Wow, the 'Old School' is gone

Over the Passover/Easter holiday, I traveled back home to Chicago to spend time with family. I also caught up on a bit of news I’d missed since moving to California to work with Andrew Breitbart more than two years ago: my old elementary and middle school, Solomon Schechter Day School in Skokie, is closed. Some kids still get bused to the school’s Northbrook branch every day, but the Skokie campus has been shut down.

Twenty years ago, kids got bused in the opposite direction, back when Skokie was the geographic center of Chicago’s Jewish community, a mix of Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox Jews. If Skokie was the geographic center, Solomon Schechter was a sort of religious center, occupying a middle ground that attempted to span the widening divide, lubricating fractious communal relations with hearty doses of Hebrew and Israeli culture.

Northbrook is, and was, different–more affluent, less immigrant, more culturally Jewish than religiously so. That has changed somewhat, as some Orthodox families and some Russian immigrants have made their out to the second tier of suburbs. But the northern suburbs feel as different to Skokie as Skokie feels to the older and more insular Jewish neighborhood of West Rogers Park, which lies just inside Chicago’s actual city limits.

When I was a kid, the Conservative movement seemed the future of American Jewry. The term “Conservative” does not refer to the movement’s political outlook, which leans left in most congregations. Rather, the term refers to the movement’s religious outlook, which is a sort of counter-Reformation to the Reform movement, attempting to retain the form and substance of traditional Judaism while adding innovations (like female rabbis).

Growing up, we were dimly aware that Solomon Schechter was “less religious” than the competing Orthodox schools, but more religious than the after-hours “Hebrew school” that most other Jewish kids suffered through. We also knew that while we were behind the Orthodox kids in our study of religious texts, we were ahead in Hebrew. Other than that, we were only dimly aware of sectarian differences among us, and accepted them.

Left-wing Israel critics like Peter Beinart allege that young Jews are moving away from the community because of disaffection with its traditional support for Israel. But that’s not the case and never has been. What has happened is that most Jews have kept up a generations-old trend toward assimilation, while a minority has clung to Orthodoxy–and a new minority of young Jewish has even created a return-to-religion “counterculture.”

Israel is tangential to this process–except that for many assimilating Jews, it remains the last link to Jewish identity. Some retain that link by identifying with Israel (see the Birthright trips); others retain that link, ironically, by trashing Israel (see J Street). But what is really going on mirrors a cultural fracture that is happening both in Israel and the U.S., among Jews and in general, despite the many means we have to stay connected.

The closure of Solomon Schechter in Skokie marks the decline of the Conservative movement among American Jews, and the rise of a general skepticism towards hybrids in our formerly melting-pot American culture, which places a premium on authenticity even though we are a more diverse, polyglot, hybridized nation than ever before. It’s not just hybrids that Americans seem to be rejecting, but complexity and contradiction itself.

Not every difference can be reconciled. Not every bridge can be built. And we have to be big enough to live with those conflicts. That’s the basis of our national project, but it’s something we seem to have abandoned recently in favor of a debate characterized by competing fundamentalisms–more fundamentalist on the left these days than the right.