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Why I Send My Kids to Day School

Why I Send My Kids to Day School

Why is someone like me, staunchly Reform and secular, sending my kids to an Orthodox Jewish day school?


Last night, for the first time ever, I studied Torah with my son.

For years I had dreamed of the moment. I was helping my seven-year-old, Joshua with his second-grade homework, and, together, we read and translated the Hebrew words from his Chumash.

Both Josh and I only started learning Hebrew about a year ago, and the dream that came true last night was not only mine but one of his too.

Ever since we started attending synagogue on a regular basis, Josh has been fascinated with "reading from the Torah." And ever since some relatives gave him a paper replica of a Torah-scroll, my son has longed to be able to read it.

As a surprise, when his homework was done, I brought him the scroll, rolled it to the verses we had been studying, and asked him to read from it and translate what he had read. He did, and with such excitement he could barely contain himself. As a parent, I felt his joy vicariously ― and, I think, even more intensely.

Learning Proper Behavior

My daughter Eliana, in kindergarten, is in many ways already ahead of me. She reported to my wife and me that she had learned in school about the mitzvah of hashavat aveidah ― she was kind enough to translate the term for us ("returning lost objects" to their owners).

She's learning not only mitzvoth but middot (proper behavior) from each weekly Torah portion, things like the importance of being thankful, respecting one's parents, etc. ― in general, precisely the kind of values that we do teach at home, but which need reinforcing at school. The kind that we can only wish our public schools can teach.

My kids learn at school the kind of values that we do teach at home, but which need constant reinforcing.

And, for both of them, reading Hebrew is as easy as reading English. And why shouldn't it be? They were taught a "B" and a "Bet" at the same time. A new letter is a new letter, and, at that young age, everything is new. In one year, my son, academically average, learned four alphabets (upper and lower case English, Hebrew block, and Hebrew script) without problem and now reads them all just as well as any average seven-year-old can read English.

So what is someone like me, a person who, for most of his life, has wavered between being staunchly Reform, and staunchly secular/ethnic Jew, doing sending my kids to an Orthodox Jewish day school?

Well, for one, I am determined that they get the Jewish education I never received. Secondly, I am determined that they learn values and ethics that they won't likely learn in a public school. Thirdly, I am determined that they not get "burned out" on Judaism by having to spend precious play time in a Sunday school or in an after-school Hebrew program.


Many of my friends and relatives wonder if my kids are being deprived of a "multi-cultural" consciousness, and if, as they get older, they will be able to "fit in" to the larger American society. My answer to them is quite simple: hey, if you live in America, you are exposed to American culture, whether you like it or not. My children hardly lead insulated lives; they learned to skateboard from the Catholic kid next door. My son's into The Phantom Menace, my daughter into Toy Story (I and II), and both are avid fans of A Bug's Life, among other contemporary offerings.

But any loss born of lack of exposure to all that American society has to offer (much of it, in any event, hardly healthful) is more than outweighed in my mind with what my children have to gain from receiving a strong Jewish education.

I often think about how many Jewish adults today feel reluctant to go to a synagogue because of the hard time they have figuring out what's going on. Until two years ago, that huge group included me (and I still get lost occasionally!).

I never once visited the Hillel at my college, because I feared that my lack of Jewish knowledge would be exposed.

One of the reasons I never once visited the Hillel at my college was that I feared my lack of Jewish knowledge would be exposed. That four-year separation from my Jewish religious heritage all too easily stretched into 10 years, and I was ever-so-close to dropping out of Jewish identity completely.

I don't want that to happen to my kids. No way.

An extra bonus of my children's Jewish education is that, by playing my parent's role as homework-helper, I myself am getting the Jewish education I never had. In two years Joshua will be reading Mishna in the original Hebrew ― and I hope I will be doing the same.

Learning Ethics

And then there are the ethics. Even if responsible Jewish parents teach their children the Jewish way ― that "returning lost objects" is a mitzvah, that "lashon hara", even truthful hurtful speech, is a sin ― how great can their influence be when their kids spend most of their waking hours at school, where the ethical model considers "finders keepers" and "dissing" an acceptable social convention?

Josh is blessed, moreover, with a fabulous Jewish studies teacher. This young dynamic, enthusiastic "rebbe" thinks nothing of standing on top of his desk to make a point, or pacing off 300 "arm-breadths" at recess to demonstrate how long Noah's ark was. He pointedly plays with the kids during recess in order to use the playground to inculcate Jewish ethics and values in his charges. It's all part of the Jewish educational process, he says.

