Mixing it up: Why non-Jews choose Jewish day schools

At his Jewish day school, 16-year-old Kapi’i Cole breezes through the daily prayers. On his eighth-grade trip to Israel two years ago, he spoke excellent conversational Hebrew. And when he celebrates Shabbat at a classmate’s home, he chants the blessings expertly.

Kapi’i is Christian. Yet his parents, after looking at Catholic schools in the area, enrolled their son in kindergarten at Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City more than a decade ago. He’s been a Jewish day school student ever since.

“There isn’t any kind of bias against me in any way,” says Kapi’i, now a junior at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto. “I think learning Jewish tradition and history is pretty interesting. I get to learn about a culture I would have never really thought about.”

Most non-Orthodox Jewish day schools, including Wornick, admit non-Jewish students on a case-by-case basis. Kapi’i’s high school, however, takes that growing trend a step further: It not only permits non-Jewish students to apply, it openly recruits them.

Chaim Heller

Lillian Howard, Kehillah’s head of school, says the newly instituted policy has nothing to do with boosting the school’s financial bottom line. With 155 students enrolled, Kehillah experienced 14 percent growth over the last few years, according to Howard.

Rather, she says, the diversity non-Jewish students bring to the campus makes Kehillah a better institution.

“The educational and ethical foundations of Jewish culture are attractive to diverse families [and] there are non-Jewish students for whom this is a good fit,” Howard says. “And it works very well for us because we are a pluralistic school that values diversity.”

To reach out beyond the Jewish community, Kehillah participates in local school fairs, at which various private high schools set up booths in hopes of enticing parents of prospective students.

“We also advertise, as any school does,” Howard adds. “We say [in the ads] we are open to the entire community. We would love to do more outreach with public schools, but they don’t allow that for private high schools.”

Barbara Gereboff

Once enrolled, non-Jewish students are part of the family. There is no special treatment. All students must take Jewish studies classes every year (with options ranging from Talmud to environmentalism from a Jewish perspective to medical ethics) and at least one year of Hebrew. Participation in some form of prayer services (again, options vary) is also required.

Adds Howard, “We have courses that are traditional text-based, some that are about history, about Jewish culture and comparative religion. Everyone can make their way through the path.”

More important than having their children learn Hebrew, the parents of non-Jewish students send their kids to the day schools for the moral and values-based education.

Bathea James, head of school at Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito, says that when she asks prospective families why they want to put their non-Jewish children in Tehiyah, she often gets the same response.

Iris Postigo and her daughters, Francesca (left) and Sofia photo/michael fox

“They say Judaism is rich in culture and values,” James notes, “and what they want for their kids is a values-based education, which is built into everything at the school. One parent said to me, ‘I feel honored and privileged my child is among the chosen people.’ ”

James relates the story of a staff member — who happens not to be Jewish — once telling the parent of a prospective non-Jewish student that the K-8 school was “a mensch factory.”

Tehiyah welcomes non-Jewish students, James says, and although they account for barely 5 percent of a student body totaling 243 children, they and their parents feel at home among the Jewish majority. In fact, without going so far as conversion, they often embrace Judaism.

“One [student] wants a bat mitzvah,” James says. “They light candles and do rituals. A lot of non-Jewish families say it adds richness to their lives. I have found kids from non-Jewish families are often the best students in Hebrew and Jewish studies.”

Kapi’i Cole, a junior at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto photo/michael fox

Lea Berhane and her husband, Amanuel Haile, have three children enrolled at Tehiyah. She emigrated from Ethiopia, her husband from neighboring Eritrea. The Kensington family worships at a local Eritrean Christian Orthodox church, and speak English and Tigrinya (the language of Eritrea) at home.

Their eldest son Jahrai, 8, and middle daughter, Meley, 6, also speak darned good Hebrew.

Berhane wanted a religious-based school for her kids. Which religion was not as crucial as making sure the values were in line with her own. But when Berhane first contacted Tehiyah in 2008, she wondered if it was the right school for a Christian parent with three Christian children.

As she recalls, the then–admissions director said, “ ‘Well, that’s absolutely going to be up to you, but we are truly a Jewish school, and we stay true to that.’ We came to the school, and upon entering we fell in love with all the color and liveliness.”

On their first tour of the facility, Berhane and her husband noticed Hebrew alphabet posters on the walls, and were struck by how similar the letters were to those of their native language.

