I do not remember my first day of kindergarten. However, I do have one kindergarten memory that has always stuck with me. My lifelong friend Nat, whose family the school was named after, and I would spend many of our recesses digging through stones right outside our classroom. Before the school had been a Solomon Schechter Day School, it hosted a swimming pool. And when we dug deep enough through the stones we could find the corners of the old pool’s siding. While this memory was not incredibly significant to my education, it along with many others created a nostalgia that still today penetrates my heart when I think about my personal Jewish Day School experience.
I do not believe my parents truly knew what they were doing when they enrolled me in Jewish Day School. My parents sent me on a whim. We did not keep a kosher home or, to my knowledge, belong to a synagogue (if we did we rarely attended). We had just moved to Deerfield, Ill., and my parents had a feeling to send me to Schechter. In one act of, maybe looking back on it, fate, my family’s outlook on life changed forever. It began a path for me at the age of five, to the Rabbinate. The immersive values, positivity and Jewish knowledge instilled in me made it so important to me, that before I got married Jewish Day School was something my wife assured me we could do for our children. Last week, we returned that gift of Jewish education to my own daughter as she walked down the halls of Heilicher Jewish Day School. This was a kindergarten moment I will never forget.
Formal Jewish education has its challenges. Its price tag for tuition is high (although I have never heard of someone being turned away because of funding). I am very aware of this dilemma and it weighed heavily on our shoulders when making the decision. At the same time, we as parents want to pay less, teachers and administrators want to be paid more and parents demand up to date resources. Not an easy solution for the Jewish Day Schools around the country.
But through all of this, there seems to me to be no greater gift than Jewish Day School to our children. Our children will understand the concept of chevra that does not only include other children but their families. They will feel how others celebrate Shabbat. They will know how to lead services not because they were forced to for their Bar/Bat Mitzvah but because the tunes come as natural as the lyrics to Moana. They will have an affinity for Israel and its complications. More importantly, engrained in them will be a Jewish pride that is as innate as brushing their teeth in the morning. Above all of this, it is the intangible that comes with a Jewish Day School experience. It is a personal connection to the heimish Judaism we all seek, often too far into life that our children get immediately. It is the Jewish toolbox that our children can access at any point in life if they so choose. And it is the nudge on their shoulder or subconscious in their minds that when they are about to break from Jewish tradition or separate from the community, their Jewish Day School upbringing calls them back without a word from a parent. This is not to bash any other Jewish educational outlet; I love Jewish summer camp, youth groups, and synagogue schools but Jewish Day School has no comparison by my standards.
Admittedly, my time away from Chicago has separated me from my school growing up. But without fail, my school calls to check in with me more than my University or other institutions I am connected with. I am lucky to still know and keep in touch with the many people who impacted me Jewishly; my principals, rabbis, and mentors. These men and women helped me see formal Jewish education as a necessity. And maybe my pocket book is a bit lighter but my daughter’s connection to Judaism is a whole lot fuller. My hope is that she, too, begins digging. Maybe she will not find a swimming pool under what she uncovers, but hopefully, she will find a beautiful vision of Judaism. One that enables her to, in whichever way she can or chooses, to help lead the Jewish people after I am done. This gift I will never regret or forget.