Frum times in Teaneck High

Frum times in Teaneck High

After switching from yeshiva to public school, observant Jewish parents don’t look back

Ari Hiller, left, and classmates at Teaneck High School.
Ari Hiller, left, and classmates at Teaneck High School.

It is no secret that many observant Jews live in Teaneck and most of them send their children to the area’s many Jewish day schools.

You can get a rough sense of those numbers by comparing the reported number of kids from 5 to 14 years old listed in the 2010 census (5,494) to the total number of students in the Teaneck public school system (3,811 in 2015). And you can look at the enrollment of the area’s day schools and yeshivot. Those schools do draw from beyond Teaneck, but they enroll more than 5,000 students.

And yet, there are observant Jewish families who send their children to Teaneck’s public schools.

And they are very happy about it.

They talk about a school system that offers more academic support than the yeshivot provided. They talk about a school system that accommodates their religious concerns, that provides kosher meals for school lunches for children whose want them, and counts taking off for Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Shavuot, among other holidays, as excused absences.

For at least some of those parents, their biggest regret about sending their children to the public schools is that they didn’t make the switch earlier.

(Note: To respect their privacy, we are not using the names of children in this story. As one parent said, “I don’t want my son to Google himself and find out that I was talking about his special education background.”)

Five years ago, Ginnine Fried started a Facebook group, “Teaneck Public School Jewish Parents Circle.” Now the group has 127 members. She guesses that 80 percent of the parents in the group use the public schools because the yeshivot can’t meet their children’s special needs, and 20 percent chose the schools for financial reasons. That rough ratio was confirmed by the parents who responded to a query posted on the group.

Also, according to the parents, some of their children had been haunted by an inability somehow to fit in, hard to diagnose and at times even hard to recognize until later. But many of the parents reported that their children were fitting in and thriving academically and socially in ways they never had before.

When she started the group, Ms. Fried’s twin children were in a pre-K program at the Bryant School. “I was so impressed with the caliber of education they were receiving,” she said. “They really thrived there.”

Connecting with other parents helped solve the problem of coordinating kosher food in the public schools.

The Teaneck Board of Education arranges for kosher food at the schools. The exact details have varied over the years. Now it provides frozen meals.

Ms. Fried’s twins are in second grade now. Her son still is in public school, in the Whittier school; her daughter is in Yeshivat He’atid.

Her son has to worry about what food at school is kosher and what food is not. That’s something his twin sister doesn’t have to do. That’s not a bad thing, Ms. Fried said. “I feel my son has a finer appreciation of what it means to be a Jew in the real world at a younger age.”.

That sometimes leads to funny situations. At a shul kiddish, her son has been known to ask, “Is that kosher, mommy?”

“I don’t criticize him,” his mother said. “He’s trained to ask.”

Ms. Fried sends her son to the Hebrew school at Chabad on the Palisades in Tenafly. (That’s a not-uncommon decision about public school parents; others engage private tutors.) “They foster a nice Jewish atmosphere for the children.”

Ms. Fried sometimes feels rebuked by parents who send their kids to yeshiva. “Oh,” people will say when they learn her son goes to Whittier. “There’s a little judgment there.”

She thinks that’s unwarranted. “Just because I send my son to public school doesn’t mean I have less commitment,” she said. Her son’s educational path means that she has to demonstrate a greater commitment to Judaism at home, “because that’s where it’s coming from. You can’t go the lazy route, to have him pick it up by osmosis.”

But Aubrey Wolf, who also has children in both the public school and yeshiva systems, says she doesn’t feel there’s a stigma in sending a kid to public school. “When I told people, no one batted an eye,” she said. “In Brooklyn, where I grew up, it was a lot different.”

Her oldest son now is at Benjamin Franklin Middle School. “He had been in yeshiva, and it didn’t work out. Then we sent him to Sinai, and it wasn’t working for him. As a last resort, we put our hands into the air” and tried the public schools.

Her verdict: “We’ve been just crazy happy with what’s going on.”

Yeshivot offer what’s called a dual curriculum, with both Jewish and secular instruction. That curriculum demands double the number of hours in classroom instruction and in homework. It is challenging for the best students, and often an impossible burden for weaker ones. But that is not the only reason parents chose public schools, Ms. Wolf said. The Teaneck schools “have a better standard of what they’re doing.”

Her middle child is doing well in yeshiva. When her youngest child was in Jewish day care, “they wanted a shadow for behavior reasons,” Ms. Wolf said. “We said, this is ridiculous. We sent him to public school. At this point we weren’t scared any more.”

Ms. Wolf praised the caliber of the teachers in the Teaneck public schools. “All in all, the teachers have been amazing,” Ms. Wolf said.

Ms. Fried agreed. “It’s not the same animal” as the level of teaching in day schools, she said. When her son was in the Bryant school, “he had a frum guy as a paraprofessional,” assisting the teacher. “He sounded super bright and sharp and smart.” It turned out he was studying for his masters in special education, and hoped eventually to become a teacher in the Teaneck public school system.

Ms. Wolf said that her children’s teachers are sensitive to the kids’ kosher diet. They go out of their way to make sure candy they offer as a reward, or a cake they serve for a class party, are kosher.

“For a typical kid who can go to a day school, who has no issues, day school is great,” Ms. Wolf said. “If you can afford it, even better.

“When it comes to a kid who has issues, who needs support, that’s where the public schools really excel versus the yeshiva,” she continued. “They’re able to get services day school kids can’t always get. They have tactics that they can use that, let’s say, a yeshiva doesn’t or can’t. In public schools the teachers don’t have to answer to parents in the same way. Nobody’s paying and making the rules.”

That is to say that when it comes to discipline, there is no special accommodation for the children of the wealthy and well-connected.

Judith Ness has one of her children in Benjamin Franklin middle school. “My son has some learning issues,” she said. They couldn’t accommodate him at the local day schools. He was in a program in a yeshiva — I’m not going to name any school, it’s lashon hora — and he learned nothing. We bit the bullet and put him in public school.”

Here’s what happened: “In one year he made up four or five years of math.” And he is not even getting the maximum support the school offers. “He gets minimum support and he made that kind of progress. It says a lot for the public school. It doesn’t say much for the yeshiva.”

Her son is mainstreamed for most of his classwork. For Ms. Ness, what stands out is the way the classroom teacher takes responsibility for seeing to his special needs. “In yeshiva, if I asked the regular teacher what’s going on, she would refer me to the support teacher,” she said. “Here the teachers are more aware.”

Does she feel the teachers in the public school are more professional? “Oh yes. Oh yes,” she said.

Some of the observant boys in Teaneck public schools wear yarmulkes in school. Others keep their heads covered with hats. Ms. Ness’ son wears a yarmulke. Generally, his schoolmates are “very respectful,” she said.

“In his math and social studies classes, there are two boys with yarmulkes. They’re like everybody else. Nobody sees the yarmulke. When you look at Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson” — the town’s two middle schools — “there are so many kids with yarmulkes. Nobody cares.”

And when there have been yarmulke-related incidents, the school handled it admirably, in her estimation. One day, a classmate grabbed Ms. Ness’ son’s yarmulke off his head.

“The principal found out about it,” she said. “He explained that it’s a religious item. Hands off. The next day the kid apologized.”

Ms. Ness said socializing with kids still in day school is a problem. “The kids around here are not very accepting,” she said. “They’re very cliquey. It’s very difficult.”

Ms. Fried agreed.

“When I was a kid I had school friends and shul friends and camp friends, and they were different people,” she said. “Now everybody is attached.”

For Tzippy and Ezra Hiller, the biggest change in shifting their kids to public school comes in parent-teacher conference.

Their younger son is in 10th grade in Teaneck High School. Their older son graduated from Teaneck and now is at Goucher College.

“At the day school, every parent-teacher conference was about you have to get tutoring, you have to take him to a therapist,” Mr. Hiller said. “Everything was thrown back on us as the parents. At Teaneck High, we said, ‘What do we do?’ They said, ‘No, we take care of everything. That’s what we’re here for.’ They never try to throw anything academic on us. They take responsibility. It’s a whole different feeling. From the second we put them in Teaneck, we haven’t looked back.”

What’s the biggest difference between a yeshiva and public school?

They asked their younger child that question not long after he started at Teaneck High, and they were surprised by what he told them. “No one is ever disrespectful to the teacher,” he told them. “When they are disrespectful to the teacher, they’re asked to leave the room, and when they come back they don’t do it again.”

Another time, he gave a different and sadder answer.

“He said that for the first time that he could remember, he’s not being bullied. He’s accepted for who he is. It’s heartbreaking to me,” Ms. Hiller said.

Both Hiller boys were in Teaneck High drama productions. The school made accommodations for their Sabbath observance. “For the Friday show, they got an understudy. They never asked him to put his mike on on Shabbos,” Mr. Hiller said.

“There’s a kosher lunch club on Monday. The Israel club on Wednesday. No one ever said a word to them about their yarmulkes,” he continued.

As for kashrut, Mr. Hiller says his children’s new schoolmates are more accommodating of their dietary needs than were their classmates in yeshiva.

“When they go to kids’ houses after school, everyone makes sure they have kosher food and paper goods,” he said. “My kids don’t eat dairy. When they were in yeshiva, they would go to a friend’s house and be starving, or teachers would forget that they couldn’t eat ice cream when there was a birthday party.”

Their son in Teaneck High gets his Jewish studies through Chabad and NCSY. “He’s more involved Judaically now than when they were in the yeshiva system,” his mother said. “My children felt they were never good enough. They would sit in class and listen to everyone learning better than them and davening faster than them.

“I don’t want to fault anyone,” she continued. “My kids had some amazing teachers. They’re just not set up for it. They wish they were, and they wanted to be — and they weren’t.”

That doesn’t mean that the community didn’t try to pressure the Hillers to keep their children in the yeshiva system.

“You’re putting him in public school?” they were asked many times, including by school administrators. “Don’t you know the kind of things they’ll be exposed to? They do drugs there! And have sex there!”

“It too me a long time to have the response,” Ms. Hiller said. “You think that’s not happening in the yeshiva system?”

“We hear from their friends what goes on in the yeshiva system,” Mr. Hiller said. “There was a huge party right on my block. The parents were away. The police were called. There was drinking, kids were vomiting, drug paraphernalia was found. It’s teenagers. It’s on us as the parents to educate our children about that.

“They”— day school parents and administrators — “felt I was exposing my kids to all these horrible things,” he continued. “Really, they’re exposed to other religions, other races. They have friends from every nationality. They’re in our house all the time. It’s so sweet. A great story: On Pesach, Mousa, an Egyptian friend, went up to our son and said, ‘I just want to tell you: I’m really sorry.’”

The switch to Teaneck High wasn’t the first time the Hillers had clashed with the administration of their day school. A couple of years ago, when he was still in yeshiva, one of their boys was in a production of the play “Falsettos” at the Black Box Performing Arts Center in town.

“The administration was against it,” Ms. Hiller said. “They talked about the homosexuality in the play. They literally came out and said to us, ‘We don’t really approve of the content and values of the shows in which he’s performing.”

“They way we look at it, our children have to learn about things in a safe environment,” Mr. Heller said.

For Deborah Blaiberg, the decision to pull her children out from the yeshiva system was “purely financial.” After her husband was laid off from work, “Private education sadly was not affordable now,” she said.

Her four children now are in Thomas Jefferson Middle School. “Academically, these children just fly,” she said. “Because they were no longer on a dual curriculum, they suddenly had more time given to certain subjects. Their learning is much deeper on the secular side.”

As for making the switch: “My kids transitioned very well. I told the boys they could wear shorts and I let the girls color their hair and wear pants,” all against the yeshiva dress codes. “My kids were like, ‘OK, you’re good.’ I’ve got two boys with kipot and tzitzit and two girls, one with pink hair and one with purple hair. It’s a new form of diversity within the public schools.

“Initially when we told our kids that they would be switching schools, they were terrified. They had a lot of apprehension. We were told for so many years about the horrors of public school.

“A lot of people pray for my children’s neshama,” their souls, she said. “Not a single one knocks on the door to learn Torah with them. My eldest said to me that she has some friends who are not allowed to socialize with her because she’s in public school. It made my blood boil.”

It’s true, Ms. Bleiberg said, “that there are situations in public school that might be more aggressive than my kids are used to from yeshiva. But the school itself is used to the situation, so they clamp down quite faster. The reaction is much faster than in yeshiva. There was an instance last year. The child was treated the same every child who would have acted that way. In yeshiva, it depends on how much you pay the school.”

Her children don’t need to hide their Jewish identity in school.

“Over Chanukah, my daughter went to school with a Magen David painted on her cheek,” Ms. Blaiberg said. “It was fully accepted. Not a person said a word. They’re bringing in a new cultural awareness to their school.”

Academically, new vistas are opening up for her children.

“My eldest has been struggling for years with math,” she said. “Within a year and a day, she got on the principal’s honor roll and pulled up to an A in every subject, including Spanish. She’s a happier kid. Her confidence has been up. Before, I was watching a child be broken down.

“All my children had a severe lack of basic math facts. This was not a program they were teaching in yeshiva. Once they learned it they picked it up fine.

“Being on a scholarship in yeshiva, you’re not willing to speak up so loud. You’re too afraid of being the difficult parent and losing the scholarship. I would do everything to keep my kids in yeshiva. I overlooked so much. I was blinded.”

And of course, there are the extracurricular activities that don’t exist in yeshiva.

“My oldest daughter is in chorus,” she said. “My twins love violin. Thank you, Teaneck taxpayers. In fourth grade, children choose their musical instrument. I rent the violins and my children now read music.”

Her children’s experience is nothing like “what’s put out there, sadly, by the yeshiva community, that the Teaneck public schools are the worse, that your kids will be beaten up or go off the derech,” abandon observant Judaism.

“The teachers are actually very good. I’m amazed. A lot of teachers have teaching degrees and experience. Their science teacher is incredible. He created a love of science in my daughter that is unbelievable.”

Financially, being in public school “takes a suffocating pressure off you. I was very conscious that because I was getting tuition assistance, I shouldn’t be doing this, I shouldn’t be doing that. Asking for help, you get so paranoid. It’s a different situation now.

“The tuition assistance committees are inherently suspicious. The people who actually need help are screwed over by those who want to abuse the system. It gets insulting and degrading and humiliating, to be told by the committee to get a different job” so you can afford tuition.

She is at peace with the fact that “my children will never be Talmud scholars. They’re not going to learn Rashi 24/7. I’ll live.”

Instead, “we will finally be in a position where we can send them to camp.”

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