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.
We wonder why the children’s lives shouldn’t mirror our own, in which the bulk of our time is spent in a secular environment and our Judaism is relegated to special times of the week or year. It certainly seems a legitimate formula for maintaining our dual identities as American and Jews.
On the other hand, who can distinguish the value of community automatically inherent in a Jewish school. Beginning each day with tefillot that reminds each student of the role God plays in his or her life and that binds them to one another is an exercise that neither can nor should be imitated in the polyglot atmosphere of the public school.
My daughter’s application to Solomon Schechter High School of New York for next fall is a step that makes sense in the evolution of her family’s commitment to a Jewish lifestyle. As we have learned to embrace more and more of the Jewish rituals in our home on a routine basis‑‑kashrut (kosherlaws); lighting candles on Friday nights; refraining from errands, television and telephone conversations on Saturdays; doing havdalah‑‑they have become increasingly tied in with our cohesiveness as a family.
What seemed like an empty, meaningless exercise half a dozen years ago, has become an enriching experience that connects us to centuries‑old traditions and a system of values that we recognize as the basis for moral decisions. Did I happen to mention that it is also a lot of fun, from building a sukkah to delivering mishloach manot (baskets of food) to friends on Purim? Yiddishkeit (learning Yiddish) has added immeasurably to the joy of our lives.
So, where does that lead us in the very practical question of choosing a high school? Inevitably, to the conclusion that the benefits of a Jewish school outweigh the downside.
Yes. I would now rather take a risk that Joanna will find other opportunities to meet youngsters from different backgrounds‑‑through her extra‑curricular activities, such as tennis and art, and once she goes on to college‑‑than have her forfeit the opportunity to become thoroughly Jewishly educated.
I also strongly believe that her desire to follow Jewish traditions should not come at the expense of missing school or social experiences. There’s plenty of time for her to have to make those tough calls later on, in college and the work world, but I hope by then that having internalized the importance of a Jewish lifestyle, she’ll be secure in making such decisions.
And why not help her avoid the entire tricky business of interfaith dating at a time when she’ll be just starting to navigate the adolescent social shoals? How can we, as parents, realistically expect our teens to have the maturity to turn down a date from a non‑Jewish suitor when often just getting “asked out” is hard enough? We can only have that expectation if we’ve done our best to provide them with a selection of Jewish girls and boys from whom to choose.
The dating stage, which is also the time that children are most susceptible to peer influence, is therefore the perfect stage to make the switch from public to Jewish school. I actually have no regrets that Joanna (and her two younger sisters who still attend public school) spent elementary and middle school in one of the finest public school systems in the country. My husband, in fact, has reminded me more than once in the high school application process that we moved to the community where we live specifically for the schools. True enough. But as she and each of them enters the next phase of life, it is our responsibility to meet their changing needs.
None of this is to say that should Joanna decide to attend Schechter in the fall (and we’re leaving the decision largely up to her), the transition will be easy. She’ll be on a special track for public school students, playing catch‑up in Hebrew and Judaic studies. By her own admission, suddenly going to a school with only Jewish children may feel strange. But, she is also excited by the possibility and, like anything that’s new, she knows, it will require a period of adjustment. Then again, a few years ago, she couldn’t have imagined giving up Burger King. I can’t remember the last time she mentioned a Whopper.