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No school like home

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Yael Aldrich and her daughter Yehudis, 7

Yael Aldrich of Indianapolis first started thinking of home schooling when her first child was about 3 years old.

The advantages were obvious to her: More time with her child. More control over the curriculum.

Then, when her oldest, Gavriel Tzvi, was 6, the family went to Japan for a year, where her husband, Daniel, now a professor of political science at Purdue University in Indiana, was a visiting professor.

Japanese public schools weren’t attractive. They are “very conformist” and “bullying is part of the environment,” Ms. Aldrich said. “And we nixed the international schools, because the days are long and tuition is about $25,000 a year.”

So she researched home schooling a little, found that it was possible, and took “a bunch of schoolbooks” to Japan, where she put her career as a fundraiser for a Jewish organization on hold to home school her children.

That year went smoothly, and when the family returned to the United States and moved to Indiana, they decided to continue.

Now, they’re in their sixth year of home schooling. Gavriel Tzvi will become bar mitzvah this summer, and his 10-year-old brother, Yaakov, and 7-year-old sister, Yehudis, are being home schooled as well. (Their 4-year-old brother, Dov Ber, is at home with them, but is not yet receiving formal education.)

And Ms. Aldrich has become a leader in the Jewish home schooling community, coordinating the fifth annual Torah Home Schooling Conference, taking place Sunday at the Moriah School in Englewood.

Topics to be addressed range from providing a preschool education to getting home-schooled children into college.

“The conference is for people who have been doing it for years and want a shot in the arm,” she said, “and for people who have a child who is three years old and want to learn more.”

For the veterans, it provides a chance to look at curricula – and to gain community for what can be a lonely enterprise.

It is an enterprise that is not without some stigma in the Orthodox community.

(In a possible sign of a reluctance to go public as a home schooler, one Bergen County home-schooling parent whom Ms. Aldrich had identified as likely to talk to the Jewish Standard declined.)

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that it’s controversial.

The Orthodox Jewish community has invested a great deal in its educational system.

“Home school parents sometimes have a very hard time dealing with the peer pressure to put their kids in school,” Ms. Aldrich said. “You’re swimming against a tide, that 99.9 percent of the people in your synagogue are sending their kids to some day school, and because you’re not, you’re out of the loop for a lot of things. People think they may be ostracized or vilified – for some people that’s a reason not to home school.”

She knows families who have moved to Baltimore for its more friendly attitude. She estimates there are 70 or 80 Orthodox home schooling families there.

And she has heard “horror stories” about people shunned in their synagogues. “It’s hard in a one-synagogue community, if people think you’re off your rocker and doing a disservice to the Jewish community,” she said.

According to the Department of Education, in 2012 there were about 1.7 million students being home schooled in the United States, representing about 3.4 percent of the school-aged population.

Ms. Aldrich estimates that there are probably two or three thousand Jewish home-schooling families in America. In the first five years after the Yahoo list she helps run for Jewish homeschoolers was created, 300 families joined it. Last year, another 125 signed up.

Earlier Jewish home-schooling conferences have attracted between 100 to 120 people.

This one, so far, has fewer. It’s the first not being held in Baltimore, and she wonders whether New Jersey and New York may be less hospitable.

“You guys have a lot of educational choices,” she said. “Possibly there’s a larger amount of conformity. When you’re out-of-town” – meaning not in the New York metropolitan area – “you’re already a little bit weird, so why not” home school?

Fortunately, her children aren’t ostracized.

“They have friends in the day school,” she said. “They play after school and on Sunday and Shabbos. On Shabbos, our house is one of the fun places to be. It’s packed with kids after lunch.”

Her children are able to make friends in extracurricular activities they might not have time to pursue were they to attend a day school.

“My oldest son is just shy of a black belt in kendo, Japanese fencing. He’s probably the highest ranking non-Japanese child in the sport in the U.S. He’s able to do that because he can stay up to 10 o’clock several nights a week, and able to have lessons during the school day. I can always rearrange school to fit schedules.

“There’s flexibility to days off in the middle of the week, to stay up late, to sleep in, to rearrange our children.”

“Another reason for home schooling is we want our children to be a team. We call ourselves Team Aldrich. When a family sends their kids to an educational institution, they don’t see the kids so often. A lot of my non-home schooling friends complain that they wish they had more influence on their kids. We continue to have influence on our kids.”

There are online courses for home-schooled students, and now there are some programs with Jewish content, but Ms. Aldrich is opposed to her children having too much screen time.

For secular studies, “I don’t use computers for any of the education. I adhere to a philosophy called classical education. It’s a good old-fashioned education, of the late 1800s and early 1900s. It’s very heavy on a very strict and simple view of the three Rs. We do a lot of reading, a lot of math, nothing fancy.

“We don’t use too many textbooks; we try to use as many primary sources as possible.”

And in that classical mode, her oldest two children are learning Latin (using a self-taught home schooling curriculum that boasts of its “vibrant, rich, fun difference”), in addition to Japanese and Hebrew.

For Jewish studies, “we more or less follow what their peers would be doing in school. My oldest does Gemara four days a week with the rabbi in the synagogue, and reviews with his father and myself. The oldest two do Mishna with my husband or myself. My daughter just started Chumash this year.”

As a professor with classes scheduled only three days a week, Dr. Aldrich is available to teach his children on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“Teaching one or two or three or even four is easier than teaching a whole class,” Ms. Aldrich said. “My oldest is in school from about 9 to around 3 or 3:30; it compares to a regular school day, but my kid gets a lot more subjects.

“It doesn’t mean they sit there all day long. They can wander off. I sometimes have to corral children back to the table. My children are not angels. They’re regular children.

“My youngest’s school day can be compressed to an hour and a half. She has a lot more time to play, read, color, play with her dolls, all things a 7-year-old girl wants to do,” she said.

Home schooling is a Jewish tradition, Ms. Aldrich continued. “If you read the hagiographies of the great Jewish sages, many were taught at home by tutors or their father or mother.”

As for what it takes to be a home schooler – to be your children’s tutor – “You can learn on the job. A lot of things are self-taught or scripted. You don’t have to be an educator to teach your children.

“A lot of educators say their training and experience in the classroom did not prepare them in the least to home school their children.

“You have to really care about your children and be willing to do the research and speak to people who are doing it,” she said.

Torah Home Schooling Conference
When: Sunday, May 25, 9 a.m – 6 p.m.

Where: The Moriah School, 53 S. Woodland St., Englewood

More info: 2014theconference.eventbee.com

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