In a bid to be “as inclusive as possible,” the Nathan Bohrer-Abraham Kaufman Hebrew Academy of Morris County in Randolph has announced that it is dropping its requirement that all students have a Jewish mother or be converted.
Instead, the nondenominational school will consider applications from any student considered Jewish by Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist standards.
The revised policy brings the school in line with the majority of schools affiliated with RAVSAK, the Jewish “community day school” network that HAMC joined in 2006. Only 10-15 percent of the 120 schools affiliated with RAVSAK still adhere to the Orthodox and Conservative standards of “matrilineal descent,” according to RAVSAK’s executive director, Dr. Marc Kramer.
“As a broad trend, we see community day schools deciding to [adopt] enrollment policies that allow children across the spectrum of Judaism to participate,” Kramer said.
HAMC’s board of trustees approved the policy change in February, following two years of deliberations by a committee of current and past board members and parents, according to a release dated March 16.
“We don’t want to get into the question of ‘Who is a Jew?’” said incoming board president Jason Bacharach, who headed the committee that examined the policy. “Our new policy reflects our mission — that we are a community day school and we accept students from a wide range of backgrounds. To deliver on that mission, we want to be as inclusive as possible.”
School administrators said the enrollment policy shift will not affect the curriculum.
The practical implication of the policy shift is that the school will be able to increase enrollment. “We expect an increase of somewhere between a couple of students and double digits,” said Bacharach.
Until 2006, the school was affiliated with the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter day schools, whose students must be Jewish according to the precept of matrilineal descent or be on an explicit path toward conversion.
In past years, in order not to be rejected by HAMC, students whose mothers were not Jewish had to show conversion papers.
“It was an unfortunate situation,” said Bacharach.
His wife, Naomi Bacharach, director of marketing and communications for the school, acknowledged that in the past, some prospective families were turned away or children were not admitted.
Respect the process
The new policy has its advocates and its detractors, although even the detractors seemed to respect the process. No one has left the school based on the change.
Rabbi David Levy, of the Reform Temple Shalom in Succasunna, said the new policy would finally enable him to fully embrace the school. Previously, he said, he supported the school quietly but could not hang flyers, give a sermon endorsing the school, or even raise it as a possibility with families seeking his schooling advice, for example.
Since 1983, the Reform movement accepts as Jewish children those whose father is the only Jewish parent.
“Frankly, knowing a significant part of our community would have been held back [from enrolling], I couldn’t actively promote it,” he explained. “It would have been very difficult. There would have been people in the community who would go and explore it for their children and find out it was not an option.
“I’m very pleased that now I can be more outwardly supportive,” said Levy, “and I’m glad it will really be an option for all Jewish children in the area.”
Rabbi Menashe East of the Orthodox Mount Freedom Jewish Center continues to support the school, but not without some qualification.
“The school is a community day school. People send their children to Hebrew Academy from a range of backgrounds,” he said. “So even if you follow matrilineal descent, you have to understand the range of observance is so broad at the school. Obviously, the Orthodox perspective is different. So we have to be extra vigilant and be sure we are working extra hard with our kids and make sure the Jewish education component is as strong as possible for them.”
East came to New Jersey last summer from San Diego, where he supported a similar community day school. But he has some concern — especially since his own daughter attends the school.
“What happens if a Jew by Orthodox standards meets a kid who is questionably Jewish or whose status is debated? What if they meet, fall in love, and want to marry? That’s a long shot; the school only goes through the eighth grade,” he acknowledged. “It would be a problem if my daughter came home with someone whose father only was Jewish.
“But in terms of reality, it’s important, as always, not to wipe our hands when we send our children to school but to take a step closer. And who knows where a positive message of Judaism can lead us?”