“How will your kids get a good secular education?”
“They can learn everything they need to know in Sunday School!”
“It’s so expensive. How can you afford it?”
The questions came fast and furious. When it came time for my husband and me to choose an elementary school for our oldest child, everyone had an opinion. For some of my friends, our decision to send our kids to a Jewish school smacked of elitism. Wasn’t the local public school good enough for us?
Others warned us of the lower standards we should expect at a Jewish school.
My relatives were even more concerned. Everybody was used to me being “the religious one,” keeping kosher and Shabbat. But now I was about to pass this “eccentric” lifestyle on to my children.
All the negative comments left me a little worried, even after we found a wonderful school. Was I denying my kids the very best?
My Specific Answers
It’s been a few years since we made the decision to send our children to a Jewish school, and we feel we made the right choice. In fact the benefits have been greater than we ever could have imagined. Here are our answers to some of the most pressing concerns we faced.
“You went to public school, and you have a strong Jewish identity!”
Many people pointed this out. Both my husband and I attended public schools as children, and as adults we embraced a religiously-observant Jewish lifestyle. Wouldn’t our children retain similarly strong Jewish identities going to a non-Jewish school?
Unfortunately, probably not. While every person is different, and there are exceptions to every rule, statistically Jews who do not attend full-time Jewish school are much less likely to identify Jewishly once they’re adults. One measure of this is intermarriage rates. While Jewish adults who attended weekly Sunday School as children intermarry at rates over 70%, Jewish adults who attended full-time Jewish schools intermarry at rates well below 10%.
I can see the roots of this strong love of being Jewish in the students at my kids’ school already. As the kids learn to pray in Hebrew, celebrate the Jewish holidays together and learn Torah, they become immersed in a loving Torah atmosphere. They will be able to draw on the knowledge and the memories they are gaining all of their lives.
“How will your kids get a good secular education?”
This was my greatest fear. As it turned out, this fear was the one most quickly banished. All parents want good educations for their kids (including those who send them to Jewish day schools), and they demand their schools adhere to the highest standards, employ the most up-to-date teaching methods, and use the latest equipment. My kids’ teachers attend regular best practices conferences and classes, along with their public school and non-Jewish private school counterparts, and ensure that their students' curricula and test results measure up to the highest levels in our state. This is true for many other Jewish schools, as well. In fact, in my state, Illinois, the majority of Jewish schools rank near the very top of schools in the state.
“They can learn everything they need to know in Sunday School.”
Judaism is a 3,500-year-old religion. There is an infinite amount to learn! In Hebrew no less. The Five Books of Moses, the 613 Commandments, the 62 volumes of the Talmud, the Prophets and Writings, just to get started… I wonder how my kids will make a dent in all the Jewish knowledge there is to learn, even going to a full-time Jewish school!
Yes children can learn a great deal in weekly Sunday School classes, but even a good two-hour program can’t possibly convey the same material as a full-time curriculum.
“It’s so expensive! How can you afford it?”
Many people I know say they would consider sending their kids to Jewish schools but are put off by the thought of making yearly tuition payments.
Surprisingly, the cost of Jewish day school is often less than many people fear. At many schools, a majority of families receive financial aid. There is even a movement in many communities to raise communal funds to help subsidize the cost of day school tuitions. Some schools offer discounts to siblings. Others allow some of tuition to be worked off through parents’ participation in school events.
I don’t mean to sugar-coat things (too much); we definitely struggle with our yearly tuition payments. But when I calculate what we would be paying for Sunday School and supplemental Jewish activities for our kids, our tuition payment don’t seem quite as bad. We’re paying more, but I think we’re receiving an exponentially larger pay-off in terms of our kids’ learning and identities, too.
“Don’t you want your children to learn about other peoples, other cultures? How will they do that in a Jewish day school?”
What do parents really want when they encourage their children to make new friends? Presumably, they want their children to learn respect and tolerance, and these qualities are taught very strongly in Jewish schools.
I remember how surprised I was on the first Martin Luther King Day that my child went to school. The local public schools were closed, but my kids’ Jewish school was open, featuring a major assembly each year to mark the holiday.
I discovered that Martin Luther King week is one of the major curriculum events of their Jewish day school year, and their teachers weave together lessons in Jewish values like equality and justice as they teach about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges and other figures in the Civil Rights struggle. The Jewish character of their school informs and enriches their study of the world.
And as these children are learning about different cultures, they are doing so with a firm understanding of who they are as Jews, as well.
I want my children to be taught our rich Jewish history, our own beautiful songs, our own Jewish languages, our own holy books, our own warm traditions. I want them to learn about the world, and also learn who they are in it. Before we send them off into the wide world as adults, let us first give them that foundation, that knowledge of where they come from and who they are, as Jewish people.
Every day, Jews throughout the world recite the “Shema,” recalling the words God said to the Jewish people after He gave us the Torah: “And these words (of Torah), which I command you this day…you shall teach them to your children….”
We are gratified with our decision, knowing we are creating the next strong link in the chain that stretches back 130 generations to Sinai.