Forward Thinking

Vigorous Debate Over Day Schools

By Gal Beckerman

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A piece by our columnist, Jordana Horn, elicited a lot of response from readers last week. She argued that Jewish day school was not essential to instilling a sense of Jewish identity in children. Instead, what we need is a kind of Jewish homeschooling, Jordana said, creating a real and vibrant Jewish family life for children to emulate.

The biggest response came from people who felt that Jordana downplayed the importance of day school, that its value could not be replaced, even by the most committed and engaged Jewish parents. Take this comment from Sheppsela:

The only thing that will save the Jewish People are the day schools. All Jewish kids should attend them regardless of the level of observance. Even if the child comes from a home where only the mother is Jewish should attend them. It is not a “bulletproof system”. Some kids will still fall through the cracks. But at the end of the day the majority will be saved through education. We really need to get behind the day schools and help them as much as possible. I am glad that this woman and her sisters married Jews but my experience working in the Jewish world is the opposite. When a person is honest with themselves they will realize that the real reason they cheat their children out of a good education is because they are stingy. They are cheap at their child’s expense. I have not gone on any vacation since we started paying tuition but it is well worth the sacrifice. In my life, few things made me prouder than when my child opened up a Sefer Tehillim and began to recite these holy words written by King David. I will never forget that sweetest of moments. I could not have felt prouder and the level of happiness was beyond compare.The reason why Jews go off the path is mainly a lack of Jewish education. The afternoon horror show known as the Hebrew school cannot substitute for a real day school education.

Another commenter, Robert Smith, had a similar point:

I certainly wish Ms. Horn and her family the greatest success in living Jewish lives and raising committed Jewish children and grandchildren. All of the steps she describes are, in my opinion, essential. If she stopped there, making the point that a Day School education cannot substitute for living a Jewish family life, that would have been a valuable statement. But why so negative about Day Schools? I believe it would be horrible if even a single Jewish family did not pursue a Day School education because of the article. Judaism in the end is based on knowledge as well as practice, intellect as well as love and faith. The described approach undervalues the knowledge base that only Day Schools can provide, by leaving Jewish education just to the home and to typical Jewish parents (myself included in spite of my PhD in Biomedical Engineering — and I wouldn’t expect my kids to be learning biomedical engineering at home either) and the overwhelmingly secular environment we live in. There is so much to learn and one of the saddest aspects of Jewish America is the undervaluing of Jewish education, ironic for “the people of the book”. It’s great that the Horn kids have such love for the Torah procession, the question is will they also have a knowledge and love of what is in the Torah — a knowledge that approaches the knowledge of “reading writing and arithmetic” that they will get undoubtedly from their years of serious high quality secular schooling. I believe that such a knowledge base is indeed essential for a meaningful Judaism. Who needs a Jewish Day School? We all do individually as parents and students, and as the Jewish people in its entirety.

By far the biggest complaint — inspired by Jordana’s piece, as opposed to being in response to it — was the issue of cost. Though this wasn’t Jordana’s central point, it was taken up with gusto by our commenters, who compared the astronomical costs at various schools. One reader from Britain boasted that British Jews pay only $500 a term to send their children to the equivalent of day school. Then there was this, from dmo65:

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook gave $100 million dollars to the City of Newark school system. Mike Bloomberg has donated almost 1/2 billion dollars to Johns Hopkins. Very generous people. But think about what a fraction of that money could do to help Jews gain a better Jewish education if they applied their wealth differently.

The larger take away was maybe best captured by Heidi Estrin, the president of the Association of Jewish Libraries, who called for a more balanced approach, taking Jordana’s points about the need for more “homeschooling” without discounting the importance of day school:

I don’t find this article to be anti-day school so much as pro-family life. I think using the term “homeschooling” sets up a false dichotomy. Both have their place and they reinforce each other.

But the more important point I’d like to make, coming from the perspective of a Judaica librarian, is that reading Jewish texts, histories, and stories at home and at school is a critical part of any child’s Jewish education. When caregivers and children read together (teachers, parents, grandparents), it has even more impact because the learning gains an emotional connection. Adults who need guidance to find Jewish literature for the children in their care should be aware that there are specialized Judaic libraries in their synagogues, JCC’s, and yes, their day schools. The librarians in these facilities have expertise to help you find age-appropriate, subject-specific books with child appeal, from classics you remember from your own youth to the newest titles (and Jewish publishing is booming!).

My wish for every Jewish family is that they experience joyful Jewish reading times together. For those children in Hebrew school or in day school, I hope that their teachers share literature with them in school and send books home for the whole family to enjoy. If you think back to your own early reading memories, you will understand the lifelong impact a good book can make, so let’s make sure there are plenty of Jewish books in the mix.

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