Solomon Schechter School considers changing admission policies

BY MIKE SHERWIN, OF THE JEWISH LIGHT STAFF

A rabbinical advisory board to the Solomon Schechter Day School of St. Louis has recommended changes that would make admission policies more flexible for patrilineal Jewish families.

The Conservative movement’s Schechter schools currently admit children who are halachically Jewish, or born from a Jewish mother. Children from non-Jewish mothers may enroll if their families commit to convert within one year.

Since the 1970s, the Reform and Reconstructionist movements have accepted children of Jewish fathers as well as mothers as Jewish. Orthodox and Conservative Judaism only recognize as Jews at birth those children born to Jewish mothers.

The proposed changes would extend the amount of time for non-halachically Jewish families to convert, and would assign each family a mentor rabbi who would help them understand the conversion process.

The Rabbinical Assembly of St. Louis, made up of the area’s 12 Conservative rabbis, developed a policy statement for Schechter which was handed down to the school’s executive board at its last meeting, in mid-December.

“We presented the policy as a halachic ruling to the board of Schechter, and it was accepted as such, that would enable children of questionable halachic status who are below the age of bar or bat mitzvah to be admitted to school and that they could remain at school until bar/bat mitzvah without any issues,” said Rabbi Carnie Rose from B’nai Amoona, who serves on the rabbinic assembly.

Children above the age of bar or bat mitzvah would have a year to determine whether they wanted to be halachically Jewish according to the standards of the Conservative movement, Rose said.

“On a parallel track with admission to school, a mentor rabbi would be assigned to the family and that mentor rabbi would work with the family so that the family is aware of the issues associated with full halachic acceptance by the Conservative movement,” he said.

“Ultimately we recommended a policy this is definitely more open and welcoming. It allows a greater time frame for a student who is not halachically Jewish to prepare for and take steps to be halachically Jewish,” said Rabbi Ari Vernon, president of the Rabbinical Assembly.

“But it’s still retains the standards and fits within the beliefs of the Conservative movement,” Vernon said.

Gail Armstrong, head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of St. Louis, welcomed the proposed policy change.

“We had begun thinking along the lines of broadening our interpretation of the guidelines as they stood from the Solomon Schechter Day School Association, so we asked the Rabbinical Assembly to guide us,” Armstrong said.

“It was our feeling that all children should be able to have a Jewish education,” she said. “Yet we are a Solomon Schechter Day School, so there are very clear and specific guidelines we must follow. We were looking to have a broader interpretation of those guidelines so that children and families could feel they come here comfortably and know that it wasn’t about conversion within a year, it was about a Jewish Day School education and coming willingly to conversion.”

Rabbi Rose said the admission policy changes are part of a broader opening within the Conservative movement.

“There’s been a general push in the Conservative movement to be more warm and more welcoming and to understand that the world around us is an evolving place,” Rose said.

“A more inclusive admission policy would enable us to engage a greater number of Jews, or those who consider themselves to be Jewish, to be involved in our mission and our approach to the world,” he said.

Now that Solomon Schechter’s board has received the policy statement from the rabbinic advisors, it still must formally adopt the ruling, which would require a change to its governing bylaws.

“According to our bylaws, we need to be in accord with the Solomon Schechter national bylaws,” Armstrong said. To adopt an admissions policy different from national Schechter policy would require a vote by the school’s board to change the wording of the school’s bylaws, she said.

At the national level, the Solomon Schechter Day School Association discussed a similar proposal during its national convention in December which would also change admission policies to extend the conversion timeline for patrilineal Jews. That policy is still being considered by the association’s board of directors.

“This is an ongoing conversation within the Schechter system and within the Conservative movement,” Vernon said. “Many schools are already functioning with policies very similar to what we ultimately recommended.”

With 170 students, the Solomon Schechter Day School of St. Louis has seen a “small decline” in enrollment over the years, Armstrong said. However, she said, that decline should not be seen as a consequence of the school’s admission policies.

Armstrong said the changes should be seen simply as a way of being able to provide a Jewish education to a broader swath of Jewish families in the area.

“Having a broader interpretation of our admissions policy helps the school to remain healthy and viable, while offering a high-quality Jewish education to families that would be interested,” Armstrong said.

Although Armstrong said there is no specific timeline for formally adopting the changes, Vernon and Rose both said they expected the changes would take effect for the next school year.

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