Why I Became a Day School Proponent

Day school students, representational; eJP archives.

By Stephanie Rubel

As a product and proponent of public grade-school education, I was uncomfortable with the idea of private school and Jewish day school in particular when we began looking at schools for our two young toddlers. Personally, I had grown up attending very high quality public schools in an affluent northeast suburb, and I attended a prominent, traditional, conservative synagogue for Hebrew school twice a week (an hour and a half after school) and Sunday school (two and a half hours) each week until I became a Bat Mitzvah. My religious education was typical – other than the added opportunity to socialize with friends, I thought it was a waste of my time. I learned just enough to comfortably attend services on the High Holidays and observe some of the more “familiar” Jewish holidays, (I.e. Shabbat, Sukkot, and Hanukkah). And I was able to memorize a Torah portion and Haftorah to become a Bat Mitzvah at 13 like my Jewish peers. I learned to read and write in Hebrew, but can barely speak any Hebrew – something I never viewed as a disadvantage, even when I traveled to Israel in college.

My bat mitzvah was meaningful to me. I believed I had a strong Jewish identity, strengthened by the fact that I was the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. However, I began questioning the quality of my Jewish education when I met my husband, who had attended Jewish day school through middle school. I had adopted some Jewish practices that were familiar to me from my youth (i.e., having Passover Seders, fasting on Yom Kippur), and rejected others that were not observed by my family and never seemed meaningful or purposeful to me (i.e., laws of Kashrut, observance of the Sabbath), as had my husband. But unlike my husband, I did not have a firm understanding of our religion, the basis of the laws of Kashrut, the Prophets described in the Torah, the Parshot read week to week in synagogue on Shabbat. We both experienced a bar/bat mitzvah, but whereas he could recall his Torah portion and explain what it is about, I was unable to do the same. What I lacked was sufficient Jewish “literacy.” And that made me uncomfortable as I thought about my own children’s Jewish education. I want more for them. It isn’t that I want them necessarily to be “more Jewish” or “more observant.” I want them to feel free to follow their own convictions and for Judaism to be truly meaningful for them so that they want to continue to nurture their Jewish identity throughout their lives. As I questioned how this would most likely be achieved, I seriously questioned the value of supplemental Hebrew/Sunday school in fostering a resilient Jewish identity.

Day School Teaches Hebrew Language Fluency and Literacy

Today, my three children attend a bilingual Hebrew/English, Jewish day school in a suburb of Atlanta. When we considered grade school options for our children five years ago, all the buzz was around bilingual immersion education. The day school we chose is a bilingual Hebrew/English school. The documented benefits of teaching our children a second language from an early age, let alone a tier-4 foreign language, were appealing to us. At the time, I didn’t necessarily care whether the language was Hebrew, Mandarin, Swahili…, but as Jews, my children – third generation of Holocaust survivors – are gaining more than a language – they are gaining an enhanced connection to our Homeland and to our ancestors, carrying on a 3000 year tradition – something that will inevitably strengthen their identity as Jews. To this day, I am able to read and follow along with Hebrew text quite well, but I am unable to discern the meaning of text. In contrast, my children are acquiring literacy and fluency, which gives the Hebrew language meaning and purpose that will serve them long after they become B’nai Mitzvot.

Day School Teaches Virtue and Ethics Rooted in Judaism

I often hear parents try to explain why they chose our school, saying “The sense of community” is what attracted them and remains what they love about the school. They also say the school helps to raise “mensches” – good people. Those are difficult attributes to define. What do they mean? And how can a day school education ensure that the sense of community is sustained and even strengthened when our children leave the day school setting?

I believe the key is in not just teaching Jewish values but in teaching the roots of Jewish values. One example is Tzedakah, which is often defined as “charity,” but it is more. Tzedakah actually means righteousness, fairness or justice. In Judaism, giving to the poor is an act of justice. Judaism is rooted in scholarship and prayer, tzedakah, and “tikkun olam”  repairing the world. By attending a Jewish day school, these values are engrained in my children’s daily lives. Through prayer, they learn self-reflection and mindfulness. Through study, they learn critical thinking and scholarship. Through tzedakah, they learn to be virtuous; through tikkun olam, they learn how to be meaningful contributors to society.

In Hebrew school I learned to give Tzedakah.
At Day School, my children learn why we give Tzedakah

Day school can effectively integrate these values-based educational goals into today’s best practices for teaching traditional academic subjects of math, science, reading, writing, as well as music, art, and drama.

Day School Teaches Critical Thinking

When I think about what I want my children to learn in the 21st century – beyond basic math, science, reading and writing (elements I am confident they would acquire at any school of our choosing), I come back to words often repeated by our current Head of School: “No matter how unique their learning style, it is important that we meet our children where they are and foster their development as learners so they can apply those skills to the ever changing world.” For me, that means my kids need to learn how to be critical thinkers.

Judaism is a unique religion because it encourages and even requires analysis. One need only be slightly familiar with the concept of Jewish Oral Law and the Mishna, to recognize Judaism’s emphasis on study and analysis. It is not enough to read the words of the Torah, we must interpret the words, dissect them, and then analyze and dissect other people’s interpretations as well. Whether one believes in G-d or not, Judaism fundamentally requires that we ask questions of ourselves and of the world around us.

