Conservative Judaism Education

Is a Day School’s Closing a Wake Up Call for the Conservative Movement?

With the recent closing of the Metropolitan Schechter Academy, a Solomon Schechter High School in New Jersey, questions are arising about the state of Conservative Jewish day schools in our country.

The Metro Schechter Academy was the result of a merger between the Schechter High School of New York and the Schechter Regional High School in Teaneck, New Jersey in 2005. The Manhattan-based high school began in 1992 at the Jewish Theological Seminary with the support of then Chancellor Ismar Schorsch. I remember how nice it was seeing the Schechter high school students in the Seminary halls on a daily basis when I began rabbinical school at JTS during the 1998-99 school year (and enjoying their annual theater productions each year in Feinberg Auditorium). The school moved to a Central Park West location in 2000.

As part of a Solomon Schechter Day School fellowship through the William Davidson Graduate School at JTS, I had the opportunity to work at the Schechter High School in Manhattan during the 2001-02 school year. I spent my time working with the admissions office and re-creating the school’s website. I was very impressed with the school and surprised that the enrollment was not higher. Situated in New York City, however, this school had significant competition from other private Jewish day high schools (Ramaz, SAR, and the new Heschel High School).

It’s a shame that the merged Schechter high school wasn’t able to open for the currrent academic year. However, I must disagree with the New York Jewish Week article that this school closure might be a “wake up call” for Jewish education in the Conservative Movement. This case is clearly an anomaly due to financial issues that were beyond the school leaders’ control.

Jewish day school education is growing in our country. My wife taught at the Schechter high school in West Orange, New Jersey and came home each day impressed by the high level of academics. In Michigan, the Frankel Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit has grown significantly each year since its founding in 2000 with 34 students. While it is a non-denominational Jewish high school, the majority of its more than 210 students are from Conservative Jewish households and many are graduates of Detroit’s Solomon Schechter-affiliated Hillel Day School, which is celebrating its 50th year. Other Conservative day schools around the country are also growing in enrollment.

With the support of the new Seminary Chancellor Arnie Eisen and the Davidson School’s dean Rabbi Steve Brown (both quoted in the NJ Jewish Week article), Jewish day schools in the country will continue to grow.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Conservative Judaism Detroit Education JTS

Danny Nevins, Heksher Tzedek & Indiana Jew

There’s a nice article in the Detroit News about my rabbi, Danny Nevins. He will become the next dean of the Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary this summer.

The sidebar of the article links to his personal website, the teshuvah (responsum) he co-authored on Homosexuality in Judaism, and even a Detroit News audio file of him being interviewed by the Detroit News reporter.

Of course, the author had to provide the requisite pessimism about Conservative Judaism: “Nevins comes to the position at a time when the population of Jews is declining in Metro Detroit and across the country. It also is a time when Conservative Judaism has lost some of its appeal as a logical alternative to the more liberal Reform Judaism and the strict interpretations of Orthodox Judaism.”

Thankfully, Rabbi Nevins countered this sentiment with an optimistic view of the Seminary’s objectives for the future. He said, “Every challenge is an opportunity, [and] I think at the Jewish Theological Seminary we are viewing this as an opportunity to re-examine our message, our structure and also the quality of what we are producing.” This positive outlook is exactly what the new chancellor, Arnie Eisen, has been preaching since accepting the chancellorship.

Perhaps the recent New York Times article about the Conservative Movement’s new Heksher Tzedek was the best news coverage Conservative Judaism has received in years. Kudos to Rabbi Morris Allen for working on making this new certification for food produced in a socially just way a reality.

I wouldn’t call it negative publicity, but I did find it funny that the History Channel‘s Josh Bernstein (“Indiana Jew”) explained that he didn’t go to JTS for rabbinical school because he was turned off by the fluorescent lights. In an article by Suzanne Kurtz on the Hillel website, the star of the hit show “Digging for the Truth” and the author of a book by the same name, describes studying Jewish texts at Pardes in Jerusalem for twelve hours a day.

“So satisfying was the [Pardes] experience, when his year of study was up, Bernstein paid a visit to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York to see if rabbinical school might be his next move.

