Over the past few weeks, much discussion in the community has revolved around the possibility of sending our children to public school while providing them with an afternoon filled with their usual complement of Torah classes. Such a plan, the reasoning goes, would afford our children the Jewish education that we have become accustomed to while taking advantage of the secular education that we already fund through our taxes, thus lowering the tuition burden on families with children in the day-school system.
I have no doubt that all those who have supported such plans have done so with the purest of intentions. The financial burden of yeshiva tuition is indeed high, and for a family with three, four, or more children it can be virtually crushing. While this burden was already difficult to bear in rosier economic times, in the current climate, when people are losing their jobs and home values are plummeting, it has literally reached the breaking point for many.
However, while that motivation for supporting a look at the public school system is valid and above reproach, those who have written in support of such a plan have also put forth serious mischaracterizations of the benefits that a yeshiva education provides. Some recent articles have implied that the advantages afforded by a day-school education are at best marginal, claiming that its lessons can be taught in classes that begin at 2 in the afternoon (what time will school end for our second-graders?) and that its environment and teachers serve at best a minimal role in instilling in our children any love of Yiddishkeit or learning. While I agree wholeheartedly that parents do play a significant role in how their children develop, the notion that the place in which their children spend the majority of their waking hours has at best a neutral impact, and that a shift to public schools would have a similarly benign effect, strikes me as wishful thinking.
Perhaps the fault for this lies not in those who criticize the yeshiva system, but in those who support it – for not publicly and consistently making the case for why our schools cannot be replaced by the hybrid programs suggested. While it is easy to dissect the public school plans, I believe that it is more important that we remind ourselves why a yeshiva education is an opportunity that we should work mightily to preserve for all of our children.
Let us look at the components of a typical day in the life of any one of our day-school students. The day invariably begins with tefillah, and not merely the rote recitation of the words in the siddur. The davening experience in school is a steady progression that begins before our children receive their first siddurim and that takes them through the tefillot slowly and methodically. Our children learn how to recite the Sh’ma, how to engage in the complex calisthenics of Shmonei Esrei, and how to participate in a minyan. Davening at home or in a shul’s early-morning minyan cannot replace the opportunity for our children to be in an environment that teaches them how to daven, why they are supposed to daven, and what their davening means.
From tefillah, we move to Judaic studies classes. While not all are offered exclusively in the morning in every school, every one of our children has some, if not all, of their Torah classes before 2 p.m., when their minds are undoubtedly fresher, every day for 12 years. These classes are the heart of what our yeshivot offer our children – direct instruction in our ancient tradition, conveyed through 21st-century teaching methodologies and technology. The excitement pervasive in a second-grade differentiated Chumash lesson, in a seventh-grade Navi class where the students have prepared their roles in a debate over the fate of King David, or in an 11th-grade Gemara class where the yalmudic text is being dissected on a Smartboard is an excitement that is not only palpable, but that indisputably makes an indelible imprint on the minds and souls of our children.
And then it is on to general studies classes. While some would contend that these classes can easily be swapped for those classes that already exist, and that we are already effectively paying for, in public schools, that is simply not the case. When taught in a yeshiva environment, even the general studies classes become part of the distinctively Jewish education of our children. To have general studies teachers who are sensitive to the particular needs of Orthodox students, who support the mission of a yeshiva, and who are able to work together with the Judaic studies faculty to help present a unified education to our children is something that is simply not available anywhere else.
And, of course, there is the issue of atmosphere. Walk the halls of any yeshiva day school for a few minutes and you will realize very quickly that we have indeed built something wonderful. From the pre-holiday decorations on the bulletin boards to the sounds of our preschoolers singing Shabbat songs and our high-schoolers engaged in textual analysis of Chumash and Gemara; from our pageants celebrating the receiving of a first siddur or Chumash to our chagigot on Chanukah, Purim, and rosh chodesh; from our mishmars and shiriyot to our Yom Ha’Atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim festivities – there is simply no substitute for the all-encompassing ru’ach that exists in our schools. Study after study has shown that day schools have had a tremendous impact in terms of ensuring Jewish identity and commitment and lowering rates of intermarriage. A few moments of feeling the warmth and spirit in the hallways of any of our schools should tell you why.
There is so much more than can be said, but I hope that I have succeeded in conveying my message. There is no question that a day-school education is expensive – not overpriced, but expensive nevertheless – and there is no question that a solution has to be found. We are told that there may yet be rougher economic times ahead, and it will undoubtedly take all of our resolve to soldier through. It would be a shame to weather this storm while dismantling perhaps our greatest communal success.