Reconsidering Jewish Day School

IMG_3304Where to send our kids to elementary school is the conversation dominating parents of preschoolers. I’m sure this is true in many areas of the country, but in Minnesota where we have open enrollment, parents often discuss which schools they’re considering for their children.

“Open enrollment,” if you’re not familiar with the term, means if there’s space at a public school in any district, parents can apply to get spots for their children.

As a mom with three kids already at a Jewish day school and one still in preschool, I’ve been listening to these conversations for almost a decade. There are many legitimate factors to consider when choosing a school, but I often hear parents automatically eliminate day schools from the running for reasons that are not supported by the facts.

If you have never considered even looking at Jewish day school, let me try to put your local day school on the list of possibilities by eliminating a few of the most common misconceptions. (1) I want my kids to be exposed to more than Judaism and Jewish people. (2) We aren’t as Jewish as the other families at the school. (3) Private Jewish education is too expensive.

1. I want my kids to be exposed to more than Judaism and Jewish people.

Another way of saying this is, “I don’t want my kids to be sheltered.”

If your kids watch TV and movies, read books, know the word Google, and have friends in extracurricular activities as well as in their neighborhoods, they will have more contact with a non-Jewish world than a Jewish one now and for the rest of their lives. Trust me, your children will be in touch with every non-Jewish influence imaginable regardless of what school they attend. However, giving kids a values-rich curriculum alongside secular studies comparable to any private school while giving them a fluency and ease with Hebrew is a magic combination found only in a Jewish day school.

Exposing kids to Judaism and Jewish values is a bigger challenge than making sure they know we are a minority. Can they learn the same history, ethics, and Hebrew language at synagogue, camp, or Hebrew school? I’d say it depends on the family, but kids spend far more time in school than an after-school program or camp. A Jewish home plays its own role and is a different discussion from education altogether.

FullSizeRender2. We aren’t as Jewish as the other families at school.

Day schools are made up of Jewish families from all backgrounds, including families affiliated with a synagogue, not affiliated, interfaith, religious and secular. But the deeper issue is the worry that your family doesn’t belong at the school unless they meet a certain benchmark of Jewish practice and knowledge. Let me ask you this: Do all children taking piano lessons come from musically gifted parents? Are gymnastics studios filled with the children of Olympic superstars? Day schools are full of kids whose parents want to provide an education that they are unable to give as thoroughly (or at all) at home.

I also wonder if another version of this concern is I don’t want my kids to get too Jewish. A day school education simply gives kids the chance to opt-in to the Jewish community later if they want to, but it will not force them to be religious or “too Jewish.” Kids can take their Jewish education into adulthood or leave it at any point, but at least they have the option to “take it” because they’re literate and comfortable in the values and language of a Jewish life.

3. Private Jewish education is too expensive.

IMG_3338I can’t speak for every Jewish school, but I know that the one my kids attend, Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School, is committed to helping families attend by offering financial aid packages. This is clearly a huge hurdle for people, and while we in the Jewish community unfortunately don’t benefit from the Catholic model of significant underwriting of our kids’ education, we do have the support of generous donors as well as community support from Federation.

I like to think of my kids’ education as an investment, but there’s no getting around the fact that tuition is pricey at private school (though less at a day school than a typical college prep school). However, Hebrew school is also an expense, and it costs more than mere dollars when you factor in the price of time it takes after school and on weekends. When looking at our kids’ education, I consider the return on my investment. At a Jewish day school, the return is an excellent secular education, a strong foundation of Judaism and Hebrew, a value-focused learning environment, and a parent community that’s supportive as well.

Now isn’t day school an option at least worth considering?