In Defense of Day Schools and, More Importantly, Their Teachers

By Ziva Hassenfeld

An anonymous op-ed that appeared recently on The Times of Israel’s website has picked up a lot of traction in social media. Friends of mine are posting it, commenting on it, and reposting it. The author explains how he left Jewish institutional life behind, withdrawing his children from day school and leaving his synagogue to attend Chabad instead. He is now able to raise his four children Jewishly for 40k a year. He calls for others to join his “revolution.”

There are a lot of questions to ask about this op-ed: Do we really want to start chipping away at separation of church and state for tuition relief? Does the Chabad model really provide the free Jewish life the author claims? Are the financial markets really doing great “thanks to this new president? But one claim in particular upset me deeply. I found myself up in the middle of the night, reviewing these words in my head:

I enrolled my kids in an excellent private secular school for a third the cost of the “excellent” Jewish day school. And now, a year later, you know what I’ve found? That my kids are not running a year behind public school in their education, that kids actually have discipline and respect for their teachers, and even more importantly, that all children who misbehave are handled in the same manner, instead of letting the children of the wealthy supporters get away with murder.

I have taught on and off in day schools for the past ten years, and, through my academic research, I have spent time in many more. I have never seen anything like what the author describes here. In fact, I’ve seen the opposite. I’ve seen day school teachers treating every single student with the same level of love and care, regardless of who they are or who their parents are. I have watched day school teachers sit for hours with students: helping them with their work, helping them catch up after being sick, and simply chatting with them about the big questions in life. I am absolutely sure that, rich or poor, I have never seen a discrepancy in treatment.

What is so upsetting about this accusation is that it denies a basic truth: Love and care for every single student is at the heart of a day school teacher’s sense of purpose and sense of integrity. It is why they are there, in the schools, at shabbatonim, meeting with students after class, before class, and spending time emailing and calling parents. It is why, on top of their teaching load, day school teachers serve as advisors to students, advisors to student clubs, and safe confidants for students to approach.

Teachers choose to be in day schools because they treasure relationship. They choose day schools because they want to teach in community. They want to attend their students’ simchas, be there for students’ families in hard times, serve as another set of eyes and ears to the parents, and stay in relationship with their students for years beyond graduation.

The issues raised in this op-ed are real. My family, like so many others, is in the throes of them. We, too, are paying a mortgage in the most expensive real estate market so that we can live in the eruv. We, too, are paying synagogue dues, and preparing for day school costs as we strive to create a beautiful Jewish home for our young family. Every Jewish family deserves the right to choose what school makes the most sense for them, without judgment, without ostracization. I commend this author for figuring out what makes the most sense for his family. But, please: In making that choice, do not disparage the sacred work that our day school teachers do.

Ziva R. Hassenfeld is a post-doctoral fellow at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University.

Cross-posted on Learning about Learning, the blog of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education