The other day I had another one of those moments when, as Mike Meyers used to say on Saturday Night Live, you get "all feklempt" (teary eyed). As usual, it involved my children.
I came to my 7-year-old daughter's "siddur party" at her school, thinking, Big deal. Two minutes, she gets the prayer book and I'm gone, on to more important things.
Was I in for a surprise.
The rabbi, her Judaic studies teacher, had prepared a whole presentation where the girls sang songs in Hebrew, read in Hebrew and then, at the end, were presented with their first siddur. Aleeza ran to show it to me and started showing me the different prayers. It, too, was all in Hebrew.
Unbelievable! I thought to myself. And she can actually read and understand it!
I slowly stood up, gazing back and forth between Aleeza and this incredible book. My eyes filled with tears. There had not been an all-Hebrew siddur in my family for over 100 years, since my great-grandparents came from Russia to America. But now my 7-year-old daughter has one. And she's thrilled about it.
We once believed the common misconception that kids who go Jewish Day School are destined to become these sheltered, societal misfits a la Robby Benson in The Chosen.
And all of this came about because we did what most of our family (and even some well-meaning strangers) said was a big mistake: We sent our daughters to a religious Jewish Day School.
I understood where they were coming from -- we used to have those same exact fears. We once believed the common misconception that kids who go Jewish Day School -- especially Orthodox Jewish Day School -- are destined to become these sheltered, societal misfits a la Robby Benson in The Chosen. We feared that if we sent our two beautiful daughters to Jewish Day School, they would not learn how to function in "the real world" and that they would become these overweight, pasty white yeshiva kids who have no interest or abilities beyond learning Talmud.
We quickly discovered that our fears had no basis in reality. In Aleeza's first year, her class put on skits commemorating Thanksgiving and later one about Chanukah. I still remember her coming home so excited to tell us how she learned all about Mozart and Beethoven in school -- Jewish Day School. Even I, who played the violin as a kid, didn't learn about Mozart until college.
Our family still kept warning us about how our girls would be missing out on so much. "Don't get me wrong," they'd say to me, "they'll be great at praying and the God stuff. But what about the important stuff like playing girls soccer, dating, the Prom, and being competitive on the SAT's?"
BRITTNEY OR BUST
Hearing these questions compelled my wife and me to closely examine our values and parenting goals. What do we really want for our daughters?
We want them to be good people, good Jewish girls with strong, positive Jewish identities and solid Jewish values. SAT's? Okay, you need good SAT scores to get into a good college, but no one ever put on their tombstone, "He scored a perfect 1600 on the SAT's"!
We found out that sending your children to Jewish Day School does make your kids high achievers in the really important areas of life: it helps shape them into good, Jewish people with solid values, and teaches them how to read, write, add, subtract and function in today's world.
In most Jewish homes in America, if the school name doesn't have a "Crossroads" or "Montessori" or the like in it, but instead has the word "Yeshiva" in its name, it isn't even an option for consideration. Many Jewish parents find it difficult to believe that it is possible to successfully educate children in both what Harvard wants from them and what G-d wants from them at the same school. Anyone who has genuinely checked it out has seen that it is completely doable.
While I am not an expert on parenting, I can tell you this: Every parent will make two big decisions that will profoundly shape the child's overall development for the rest of his or her life. The first is what type of home will you have. Will it be a home filled primarily with Torah or TV? The second is how and where you will educate your children. And believe me, the second decision is at least as important as the first.
Do you want their friends to be a group that go to Eminem concerts or who -- hold on to your hats -- go to synagogue with their families on Shabbat?
When deciding where to educate your children, you have to plan for the future now. That means thinking about what you want your kids to look like when they're 18. Do you want your daughter to be wearing midriff shirts and platform shoes a la Brittney Spears? Or do you want her to dress more modestly (yet still fashionably)? Do you want your kids learning how to play the latest video game or learning about the relevance of the Jewish holidays? Do you want their friends to be a group that go to Eminem concerts or who -- hold on to your hats -- go to synagogue with their families on Shabbat?
