The Cossacks

I listened to Garrison Keilor read this fascinating poem this morning on the radio. It got me thinking – I don’t hear those hoofbeats…something has changed since this was written in the Bronx in the 1930’s.

The Cossacks

Linda Pastan, 1932

for F.

For Jews, the Cossacks are always coming.

Therefore I think the sun spot on my arm

is melanoma. Therefore I celebrate

New Year’s Eve by counting

my annual dead.

My mother, when she was dying,

spoke to her visitors of books

and travel, displaying serenity

as a form of manners, though

I could tell the difference.

But when I watched you planning

for a life you knew

you’d never have, I couldn’t explain

your genuine smile in the face

of disaster. Was it denial

laced with acceptance? Or was it

generations of being English–

Brontë‘s Lucy in Villette

living as if no fire raged

beneath her dun-colored dress.

I want to live the way you did,

preparing for next year’s famine with wine

and music as if it were a ten-course banquet.

But listen: those are hoofbeats

on the frosty autumn air.

Most of what I say below is particularly relevant for non-Orthodox schools, though as the product of both Orthodox and non-Orthodox schools myself, I can see plenty of overlap in the Venn diagram in my mind.

At one point in recent American Jewish history a large part of the argument for Jewish education (including Jewish Day Schools) was based on the dual perceived threats of intermarriage and assimilation. Communities and donors responded both rationally and emotionally, and schools grew. Many of them grew to sustainability, and continue to thrive today. Appropriately, families paying premiums for their childrens’ education demanded educational excellence, and schools generally met (and meet) their needs. The story, though, was often still about threat – without these schools these children, and therefore the entire Jewish diaspora in America, will marry out and fade away.

Despite the fact that there are still those within our school communities for whom the color yellow will always inspire flash-bulb images of stars labeled, “Juif,” today’s story must be different – it simply doesn’t speak to the incoming generation of families who we seek to enroll.

I was raised in the southeast, where public education in many areas lagged far behind other parts of the country and even further behind elite private schools. Though I was lucky enough to live in a region with several Jewish Day School options, many Jewish families in areas without this option put their kids in Catholic schools. The values aren’t far off, and the education was excellent. When people hear the words, “Catholic School,” many aspects may to come mind, but among them is the notion of an excellent, rigorous education. When people hear the words, “Quaker School,” they are similarly primed to expect an excellent education. When Jewish people hear the words, “Jewish School,” the majority of them think, “not for me…too Jewish.” Why?

A tiny minority of Jews attend our Day Schools, and we know that graduates of these institutions are disproportionately more likely to remain at the core of our communities, both professionally and as lay leaders. This tells us that the system isn’t actually working the way that it should – it is functioning for a core, but not for a broader audience. We are faced with the challenge of changing a broad perception, but I believe that the only way forward is that when people hear the words, “Jewish School,” they simply need to think excellent education.

The poem above, beautiful as it is, reflects an old model of fear. I’m lucky – I don’t hear the Cossacks’ hoofbeats pounding through my mind (at least not chronically…maybe occasionally). I’m not trying to ignore the realities – there are plenty of ways in which fear still could (should?) motivate Jews towards Jewish Day Schools today. But that story isn’t compelling for most of my generation, and it is probably completely wrong for those who are not already situated solidly within the Jewish community. For our schools to thrive and grow today, our value proposition is simple – excellent education, better than any other private school system.

Luckily, it is truly within our abilities. We can offer children an education unlike anything else they can receive in the world. With the study of Hebrew, they can directly access the most ancient wisdom narrative in existence, and also become part of the most innovative modern society on the planet (click here if you want to watch a demonstration of Israeli societal values that will make you cry tears of joy). We offer environments in which academic rigor is paired with rituals and practices that instill the kinds of moral compasses that all parents dream of for their kids. With our layers of commentary and centuries of recorded rabbinic thought, we can teach our children modes of critical thinking and making arguments that would make most law professors drool. Many schools are doing this already – perhaps all we need to do is tell the story?

Ultimately, the success of Jewish Day Schools as a movement and a field will rest on the intersection of both the perception and the reality of educational excellence. It is time to let the echoing sound of hoofbeats fade from our everyday consciousness, and allow the meaningful educational experiences happening every day in our schools compel a new generation of families to opt in.

Shabbat Shalom,