Why the gift of Jewish day school? Honestly, I’m not sure I know the answer to that question. If you’d asked me fifty, sixty years ago, I’d have lots of great answers: that public schools, despite the separation of church and state, are filled with Christmas trees in December and pictures of painted eggs in April; that, to be an identified Jew in a public school is to be an automatic outcast, a minority within a minority; that the only way to ensure Jewish continuity is to make sure your children are exposed to other Jewish children in large number and on a daily basis.
But today’s public schools are full of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic curricula and exposure. Children are encouraged to share their rich and diverse heritages, and many even get the day off on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Youth group and Hebrew school and Jewish camps provide lots of extra-curricular ways for Jewish kids to spend plenty of time with other Jewish kids.
So, the question remains: why the gift of Jewish day school in the 21st century?
I don’t know if I can answer that question on a philosophical level. I don’t know if I can answer it for every school everywhere. But I can share once particular experience I had as an educator at Gann Academy for the past three years, and maybe that will come as close as one can to an answer.
I remember something I saw on the wall at Gann my first year there. It was a poster board with a question in the center. The question read: Why is the Torah important? There was a pen hanging from a string next to the poster board, and every day there were more and more scrawled answers on the poster, in different hands, and, at the request of the poster, anonymously. Although I didn’t memorize all the answers, I remember the sentiment, and the variety of answers shocked me: “It’s the story of our people.” “It teaches us how to live good lives.” “It isn’t.” “It’s made up.” “It helps us have a relationship with God.” Every day the number and variety of answers grew, and every day I waited for some administrator to stop and read it and determine that some of the more provocative answers had no place on the walls of a Jewish school. But every day it stayed, and more and more hands wrote upon the poster to enter the conversation, and the answers kept growing in diversity. Students started responding to each other’s answers, even. It became a silent dialogue.
As the poster stayed on the wall day after day, I began to try imagine the different backgrounds of the students who had contributed to the comments on the poster. Had the more critical comments come from students with a self-proclaimed lack of strong Jewish identity? Or from students with religious backgrounds who were rebelling in their teenage years? Had the more faithful comments been left by students whom I’d recognize to be “religious” by their clothing or their choice of minyan? Or by students who perhaps seemed, on the outside, to be unconcerned with questions of God and observance, when inwardly, perhaps, they were searching for spiritual meaning? I started to hope that I’d “catch” someone writing a comment so that I could finally put an identity to the claims. But the students defied me, and the comments kept appearing as if by magic.
Then, one day, after several weeks, the poster was gone. It had been full for a while, and it finally had to make way for a poster advertising the upcoming school play. I never asked anyone what it was doing on the wall, or what the intent of it was. I knew what it meant to me, and that was enough.
It meant that I was in a place where students were encouraged to engage with any number of Jewish opinions and beliefs.
It meant that I was in a place where students were being taught that to be a Jew in the world does not have to mean that one does not question Judaism—only that one chooses to engage with it sincerely.
It meant that I was in a place where questions of Jewish meaning were central to daily life, and those questions—and their multiplicity of answers—were taken seriously.
Students today live in a world of connectedness; if they want Jewish peers, they can create a facebook group and—bam—three hundred members. They live in a world of multiculturalism; their Jewishness will be celebrated along with their peers’ unique identities in most places where they find themselves. But only a Jewish day school can place growing Jews in direct and open dialogue with other growing Jews on a daily basis, even if they are all growing toward different ideals of Jewish identity.
There are other options, of course. There are so many places where Jewish students can learn and grow and be stimulated and discover themselves and their place in the world. In fact, my own daughters are in such an environment. They attend Driscoll School in Brookline. It is a public school. And I am thrilled with the education they are getting, and the way they are being stimulated by their peers and their teachers. So perhaps this whole exercise might be seen as disingenuous on my part.
But I don’t think so.
As I said at the top of this piece, the answer to why the gift of Jewish day school isn’t as simple as it might have been a half a century ago. And Jewish day school isn’t the kind of default option I think it once was, even in recent decades.
But that sort of competition has made Jewish day school something even better, in my mind: It’s made Jewish day school a choice. A real choice. Not something you feel you have to do, or you should do, or you’d be remiss if you didn’t do. It presents—among many wonderful educational options—a unique set of benefits.
It might be hard for some to shed the mentality that Jewish day school is the best or only viable option for parents who want their children to have strong and lasting Jewish identities. But if we do shed that mentality, then we give a Jewish education the gift of becoming a strong, competitive option, not just a default. We make it an option that many will seek, see the benefit of, and choose with conviction and confidence.
If we allow the poster on the wall to ask “Why the gift of Jewish day school?”, if we allow it to be filled with all of the answers—the faithful support, the critical challenge, and even the voices of those who, for whatever reason, choose another path, then we are truly engaging in the core questions of our identity as a Jewish people, and we are giving our children the gift of a complex Jewish identity in a complex world.
By Rachel Klein, English teacher at Gann Academy.