So, we’ve made a decision.
Our older daughter will be starting kindergarten at the Jewish Community Day School (JCDS) just outside Boston in the fall.
That’s right. We’re sending her to day school. And we’re psyched about it. Perhaps more importantly, she’s psyched about it.
As some of you know, my husband and I have struggled with this issue. On the one hand, we want our children to have a strong Jewish education. On the other hand, it’s a lot of money. Even with the amazing support that is available through the schools and the Federation, it’s still a lot of money.
Nonetheless, we decided to check it out. We visited two of the four excellent day schools in the greater Boston area, and as we walked away from our tour of JCDS, we knew that we had found a great community for our daughters and our whole family. Josh has a slightly different perspective on what he loved about the school, so I’ll just share my thoughts.
At first, I thought the Jewish education was the icing on the cake. Sure, it’s great that my daughters will learn to read, write, and speak Hebrew, but to be honest, if I was going to choose a language for them, I’d probably pick Spanish. (I tend to be pragmatic about these things.) And sure, they’ll get a much wider, deeper, and more nuanced understanding of Torah and Talmud than I will ever have, but really, how much has that held me back in life? I know they’ll be learning a ton about Jewish culture and traditions from this pluralistic community, but won’t they get that at Jewish summer camp anyway?
Rather, I was drawn in by the school’s thoughtful, intentional, and compassionate approach to education and community. It was the way they plastered the front hallway with pictures of the incoming kindergarteners so the entire community could get to know them. It was the way that kids who are sick at home get a call from a classmate checking in on them. It was their answer to my question about how they deal with bullying (which I assume happens at every school): they reach out immediately and offer support and assistance to both students and their families to change the dynamic as soon as possible.
My perspective on day school changed when I started reading “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood” by Jennifer Senior. (Side note: if you read only one parenting book this year, make it this one–it’s not your typical parenting book, and if nothing else, it will make you feel infinitely less crazy and alone.) Although the book has nothing to do with Jewish education (and it’s only peripherally about education at all), one of Senior’s points helped me realize why day school is so important to me.
As she traced the history of how parenting has changed over the years, she notes that a parent’s primary job (other than keeping their children safe) used to be to raise their kids with a way of life: culture, traditions, values, and ideally, a vocation. It was our job to give our children a structure for the future. (The Talmud agrees, of course; we are told teach our children Torah, a trade, how to be in lasting relationships, and last but not least, how to swim.)
The thing is, the great melting pot of America has melted all of the beautiful, unique, meaningful details of each culture into one giant glob that ended up looking a lot like a shopping mall and a reminder to “Just Do It,” even though we have no idea what “It” is. That’s where parents get really twisted up, Senior tells us. We have nothing lean back on, and seeing as how American culture and technology and jobs are changing so fast that we have no idea what we’re supposed to be preparing our children for. Even if we did know, we’re Americans, damnit! We’re not here to teach our children the old ways—we’re supposed to be preparing them to become the best and brightest in the new frontier, whatever it may be. And so we run around like chickens with our heads cut off, trying to get our kids into the best schools and schlepping them to math camp and farm camp and violin lessons and soccer and ballet, all in hopes that something will stick and get them into an Ivy League college one day.
I don’t want any of that meshugas for my daughters or myself, and I believe that Jewish day school is the best chance I have to end that cycle. Whether or not they grow up to be Jewish professionals is irrelevant to me, but I do believe I can best prepare them to find their own paths by giving them a strong home base they can always come back to. My husband and I are part of that, to be sure, but we’re only one part of it. The rest of it is about a community and a system of beliefs and traditions and values–their birthright–that they will carry with them the rest of their lives, whether or not they choose to live active Jewish lives.
There is no way to know what direction my daughters’ lives will take them in, and I know I can’t prepare them for every eventuality. But I can, along with the help of my husband, my extended family, our Rabbi and synagogue, and now, JCDS, give them the knowledge, wisdom, and community to know how to struggle effectively with the truly challenging, meaningful, and important issues of life: how to treat others, how to mourn the dead, how to conduct oneself in a business transaction, how to celebrate new life and new relationships, how to educate oneself and others, how to see the beauty in an inherently flawed world, how to make hard decisions, how to acknowledge the passing of time.
Josh and I were at a fund-raiser at the school last night, and as we walked through the hallways admiring the tallitot (prayer shawls) that the children had made, the posters of their family history, the camera stands they had built, the animated videos they put together about the 4th amendment, I realized something else. The Hebrew, the Torah, the prayers that my daughters will learn–it’s all inseparable from everything else I want for them, everything else I truly believe they will get from their day school education.