Negotiating their hyphenated identity has long been a concern for American Jews. The following article considers the identity-related consequences of attending a Jewish day school. How does it affect the Jewishness of the student? His or her American identity? Is it more enriching or isolating? The article is reprinted from Jewish Family and Life!
“One good thing about Solomon Schechter High School is that all the kids there are Jewish.”
“One bad thing about Solomon Schechter High School is that all the kids there are Jewish.”
With these two seemingly contradictory statements, my oldest began to deliberate about whether next year she should abandon the public school system where she has been educated up until now. Poor kid: What an adult decision for an eighth‑grader to have to make.
At the same time, why not face early and somehow resolve the most compelling conflict of the century for an American Jew: how Jewish can I be without having to isolate myself from the larger multicultural society that surrounds me?
Is it better, she will have to decide, to feel special, unique even, among her peers who are not Jewish, when school‑wide events conflict with Shabbat? Is it okay that she’ll have to make up tests and classwork when she is absent on Jewish holidays and that her choice of Jewish boys to date will be limited? Is that a price she’s willing to pay for the benefit of developing meaningful friendships with children of very different ethnic backgrounds?
There is no substitute for direct exposure to a multiplicity of traditions. All talk of Jewish continuity aside for the moment, there’s no question that day school graduates often lack what some could argue is the basis for tolerance and acceptance of the stranger, itself a Biblical concept.
Those of us who have chosen to send our children to public schools have done so for a variety of reasons. Not least among them is a feeling that insularity is somehow a dark, medieval way of life, and not one that will enable our children to function most effectively in today’s global society. We prefer to preach enlightenment and exposure and pray that the gamble we’re taking that our children will remain Jewishly connected will work out. After all, there are other ways to instill the values of Jewish tradition: synagogue attendance, home rituals, Hebrew school, summer camp.
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