The Forward recently reported that the Solomon Schechter Day School Network is examining the possibility of spinning off as an independent organization from USCJ, the Conservative Movement's synagogue organization. The title of the article, "Will Solomon Schechter Leave Conservatives?" mischaracterized the significance of the issue and its implications for larger developments in organizational life. Solomon Schechter will continue to be a network of Conservative day schools; leaving United Synagogue, a large complex organization, is not tantamount to leaving the Conservative Movement.
What makes Solomon Schechter schools Conservative, like their sister organization, Ramah camping, and the synagogues that are members of USCJ, is the set of values and ideals that animate them. Solomon Schechter schools, inspired by their deeply knowledgeable, intensely curious and religiously passionate namesake, have been the training ground for many of American Jewish life's most talented and dedicated young leaders.
Solomon Schechter and scholars who came after him turned the Cairo Geniza -- literally a garbage heap -- into a treasure trove that continues to unfold for us centuries of Jewish society. Without Jewish education, people lose opportunities to be nourished by Jewish tradition because they do not have the tools to understand what they are seeing. The mission of Solomon Schechter schools is to awaken in children the ingenuity to bring Judaism forward.
It is in this spirit that our Conservative rabbis, hand-in-hand with dedicated teachers and lay leaders, founded Solomon Schechter day schools, teach in them, bring religious voice and message to them, and most importantly, inspire parents to make the commitment to become Solomon Schechter families. While these efforts have become more challenging since 2008, it remains the case that the graduates of these fine schools are promising future leaders of whom we are immensely proud.
Similarly, our ability to understand the evolution taking place in Jewish organizations requires not only knowledge but ingenuity. The deconstruction of many large Jewish organizations is a function of many trends. The movement from "united" organizations to "networked" organizations is not an indication that the ideals and ideologies are any less compelling, but that the current climate, technologies and culture do not support command and control models.
A study conducted by Jack Wertheimer for the Avi Chai Foundation in 2010 demonstrated that a high percentage of young Jewish leaders in their 20s and 30s are the product of non-Orthodox day schools; the majority of these schools were Solomon Schechter Conservative day schools. Conservative day school education works because of its emphases on Hebrew language, text skill, and Israel and Jewish peoplehood, alongside the confidence and facility it builds for students as they learn to grapple with the complex problems of contemporary Judaism. Indeed, a preponderance of the young leaders of the much touted independent minyan movement are also Solomon Schechter alums.
In a tougher economy, day schools are harder to support financially. But they are no less crucial to the future of the Jewish people. Families who choose to send their children to Solomon Schechter day schools do so at significant financial sacrifice. It is a commitment that those families make not only on their own behalf, but really and truly, as a gift they give back to the Jewish community as a whole, in dedicating themselves to raising children who have, as Solomon Schechter did, the knowledge and tools to participate fully in the life of the community, and to lead.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld and Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik are leaders of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis.
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