|Head of School Matt Culberson next to list of the Jewish values taught at his school|
I don’t know whether to be flattered, anxious, or downright disturbed. Maybe I am a little of each. There is a school in Salt Lake City, Utah, that teaches non Jews to be – well… Jewish. Not to become Jews. But to practice Jewish ethics in their lives.
Originally a Jewish school (non denominational – I assume) sponsored by the JCC in that city, it has morphed into a an independent school. And after a sizable donation from the non Jewish McGillis family, it changed its name from the Jewish Community Center Elementary School to the McGillis School. Only 10% of the staff is Jewish and only 25% of the students are Jewish. None of the administrators are.
What makes this school extremely unique is that it teaches only Judaism to its students. From a JTA article:
It’s Friday afternoon at the McGillis School in Salt Lake City, and students from the third through fifth grades are gathered for the weekly Shabbat celebration.
They read and discuss a passage about humility by former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Then a blond girl with braided hair prepares to light the candles. A hush falls over the room as the flames are kindled, and the students recite the practiced benediction in unison:
“As we bless this source of light, the warmth these candles bring reminds us of times we gave light and received light,” they sing, followed by a recitation of the traditional Shabbat candle-lighting blessing in Hebrew.
The ceremony is not dissimilar from weekly Shabbat celebrations held in Jewish schools across America.
Except for one thing: The student lighting the candles isn’t Jewish. Nor is the one who follows her to recite the kiddush blessing over grape juice. Nor the one after that who recites Hamotzi over the challah bread…
…walk into the school in midwinter and you’ll find McGillis’ main gathering space festooned for Tu b’Shvat, the Jewish Arbor Day. Mezuzahs are on every doorway alongside benedictions penned by the children. Student-made Hebrew art adorns the walls, and the hallways are lined with prints of Israeli landscapes.
Practically everywhere you turn, identical blue posters advertise the school’s guiding Jewish values: tzedakah (translated as “giving to others”); tikkun olam (“repairing the world”); gemilut hasadim (“doing good and kind deeds”); derech eretz (“having respect for all”); limud l’shma (“learning for the sake of learning”), and kehillah (“our community”). Students, teachers and administrators constantly reference these values, albeit sometimes straining to pronounce the Hebrew.
“We’re trying to teach Jewish values broadly,” said Liz Paige, the school’s ethics and cultures teacher. “Though they are in Judaism, they are universal, and we’re teaching them to a very wide community.
“We’re not proselytizing here. We’re teaching Torah as literature, philosophy, ethics – but not religion.
Although I would not call this a proper Jewish education I am amazed to what degree Judaism is taught at a non Jewish school and where 75% its student body is not Jewish. Leaving aside the fact that the 25% Jewish children in the school are not being taught Judaism properly, it is amazing that a non Jewish school exists and teaches only Judaism to its majority non Jewish students. No other religion is taught there. Amazing! Non Jews are teaching non Jewish students about the beauty of the Torah. Something we Jews should be doing.
I am glad to see that there are non Jews that actually appreciate the ethics and values of the Torah so much they want to internalize them in their children. If there was ever a way to preach brotherly love, this has got to be it.
But as I indicated in my opening paragraph, I am somewhat circumspect about this. Are there unspoken motives that can harm us? Mormons are Judeophiles. They see us more positively than they see any other group. So much so that a few years ago they decided to baptize us after we die – seeing this as an act of love and kindness. They believe that this enables us to experience a positive afterlife when we die. If I recall correctly they were motivated by the 6 million Jews that were slaughtered in the Holocaust who according to them cannot be accepted into paradise without being baptized. So that now after their posthumous baptizing - in their minds these Jewish souls are now ‘saved’ and living in paradise.
Now this does not in any way affect us religiously. People can say whatever they want and believe whatever they want. It does however belittle our belief system to say that we need their salvation techniques in order to achieve paradise… that we cannot achieve it through our own Judaism.
And another thing. If they are so concerned with our spiritual well being in the afterlife, they might be trying to do something about it before we die. Which puts an entirely different light onto this school. Are they merely appreciating us – trying to learn our values and put them into practice in their own lives? This is the claim. They say they want to universalize Judaism.
If that is their true and only purpose, God bless them. As long as they understand that having Jewish values does not make you a Jew. Which I think they do. A school like this can then turn their students into great friends of the Jewish people via their better understanding our values and practicing our ethics. If on the other hand this is some sort of ploy to ingratiate themselves with the Jewish people for purposes of proselytizing us, than this is a bad deal we ought to protest it.
Where does the truth lie? I’m not sure. But I hope it’s the former. Just some of my thoughts.