When I arrived at Brandeis as a freshman in 1984, it was the first time in my life I had Jewish friends. I come from a small Massachusetts town with no Jewish population. Quite coincidentally, all my new friends had attended a Schechter somewhere, and I was positively in awe of them. Whether it was their proficiency in Hebrew and Tanakh or their command of politics during late-night dorm room talks, their readiness with dates in history class or the comfort they had in volunteering to lead club committees (even though they were freshmen!), they were prepared for everything.
I had never even heard of Schechter before it materialized in front of my eyes that September, but I knew it would be part of my future. Now, as the parent of three current Schechter students and an alumna, this intangible and priceless gift of a Schechter education is no longer what I observed so enviously at 17, but something I see every day in my own children’s experience at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston in Newton, almost as if it had been predestined.
My oldest child, 15-year-old Tirzah, went to Israel for the first time in 2009 as part of Schechter’s 8th Grade Israel Study Tour. The trip was transformative for her and she came home full of many realizations. “In Israel,” she said, “everything makes sense.” She wasn’t just referring to reading signs and menus, but to a deeper sense of coming home to an identity that had been explored, nurtured and reinforced so organically since she began Kindergarten at Schechter. In Israel, Tirzah felt that all pieces of herself fit together without effort: the Tirzah who had grown up in a Jewish home, who had begun learning her Hebrew script letters as a five-year-old, who had been chosen in fourth grade to decorate a class book filled with poems about Shabbat, who seamlessly led her Bat Mitzvah service entirely by herself and who had come home from her two-week trip declaring that she would one day want to be “a starving artist in Tel Aviv.” Nine years at Schechter gave Tirzah the gift of a Jewish education and a self-confident Jewish identity so that her first trip to Israel felt like a homecoming.
This past September, we hosted some Israeli boys from the Reali School in Haifa, Schechter’s sister school with whom we have a yearly exchange program. My 13-year-old son Judah clicked with our guests from the start, and although their English was good, Judah was eager to speak to them in their own language. For Judah, nine years of Schechter Hebrew had been waiting in the wings, building and amassing. Suddenly all the quizzes, the conjugating of verbs and the Hebrew Judah had spoken for so long in a classroom setting had coalesced naturally, on the afternoon our guests arrived, into a real-time conversation with real live Israeli boys about the rules of a pick-up basketball game in my driveway. When the first Hebrew sentence came out of Judah’s mouth and the Israeli boys responded immediately, there was only the flicker of conscious realization on Judah’s face before he took off dribbling, easily calling fouls and listening to shouts from the Israeli boys. No need for a dictionary because the words and the understanding had been there for years, utterly ready for this moment. Pretty cool.
My 12-year-old son Hillel sat down in the kitchen a few weeks ago on a Monday night. As usual, he laid out his assignment book spread-eagle, powered up his netbook, positioned a glass of water nearby and pronounced, “I have a really good feeling about how productive tonight is going to be.” Going subject by subject through his assignment book, he shared an anecdote from each class, revealing in the process a familial connection to his classmates, an unshakable drive to please his teachers and a confidence about his ability to do his work well. After finishing his Tanakh homework, Hillel asked me to stop doing dishes and listen as he recited a soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. With a fake baritone and dramatic pauses, he plowed through his lines showing me that standing in front of his friends the next day at school, pretending to be Marc Antony, would be completely comfortable. For Hillel, an evening leaping from a dvar on the week’s Torah portion to a Shakespearean soliloquy to algebra feels, well, normal…just as I’d hoped so long ago.
For two weeks last month, my younger daughter, 10-year-old Hadas, kept up a constant chatter about her upcoming book talk in English. She tore through the book more than anything to be able to tell her teacher she was ready to face the class. Why are you quite so excited, I kept asking her. Was it that you liked the book more than anything else you’ve read? “No.” Hadas said, “I love talking in front of my friends and answering their questions about my book.” I asked her if a book talk in front of her whole class made her nervous. “No because we learn about derekh eretz first: everyone has to raise their hand, then we get positive comments or constructive criticism about our talk which is fun.” To find not only comfort in public speaking at such a young age, but actual pleasure in hearing from peers how to improve is a life lesson and yet another gift from the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston.
It’s not 1984 anymore, but 2010. I am looking forward to seeing what the gift of a Schechter education looks like as my children grow and mature. It presents itself as a different – and wonderful – gift, every day.
By Stephanie Fine Maroun
Stephanie and Al Maroun live in Wakefield and have been Schechter parents for 11 years. Stephanie is an Events Planner and Al is a Sales Manager for Sunsetter, Inc. They are members of Temple Emanuel in Newton and are very active in the Schechter community.