And as far as the school's secular studies are concerned, not only did my careful comparison with the public school curriculum show them to be right on grade level but the yeshiva high school into which the day school "feeds" offers a broad assortment of impressive advanced placement secular studies courses.

I now understand why Jewish day school graduates seem to succeed in such high proportions in higher secular education.

Some of my friends chide me for my educational choice, and claim that they send their own children to public schools in order to "support public education." But my tax dollars support public education as much as theirs do. As a matter of fact, since I'm not utilizing the public school system's services, my support of the system is arguably even greater.

I would never sacrifice the best interests of my children in order to make a political statement.

The point, in the end, though, is moot. I would never sacrifice what I consider the best interests of my children in order to make a political statement ― and doubt that my friends would either. They just don't realize how much a Jewish education could benefit their kids.

Why so many Jews think that Jewish day school is only for the Orthodox is beyond me. If Jews care so much about "informed choice," isn't providing their young with a Jewish education the best way to keep them informed, to be in a position to make rational choices about their Jewish futures?

As the wife of a local Conservative Rabbi put it at a board meeting, if we want our kids to be seriously knowledgeable about their Jewish heritage, they have to at very least be able to read Jewish texts in their original language, because all translation is interpretation. And in any event, well over 90% of the important Jewish texts have never even been translated out of Hebrew.

Where I live, in Northern Virginia, it seems that almost every Orthodox child attends a Jewish day school, but no more than 5% of children from Conservative families, and only a handful of children from Reform backgrounds.

What is interesting, though, is that the overwhelming majority of local rabbis ― and that includes the two Orthodox rabbis, and many more Conservative and Reform rabbis, even the rabbi of a non-denominational gay and lesbian synagogue ― do send their children to Day School.

Do they know something most other Jews don't?

With thanks to Am Eechad Resources

December 9, 2000

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 31

(31) Anonymous, June 27, 2010 8:22 PM

Do I need to apologize for the harshness

The truth if too harsh. Maybe I should have just said some of the teachers should brush up on their skills. One thing is for sure, the parents in Jewish Day Schools often tell me they are not free to speak openly. Things improve slowly when folks cannot have free speech. How un Jewish is that!!

(30) Anonymous, June 27, 2010 8:17 PM

Very Important Issue W Many Concerns

I've met too many families where money is the reason that kids can't go to Jewish Day School. That is one our issues. The second issue it that our daughter needs a better secular education than what is here in Florida JD schools. It's a shame so many families here accept mediocrity.

(29) Anonymous, June 28, 2008 12:10 AM

Day School is not AD/HD friendly - moving on!

I agree with an earlier poster that day schools are emphatically not set up to deal with a Jewish special needs child - even if the special needs are fairly mild. After years of trying to advocate for my bright child, we are giving up and moving onto public school. He has been stigmatized and labeled since kindergarten - and teachers are often clueless on how to help a child with AD/HD. We give up!

(28) Anonymous, November 21, 2005 12:00 AM

Day school is very hard on some children academically, and can have an inverse affect on their Jewish religious identiy.

I am continuously advocating, battling for appropriate educational approaches for a son who has been in day school all his life, has mild differences in learning style, but not outright dissability, and it never ends. The day school teacher is typically not as professionally competent, experienced, aware of modifications or other teaching techniques, or willing to use them. If you have good teachers one year, the next year can be a disaster. Administrators are well meaning but often inneffective. I took one son out after a rebbe just about made him want to stop being religious, and I am feeling the same way myself after years of this battle. I wish my son was not in day school at this point, I am in so much struggle. The only thing that keeps me going is knowing that eventually he will graduate, and that there are parents of more disabled kids who work as hard or harder than I with less results.
Day school is not for everyone.

(27) Alex, October 28, 2002 12:00 AM

Good Point

After reading this article it seems that the choice to send children to day school should be an obvious one. I myself wish my parents would have had the insight to send me to one. I do wonder, though, how a child would deal with a transition from a public school to a Jewish school. Also, I wonder if there is any sort of outreach going on to encourage non-Orthodox families to send their kids to these schools. It would be one of the best ways of ensuring Jewish continuity, even in cases where the kids don't get a great deal of religious input at home.

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