Why day schools matter

Why day schools matter

“And you shall teach them diligently to your children….”

So the Torah enjoins the community of Israel (see Deuteronomy 6:7). It is not a commandment to be ignored, yet in Jewish communities throughout the United States, ignore it we do, to our detriment and our peril.

Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day A 2010 study found that there were 5,800 children under age 4 living in the Greater Baltimore Jewish community. Two-thirds of them lived in Orthodox homes, nearly a fifth in Reform homes, and about an eighth in Conservative ones. When asked whether they would send their children to day schools, nearly all of the Orthodox said yes, 36 percent of the Conservatives said yes, and only five percent of Reform said yes.

Because of the more committed nature of our community, it is almost certain that the numbers for the Conservative and Reform children would be higher in northern New Jersey; more so, perhaps, in the case of the former because a Reform day school does not exist here (as it does, say, in the Boston area, with the highly praised Dedham-based Rashi School). Also, Conservative rabbis in our area generally have been successful in steering parents to day schools as the better alternative for their children. Jewish identity in our area is strong.

Nevertheless, the Baltimore statistic should give us as a community pause, both because the Conservative and Reform numbers never will reach the level of the Orthodox, and because a quality Jewish education is one of the best possible ways we have at maintaining and expanding a meaningful, vibrant Judaism here in America.

To be sure, the many non-Orthodox parents who do not choose a day school option for their children have arguments that have some validity: Their children, some say, need to be exposed to the broader community at an early age. Others argue that their children can receive a better education by attending a private secular school.

I might agree that these arguments are valid for the parents who make them, if other statistics did not get in the way, such as the high rate of intermarriage and the even higher rate of unaffiliation with anything Jewish. I might agree, as well, if study after study did not show that the current generation of American Jews is perhaps the least involved in basic Jewish rituals, or communal Jewish life, or is one of the most Jewishly illiterate generations in recent memory, or that ever fewer American Jews today understand that they have a responsibility toward Jews elsewhere in the world, that “all Israel are responsible one for the other,” in the words of the Talmud.

I do accept the validity of these arguments for those families that have a strong sense of Jewish identity and are actively engaged in a committed Jewish life – at the least, meaning synagogue affiliation and regular attendance at services, with children in tow; active communal involvement through local organizations and/or the federation; regular observance of common home-bound rituals that include the children (such as Shabbat candle-lighting; some form of Shabbat and festival observance that includes Kiddush, the making of a motzi, and the saying of grace after meals; the placing of m’zuzot on doorposts; etc.); the stressing of chesed projects among their children and validating that through their own engagement in chesed projects; and some form of educating the children about Jewish values and Jewish life (this can include some form of home schooling). The truth is that day schools are nowhere near 100 percent effective in promoting in-marriage, or even observance, or identity – the studies show this, too, and it is true across denominations. In such cases, a well-rounded secular education coupled with a seriously committed Jewish home life will be almost as effective as day schools.

Most parents who opt out of day schools for their children, however, do not fall into that committed category.

I have argued in the past that we need greater communal involvement at every level in the education of our children. I also believe strongly that we need an independent Board of Jewish Education that would create educational standards for all day schools, promote continued professional development for day school teachers, and create economy-of-scale research and purchasing of the best educational tools, from textbooks to computerized learning programs.

A quality Jewish education is not about memorializing the Jewish past. It is about securing the Jewish future. There are alternate ways for children to interact meaningfully with the Other; the classroom is not the only way, or necessarily the best way. Unless our children have a strong sense of their own Jewish identities, we risk their being alienated from their people and their heritage.

In my opinion, at least, that is not a risk we dare take.