‘But the fluorescent lights ruined it for me,’ he explains. ‘I told the rabbis at Pardes I’m going to get my wisdom in the desert.’ Their reply: ‘It was good enough for the Patriarchs.’ “

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Columbus Education Jewish

Florence Melton, Of Blessed Memory

Florence MeltonOne of the first things I knew I needed to do when I moved to Columbus to become rabbi of Congregation Agudas Achim was to meet with Florence Melton. Florence was one of the greatest gifts to Jewish education in recent time. Sitting in her apartment, I was extremely impressed not only with her intellect and concern about Jewish education, but with her innovative ideas as well. I am grateful for that meeting with Florence and to my congregant Don Ruben, her neighbor who helped organize the meeting.

Florence Melton and Rabbi Jason MillerAt the time of our meeting, she was planning to leave the next day for her winter in Florida where she would celebrate her 95th birthday at the end of January and be honored in Boca Raton. Rather than prepare herself for the trip, she spent well over an hour with a young, new rabbi in town (and his wife). She asked about my own pedagogical philosophy, my view on day school education versus synagogue religious school, and what I thought should make up the curriculum of a Jewish high school student. She certainly didn’t show her age — she was sharp and witty. She was a beautiful woman with deep insight and a passion for the Jewish people. I am fortunate to have met her and to have taught in the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School in Detroit.

Several weeks ago, I received a message that Florence would like me to call her in Florida. She was writing an article about her “Communiteen” educational program for high school students in Columbus and wanted my assistance. By the time I picked up the phone to call her, her son Gordy informed me that she had gone into a hospice program. I didn’t get to have that conversation with her, but I will be certain to make sure her article is published.

May the legacy of Florence Melton continue to be a source of inspiration and blessing for all who knew her. May her lifetime of work for Jewish learning continue to bear fruit for generations to come.

From the Columbus Dispatch

Florence Zacks Melton, successful inventor, entrepreneur, philanthropist and advocate for Jewish education, died tonight in Florida. She was 95.

Melton, formerly of Grandview Heights, had been living in Boca Raton, Fla., for the past couple years and had taken ill recently.

Born in Philadelphia to Russian immigrants, Melton grew up too poor to have dolls, she once said, so instead she imagined.

That creativity sparked practical inventions such as foam-rubber slippers and innovative Jewish education programs.

At R.G. Barry Corp., which she co-founded in 1947 with her first husband, Aaron Zacks, Melton invented a type of women’s shoulder pad that snapped into a bra strap, simplifying a popular fashion item of that era.

She also created a line of chair pads, adjustable car seat covers and neck pillows. A few years later, R.G. Barry would take off after the idea for foam-rubber slippers came to her.

By 1980, R.G. Barry was the world’s largest producer of comfort footwear. Her son, Gordon Zacks, was CEO at the time.

Several years after Aaron Zacks died, Florence married Samuel M. Melton. Together they helped establish Ohio State’s Melton Center for Jewish Studies in 1976, and also spearheaded other charitable efforts geared mainly toward education.

In 1980, she developed a two-year adult Jewish literacy program affiliated with Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Today, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, as it is known, operates in more than 70 communities in North America and Australia. Melton was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994. She was preceded in death by both husbands and son, Barry Zacks. She is survived by son Gordon Zacks of Bexley.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Basketball Detroit Education Jewish Sports

Afternoon with Mr. D

Last Wednesday I had a very intriguing discussion over lunch with Mr. Bill Davidson, owner of Guardian Industries, and sports franchises the Detroit Pistons (NBA), Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL), and Detroit Shock (WNBA). Each of these sports teams are the reigning champions of their respective league.

I was invited to lunch with Mr. D. along with a few other recent graduates of the William Davidson Graduate School of Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary. I was very impressed with our candid discussion about the Seminary, Jewish Education, and the Conservative Movement. It was also impressive to tour Guardian Industries’ world headquarters (located in Auburn Hills) which looks out onto the Palace of Auburn Hills and the Pistons’ practice facility.

Here are some photos from the day:

Clockwise: Mr. D. and me; Mr. D. in office; Mr. D.’s 3 NBA championship rings; Photo of Bill Laimbeer in Guardian dining room
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |