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.
The goal was to judge whether financial concerns were a vital factor in whether parents sent their grade-schoolers to day school. The results show that money is important for some, but rarely is the deciding factor Prager said.
Families highly committed to Jewish education generally find a way to send their children to day school regardless of their financial situation. Low-income families with any thought of day school often find scholarships or reduced-tuition programs.
Those who did take advantage of the vouchers generally were middle-income families who participated somewhat in synagogue but were not strongly committed to Jewish observance. With few financial-aid options, they tended to opt against day school, and changed their mind when faced with dramatically reduced tuition.
"The decision to choose a Jewish day school is a major family decision that's not going to be made because of money," Prager said.
Nevertheless, the experiment has fueled support for publicly funded vouchers as a means of providing a day-school education to all who want it.
But Schick questioned the effect that universal voucher programs would have, noting the general affluence of American Jews. "A lavish bar or bat mitzvah costs as much as eight years of day school," he said.
Among other factors, Schick said, the small size of most Jewish schools--40 percent enroll less than 100 students--will detract most parents. All but the most Jewishly committed parents, he said, are "comparison shoppers" who prefer public school or non-religious private schools to small Jewish schools that may not have comparable facilities and educational amenities.
And there remains the question of how to convince America's Jews that day schools and publicly funded voucher systems are in their best interest.
Most Jews' reactions to voucher programs are "strongly hostile," said Jay Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an expert on school choice. The reason, he said, has less to do with religion than with demographics: Jews tend to be "well-to-do white suburbanites," who can afford private school or who like their public schools, and therefore are the strongest opponents of vouchers.
In addition, Jews' opposition to vouchers has been particularly vehement because of their commitment to strict church-state separation. Orthodox Jews--who always have supported Jewish day schools and who tend to be more conservative politically--are the Jewish community's most avid voucher supporters, but they make up a very small percentage of the Jewish population.
Recently, though, small but growing numbers of liberal Jews have signed on to the school choice movement because they see it as a civil rights issue that can improve education for impoverished African-Americans--offering people like Prager hope that their efforts will find increasing numbers of Jewish allies, Greene said.
Even if vouchers become a reality in American education, people like Prager must somehow convince the vast majority of Jews--who today do not send their children to day school--that a parochial education is best.
In a way, Rachel Burstein's own father represents this challenge: He was initially opposed to sending his daughter to a Jewish school.
"I tend to see good public schools as a democratizing experience," Paul Burstein said, voicing one of the classic Jewish arguments against day schools.
But after three years of watching his daughter thrive, his attitude has changed completely. And that, in a nutshell, is the conversion experience Jewish leaders hope to see among Jews across the nation--with, perhaps, a little nudge from public voucher money.
"Let's pray it works," Schick said.