Where you choose to send your children to school will have a profound impact.
Think I'm over exaggerating? Do some field work. Go hang out in the parking lot at the local public high school and see what the kids look like, how they dress, how they talk and behave. Ask yourself, Is this what I want for my child?
Then go to the parking lot of the local religious Jewish Day School and see how the kids dress and behave there. Ask yourself the same question.
Don't get me wrong -- I have no grudge against the public school system. In fact, I am a product of the California public school system -- from kindergarten through high school, and I lived to tell about it. But do I think it was ultimately the best education in terms of shaping me to be the best person I could be? Not by a long shot. And I lived in a place and time where public schools were considered to be "excellent."
Worlds are colliding. And when it comes to children, peer pressure usually wins.
If you want your kids to grow up with a very real connection to God in their lives, a thorough Jewish education in morals and values, and a strong Jewish identity, then sending them to public school will not only work against you, but it will flood your children's lives with waves of inconsistency. On the one hand you're trying to raise them with a Jewish identity, Jewish values and a relationship with God. But on the other hand, you're sending them for six and a half hours a day to a place where values are not taught and where it is illegal to even mention God.
Worlds are colliding. And who do you think will win that battle? Peer pressure at school or parental pressure? Let's be honest: When it comes to children, peer pressure usually wins.
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
My daughter is getting educated in the best of both worlds at her Jewish Day School. She knows how to read and write both English and Hebrew, knows how to pray and say blessings in Hebrew and English, knows who Moses is and who the President of the United States is.
Every day at school she sings Hatikva at the beginning of her Judaica studies half of the day and says the Pledge of Allegiance to begin the English studies half of the day. She loves learning Torah and also loves learning math, science and art. She comes home with beautiful words of Torah, singing Jewish songs, and she comes home with fabulous art and science projects.
At Jewish Day School our children are no longer a tiny minority trying to hold on to their holidays while all of their friends celebrate other, seemingly more fun holidays. Instead, all of their friends celebrate Shabbat, Rosh Hashana, Chanukah and the other Jewish holidays together. Our children do not pine away wishing they could "do what their friends are doing"; they are doing what their friends are doing. And that consistency in your child's life cannot be overestimated.
People often give me what they believe is the coup de grace -- the final blow against religious Jewish Day School: Your children will be "sheltered." I always ask, "Sheltered from what?" Sheltered from knowing about murder and rape from TV news? Sheltered from seeing inappropriate movies? Sheltered from romantic interaction with the opposite sex before they even know how to drive a car?
If that's the case, then I say, "Thank God my daughters are sheltered!" because I do not want them exposed to any of that; I want to preserve their innocence.
My daughters have been to Dodger Stadium -- several times -- and love baseball. They know all of the words to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and sing along, vociferously, with the rest of the crowd during the seventh inning stretch. In the summer, they take swimming lessons and soon hope to start ballet lessons. They go to Joey's Gym where they learn how to do somersaults and handstands with other kids. And of course, they still love building "bunny nests" and other types of housing out of the couch pillows in our living room. And yes, they know who Captain Kirk is. Call me crazy, but all of that doesn't sound much like a "sheltered" life to me. Maybe it's just a good old fashioned childhood a la Opie Taylor in the old Andy Griffith Show, something that is sorely lacking for most American youth today.
Besides, no matter how much you lock the doors and seal the vents, Los Angeles still seeps into your life without you knowing it. It is an insidious intruder. My daughters know that there is life outside of our religious neighborhood and that not everyone is Jewish. Secular life surrounds them. And as any parent knows, kids don't miss a trick. They notice and record everything.
As parents, we naturally want to give something more than we had to our children. For our generation, that "something more" usually meant giving a better economic environment. As a father, I want to give my children something more spiritually. My wife and I couldn't be doing this without the help of our Jewish Day School. It is not a perfect system nor is it an iron-clad guarantee of anything. But right now as I look at my daughters, who are listening to a CD of Torah songs while playing together with their Disney Princess stickers, I know I wouldn't want it any other way.