Claiming that the traditional Jewish day school model they grew up with is “outmoded and too clannish for 21st century Judaism, a new generation of parents and educators are flocking to Montessori preschools and elementary schools that combine secular studies with Torah and Hebrew lessons,” reports the New York Times (Feb. 21).
The Montessori method of personalized learning is attractive to a cross-section of Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Chabad (Lubavitch Hasidic) Jews gravitating to more secular and inclusive forms of learning. Most striking is the latter’s move from traditionalist methods of schooling to the school of thought founded by an Italian Catholic over a century ago.
In Brooklyn, four Montessori schools have opened in the last decade, with each tailored to a different group — one is for Hasidic girls, another for Hasidic boys, another one is primarily Chabad-Lubavitchers, while the fourth includes both secular and Hasidic students. Jewish Montessori schools started about 15 years ago, and are now popular across the U.S.
In Boca Raton, Fla., there are centrist Orthodox, Chabad Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Montessori preschools; Orthodox day schools have started Montessori programs in Houston and Cincinnati; and several New Jersey towns with large Jewish populations now have Montessori schools.
The American Montessori Society finds that there are more than 40 Jewish schools among their 4,000 schools in the United States and about 30 in Israel. Some observers say that the Montessori philosophy of allowing children to learn at their own pace and develop personal responsibility blends well with the Jewish tenet of educating each child according to his or her own way.
The Chabad movement also supports these schools because its spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, endorsed them before his death in 1994. The interest in the Montessori method is also in line with a broader trend toward innovation and opening up to the secular world, even in orthodoxy. A particularly radical concept among Hasidic students is that these schools give secular subjects equal billing with religious ones.
Because many new Jewish Montessoris, which tend to be less expensive than other Jewish day schools, are the only such institutions in town, they also tend to draw a greater mix of students.