Developing and Accepting Choices: An Exchange of Letters on Jewish Education

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February 1, 2012
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Susan P. Fendrick & Jill Jacobs

Dear Sue,

My daughter Lior is only 2, but already she is learning to live in multiple worlds. She spends her weekdays in a daycare facility populated mostly by the children of Dominican immigrants — with an Arab American and an Irish American thrown in for good measure.

At home, she speaks Hebrew with her Israeli-American father and sings the Sh’ma while putting her dolls to sleep. She spends Shabbat with her other set of friends — the 2- and 3-year-olds who have taken over our shul

As far as Lior is concerned, this state of affairs is completely normal. And I’m not so sure I’m in a rush to change it.

I owe much of my own commitment to social justice to my experiences in an economically and ethnically diverse public school. And I believe that my Jewish identity was strengthened from having to articulate, from an early age, why my own family’s practices differed.

If we send Lior to a Jewish day school (assuming we could afford such a thing), she will spend her days among other children with ethnic and economic backgrounds similar to her own. Judaism will be the norm. Instead of knowing multiple worlds, she may grow up knowing only one world.

I also worry about the negative effects of taking the children of affluent and well-educated families out of the public school system. If our own children are in public school, we are more likely to throw ourselves into improving these schools. This is not an altruistic impulse. It benefits all of us if our children grow up in a world in which their co-workers, bosses, elected representatives, and local police officers are knowledgeable, skillful, and thoughtful.

Who knows what we’ll decide when, God willing, Lior turns 5. And our choices may not be right for every family. But in the Jewish community’s rush to promote day school as best for every child, I worry that we lose our commitment to diversity in our children’s lives and to equal opportunity for everyone.

I look forward to hearing how you made decisions for your own children, Jill

•••

Dear Jill,

Because of the cost of tuition, on some level we have to keep remaking the decision to send our children to day school!

When our twins, now age 9, were in preschool, we, too, were very happy that they were in a diverse environment: a Chinese-American teacher, a director originally from Iran, classmates of many ethnic and religious backgrounds and some measure of economic diversity. Unlike many of our local friends, we chose a non-Jewish preschool for Matan and Ellie, wanting them to have formative experiences in a more diverse environment precisely to balance their anticipated Jewish-centered day school.

But we know from the experience of my stepdaughters and our friends’ children that it gets more complicated over time. Even people who are happy with their public school choice are aware of the constant trade-off — fitting modest Jewish learning into the week and balancing public school life with Jewish observance. For adults, putting together the pieces of their worlds can be very meaningful; for children, I think, it’s often stressful — not unlike shuttling between two households when their parents are divorced.

Growing up, my sense of myself as Jewish was solid, but even though I went to Hebrew school through tenth grade, I had a pretty thin Jewish education and limited Hebrew. Not having attended day schools, my husband and I, like many others, want our children to have the opportunities that we missed.

Our community day school has at least as much economic diversity as our local public school, and the level of overt consumerism among families appears to be very low, even in middle school. Aside from home size, trips to Israel, and the cost of Jewish sleep-away camp (that’s another debate — day school vs. summer camp!), differences in resources are neither obvious nor troubling to students. And because the school is values-centered, this culture of money is shaped in part by the school itself, even if implicitly and indirectly.

For Jews in cities who send their children to public schools with significant economic and racial diversity, the differences you suggest may be noteworthy. But for the vast majority of Jews who live in areas with what the real estate listings call “excellent schools,” what aside from the financial savings makes public school meaningfully different? And, aside from the obvious Jewish benefits, couldn’t day schools and their values orientation actually provide an antidote to some of the negative qualities of such privileged areas?

Looking forward to continuing this exchange, Sue

•••

Dear Sue,

Thank you for your letter. I should first say that my own family’s choices are just that — our choices. I do not mean to insist that every family make the same decisions.

My husband, Guy, and I are in quite a privileged position when it comes to raising Lior with a strong Jewish identity and education. She already speaks Hebrew fluently. I am a rabbi and Guy will be one soon. We go to shul every Shabbat — and other times, too. We are part of a strong egalitarian community of observant Jews. We are committed to creating a significant Jewish education program for her when the time comes.

As you point out, because we live in New York City, Lior is most likely to attend a public school that is ethnically and economically diverse. In contrast, many of the day schools are not. Friends have told us horror stories in which their day school child announces that he or she will not be bringing friends home, as the family’s apartment does not measure up to those of his or her classmates. It sounds as though you have had a great experience with your school as an anti-consumerist force. But every school — private or public — is different in this regard. In cases in which the local public school is overwhelmingly white and wealthy (and, in some cases, Jewish), day schools may be refuges from consumerism. But in most cases, public schools will be more diverse — racially, economically, and ethnically — than most day schools.

Another frustration in the schooling debate within the Jewish community has been the common assumption that parents who care about Judaism send their children to day school. I often hear rabbis say things like, “We have a committed core of families. There are 20 day school families.” As a prospective public school parent who has devoted my life to the Jewish community, I find such rhetoric unhelpful and even condescending.

I’m curious about your thoughts on creating an atmosphere in which each family can make a decision that is right for them.

Thank you for continuing this correspondence, Jill

•••

Hi Jill,

As this conversation continues, I’m aware that our respective family choices aren’t made in the most typical of circumstances — three out of four adults in our two households are or will be rabbis; your husband can raise his daughter speaking fluent Hebrew; and the embarrassment of day-school riches here in Boston includes our beloved school, JCDS, which has a decidedly anti-materialistic vibe.

But this awareness leads me back to your question about creating an atmosphere that supports a variety of choices about Jewish education, based on each family’s needs, priorities, and resources. Fostering such an atmosphere ultimately depends not only on shaping discourse but also on creating circumstances that support an array of choices.

How can we ensure that parents are themselves sufficiently empowered, educated, and embedded in community so that they can adequately foster their children’s Jewish educations and identities? Which kinds of educational
opportunities do we need to develop outside of the home — besides the standard afternoon school and day school arrangements — to support vibrant and textured Jewish engagement and learning? How can we build day school communities (and other Jewish communities and
institutions) that expand students’ worldviews and self-understanding as global citizens, and teach them good values about diversity and consumption? And is day school education for at least some Jewish “citizens” important enough to the community at large that we can find a way to make it affordable for everyone who would choose it?

In other words, in order to be able to value and validate a variety of family decisions about Jewish education, we need to put as much effort into developing quality choices as we do into fostering acceptance of those choices.

But there are inevitably trade-offs, for all of us. And while I’m very happy with the decisions we’ve made so far, I’m not at all certain what the future holds for the next nine years. Let’s keep up the conversation as we each navigate these waters.

Best, Sue

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Rabbi Susan P. Fendrick is an editor and spiritual director in Newton, Mass, where she lives with her husband and children. She has worked as a rabbi, educator, and editor at American University, Brown University, and Brandeis University, as well as at the media company, Jewish Family & Life.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. Her most recent book is Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community (Jewish Lights).

Ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Fendrick and Jacobs are alumnae of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship program.

1 Comment

  1. My partner and I went through this same debate when our children approached school age. The deciding factor for us was to ask “which would it be easier to provide as a supplement? Jewish education/community or diverse people/thoughts” We decided to send the kids to day school and supplement the “public side” They had non-Jewish friends on our street that they played with and we went to the neighborhood parks, library programs, etc. Unfortunately when we moved, the finances trumped other factors and we moved the kids to public school.

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