“As we listened to everything, [my husband] had goose bumps,” she remembers. “He said, ‘I feel my kids have a chance to make it in America and still know who they are.’

“What I identify most with [at Tehiyah] is the way I was raised,” Berhane continues, “the values in my home. This is the closest thing to raising my kids the way I was raised, when it comes to the community feeling and a sense of responsibility to all the children there.”

Lea Berhane (center, mike) and Rabbi Tsipi Gabai sing morning prayers at Tehiyah Day School with Berhane’s children, (from left) Leila, Jahrai and Meley.

With three children at the school (her youngest, 5-year-old Leila, is in pre-kindergarten), the couple sees Tehiyah’s Jewish environment as a golden opportunity for their kids. At the same time, they point out, the Jewish students benefit from exposure to another culture.

In his first year, Jahrai brought in hambesha, an Eritrean bread, along with Eritrean cardamom tea, to share with his classmates. He also stood before his classmates and counted from one to 10 in Tigrinya, then in Hebrew. There was much linguistic overlap, as the children heard.

In second grade, Jahrai learned the Purim story. The teacher later told Berhane that her son raised his hand and said the story made him sad. Why? Because, as Berhane recalls, “He said ‘I realize I’m the only one who would still be alive if they carried out what [Haman] was trying to do, and all my Jewish friends would not be here.”

Though they are regular churchgoers, the family has incorporated some Jewish customs into their home. Last month at Chanukah time, Berhane recalls, one night the kids “busted out and said, ‘Mommy, are you going to make us some latkes?’ ”

Non-Jewish parents choosing Jewish days schools are a self-selected bunch. If they had had trepidations about the schools’ Jewish content, they would have moved on. But those that do send their kids to Jewish schools choose a rigorous Jewish education for their children.

Dean Goldfein, head of school at Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette, says he welcomes any K-8 student who wants to take part in the program, including Jewish studies.

“We as a Jewish day school should consider the ways in which we can make the experience for non-Jews in a strong Jewish community a positive one,” Goldfein says. “Our children benefit from differing perspectives. We want them to respect and appreciate all the different families.”

Though his school has no policy of explicit outreach to the non-Jewish community, Goldfein says his school runs ads not only in Jewish circles, but also in places where other educational ads run (newsletters, websites, newspaper special sections). Word of mouth is their best marketing tool. As it is, the student body of 158 children includes no more than five non-Jews.

Some Jewish day schools, often those with a more rigorous religious curriculum, limit applications only to those who identify as Jewish.

For example, the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco explicitly states in application materials that while it welcomes “all Jewish students regardless of prior Jewish educational experience … Jewish backgrounds, Jewish religious observances and practices,”  it also states that “Applicants to JCHS must self identify as Jewish.”

Francesca Postigo in her second-grade class at Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City photos/michael fox

Despite that caveat, JCHS Head of School Rabbi Howard Ruben boasts the 175-student institution “has the most robust diversity of any Jewish day school in the country, with students who are Modern Orthodox and Reform, Chabad, interfaith, secular, Conservative and those who define themselves as ‘just Jewish.’ We chose to make that the community. This is a decision the board came to at the founding of the school.”

He also says his students live “authentic, engaged pluralism” every day. They may choose a traditional tefillah or opt for a meditation prayer service with yoga, writing in their journal or studying the Torah portion of the week.

Chaim Heller, head of school for Brandeis Hillel Day School, believes it’s perfectly fine for a Jewish day school to limit its student body to self-identified Jewish families, even though Brandeis’ two campuses (San Francisco and San Rafael) will accept non-Jews.

“All schools are local and need to serve their community,” he says. “Every Jewish day school grapples with the question: Do we accept children who are not like us? Chabad and Orthodox schools take kids who are not Orthodox. In the Bay Area we often go out of our way to make the schools feel inclusive or nonjudgmental within a Jewish framework.”

In recent years, non-Jewish enrollment has declined at Brandeis Hillel, not out of design but because the schools have reached near full enrollment with Jewish children.

“The question often comes down to the last seat in the class,” Heller says. “If we do have an opening, and there’s a non-Jewish child who is mission-appropriate in every sense, we’ll take the child.”

He says it benefits Brandeis Hillel to open its doors to non-Jews by showing “a majority how to treat a minority.” And he says he loves the idea “that we do send out [into the world] a few kids who are not Jewish but deeply knowledgeable Jewishly.”

