But when their daughter Rachel, then a ninth-grader, saw an ad for an all-day Jewish high school, she was immediately interested--and after hearing the headmaster's pitch, so were her parents.
In September 1997, Rachel transferred to the New Jewish High School of Greater Boston, leaving behind, Dottie Burstein said, "some very good opportunities in a school with a relatively high reputation." The selling point for the Bursteins was that the school, not affiliated with any Jewish movement, teaches its students to respect each other's religious beliefs.
Now Jewish leaders are hoping for more--many more--Rachel Bursteins.
From synagogue luncheons to rabbinic conferences, conversations among American Jews have focused for decades on the future of Judaism in the United States, a country where unprecedented acceptance and limitless choices have wooed many Jews away from their heritage. Over the past few years, those conversations have zeroed in on strong Jewish education as the key to the survival of the Jewish religion.
And when Jewish leaders today speak of religious education, more often than not they are referring to Jewish "day schools" like the Boston high school, where students spend half the day learning Bible and Jewish law and the remainder of the day studying reading and arithmetic.
Day school attendance is on the rise, according to statistics gathered by a New York-based group called Avi Chai, which seems to indicate the message is beginning to catch on, even if not overwhelmingly so.
Meanwhile, some Jewish leaders are heading in a surprising direction for the typically liberal American Jewish community: they are trumpeting government-funded school vouchers--the darling of conservative policy groups--as the best way to ensure that all Jewish children will become Jewish adults.
"Jewish day schools are the best way" to ensure the future of Judaism in America, said Yossi Prager, Avi Chai's executuve director. And that being the case, he continued, "We need to be thinking about the whole issue of government vouchers," something that Jews have been resistant to doing.
But allies and opponents alike question the assumption that day school is the solution to the problem of a fading American Jewish identity, and they are suspicious of the conclusion that vouchers, which allow parents to send their kids to any school on the government's tab, will spur wide-scale Jewish day school attendance.
Marvin Schick, a Jewish educator who conducted a census of day schools, said support for education as the ultimate solution to Jewish survival is "a desperate Hail Mary" by well-meaning people who "can't figure out anything else that works."
Additionally, convincing much larger numbers of Jews to abandon public schools would require an ideological about-face for American Jews, who traditionally have seen public schools as a ticket to acceptance in American society and the affluence that follows.
"Today.parents are willing to consider Jewish schools in part because they no longer fear being viewed as outsiders," New Republic editor Peter Beinart recently wrote in The Atlantic Monthly.
Additionally, he wrote, "The rise of institutions like the New Jewish High School represents something close to a renegotiation of the terms of American Jewish life. And for America's battered public school system it could not come at a worse time."
But for Jewish leaders like Yossi Prager, saving the Jewish religion means much more than salvaging the public school system.
The Avi Chai study found that more than 184,000 students attend 676 Jewish day schools in the United States. While that represents only a small portion of the estimated 1 million Jewish children in the country, it is a tripling of attendance estimates from the 1960s.
The day school world remains dominated by Orthodox students, those who adhere most strictly to traditional Jewish law and whose families often never shared the general American-Jewish enthusiasm for social integration. But while Orthodox students make up more than 75 percent of all day school students, the number of non-Orthodox appears to be growing.
These and other trends led Avi Chai to conduct an experiment in spurring day-school attendance, especially among the non-Orthodox. Using Cleveland and Atlanta as test cities, the foundation offered as much as $3,000 a year for parents of children in grades 2 through 8 to switch from public schools to Jewish day schools. Over two years, Avi Chai gave out 213 vouchers, which covered between one-third and one-half of the annual day school tuition.