Deciding How We Fit into Jewish Day School

Earlier this week, the AVI CHAI Foundation together with the Steinhardt Foundation posed a question to the Jewish community: What would make day schools more attractive to non-Orthodox parents? This has been a key topic in the Jewish world of late, as seen with articles like this one in Sh’ma from MyJewishLearning contributers Rabbi Jill Jacobs and Rabbi Susan P. Fendrick. As part of this dialogue, the following post from Amy Meltzer explores why she has made the choice to send her kids to Jewish day school.

A few years ago I began writing a Jewish parenting blog called Homeshuling. The blog title is a play on the word “homeschooling.” Just as some families choose to educate their children at home because the local schools don’t meet their needs, we choose to celebrate Judaism (mostly) at home because the local synagogues don’t meet our family’s needs.

jewish day school

I’ve written about the many ways we’ve created a rich Jewish home life: baking challah for our Shabbat table each week, painting murals on the walls of our sukkah, preparing handmade Purim baskets and filling them with my great-grandmother’s famous hamantaschen, and even hosting a backyard Lag B’Omer campfire complete with bows, arrows and kosher marshmallows.

But the dirty little secret of our success as homeshulers is that although we don’t step foot in our local shul that often (and before you start hurling stones comments at me, yes, we are members, and yes, I’ve served on several committees to try to improve our offerings for young families), another Jewish institution is at the heart of our family’s Jewish life. We are a Jewish day school family.

Ours is hardly the typical profile for a day school family. First and foremost, my husband is an atheist who was raised Catholic. Second of all, we live across the street–literally a stone’s throw–from an excellent public elementary school. Third, as two teacher-parents, one of whom left the workforce for five years to be home with our young children, well, let’s just say we are the 99%. Paying tuition does not come easily to us.

And yet, the choice to send our daughters to the Lander-Grinspoon Academy was an easy one. If we weren’t going to make the synagogue the center of our Jewish life  (and as an intermarried family with young children, that would have been a tough sell–the services are mostly in Hebrew, they’re long, and admittedly, I don’t like shul enough to make a convincing sales pitch week after week), then how would we and our children become part of a Jewish community?

Our Jewish day school is so much more than the place our kids go to school. It’s where we’ve found our Jewish community. It’s where we’ve met the families who sit at our Shabbat table and eat our challah, who’ve added their artwork to our sukkah mural, who exchange Purim baskets with us, and who’ve added wood to the fires at our Lag B’Omer picnics. We come together for simchas–when our children receive their first siddur and when they read Torah for the first time–and holiday celebrations–the annual Hanukkah play, the superb Purim shpeil. We celebrate each other’s life cycle events, and mobilize as an army of cooks, cleaners, babysitters, and nit-combers when one of us falls ill.

Jewish day school has also put us on Jewish time. When the school is closed for every single Yom Tov–holidays many of us would probably not observe (um, Shemini Atzeret is what…?)–we come together for our own versions of holiday celebrations: picnics at the park, leisurely play dates, and yes, even sometimes shul.

Many people think Jewish day school is only for Orthodox or very observant families. From my perspective, it’s precisely because my family is decidedly non-Orthodox that a Jewish day school is such a great fit. My level of faith and observance is simply not strong enough to create a Jewish life for my kids that feels organic and seamless. School does that hard job for me.

When Zoe wanders though the house singing Adon Olam and Od Yavo Shalom; when Ella writes her very first book in writing workshop about loving Passover; when my children casually switch to Hebrew at the dinner table; when my kids urge me to give tzedakah to every panhandler on Main Street: these are the moments when our day school tuition dollars (reduced by a generous financial aid packet) aren’t just painless; they are a pleasure.

I’m not suggesting that Jewish day school is right for every non-Orthodox-intermarried-shul-disdaining-middle-income-fan-of-public-schools family. Not every Jewish day school is as welcoming to non-traditional families as ours, and not every day school is as flat-out wonderful (check out our video for just a hint of why we love it so much).  But I am certain that it’s been the right choice for us.

Amy Meltzer is an educator, author and mother of two. She blogs at Homeshuling, where she writes about raising Jewish children while spending very little time in synagogue. She is the author of two children’s books, A Mezuzah on the Door and The Shabbat Princess.

Posted on February 9, 2012

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