I often imagine what it must have been like to be in the Detroit homes of Rabbi Jacob E. Segal and others, back in the 1950s, when a group of visionaries discussed the possibility of opening a Jewish day school. Non-Orthodox Jewish day schools were virtually unheard of at that time; it was an era when American Jews were trying to be fully accepted in communities around the country. Many of our community leaders who support Hillel today were staunchly opposed to opening a day school in Detroit.
Against tremendous odds, with limited resources and a lukewarm reception from many, Hillel Day School opened its doors in September 1958, joining a modest number of non-Orthodox Jewish day schools nationwide. A small and fiercely dedicated group of people committed to what a Jewish day school could bring to the community persevered, and they insured the fledgling school survived its early years.
The founders and pioneers of Hillel Day School risked their personal financial security, gave endless hours, and worked tirelessly to grow and nurture the school and its community. As a result of their dedication, during Hillel’s first 55 years, thousands of students received an education here, and have gone on to be successful in all walks of life. Most importantly, Hillel alumni, strong in their Jewish identity, serve as leaders and role models in Jewish communities across North America and in Israel.
Hillel has come a long way since 1958. The founders would be amazed at the building, the Audrey and William Farber IDEA Collaborative, the size of the operating budget, the number of students who attend the school, and the large sum of money we give away each year in tuition assistance. What would still be familiar 56 years later are Hillel’s core Jewish values and the warm, loving and respectful atmosphere.
The Hillel community has much to be proud of and to celebrate. In many ways the school is better than ever, largely because of our remarkable staff and committed volunteer leaders. We are a school that other educators – locally, nationally and even internationally – seek out to visit.
And yet, we need to ask ourselves, what will the Detroit Jewish community say of us in 2058? In 1958 American Jews couldn’t fathom a Jewish “parochial” school. Jews were still trying to fit in and become accepted into the larger American culture. The idea of self-segregation made no sense. And yet here, and elsewhere in the United States, there were American Jews who recognized a need for an intensive Jewish educational setting that could be both American and distinctly Jewish in order to preserve our tradition and enable our people and community to thrive. Against all odds and conventional wisdom at the time, Hillel and other day schools across the country began to take root and even thrive.
Day schools continued to grow and thrive into the beginning of this century. And now we face a new challenge. If day schools seemed a threat to acculturating into American society, today they are not seen as necessary because Jews are so thoroughly assimilated.
The founders of our school realized that American Jews could live successfully in both worlds. They also recognized that without strong and vibrant day schools assimilation would ultimately win out. They had the vision to recognize that.
All these years later, our challenge is eerily similar; we need to do the work of our founders, as if it is all new again, and convince our young families that they can live successfully in two worlds. Our challenge may be a little more daunting, not because we are not fully integrated into American culture – we are – but rather, because unlike our grandparents, today’s young parents may not see the importance of our Jewish distinctiveness in a “global community.”
Day schools may be more important than ever to our collective Jewish future. For all those who believe in the impact of a day school education, the time is now to become advocates and ambassadors and to reach out to potential families to at least take a look! In 2058, I want our children and grandchildren to be a part of a strong Jewish Hillel Day School in a strong and vibrant Detroit Jewish community. It takes action from us now for that future to be a reality. The founders did it and we can too!