Heller says the catchphrase at Brandeis Hillel for many years was “Some of our best Hebrew speakers are Korean.”

Similarly, some of the best Hebrew learners at the Wornick School are Hispanic, school officials say.

Iris Postigo felt the administrators and faculty at Wornick made her feel welcome when she enrolled her two young daughters there a few years ago. The El Salvador native and practicing Roman Catholic said her biggest concern at first was that she had practically no knowledge of Judaism, Israel, Jewish history or culture.

Postigo says she and her Peruvian-born husband had been used to being “in control with what we do with the girls. Now it would be a learning journey for all of us. But I love the religious values. I see a lot of parallel with our religion.”

Jahrai Haile in his classroom at Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito photo/michael fox

She says her daughter, Sofia, a fourth-grader, is now fluent in Hebrew and sometimes serves as a teaching assistant in her Jewish studies class. “She can’t wait for the eighth grade when she goes to Israel,” Postigo adds.

Barbara Gereboff, head of school at Wornick, which currently serves 180 families, says her school will accept any student “as long as they meet our admissions criteria and understand the mission of the school,” which stresses the Jewish educational component.

The Jewish component was no impediment for Shea Kelly of San Mateo, a Catholic-raised native of Massachusetts. She enrolled her 6-year-old daughter Marisa in Wornick’s kindergarten and says it’s been a good fit so far.

“I love the Jewish content,” she says. “She’s learning about humanity and core values. At the end of the day what I hear her talking about is God. I strip away the institution and say this is her learning about being a wonderful human being.”

Though Wornick does not engage in Kehillah-style recruitment from the non-Jewish community, the school does have several non-Jewish students, several of whom came out of the pre-school at the nearby Peninsula JCC, which serves as a feeder school.

“We’re sensitive to all sorts of diversity issues in and out of the Jewish community,” Gereboff says. “There are classes that talk about other religions. In middle school, it’s part of curriculum to talk about the religions of the world.”

Though bullying is an unfortunate fact of life, at local Jewish day schools, non-Jewish students usually are seen as windows into other cultures rather than a minority to be picked on.

“We don’t see anybody teasing or taunting,” says Gereboff. “Everybody’s welcome in each other’s homes. There is a sense of a strong, cohesive community.”

Postigo says when her family celebrates Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), she invites Jewish families from Wornick to join in. She asks them to bring pictures and other reminders of deceased loved ones.

People hold up a picture and “say who the person was and say a prayer,” she says. “It was new for the [Jewish] kids. They teach us and we teach them. Parents are very interested in our culture and religion. When my kid was doing her first communion, the parents said you’d better invite us.”

Kapi’i Cole is popular with his Jewish classmates at Kehillah. He says it wasn’t until sixth grade that he first “realized I felt different in a way because I wasn’t actually Jewish.”

He finds his extensive Jewish education valuable. After Kapi’i completed the eighth grade at Wornick, his parents offered him the option of transferring to a public school. He chose to stay in a Jewish environment because “most of my friends were going there. It was pretty supportive.”

He did have a couple of difficult experiences because of his non-Jewish status. When he applied to JCHS in San Francisco he was rejected because neither of his parents are Jewish. He was also turned away from BBYO, a national Jewish youth program, for the same reason. “I was disappointed,” Kapi’i says.

But his education certainly made him a formidable advocate for Jews, Judaism and Israel.

Says Kapi’i: “The first time I heard anti-Israel and anti-Semitic [talk] I thought, ‘Do they know what they’re talking about? Do they even know where Israel is?’ It’s people who have nothing better to do, and use Jews as scapegoats. I’m pro-Israel and obviously pro-Judaism.”

Kapi’i ’s mother, Venesia, says when she takes the family home to her native Hawaii (the name Kapi’i means “warrior” in Hawaiian) her son is usually asked to lead the blessings over meals and other gatherings.

The blessings are always in Hebrew.

“He feels comfortable with himself,” she says, “and for me that’s one of the greatest things. He never felt like he didn’t belong.”

Most non-Jewish students feel the same way, even when it comes to Jewish-oriented courses, says Howard, the head of school at Kehillah.

“Often their favorite class is Hebrew,” Howard notes. “And last year, one of the non-Jewish students was the first to hand in the permission slip [for the Israel trip]. There is an eagerness, a desire to understand. They have a tremendous appreciation for Judaism and Jewish culture.”

Summed up Tehiyah’s James: “We are happy and proud to share the beauty of Judaism.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.