Jewish high school in the San Fernando Valley--New Community Jewish High School--and Kehillah Jewish High School in San Jose. They are the fifth and sixth high schools aimed at non-Orthodox Jews to open in California since 1990, joining Tarbut in Irvine, Milken Community High School in the Sepulveda Pass and Jewish high schools in San Francisco and San Diego.

There were five non-Orthodox Jewish high schools in the entire country in 1990; by next fall, there will be 29, according to the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, based in Boston.

And although the schools enroll only a fraction of the total number of Jewish high school students, the growth--and the shift away from public schooling--marks "nothing short of a re-envisioning of how the Jewish community educates its children," said Bruce Powell, head of New Community.

Several factors and feelings combine to explain the change, according to parents, students and Jewish educators.

Immigrants to the United States have traditionally seen public schools in the big cities where they settled as the way to assimilate, said Powell, who went to Birmingham High School in Van Nuys in the 1960s.

"It was our road to material success, to political success," he said. Lack of money for tuition and discrimination by non-Jewish private schools also kept Jews in public systems.

Today, however, most American Jews are no longer immigrants, and urban public schools have lost their luster. Parents have begun considering them too big, too dangerous, too easy.

"We found that our kids were just a number in the public environment," said Yossi Dashti, who has three children at Tarbut V'Torah and a fourth who is now in college. "Here, they're under a microscope."

Emphasis on Ethics

But parents' dissatisfaction with public education only partly explains the growth of Jewish schools. Orange County's Tarbut V'Torah is just one example of a Jewish high school opening in a suburban area, where many public schools are highly regarded.

Parents interviewed for this article repeatedly said they send their children to private schools--and Jewish ones--because those schools can teach values and ethics that many find missing in public schools.

"With our schedule, the parents are running around crazy, trying to make a living, trying to pay the tuition. We don't really have the time to teach them that," said Erika Paskhover, whose son, Paul Purman, is among the first freshmen at New Community high school.

Also driving the trend has been a consistent concern among Jewish leaders about a rising rate of intermarriage and the fear that children of mixed marriages would be raised as non-Jews.

"We were simply destroying ourselves," Powell said. "We were finishing Hitler's work."

Some schools are less comfortable discussing that motivation for the creation of these high schools, or disagree with it entirely.

"I want it to be more than an injunction from their parents that you've got to stay tribal. That's not meaningful. That's not lasting, in my view," said Stuart Dow, head of the Emery/Weiner School in Houston, which opened last year and is one of the few Jewish high schools that admits non-Jews.

Keeping the Connection

Dow--like many other Jewish educators--prefers to stress another aspect of the high schools: their ability to maintain young people's connection to Judaism after the age of 12 or 13, when many Jewish children celebrate their bar or bat mitzvah.

A few hours of weekend classes teaching basic Hebrew and the meaning of religious holidays produces only an infantile understanding of the religion and culture, Jewish educators said.

"I think parents are starting to see a large drop-off in Jewish identity after bar mitzvah," said Jacqueline Bocian, president of the board of trustees at Kehillah in San Jose, which opened earlier this month on a leased public school campus. "They're terrified that their kids are going to leave it behind."

Students, too, acknowledge that there is more to learn about Judaism beyond middle school.

"If kids don't start learning it more regularly, where's it all going to be in the next generation?" asked Benji Berger, who went to a public middle school and is now among New Community's freshman class.

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