Skills that strong critical thinkers tend to exhibit are the following: interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation, and self-regulation (Facione, PA., 2007 – Critical Thinking: What it is and Why it Counts). These are the characteristics that are integrated into my children’s Jewish day school education because they are fundamental to our religion; they are also transferable to and invaluable in professional and personal contexts. They apply to “believers” and “non-believers.” They are not prescriptive or didactic. Rather, they challenge an individual’s personal convictions, perceptions, prejudices, and values.

Day School Teaches SelfRespect and Respect for Religious Diversity

One of my concerns about Jewish Day School was its homogeneity/lack of diversity and a fear of isolating my children from other religious, ethnic and racial groups. Indeed, children who attend a private school of fewer than 600 students, all of whom are Jewish, can be incredibly isolated and subsequently naïve about the diversity of our community’s, our nation’s, and our world’s inhabitants. However, I have a different perspective now that I have experienced day school education, firsthand. By first instilling in my children a strong sense of self and a solid understanding of Jewish values and traditions, I see them growing empowered and able to ask questions about other cultures, traditions, and perspectives. The day school does not proselytize, it does not prescribe beliefs. It teaches about traditions and the origins and meanings behind those traditions. It also teaches respect for religious variation. Our school’s families are in fact diverse in their own ways – some keep Kosher, some do not. Some observe the Sabbath, and some do not. What the school teaches is active and ongoing respect for people’s views and practices by respecting laws of Kashruth, avoiding social events on the Sabbath, and observing religious holidays. Exposure to explicit diversity within Jewish day school sets the stage for further education of comparative religions and perspectives.

Day school brings religion to the forefront and makes it a part of my children’s identity on a daily basis. It is part of who they are, but it is not all that they are. They enjoy participating in secular community sports leagues and other extra-curricular activities, and have close Jewish and non-Jewish friends. My children are able to answer our non-Jewish neighbors’ questions about our weekly Shabbat dinner traditions, and to explain our holidays throughout the year. The key is that they are confident in their ability to describe their religion, and they are proud of their heritage.

It is my hope that my children will be able to actively participate in religious services and other Jewish practices to the extent that they choose throughout their adult lives, and they will be able to make these choices based on knowledge and personal beliefs rather than solely based on habit, familiarity or resistance to perceived religion-based restrictions. I suspect this foundation will allow my children to make religion meaningful for themselves and to learn tolerance and respect for other Jews’ and non-Jews’ religious beliefs and practices.

Jewish Day School is the Key to Strengthening our Jewish Communities

We as Jews need to have faith in our religion that the more people know about Judaism, the more they will incorporate meaningful Jewish practices into their lives and the more secure the future of the Jewish Diaspora will be. Among Jewish organizational leaders, there is a tremendous emphasis on whether Jews are “affiliated” or not – whether they belong to synagogue, go to Jewish camp, attend a Jewish community center, etc., and these measures are thought of as predictors of what have become critical Jewish outcomes of interest: 1) whether Jews marry other Jews and 2) whether they raise their children Jewish – (I’m not even sure what the latter means?). These questions presume that such outcomes are the most important goals and that they are adequate measures of a strong Jewish community? It is not surprising that we are focused on increasing our numbers and keeping them high, given our history. But I wonder, is it time to focus more on the quality of our Jewish communities? To begin, a greater emphasis should be placed on the quality of our Jewish education as a process for achieving our desired outcomes – Jewish literacy (knowledge and understanding of Judaism) and Jewish identity (feeling a meaningful and valuable connection to Judaism) among Jewish adults. Personally, I do not see how we can expect to achieve the latter without the former. We must give our children the tools to intelligently explain, defend, and argue in favor of or against their own religion and respect their choices to practice their religion in the ways that are most meaningful to them. Based on my own experience, I question the extent to which this type of learning is a probable result of Hebrew school/Sunday school. I believe Jewish Day Schools have the greatest potential to effectively and efficiently strengthen Jewish literacy, and in turn, Jewish communities.

Jewish Philanthropy for Day School Support

The case for more funding for scholarships, professional development and facilities that help create and sustain exceptional Jewish day schools must be made, and yet there seems to be more focus on how to adapt synagogues and other institutions to attract and sustain more engaged members. But, is adapting these institutions to a generation of Jewish adults who were not given a meaningful foundation of Jewish literacy really the answer? Where is the root cause analysis to reveal the true reasons for low membership? I believe the root causes are compromised Jewish literacy and identity as well as an aversion to meaningless Jewish education and practice, without an apparent alternative. Jewish day school education is the advantageous alternative and it is not being as effectively marketed, promoted or supported by Jewish communities as it should.

As a previously anti-private school, very anti-Jewish day school mother of three, I now question why Jewish philanthropists are not doing more to support day schools for all Jews? We need substantial endowments to strengthen and maintain high-quality schools that effectively integrate Judaic, Hebrew language, and secular academics. It is time to invest in newer Jewish community models, centered around day schools that offer affordable, highly-competitive, private school education as the basis of forming and strengthening Jewish identity.

Stephanie Rubel is the owner of Fifth Gear Research, a public health evaluation consulting firm. She lives with her husband and their three children in Atlanta, Georgia.