Flying High on Wings of Jewish Education
By Laura Fein
Annals of Appreciation: In 2018 I reached a milestone both mundane and magnificent – one of my birdies flew from the nest, and she is soaring. This child, who last I checked could barely pour her own milk and whose room resembles Times Square after the ball drops (only with way more trash on the ground) has made it through her first semester of college with flying colors. She studied! She ate! She made new friends! She found someone willing to room with her, who apparently loves stepping on trash! I could hardly ask for more.
As for her actual studies, I found it hugely satisfying to see how much her Jewish education propelled her to success, and how much she herself acknowledged this to be the case. As a day school parent of five daughters and a Jewish professional, I am used to making the case for Jewish education from a Jewish perspective. We elaborate many reasons children need a day school education – to learn their religion and heritage, develop their spirituality and ethics, connect to their community, ensure the continuity of the Jewish people. We want quality secular education too, but rarely consider how each part improves the other. More often, parents and many professionals bemoan the tradeoffs of the dual curriculum, particularly when looking towards college success. So many subjects! So little time for extracurriculars! Do they really need all that Gemara? How can they compete with hours and hours of Jewish studies taking up time that could be spent on math and grammar and other critical knowledge?
How gratifying, then, to see that the Jewish studies were actually the foundation for my daughter’s success in every subject. Yes, in all the ways building character and good work habits help, but also in unexpected ways. Acquiring a huge body of knowledge few possess is like wearing a superhero costume – it may not show on the outside, but you know you have special powers. And when its revealed, admiration and awe abound. When the TA in her archeology course asked how she knew so much about ancient Mesopotamia, she felt like a genius.
In the social sciences and humanities, learning Torah is like having the Force. Bible study is rarer than ever for entering college students, yet remains fundamental to any topic dealing with the last few thousand years of Western Civilization. Literature, history, political science, philosophy, art, music, sociology and psychology all draw on this universal source of shared morality and memory. My daughter’s Chumash teacher found her knowledge ordinary, but her tenured professors of art and history thought it outstanding, G-d bless them. She may have laughed when they complimented her “rare” knowledge of the Bible, but she also recognized it as an academic superpower.
And she had yet another secret weapon forged from ancient texts. Jewish studies classes develop incomparable analytical skills, which in turn lead to original insights. In what other curriculum do students study the same text repeatedly, year after year, accruing depth and nuance with each rereading? What program shares our focus on close readings, finding inferences, and comparing multiple critiques of the same text, all routine in every Talmud, Chumash and Navi class? The analytical abilities and habits of mind most college students work hard to acquire flow naturally to those accustomed to traditional modes of Jewish learning.
Most of all, my daughter’s lifelong immersion in Jewish education developed her comfort with choosing a path of her own, the root of all success in life. Disregarding the standard advice to take some intro classes and knock out a requirement or two, she devoted what seemed like excessive time to selecting her courses, and chose several with narrowly focused subjects, including two with no other freshman and only a few undergrads. What appeared odd choices in fact showed wisdom. Instead of fretting that her learning differences present challenges, she searched out classes that played to her natural academic strengths. Recognizing that her inner slacker would be tempted if she could hide in the back of a large lecture hall like a normal freshman, she chose tiny classes, knowing it would force her to show up prepared. Her comfort making decisions that differ reaped rewards of loving every class, developing close relationships with her professors and classmates, and strengthening her confidence in her abilities and her choices.
In a world that grows more complex every day, and requires ever more skill to navigate, all parents wonder how to best give their children the education they need to succeed. Perhaps in our communal efforts to promote day-school education, we ought to place greater emphasis on the ways Jewish learning fosters secular academic success, too. For reasons both professional and personal, I’m grateful to know that the time my daughters spend pursuing their heritage also gives them the lift they need to fly high. If only it taught them to clean up their nest…
Laura Fein is an attorney and nonprofit consultant. She speaks frequently on Israel, Jewish education, BDS, and the impact of government and intergroup relations on the Jewish community. She can be reached at Laura.firstname.lastname@example.org.