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A Day School Education For My Interfaith Family

May 15, 2011

A year ago, my non-Jewish husband and I decided to send our son to a Conservative Jewish day school for kindergarten rather than use our neighborhood elementary. The decision was made after much research, thought and discussion. Ironically, it was my husband that felt more at ease with a day school education than me.

Originally, we hoped that our temple pre-school would add a kindergarten class so that our son could stay in the nurturing environment he loved. Staying at a school within our Reform congregation didn’t faze me, because it was a place that was not only familiar but comfortable and accepting. Knowing that this option was unlikely to become a reality, I began researching the other schools in the city.

Having lived in Dallas for five years, we had learned about the public education system in the city and state. While there are pockets of highly regarded elementary schools, they are in neighborhoods that we could not afford. Our local school was good, but not exemplary. Even in excellent schools, classes are large with 22 students and legislation is expected to pass that will lift class size restrictions in order to help address the state’s budget crunch.

In addition, revisions to the state’s social studies and history curriculum caused us concern as a family that is raising a child in a minority religion. In 2010, the Texas State Board of Education adopted changes that included diminishing the teaching of the civil rights movement and religious freedoms. These amendments resulted in the removal of Thomas Jefferson as an influential political philosopher and an increased emphasis on the Christian influences of the founding fathers.

We decided to use private school, and needed to consider whether we wanted a secular or religious education. After visiting the secular schools, we determined they were not a good fit for our son. That focused our search on the Episcopal schools, which many Jewish families use. I spoke to the admissions directors at two of the schools. At this point I had not considered a Jewish education. I had grown-up with the idea that only the very religious or rabbi’s children go to day school, and that somehow the academics were not on par with secular schools. After my discussions, that changed.

One said that, while they do have non-Christian students, all children are required to go to chapel, and learn about Jesus and Christian teachings. But it was what the other director said that made me think that we needed to expand our search. She said, “Most of our Jewish students are in middle or high school when they already have a Jewish identity, and can better compare and contrast the religions. I think that for a young child growing up in an interfaith home, but being raised Jewish, attending a Christian school will be confusing.” I appreciated the directors’ honesty.

I went home and shared what they said with my husband. I said, “How can we consider sending our child to a religious school and not consider sending him to one that teaches his own religion?” I was surprised by his response.

“I’m fine with sending Sammy to a school that teaches the religion in which he’s being raised,” he said. I had expected to encounter more push back. The following day, I called Levine Academy.

When I spoke to the admissions director, I had several questions including what percentage of the school affiliates Reform and whether interfaith families are welcome. I was surprised to learn that 30 percent of the students are Reform, which was more than I expected; there were many interfaith families, especially if you expand the definition to include those with extended families that are not Jewish. Maybe my impression of day school was wrong.

I decided to attend the kindergarten open house. I loved what I heard: small class size, customized curriculum based on student need, ethical covenant, Jewish values... And, most of all, I could picture my child at the school. To top it off, the parent that spoke was the Jewish half of an interfaith couple.

I sent my husband to visit. He called me afterwards saying, “I think Sammy would be lucky to go to a school like Levine.” I started to cry.

My family in New Jersey was not as delighted. My siblings were horrified and my mother repeatedly asked me to explain our choice, each time stating that she’d like to understand how we made our decision. Now she thinks it was a good move.

With kindergarten about to end, I’ve had time to reflect on our experience this year. The concerns I had were not a problem.

I had worried that Sammy may receive some negative comments from children or teachers about his father not being Jewish. He didn’t. I had heard that while the school is Conservative, most of the Jewish Studies teachers are Orthodox and that they often teach that perspective. I wondered how welcoming that would be to a Reform Jew.

I learned how it was when I received a call from his teacher telling me how Sammy loves to talk about the things he does at his synagogue and that he asked to teach the class the melody his temple uses for the song Oseh Shalom. She said Sammy taught the class his tune when he was the prayer leader. Clearly, she was open to more than one way of doing things. The few issues we had were not specific to a Jewish day school; friends with children at secular schools also had issues about administrative mistakes and teacher communication.

What I’ve enjoyed about the day school education has been the religious dialogue we’ve developed with our son, and the growth in his Jewish identity, knowledge and worldview. The conversations we’ve had, based on something he learned or a question he has, have often made me explore and examine my own beliefs and forced me to articulate them in language understandable to a six-year-old.

I watch with pride at Shabbat services as he follows the prayer book and recites the Hebrew by heart. I marvel at his deep affection towards Israel, which has already lead us to discuss at a high level current events in the Jewish state, his understanding of portions of Jewish history and his ability to connect these occurrences with modern situations. I smile as my husband participates equally in these discussions. Overall, it has been a good experience and an interesting step in my family’s interfaith journey. I can’t wait for first grade.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Jane Larkin

Jane Larkin lives in Dallas with her husband and son and is a member of Temple Emanu-El. She is chair of the temple's outreach committee and a former leader of the Interfaith Moms group. She writes a parenting blog for InterfaithFamily.

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