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To Serve Jews
The secret ingredients for a 21st-century Judaism are available in a surprisingly public place.

by David Holzel


The Messy Room
Mrs. Lee was a stickler for verisimilitude. When I took the long walk across the classroom to her desk and presented my workbook, she scrutinized my coloring carefully. The outlines of the children printed on the page were buried under unruly scratches of crayon. I had rendered their tidy world a fitful mess. Coloring inside the lines simply was beyond me.

Mrs. Lee handed the workbook back to me. “Color in the sky,” she said. I was in the 1st grade, newly 6-years-old, and while my career as an artist had just ended, my public-school education was now beginning in earnest.

When it came to classroom etiquette, my 2nd grade teacher, Miss Whisman, was unyielding. A particularly serious breach was slamming the door. One day she left the room, pulling the heavy door closed behind her. She must have lost her grip on the knob, because the door wheeled shut. The room shuddered. A moment later the door opened and Miss Whisman re-entered the room. She apologized to her 30-or-so students, and left again to erase her previous error. This time the latch merely kissed the doorjamb when they touched.

I spent only a semester in Miss Whisman’s class. When the second half of the school year began, I was promoted into the 3rd grade. Miss Settles was my math teacher. Under her guidance I failed to learn the multiplication tables and performed miserably at long division. Meanwhile, she married, became pregnant and left the school. Many years later I discovered that at the same time as she was teaching me math, she had a second career as a gospel singer.

Third, 4th and 5th graders also took a class called “Auditorium.” I have no idea what we did there. It met in the school auditorium and was overseen by Mrs. Reveno and Miss Veslock. What I do remember clearly is that we were seated girl-boy-girl-boy according to increasing height. I was always seated in the second seat from the left, with Sherry Strite, a round-cheeked girl in pigtails, invariably to my left at the end of the front row.

The sole exception in this dreary parade of teachers was Faye Kaplan, my homeroom teacher for three semesters in 3rd and 4th grades. It was in Mrs. Kaplan’s room that I developed the theory –  based on several years of observations –  that the less strict a teach was, the messier her classroom. Mrs. Kaplan’s room was hardly disorderly, but her relative flexibility and warmth seemed to be reflected in how supplies weren't always neatly put away, how the erasers always retained chalk dust, and in the not-always-symmetrical way the three window shades were drawn. It was in this classroom that I began to write.

Four decades later, my son is having a very different experience at his public school. His teachers are warm, enthusiastic, encouraging, amused by their young students. I’ve watched these teachers work. They appear actually to like children. The principal is approachable. Not one parent I know is afraid of her. I’ve completely changed my opinion of what a public-school education can be.

Like Shimon bar Yochai, who found a different world after spending 40 years in a cave, things have changed at the public school. “The classroom was far more regimented,” Michael Kimmel writes, in Dissent, of the 1950s-'60s classical era of the public school. “Corporal punishment [was] common, and teachers [were] far more authoritarian; they even gave grades for ‘deportment.’”

Arc of the Covenant
Judaism, too, has followed a similar trajectory. An acquaintance once told me of her childhood rabbi at her old mainline Conservative synagogue. He was such an authority figure, so revered and remote, that being called into his presence was like a scene out of “Citizen Kane” – his study was all dimness and shadow, except the shaft of light that illuminated the distant figure behind the massive desk. His voice boomed off the walls as he called her to approach.

This rabbi’s successor was no less impressive an intellect or an authority. But having come of age in the 1950s, he belonged to a generation in which a rabbi had to be able to move among his congregants. A tacit distance remained, but it was clear that the rabbi was flesh and blood.

By the time I became a member of this synagogue, the successor rabbi was very much in the prime of his strength and mental acuity. His High Holiday sermons often were masterworks of oratory. He memorized his sermons, which left him free to stride the bimah, robe-clad like a Demosthenes or Cicero with a kippah.

As large synagogues do, this one hired an assistant rabbi. He was a bit younger than I. Like his older colleagues, he had a brilliant grasp Jewish law, texts and traditions. The difference was in his manner. He was approachable. In fact, if you didn’t approach him, he would come to you. You felt that, if you hugged him, you wouldn’t burst into flames. And his exuberance was contagious.


In Mrs. Kaplan’s room I developed the theory that the less strict a teach was, the messier her classroom.

Now the rabbi of his own synagogue, his approach to Judaism and his congregation is analogous to the warmer, inclusive public-school education my son is getting.

There are significant differences, though. And so you can read any survey on American Jewry and see that the sky is falling.

That’s because there is so much more work to be done to bring Judaism in line with the successful 21st century public-school model. Yes, alert congregations have made inroads – instituting an endless cycle of fund-raisers, for example, and holding children’s book fairs that offer mostly crap. But Judaism’s genius is that it has always filled a need. That’s the key to its survival. And a successful 21st-century Judaism must answer 21st-century needs with 21st-century methods. For that we turn to the public school. PAGE 2