I never thought I would have to make this argument in 2013.
Jordana Horn, the former New York bureau chief of The Jerusalem Post, has written an article in the Forward defending the premise that one can be raised as a proud and productive Jew without ever attending a day school. She proceeds to document her own attendance in public school and that of her siblings to prove her point. Which is that one can be fully Jewish, relatively knowledgeable about one’s Judaism and fully proud and participatory in it at many levels. She then presents a list of suggestions instructing us how to go about doing so successfully. It is a list of very practical suggestions with which I agree. But it falls woefully short in my view.
I have to ask, is her definition of being a Jew the correct definition? Is Judaism only about marrying Jewish? Or reading Hebrew? Or the ability to read the Torah? As laudable as these things are, they fall far short of what being a Jew is all about. The entire concept of following Halacha is missing from her definition. And in my view being an observant ‘Halakhic Man’ is the essence of being a Jew. Everything we do as a Jew should be viewed through the lens of Halacha. That is what God desires of the Jewish people… and no less. That many of us fail in that regard one way or another does not make it any less so.
That said, I must concede that it is possible to raise a child to be Halachic Jew without sending him to day school. I am sure that there are some cases where that has happened even in our day. But I would not recommend it.
I understand the incentive for a parent too try and do something like that. The tuition crisis in America is real. There is no two ways about it. Any parent with children in a day school will verify that. But there is a reason that is so
Day schools today are not what they used to be in their early days (…fifties and early sixties) – a school with teachers so underpaid that they could barely survive even with second jobs. No enrichment programs. No school psychologists. No real curriculum development. No special classes for learning disabled children. Nothing except the bare bones of studying Limudei Kodesh (religious studies) in the morning and Limudei Chol (secular studies) in the afternoons.
Funding Jewish education in those days was a joke. Tuitions were tiny back then because day schools were struggling just to get parents to send them their children – even for free. Generous philanthropists didn’t exist yet. As a result, religious teachers sometimes went unpaid their meager earnings for months at a time. I don’t know how they existed.
And yet, somehow the day schools of that time managed.
Today, things are much better. Teachers make livable wages. Fundraising is much better. Teachers are paid mostly on time. Schools are therefore much better now. It is easier to recruit good teachers for a school if you pay them a livable wage. And as a school grows – so do programs they offer their students. All this costs money. Hence the increased tuitions today.
Meanwhile parents who themselves have gone through the day school system recognize their value and no longer need convincing to send their children. All of this translates to the impossibly high tuition that are demanded of parents today. Even though scholarships are given to those who need them – every spare dime a parent may have is asked for by the schools that have no choice but to demand it in order to fund their exploding budgets. Budgets that are for the most part necessary in order to serve the demands made by parents who expect the best and most enriching education possible. (Although trimming what is in some cases bloated school budgets is a subject for legitimate discussion – it is beyond the scope of this post.)
For parents with four, five, six or more children who feel they are squeezed to the max for every dime, the thought of sending a child to a free public school while teaching them about Judaism at home must be very tempting. But it is a losing proposition in most cases. It would take a most unusual family and an unusual child to overcome the influences in a public school.