Jewish Education Can’t be Optional

alef-betFor four years, we tried a day school education for our son. For the first two years, it worked. The secular education was excellent, our son’s Jewish identity blossomed, and his knowledge of Jewish history, texts, and the Hebrew language grew.

But our overall satisfaction with the education didn’t mean that we thought the school was perfect. It wasn’t, no school is. We wished there was a greater sense of community and felt that the Jewish studies program was too narrowly focused. But our son was thriving, so it was easy to overlook these issues.

In our son’s third year, the school put in place a new administration. It adjusted the secular curriculum and teaching style in a way that didn’t work for our son. Now the lack of community and the prayer and language focus of the Judaic education nagged at us. Still, we gave the changes a chance. But by year four, it was obvious it was time for a change.

Moving from day school to a non-Jewish learning environment meant that our son would attend religious school starting in the fall. Some of our extended Jewish family and the day school administrators suggested that we let him skip it for a year since he would be ahead of the other students. I wouldn’t consider it.

I didn’t care that he was practically fluent in Hebrew. I didn’t care that his understanding of the Torah was deeper than other children his age. I didn’t care that weekday Hebrew and Sunday school might be filled with much drudgery. And I didn’t care to listen to my son whine about going before he even attended a single class. He was going to religious school. Period. The end.

I explained to him that religious school was not optional and that it was something that a majority of American Jews endured; a right of passage. I told him that if he didn’t go he’d feel left out when all of the other kids complained. I wanted him to have something to complain about too.

I knew it was futile to try to convince him that religious school was fun. I wasn’t sure it was. I knew from my position as a trustee at my synagogue that the religious school staff was working to improve the experience, but I wondered how much improvement there had really been in the past 30 years.

But it didn’t matter to me whether religious school changed a little or a lot. My son was still going. I cared too much about a Jewish future to make it optional.

People think that the faith of a marriage partner is a monolithic determinant of Jewish identity. It’s not, but Jewish education is. According to a 2008 Steinhardt Social Research Institute study, “every additional hour of Jewish education received has an exponentially greater impact than the hour that came before” on the relevance of Jewish identity and attitudes towards Israel.

Another significant predictor of future Jewish engagement is community. The Steinhardt study found that adults who grew up “with more densely Jewish social networks are…more likely to engage in ritual practice…and to raise their children as Jews.”

Religious school might be universally loathed, but it is a shared activity. And shared experiences create bonds. Like it or not, religious school bonds most American Jews. It builds community.

Over the course of a few hours each week, Jewish kids engage with other Jewish kids. For some, it’s the only time they interact with other Jews. For others, like my son, it’s a place to rekindle relationships with preschool friends and reconnect with kids from overnight camp. This community is what makes religious school tolerable, and dare I say it, enjoyable.

My son may complain about going, but on the way home he always says he enjoyed it. He likes his teachers, likes the discussions, and loves seeing his buddies. I’m surprised and thrilled because as Deb Morandi’s recent blog post points out religious school is not enjoyed or even tolerated by all.

I give Deb credit. She has not given up on Jewish education and is trying to find an alternative that can help make being Jewish meaningful and enjoyable for her children. Luckily, there are many choices that involve various levels of parent engagement. I hope Deb and other parents in similar situations find an educational method or tool that works for their family because education is too important to a Jewish future to be optional.

Bring a Friend to School Day

As a parent, you never know the unintended benefits of signing your kids up for extra-curricular activities like sports, dance, gymnastics, etc.  In our case, we sign our boys up for things we think they will like, things that fit into our budget and our schedule.  My 7-year-old who is a sports fanatic – thanks in part to me and my husband – usually likes to do things that are sports related.  This fall we signed him up for a floor hockey class at the JCC.  He loves ice hockey and follows the Bruins obsessively – we DVR the games for him at night and then he watches them when he wakes up in the morning – he is a very early riser.  The floor hockey class fit our budget and it was at the JCC on one of the days he goes there for the after-school program.  The unintended benefit of this hockey class is that he met three adorable Jewish boys who all go to Jewish day school.  Three more Jewish friends to have playdates with and to identify Jewishly with.

On Martin Luther King Day, he was invited by these three boys to “bring a friend to school day” at their Jewish day school.  It is a great marketing tool for the school because all the public schools are closed and families who might be thinking about sending their kids to the school get a day to see what it’s all about.  It was also great for me because I didn’t have to arrange for childcare or take the day off from work! 

All kidding aside, I went to Jewish day school from 4 – 6th grade.  Jewish day schools typically do half the day in Hebrew (prayer, Hebrew, Torah study, holidays, etc.) and half the day in English (math, science, language arts, social studies, etc.).  To this day, any prayer that I sing in services or any blessing that I know by heart and certainly any Hebrew that I can read, are all due to my days at Jewish day school.  I don’t think my husband and I ever considered it for our kids for a few reasons: cost is one and another is that the public schools in our area happen to be pretty good.  Additionally, since my husband isn’t Jewish I didn’t think he would be comfortable with that kind of school – although I know that many intermarried couples choose Jewish day school in part to educate their kids as well as themselves. 

There were many positive takeaways of “bring a friend to school day.”  Our son tried something totally new, with new friends, in a new environment, with not a lot of advanced knowledge about what to expect that day.  My husband and I were so proud of him for trying all of these new things and he was also very proud of himself – the best unintended benefit by far.