Chewing on the end of my pen, I stared at the application to the Jewish day school in New York City, to which we hoped to send our six-year-old daughter. What was her Hebrew name? Was I supposed to write that in Hebrew? Was I supposed to know how to do that? After all, I had been Jewish now for almost four years, and one would think I would know how to write Rachel in Hebrew, especially since we had been living in Jerusalem for the last six months. Tap, tap, tap went my pen on the table. OK, on to the next question. Mother's name, father's name... no problem. "Was mother born Jewish? Yes, No. If not, please provide a copy of the conversion certificate." Whoa, stop there.
Our family was moving to New York so that my husband could attend rabbinical school. Originally from Victoria, British Columbia, we were now in Jerusalem, in the middle of the Jewish quarter of the Old City. Having moved halfway around the world, only to be on the move again, we desperately wanted our daughter to go to a particular day school in Manhattan. A Jewish day school, something that in Victoria we could have only dreamed about, and here it was, almost in our grasp. A Jewish education meant that our daughter would never again feel different from her classmates. It meant that she would not feel pressured, as she did in preschool, to marry the only other Jewish boy in class (a concern she came home with one day when she was four!). A day school education meant learning Hebrew, Torah and prayer alongside math, language arts and science. A day school education meant no after-school religious school. A Jewish day school meant that I--as the token Jewish parent--would never have to go make latkes and tell Hanukkah stories in the secular classroom.
Almost as great a concern to us as the day school education was finding a safe place for our daughter, a place she could call home. Her Jerusalem experience had been particularly challenging. In addition to having to suddenly learn Hebrew, her class was large, and she had been bullied by the other students.
The New York school, in contrast, was small, new, and had been recommended to us by the assistant dean of my husband's own new school. I so desperately wanted our daughter to be accepted into the day school that, after repeated calls and emails to the headmaster, he finally advised me to "take a Prozac!" She would get in. But I had to send in the application first. Tap, tap, tap. I checked the "No" box; I was not born Jewish. I was not in the habit of carrying my conversion certificate around with me and quite honestly, thousands of miles from home, I did not know where it was. That would have to wait.
I wasn't sure if the application was any indication of how I, someone not born Jewish, would be welcomed to the school. Should I care? After all, my daughter was the one attending the school, not me. But I knew that I would be dependent upon the school community for at least a part of my social life as I knew no one in New York and my husband would be tied up with his new endeavours. Also, it was important to me to be accepted enough to be able to get along with the headmaster and the teachers to ensure a smooth transition for our daughter.
I need not have worried. After a few mornings at the bus stop, it quickly became evident that four out of five mothers waving good-bye to their children had chosen Judaism (people who have converted usually "out" each other in fairly short order). That made me even more convinced that we had found a good environment for our daughter and for us. Within a couple of years, I was--through volunteering to be the graphic designer for the school's annual dinner invitations and eventually the school's brochure--in a position to redesign and reprint the application form and thereby able to get rid of the offending conversion question. And by helping my daughter (and now my son) with Hebrew, I received a quick induction into the written language and could write "Rachel" (and much more) in Hebrew!
Many parents, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, feel concern over whether or not they will be able to help their children with their Hebrew homework. By the end of second grade, I have to admit that my son's Hebrew homework was beginning to stump me; he was leaving me in the dust and it was up to my husband to help him. However, I took his homework as an opportunity to improve my own Hebrew and to learn what I could. Quite frankly, my daughter's algebra homework now leaves me scratching my head, but I am not keeping her out of day school because of that!
As far as I can recall, there have only been two things over which I expressed concern in all of our six years of experience with day schools. The first was fund raising, and most particularly the expectation that grandparents should help to fund their grandchildren's Jewish day school education. This is a reasonable expectation amongst Jewish families, where all grandparents involved are Jewish. Attendance at a Jewish day school helps to keep Jewish learning alive and increases the chances that a Jewish child will eventually marry within the tribe. Jewish day schools perpetuate the Jewish people! There are many grandparents who give whatever they can afford to assist in sending their grandchildren to day school. However, while a number of non-Jewish parents are sympathetic to their child's choice of the Jewish religion, it is a more difficult leap to ask them to assist in the perpetuation of the Jewish people! And so it was that I had to endure questions and comments about the many fundraising letters being sent to my parents, who, to their credit, did bite the bullet one year and send in a donation, if only to stop those letters from coming!
The second perceived challenge was the Family History Day for our daughter's seventh grade class. Given that the school's theme that year was 350 Years of American Jewish History, the emphasis of Family History Day was to show one's family's role in the history of the American Jewish people. We had a double whammy: Being Canadian, our history in America went back exactly six years and three months, and, half of our family was not Jewish! I was concerned that my daughter would feel different and left out amongst the rich tapestry of Jewish history contained within the seventh grade. Again, I need not have worried. Equal time and attention were given to non-Jewish history in and out of America. In fact, one girl traced her family's history back to the Mayflower, and the person travelling on that boat certainly was not Jewish!
Six years after that initial entry into the day school in New York, both of our children are happily ensconced in another day school in New Haven, Connecticut, close to where my husband now has a pulpit. My feelings towards how well day schools integrate interfaith families and converts have not changed. I think both day schools our children attended do a great job, simply by not making it an issue. As in many synagogues, interfaith families are becoming a larger part of the school population.
My concerns these days about a Jewish day school education run more to questions of what to do when there is no local Jewish high school after eighth grade and what depth of knowledge in secular subjects has been sacrificed to learn Hebrew and religious topics? Concern about integration of our own family and other interfaith families rarely comes up. And, this year, I finally found my conversion certificate!