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.
Peer groups matter. Environment matters. A child’s social life is as important to his development as is the material they learn in the classroom. And the Limudei Kodesh material covered in a classroom can rarely be matched at home by even the most diligent and dedicated parent. Furthermore most children will resent the extra time they need to study religious subjects at home when all their classmates and friends from public school are out having a good time.
It is these kinds of influences that brought about the day school movement we have in America today. Historically, prior to the advent of the day school movement the majority of children from religious homes that attended public schools did not stay observant. That some did stay religious to one extent or another was relatively rare. The influence of the melting pot society… and the drive to get ahead financially – coupled with the view that the way of their parents was an archaic vestige of their European ghetto past – irrelevant to America – led many good people to abandon observance to any significant degree.
Although the melting pot… kind of melted itself – giving way to a more culturally diverse society in America, – making observant Judaism more socially acceptable – that isn’t enough to prevent a child from abandoning his parents ancient religious practices in the modern world. It is his parents against the world. With no significant peer relationship to influence a child to see it any other way. Not to mention the woefully inadequate level of Torah study in the home after school.
I therefore strongly reject the notion that one can send a child to public school with the expectation of being an observant Jew. Which – as I said – is the essence of being Jewish. If you want your child to follow in your footsteps as a religious Jew, you have to bite the financial bullet and send your child to a day school. The tuition crisis – although very real is a separate issue.
Of course there are no guarantees. Day schools do not provide immunity from going OTD. The OTD rate is increasing despite the day school experience. In some cases it is because of the day school experience. But as important as this issue is, it is also really a separate one.
When one looks at the total picture, I don’t think there is any question that the vast majority of day school students will become observant adults. On the other hand without a day school education the chances of your child remaining observant are – to say the least – substantially reduced.
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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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