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Jun 24 2013

I Cheated My Sons Out of a Jewish Education

By at 5:04 pm

empty classroomMy oldest son graduated from the 8th grade last week. His father and I picked this particular school for its academic rigor. By the time his nine years there were up, my son had visited England, passed Algebra 2, read Virgil (in Latin), played Katherine in a full staging of Shakespeare’s Henry V, and drawn a map of Europe freehand, including mountain ranges and bodies of water, with only the latitude and longitude as guidelines.

We were ecstatic about his education and how well it prepared him for the future.

Though the school is ostensibly non-denominational, their crest does feature a cross. When my son inquired about it, he was informed that the cross represents all religions. (He thus proceeded to refer to it as The Cross of All Religions for the past several years. It was funny the first time. Not so much the 74th.)

Up through 6th grade, in addition to regular school, I also sent my son to Hebrew School twice a week for two hours each. It made for a long day–almost 12 hours in total, but I felt it was necessary. By the 7th grade, however, his schedule became so full with secular academics that we ended up dropping Hebrew School, trying to make up for it with weekly Shabbat services at our temple, instead.

Because we were so happy with the school for our older son, we sent our younger one there, as well. However, as it’s an all-boy school, that wasn’t an option for our daughter. Based on my experience with the cross-town rush from one site to another, I insisted to my husband that we send her to a Jewish Day School, so she could get everything in one place. (Of course, this being New York City, my wanting her to attend a Jewish Day School did not necessarily mean we’d be accepted to one; so we did look broadly, just in case.)

A few days after my son’s graduation, we were sitting at the Friday night service of the congregation of my daughter’s school. I watched her sing and clap along with all the blessings, cover her eyes for the Shema, and turn to welcome the Shabbat Queen. My daughter was doing it all organically, nearly instinctively, and at utter ease.

I also watched my sons, trying to keep up with the service, always a beat behind with what everyone else was doing, and generally tuned out while the prayers were going on, staring up at the ceiling, eyes glazed over.

And that’s when I realized that, in spite of Shakespeare and Virgil and a ridiculously detailed map of Europe, I had still cheated my boys out of an education. A Jewish education.

For some people, it’s not an issue. Everything they need to know about Judaism, they learn at home. But, I was born in the former Soviet Union and raised by parents who’d grown up under Stalin, when being Jewish was something you hid, and practicing any religion was a jailable offense. There was very little they could pass onto me. My husband is African-American (though his father, having worked in New York hospital administration for 40 years knew enough to ask about Sukkot, “Is that the holiday where you all sleep on your fire escapes?”). My husband and I can do our best to try and create a Jewish home, but neither of us feels confident enough in our knowledge to risk that being the children’s only exposure.

For some people, Hebrew School is enough. It wasn’t for us. Though there were many wonderful aspects about the one my boys attended, including a couple of truly terrific instructors, the constant teacher turnover and, in the end, the simple fact that it was only four hours a week, nine months out of the year, didn’t give them enough of a foundation to feel comfortable or engaged.

For a family like ours, Jewish Day School makes the most sense.

My husband is a teacher. I am a writer. Three private school tuitions in New York City is not an easy feat to pull off. Education is literally our greatest expense, ahead of housing, ahead of food, ahead of travel and entertainment and clothes.

We’ve never regretted a penny we’ve spent on education (not even when one of the kids says or does something so remarkably stupid that it makes you wonder). And I still love everything my boys gained from the school they attended.

On the other hand, for the first time ever, I’ve also started wondering about everything they’ve lost….

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