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Why bother having Jewish high schools in the first place?

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The decision to close the northern branch of CHAT and to cut tuition in a bid to increase enrolment has provoked a vigorous debate on CHAT’s curriculum and on the relevance of Jewish education at a high school level.

This debate is part of a larger cross-Canada phenomenon. As Jewish communities face changing demographics and economic pressures, attention focusses on community high schools: Ottawa recently shuttered its main community day school, Vancouver re-configured its community high school about a dozen years ago and Montreal’s community high schools are pushing back against serious challenges.

Fundamentally, all of these hardships beg the question: What is the goal of Jewish high school education? High schools are much more expensive to run than elementary schools. Furthermore, at the high school level, elite, non-Jewish schools typically attract the best, brightest, and wealthiest among the Jewish community.

So why run Jewish high schools at all?

Jewish high schools have two complementary goals. The first is social: to create for Jewish teens a peer group of Jewish friends in the hope that they will find future mates among their friends or friends of friends. This increases the chances of having children with two Jewish parents in the next generation, children who will be likelier to identify as Jews. But this goal can also be accomplished (although perhaps not quite as well) through Jewish summer camps, youth groups and in non-Jewish schools with large Jewish populations.

The second goal, which can only be accomplished in a full-day Jewish school, is to ensure the transmission of Jewish literacy. By Jewish literacy, I mean a basic knowledge of the language and texts fundamental to Jewish practice, a practice that gives meaning to Jewish identity.

The single most important element in creating Jewish literacy is the ability to read and understand Hebrew. The second most important elements are the ability to read and understand substantial parts of the Torah, siddur and Haggadah.

It’s certainly possible to be an active member of the Jewish community without Jewish literacy, without knowing more than a few words of Hebrew, and without the ability to navigate a synagogue service or a Passover seder. But it is exceedingly difficult for those without Jewish literacy to transmit a commitment to Jewish identity to their children.

In response to the widespread lack of Jewish literacy in our community (engendered partly by those who didn’t attend Jewish day schools, and partly by day schools that didn’t emphasize literacy), both Orthodox and liberal synagogues have adopted prayer accessible to those without Jewish literacy. But these formats, while accessible and welcoming, run the risk of failing to create a compelling argument for Jewish identity.

The single best selling point for Jewish identity is based on the ability of the individual Jew to connect to the worldwide Jewish community and to its heritage. It is precisely this sense of rootedness that creates the majesty of the Jewish tradition.

READ: DAY SCHOOL CLOSINGS REVEAL TROUBLING PATTERN

It is, of course, possible to extract from this heritage points that seem to have the most contemporary resonance. The Reform movement in the United States has made the theme of tikkun olam the centrepiece, and in many cases the sole element, of its program.

Progressive social policy has indeed made many feel more comfortable with their Jewish identity since the issues are wider than the Jewish element, and the equation of Jewish values with such policy has helped make the Reform movement the largest Jewish group in the U.S. by far. But tying Jewish identity to particular political positions ensures that when those  positions fall out of favour, Jewish identity will be similarly disdained.

Jewish literacy is harder to imbibe than political positions. It requires learning a new language and reading pages of text. The textual component is particularly challenging in a generation addicted to smartphones, and trained by technology to info-bytes and brief attention spans. But Jewish literacy lasts. It’s classic. In holding a Jewish text, either on paper or on a smartphone, the student knows s/he is connecting to a tradition thousands of years old, shared by millions of Jewish worldwide.

Creating Jewish literacy is extremely challenging, especially in an environment where over a quarter of the population has language-based learning disabilities. But there are techniques for teaching language and text to all students, and Jewish day schools need the resources and the will to use them.

Equally importantly, the texts need to be taught in a way that’s engaging. It’s easier, for example, to locate drama in the stories of Abraham than in the laws of Vayikra, and it is legitimate for day schools to privilege the dramatic stories. (Though a particularly capable teacher should be able to make even sacrificial laws interesting).

Jewish literacy is indispensable to creating a Jewish identity that lasts, one today’s students will want to transmit to their children.

Studies show that literacy of different types is hereditary. Children of scientists understand basic scientific concepts more easily; children brought up in homes with strong commitments to passions such as ecology, or music, will find it easier to integrate these disciplines into their own lives.

The same is true of Jewish literacy. And so, a single question encapsulates why Jews do need to study in Jewish high schools: If your child doesn’t attend Jewish high school, what type of Judaism will s/he pass on to his/her child?

Shawn Zelig Aster is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Jewish Studies at Bar-Ilan University. A graduate of Herzliah High School in Montreal, he has taught at several Jewish high schools in the United States.