Monday, March 14, 2016

Judaism Now More Post-Denominational

The Jewish day school I attended for grade school and middle school was affiliated with the Conservative movement of Judaism. It was a member of the Solomon Schechter Day School Network, its headmaster was a Conservative rabbi, its curriculum was based on Conservative Jewish principles, and the rules that governed the school (e.g., kashrut) were predicated on Conservative Jewish doctrine. The vast majority of the approximately 500 students that made up the school were from families affiliated with Conservative synagogues. Only a couple handfuls of my peers at the Metro Detroit school came from Reform or Orthodox homes.

This all changed in 2008 when the school chose to disaffiliate from the Solomon Schechter network and become a community school. There were strong feelings about this decision on both sides, but ultimately the transition began and this school joined many other Jewish day schools around the country by shedding its Conservative movement ties. While the student body didn't grow much following this decision (although that had been the projection), the diversity of its student body has certainly been altered. There are now hundreds more Reform affiliated students in the school in addition to an influx of Modern Orthodox families.

At the time, I was surprised that the school made the decision to break with the Conservative movement because it had been a core part of the school's identity while I was a student there in the 1980s. I did, however, understand that this was just another move toward a post-denominational Judaism. Why would a day school limit itself by branding itself with one denomination when it could cast a wider net and attract more students? Waving the banner of post-denominational Judaism, day schools could also use the "Community School" appellation to explain away controversial policy practices.

Now, we're seeing an even bigger shift to post-denominational Judaism in the day school field. Five national groups representing different denominations have agreed to fold into a single new entity. The merger, which will be completed this summer, consolidates PARDES (Day Schools of Reform Judaism), PEJE (the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education), RAVSAK (The Jewish Community Day School Network), the Schechter Day School Network, and the Yeshiva University School Partnership (YUSP). This large-scale reorganization was strongly recommended by mega-philanthropists exhausted with funding the denominationally driven groups individually. In addition to the overlap, however, I attribute this decision to an embrace of post-denominational Judaism.

I've long urged fellow Jews to stop using denominational labels to describe entities and rituals, because those labels are more confusing than helpful. It looks like we'll begin to see more day schools stop referring to themselves as Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, because those terms don't fully describe the flavor of the individual school. The same way asking if a person's conversion was Conservative or Reform, if a kosher symbol is Orthodox or Conservative, or if a summer camp is Reform or Reconstructionist, I think it will be a move in the right direction to see more day schools move toward the more pluralistic Community School model.

While I was initially against my childhood day school shifting in that direction, I've come to realize that each Jewish day school is unique, and identifying with a particular denomination does a disservice to the community. To truly determine what type of a school it is, one must go inside and experience the culture and the curriculum. Preconceived notions thanks to denominational labels have divided us long enough. Perhaps we're truly headed toward a post-denominational Judaism.

Cross-posted to Rabbis Without Borders blog on

1 comment:

Rustin Shenkman said...

Or perhaps it is symptomatic of a realignment rather than an abandonment of denominations within American Judaism. There remains a significant boundary around Orthodoxy.