Classroom rules posted in Goldie Litvin’s class include such familiar maxims as “Talk quietly” and “Raise your hand,” along with one unique to Louisville’s only full-time Jewish elementary school: “No chutzpah.”
On a recent morning, Litvin was talking to a half-dozen students about the meaning behind their central prayer, “Shema Yisrael,” proclaiming the oneness of God.
“They know what prayer is, they know that they are talking to God, but I want them to expand this so they’ll understand why we say it,” she said later.
Down the hall, two pupils in a Jewish literature class were reading from an early 20th century novel — “All-of-a-Kind Family” by Sydney Taylor — children’s stories about immigrant life in New York’s Lower East Side.
In that day’s passage, teacher Marilyn Schechter guided the students to appreciate the vivid description of how a young girl timidly confesses her loss of a library book to a prim yet kindly librarian, who was wearing paper sleeves.
“Listen to how good a description of the library lady” the author gives, Schechter said. “Why do you think she had paper cuffs on the bottoms of her sleeves?” After several wrong guesses, the students figure out it’s to protect her blouse from ink stains.
The small Louisville Jewish Day School, with about 30 pupils, is undergoing an experiment in the extent that students of various Jewish religious traditions can learn together under one roof. The school, seeking to be a successor to both an Orthodox and non-Orthodox school, offers such things as an elective system to allow students some choice in the mix of religious and secular classes.
For example, the students in the two classes had spent the early part of the morning together, learning Hebrew. But at the start of the school year, they could choose whether to continue another hour in religion class or study secular literature.
“The key lesson of the school is to respect the religious autonomy of the family,” said Rabbi Avrohom Litvin, rabbi of the school and of Congregation Anshei Sfard, the Orthodox synagogue in St. Matthews where the school meets.
The students “represent the entire spectrum of the Jewish community,” said Litvin. “They come from Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated homes.”
Until two years ago, Louisville had two small Jewish schools — Torah Academy, an Orthodox school hosted by Anshei Sfard, and nearby Eliahu Academy, which was preferred by families from the more progressive Conservative and Reform and unaffiliated families.
But Eliahu closed due to declining enrollment in 2008 — partly a by-product of the Jewish community’s aging and slightly declining population.
Litvin led families that were involved in both schools in forming the reorganized Louisville Jewish Day School. It still meets in the synagogue where Torah Academy did, but Rabbi Litvin said he hopes the school can find an independent home and convince the Jewish community that it’s for all of them.
That will take some convincing. Of Louisville’s estimated 8,300 Jews, the 5 percent who are Orthodox are far out-numbered by the more progressive Reform and Conservative movements and those with no religious affiliation. Rabbi Litvin himself belongs to the Hasidic Chabad, a traditionalist movement within Orthodoxy.
Local Conservative and Reform rabbis say they haven’t been asked to help create the school and question whether most Jews would be comfortable with their curriculum.
“I’m in favor of anything that provides intensive Jewish education,” said Rabbi Robert Slosberg of Congregation Adath Jeshurun, a conservative synagogue. But “it isn’t a curriculum and ideology that Conservative and Reform Jews will be comfortable with.”
“I wish them well,” said Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport of The Temple, a Reform synagogue. “The challenge is appealing to the broader community because it has a traditional bent.”
The Jewish Community of Louisville, an umbrella fund-raising organizing, has provided $10,500 to the day school this year, just as it had previously subsidized Eliahu and Torah academies.
Chairman Edward Weinberg said in a statement that local Jewish schools have struggled to build a critical mass of enrollment.
“Although Rabbi Litvin is making an effort to reach out to the entire Jewish Community, the (Jewish Community of Louisville) and other synagogues are not involved with the management or curriculum of the school, and therefore we do not know specifics as to number of students, future plans or enough to comment on its progress,” he said. “Certainly, however, we wish for this school’s success.”
One believer is Rich Goldwin, who attends a Reform synagogue in Louisville.
“I really feel (Litvin) wants us to be a community-wide school” that can grow, he said.
Goldwin said his granddaughter, who attends the school, has learned to appreciate Judaism’s diversity: “She likes to go to services with us in our congregation but she’s comfortable in an Orthodox congregation, too.”
Jennifer Westphal, principal of the day school, said parents inquiring about the school “are pretty much not concerned about the Hebrew side of it” so much as whether the small school can offer quality secular studies. The school is exploring information technology and other programs to expand its appeal.
To cover religious and secular topics, the school meets for seven and a half hours — more than the typical six — and often integrates the lessons. For example, a recent field trip to Meijer combined lessons in kosher foods, nutrition and mathematics through price comparisons.
Litvin said the school is modeled in part on Charlotte (N.C.) Jewish Day School.
Mariashi Groner, director of that school, said it has thrived for a decade by teaching about common beliefs and practices and leaving it up to synagogues and families to teach their distinctive traditions.
“It doesn’t mean that every family practices everything that’s taught, but it’s information every child could have in their back pocket,” Groner said. “When I run out of things to teach that we have in common, then we’ll have a problem, and I haven’t run out.”