The Day School Dilemma
For a non observant family, what are the pros and cons of sending your children to a Jewish Day School, a great public school system, or a religious program through a synagogue such as afterschool Hebrew School/ Sunday School?
Readers: Before I respond I should note that “Jamie” sent along a pretty comprehensive background detailing her family’s religious status, background and point of view on this issue. Although I will not post it here I will refer to it as needed.
Your question is a tough one but I will try to address as well as I can. I’m sure my readers will also have plenty of good advice to share based on their own experiences…
After reading your email several times it seems to me that you are craving a sense of (Jewish) community both for yourself and for your children. Since your husband seems open to the idea of joining a synagogue, I think that it is a very important step. This will give you and your children an opportunity to meet other Jewish people participate in Jewish activities and maybe even get a few Friday night dinner invitations.
While after-school or Synagogue “Sunday school” type programs seem like the ideal compromise the truth is that they will never give your child the depth or breadth of knowledge and feeling that a day school education will. I say this as a Sunday school teacher myself, and the daughter of two (former) day school teachers. When your Judiac studies are merely extracurricular, shoved in between a full day of school and soccer practice they will never be viewed with the same priority as a full (or half day) of devoted school hours would be. In addition it is a simple matter of time: there is just no way to cover Hebrew language, Tanach, Jewish history, philosophy etc… and impart a loving connection to all of it in just 2+ hours a week.
So what can you expect from a day school education?
That’s a hard question because every school is different. I’m not sure if you live in area where you have many choices or just one but clearly just because a school is “orthodox” doesn’t mean it’s a good school or a bad one.
Ideally in a modern orthodox day school, your child will learn to read, write, and speak Hebrew, learn about Jewish history and the State of Israel, learn Tanach, and maybe some Talmud, to the point where they will be able to start to figure things out on their own and have a good understanding of basic Jewish laws and customs and how they are derived. In addition hopefully there will be some character development as well- teaching children to respect one another and treat each others as they would like to be treated.
In addition, of course, they would also have a secular education comparable to (or better than) a public school education only more compressed due to time restraints. Clearly this is not the case for all MO day schools but it’s usually their goal.
Being non-orthodox in an orthodox school is an issue. But again it depends on the school. The Jewish elementary school I attended was split about 50/50 orthodox vs non-orthodox so everyone really felt at ease. Today things are more polarized (in most east coast day schools at least) so I can’t say that it will not be an issue. Belonging to a synagogue that you identify with though can help here too allowing your child (and the rest of your family) access to Jewish life that is in your comfort zone.
The bigger issue for me would be sending my child to a school that I could not identify with ideologically. Part of a day school education (in an Orthodox school) is also a religious indoctrination. An orthodox school is really compelled to teach that the word of the Torah is law, as this is a major pillar of Orthodox belief. Judiac culture and religious practice will not viewed as two separate matters. It’s more than likely that eventually your child will feel a bit torn between to worlds – hearing one thing at school and another at home.
This leaves you two options: either to find a school that appeals to your ideologically or to be open to the possibility that your child may eventually be interested in taking on some additional observances at home as well as at school. No one wants to feel that they are putting their child into a situation where they feel conflicted so it’s something to consider for down the road…Lastly there is the issue of tution. Yes, I know it’s a killer. Frankly I don’t know how we manage it ourselves but somehow we do. It’s our priority. We don’t drive a new car, or go on vacation, or eat out much and somehow we get by. I’m very happy with how my children are doing in school and how much they enrich our home-life with what they have learned. All I can say is to me it’s worth it.