I couldn't believe that my wife and I were already deciding where my daughter would attend college -- after all, we had brought her home from the hospital only two weeks earlier.
But truth be told, we were on the late end of preparing our daughter for her education. We live in Los Angeles, where entrance to certain Mommy and Me classes is so competitive that mothers-to-be call to get on waiting lists as soon as they find out they're pregnant. Personally, I would be offended to learn that I was fourth in line to hear about my wife's pregnancy -- after my wife, her doctor, and her Mommy and Me teacher -- but maybe that's just me.
My wife and I both agreed that we wanted our daughter to receive the best education possible. That meant the best academics and extracurricular activities, but also an exposure to people with similar values. (Of course, we wanted this all at a price that wouldn't require us to sell any major body parts, but in L.A., one always has to be open for negotiation.) We also decided that we would not engage in the madness of trying to set our child's future before she learned how to speak. We would wait at least until she was three.
It so happens that while my wife and I were in the midst of our incredible school-searching journey, we also embarked on a soul-searching journey that led us to more fully explore our Judaism. Suffice to say, we were very turned on by the lifestyle and spirituality of some Orthodox friends and eventually decided that that lifestyle was for us. We now consider ourselves "Modern Orthodox" -- that is, we are shomer Shabbos and keep kosher, but we also indulge in our secular interests. (While some of our more observant friends don't own televisions, I am a TV writer so I have to watch TV for, um, research.)
We wanted our daughter to see the beauty of Judaism without being cut off from the rest of the world.
The expression of our Judaism -- being observant in a modern world -- very much influenced our decisions regarding our daughter's education: we wanted her to see the beauty of Judaism without being cut off from the rest of the world.
During this journey, we convinced ourselves that we could still send our daughter to a secular school while reinforcing our Jewish values at home, thus getting the best of both worlds. After some deliberation, we decided to explore sending our daughter to a private school. (We looked into sending her to our neighborhood's public school, but for a number of reasons, it was not feasible.) Knowing that we were going to have to pony up for private education, we decided to shoot for the best, a school I'll call "The School" -- a perfectly integrated, state-of-the-art facility that had an amazing faculty at a price just below what I paid for my college education.
When we arrived at "The School" for an interview, I was already having second thoughts about sending our daughter to a private, secular institution. The interview sealed it. It went something like this:
Interviewer: Do you have any questions?
Me: Do the kids learn about Jewish holidays?
Interviewer: Our children learn about the major holidays of all the religions.
Me: We don't drive on Saturdays. Will there be a lot of school events on Saturdays?
Interviewer: Typically, school events happen during the school week. There may be some Saturday events.
Me: What about the kids? Do they have birthday parties on Saturdays?
Interviewer: Um, I'm not sure. I suppose some of them do.
Me: My daughter will be taking off all Jewish holidays -- many of which you've never heard of -- and she'll have to bring her own food because we keep kosher. I'd also like to keep her away from treif -- do they serve pork in the cafeteria?
Interviewer: Maybe you should send your daughter to a Jewish school.
So, there it was: the question of whether to send our child to a Jewish day school was largely resolved by the most secular school in Los Angeles.
The truth is, my wife and I had talked about day school before, but we had tip-toed around the issue. Putting our daughter in a Jewish day school raised a host of questions: Were we unnecessarily sheltering our child? How important is diversity? Don't we want our kid to know what the "real" world is like? And furthermore, what if all this Judaism causes our kids to rebel and go the opposite way?
Still considering our options, we decided to experiment with our "best of both worlds" plan by sending our daughter to a secular preschool. The cracks in our plan quickly became evident. Over the next year she got invited to the birthday parties of her friends -- almost all of which fell on Shabbos. Then, at the ones on Sundays, all of them seemed to serve pepperoni pizza or other varieties of milk and meat that my daughter couldn't eat. Basically, by wanting her to feel included, we made her feel left out.
The fears I had for my daughter were fears I really had for myself: would I lose friends by being religious? How would my family react? What about my career?
It all came back to the struggle that my wife and I faced: getting caught between being religious and secular, and trying to be both. Looking back, the fears I had for my daughter were fears I really had for myself: would I lose friends by being religious? How would my family react? What about my career? Even thought I work in television, a traditionally Jewish field, it is a distinctly secular industry where people harbor not only indifference but disdain for religious people. My father, who is not religious, warned me that all aspects of my life would be affected negatively by becoming observant.
Ultimately, my wife and I had to answer a question, not only for our children, but for us: what do we believe in, and how much were we willing to sacrifice for it?
My daughter is now almost five and is midway through her first year at Maimonides Academy, a Modern Orthodox day school in Los Angeles. Her friends keep the Sabbath, they eat kosher and all have their parties on Sundays. She comes home from school and tells me that Hashem (God) loves her, and she brags of performing mitzvoth.
Of course, the one fear we had was that she would lose her secular and non-Jewish friends. But a strange thing happened: they started having their parties on Sundays, and some even started offering kosher food so that our daughter could be there. The only downside is that now my wife and I have to increase our learning to keep up with our daughter's questions. But if that's the hardest things we have to deal with in sending our kid to Jewish day school, I'd say we made a pretty good choice.
And, for the record, even though I have to leave work early every Friday and basically take off the month of October, my career and social life have never been better. But that's another story.
Reprinted with permission from World Jewish Digest