We live in an area boasting a first-rate public school system and one rich in prestigious, private academic institutions. There are a dizzying array of choices. The decision to send a child to a Jewish day school is one that comes with an incredible amount of rewards as well as a few costs. It is helpful to have an idea of the type of experience parents can expect for their children and ways to navigate any challenges that arise.
Jewish day schools offer the ideal blend of rigorous academic learning and values-based Judaic studies. They aim to provide a nurturing environment for their students, to produce committed, engaged Jewish young adults, to foster deep connections with Israel and to use the teachings of the Torah to help guide the children in making moral choices. Small class sizes and low teacher-to-student ratios allow more personal attention and individualized learning opportunities. The dual curriculum is challenging but fulfilling, and students emerge as independent, creative and critical thinkers.
There is also a true sense of community at a Jewish day school. The successes and proud moments of the student body and their families are recognized and rejoiced together. Similarly, the difficult times are deeply felt by all, and the school community rallies around those in need without hesitation. There is a comfort and security in being a part of a bigger, school-wide family.
I am a parent of two children at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. Though not particularly observant Jews, my husband and I were both committed, albeit hesitantly at first, to provide a Jewish private education to our kids. My husband attended JDS through the sixth grade, but I attended what might possibly be the least Jewish-focused private school one could imagine in southern Virginia.
Our children begin school each day with tefillah, the morning prayers. Although just in second grade, my younger son can lead the Shacharit service — and does so with a joy and pride that makes our hearts sing. Our older son is quickly becoming fluent in Hebrew and his knowledge of Torah and Judaic rituals and traditions is broad and impressive. Judaic studies is not a chore for our kids like attending Hebrew school after a long day of regular school is for many. It is just part of their school day, and a part that they enjoy. School occupies much more of the kids’ time than we do now, so it is reassuring that the values and moral compass with which we try to guide them at home is echoed at school in various ways.
There are some challenges that come with Jewish day-school attendance. When I was in grade school, it did not matter where you went to school because you played outside daily with the other kids on your block. There were no scheduled after-school activities or play dates, and the neighborhood was cohesive by virtue of geographics, not school affiliation.
These days, with so much after-school time taken up by a multitude of activities, there is a gully that separates Jewish day-school children from the neighborhood ones who see each other every day on the bus, at recess, lunch and religious school. We have experienced this divide firsthand, as our children are “out of sight, out of mind” for many of the neighborhood kids who used to be their friends back in preschool.
It is helpful to be prepared that some parents even harbor animosity about others’ decision to send their children to private school; it is seen as a negative commentary on the neighborhood public school. Jewish day-school children can sometimes be isolated from their synagogue peers as well, since they do not attend Hebrew or Sunday school at the shul. However, not having that obligation is also a wonderful side benefit.
There are ways that we as parents can combat these somewhat socially isolating neighborhood situations, and there are measures put in place by many shuls to keep Jewish day-school students in the mix. One good way to firmly root Jewish day-school children in the neighborhood milieu is through sports. Getting involved with a sports team made of neighborhood kids and sticking with that team helps nurture friendships and keeps a child seeing his or her neighbors on a regular basis. Similarly, signing children up for after-school activities specifically with neighborhood peers keeps contact alive. Finally, encouraging Jewish day-school children to become active in their synagogue youth groups and activities is a great way to maintain contact with peers from the larger community.
Many synagogues offer opportunities for our kids to get to know the shul clergy by having the clergy come to the day schools for special lunches with the students. They are mindful of the distance that not attending Hebrew and Sunday school can create for Jewish day-school kids, and they offer youth programming designed to bridge that gap.
The decision by parents to send their children to a Jewish day school is a powerful commitment to fostering a strong, solid Jewish identity in these children. As it says in some of the mission statement of my sons’ school, its goal is to teach the children: “Torah L’Shmah, to become lifelong learners inspired by a love of ‘learning for the sake of learning… .”; “Ahavat Torah, to understand and appreciate the wisdom, spiritual depth and ethical guidance of Judaism”; “K’dushah,” to understand … how we can sanctify our lives through the practice of Mitzvot; “Ahavat Yisrael, to form an inextricable bond with the Jewish people — past, present and future — to foster a sense of commitment to the State of Israel… .”; V’ahavta L’Rayakha, to create a caring, moral community … in which members respect uniqueness and preciousness and are responsible for each other and the community”; and “Tikun Olam, to be passionate about preserving God’s world and making it a more compassionate, just and peaceful place through individual and collective commitment to programs of social action and public policy.”
At a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise worldwide, connections with Israel are weakened and there is a frightening apathy toward Jewish life in general, the Jewish day school experience is indescribably meaningful and significant for the children’s lives, and for the lives of our community as a whole. Though the experience comes with financial sacrifice and other challenges, there is no substitute for its value, and the payoff is enormous.
Paula Lefkowitz is a Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School parent. She lives in Rockville.