Coming from secular Jewish backgrounds, sending our children to a Jewish day school wasn't something we thought about when we began our family. As an American with an Israeli husband, we felt a strong connection to Israel and certainly to our Jewish identity, but we were not observant and definitely lacking in knowledge. Why honor traditions and practice aspects of Judaism if you don't know why? What meaning does prayer have for you if you can't understand the words or the deeper meaning behind them?
Why honor traditions and practice aspects of Judaism if you don't know why?
From the beginning of our marriage, we lit candles on Shabbat, blessed the wine, and the challah mostly because we wanted to provide our son (my husband was a widower with a toddler when we married) with a traditional Friday night dinner. This was something we both had early on in our respective childhoods, but that sort of faded out in our families while we grew up. Since we now lived and worked in New York City, the Friday night dinner tradition was mainly a calming way to complete our week, as opposed to a more spiritual experience.
As our family grew, we moved to New Jersey and became friendly with the local orthodox rabbi and his wife who lived around the corner from us. Through our friendship, we observed their lives and connection to their community and we started to develop a greater level of Jewish understanding. We began attending some services and events at their synagogue where we felt Judaism was brought alive. And we started to learn. We drove to their shul on Shabbat but they welcomed us. We didn't keep kosher but they appreciated our efforts to provide something they could eat at our house.
Our children attended their preschool and Hebrew school, so when our daughter was finishing kindergarten at a public school, we began discussing the idea of her future Jewish education.
We know all the statistics regarding assimilation and we began to understand from our own experience of slowly taking on more observances, that understanding why we have certain traditions and laws in Judaism is essential to the decision to practice them. By now, we had begun keeping Shabbat -- we didn't drive, didn't cook, no TV, and we were contemplating koshering our kitchen. We looked at a conservative day school but it just didn't touch us and we wondered if the local modern orthodox yeshiva would be too Jewish.
And then, of course, was the issue of cost. We live in a New Jersey town with good public schools. Why would we consider putting that financial burden on ourselves?
But, encouraged by a teacher at the yeshiva who we knew, we went on a tour. For me, it was a completely unknown world: Hebrew writing throughout the school, pictures of Israel and banners commemorating the school's participation in Israeli day parades of the past, the beautiful sound of school children singing in Hebrew echoed in the hallways.
So many questions went through my head as we walked through the school and after we left:
If we decided to send our child here, could we afford it? How would I help her with her Judaic studies homework? Would I be the only mother who looked liked me -- wearing pants and not covering my hair? Our kitchen was not kosher, how would we invite her friends from school to our house? And what will my family, already puzzled by our desire to become more observant, think of this decision?
I think that if you get to this place, a place where you find you have the desire to give your children more than what you had -- a deeper connection to Israel, a true love and understanding of Judaism and Hebrew, and a true love and understanding of Jewish law -- you can find solutions to all your questions and move beyond your fears. Some of these I figured out right away, but for others it was only once I became a part of the school community that I knew there was a place for me.
"Mommy, aren't you embarrassed that I can read and write Hebrew better than you can?"
Surprisingly, even with the financial crunch most day schools find themselves in today, there are still funds to help families subsidize the cost of their children's education. That's obviously on a case-by-case basis, but if finances are the biggest obstacle, then I encourage you to apply for some sort of financial assistance through the school, even if you think you may not qualify.
My own lack of knowledge
I found that I am far from the only parent of a child in the school who did not have a Jewish day school education. So the school's philosophy on homework is that the children should be able to do it on their own -- based on lessons in the classroom. My daughter, who is now in third grade, recently asked me, "Aren't you embarrassed that my first grade brother and I can read and write Hebrew better than you can?" I replied in a heartbeat, "Absolutely not. Parents should always want their children to be better than they are and I am no different. I am so proud of what you can do and the great thing is that you are teaching me."
We don't keep a kosher home
For the first two years, it was easy enough to buy kosher snacks that we could serve to our daughter's guests. And this past year we made the decision to kosher our kitchen just before Rosh Hashanah -- it seemed like a good way to start the new year. I'm not going to kid you, it was a big undertaking but well worth it. My daughter said to me after it was all done and our labels affixed to cabinets around the kitchen so we all remember what's for milk and what's for meat, "I think when I have my own kitchen, I'll make it kosher from the start. No need to go through all of this work for something I know I'll want anyway." That comment alone made it all worthwhile.
We needed to do much more for our children than simply tell them "you have to marry someone Jewish."
What will our family think?
This can be one of the touchiest questions anyone faces who begins to live an even a slightly more Jewish life than the one they had as a child. As I look at my family -- siblings, cousins and their children -- I see the correlation between the level of religious upbringing they were provided and the choices they make regarding whom they marry and how they raise their own families. My husband and I saw clearly that we needed to do much more for our children than simply tell them "you have to marry someone Jewish" -- something so many of us heard as children but, without understanding or knowledge, was always pretty meaningless. We believed that a Jewish education could give them a solid foundation upon which they would build their lives.
As we sat around the Seder table this year, I thought about my 30-minute Seders as a child which consisted of the reciting the four questions, reading the plagues, and eating the various ceremonial foods from the Seder plate before anxiously welcoming the "festive meal" at about 6:30pm. Our family's Seder this year was quite different and our children came prepared with the Haggadahs they had made or studied from at school and their matzah plate and cover, a pillow cover, their own Seder plates. But more than any arts and crafts project, they came with an understanding of what we were celebrating. They knew the story of Passover, the lessons it teaches us on a much more spiritual level, and the significance it holds for us as Jews today with the freedom to learn and live Judaism in our everyday lives.
They stayed up with us until 1:00am, leading and singing Hebrew songs, sharing their knowledge with us and many secular guests and family members. Our children were a tremendous source of pride and joy, not only to us as parents but to everyone who came to our Seder. My husband and I appreciated the value of sending them to a Jewish day school. We understood that the education they are receiving gives them the "why" we Jews do what we do, and resets the course of Jewish legacy in our family tree.