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Jul 30 2013

Some Parents Don’t Need Jewish Day School, But I’m Not One of Them

By at 9:55 am

hebrew letters on notebookI read Jordana Horn’s piece in the Jewish Daily Forward about “Jewish Homeschooling” as an alternative to Jewish Day School with great interest. In it, Jordana states, “I’m not against day school, per se. I just don’t think that day school is essential in order to raise children who are Jewish and proud to be Jewish.”

Of course she’s right. Committed parents don’t need day school to make Judaism a joyful and central part of family life, as Jordana suggests in her piece. She also briefly acknowledges that parents who don’t feel Jewishly educated enough can avail themselves of books, online resources, and synagogue communities.

This is where things get a little tricky for me. 

As many of you know, I wasn’t raised in a Jewish home. My father’s family are assimilated Jews (my Jewish grandmother celebrates Christmas) and although my mother definitely has Jewish ancestry, I will never know for certain if my mother is halakhically Jewish. I went to the mikveh before I became a mother, which is an entirely different story.

Without family to teach me about Judaism, it has been my job to educate myself. Fortunately, my husband (a graduate of Schechter and Ramah who grew up in a Reconstructionist home) and our Reconstructionist synagogue have been great supports to me. I have read a ton and taken numerous adult education courses, including Me’ah (a two-year program of study) and a Jewish parenting course (both through Hebrew College in Newton, MA). I had an adult bat mitzvah when I was 25, and yes, I even read from the Torah (poorly, but I got through it). I haven’t eaten pork or shellfish in years, but thanks to a semester of Ulpan (intensive study of Hebrew), I can now order strawberries and chocolate in Hebrew.

Once the girls were born, I immediately signed them up for PJ Library, and the books are in heavy rotation in our home. We welcome Shabbat every Friday night, and sing the Shema at bedtime. We listen to Jewish music, and I take Passover and Hanukkah crafts to the girls’ daycare and preschool classes. The girls are in Hebrew school, and we attend family minyan and Tot Shabbat regularly. And in one of my finest achievements, I suckered an amazing Jewish parenting website into letting me write for them.

If all of this sounds like I’m over-compensating, well, you bet your tuchus I am.

And yet it’s not enough. There is so much I don’t know. (Despite having attended multiple Simchat Torah celebrations, when I came across the word hakafa in Jordana’s piece, I had to look it up.) The reality is that no matter how much I read or study or pray, I will always feel, to some extent, like a stranger in a strange land, as if I will forever be speaking Judaism with a thick accent.

I can’t tell you how much it bothers me that my devotion and commitment to Judaism and all that I have learned will forever be in tension with the fact that I am an immigrant to the religion and the culture, that I feel like a fraud. This is an extremely difficult concept to explain to anyone who hasn’t lived it. Not only do I constantly feel the need to justify my place in the community (my issue, I know, but an issue nonetheless), but as anyone who has lived in a foreign country for any period of time knows, it gets exhausting. As much as you may deeply love your adopted country, at some point you just want to go back home where you know what everything means and don’t have to constantly wonder if you’re getting it right.

I want more for my daughters than this–much more. Even though I believe that I am a good enough mother to them in so many other ways, when it comes to their Jewish education, I’m just not. Not for what I want for them.

My husband is a wonderful source of support, and he is totally involved in our Jewish home life. Just this past spring, he created a kid-friendly Passover Haggadah. Between his extensive Jewish knowledge and the wonders of the Internet, he made it in just a couple of hours. Meanwhile, I struggle to remember all of the plagues and the difference between lice and pestilence. I suppose I could let him take care of everything, but I don’t want to–not only because I also want to be a role model for the girls, but also because it makes me happy to celebrate and learn with my family.

The reality is that some Jewish parents may not need Jewish day school, but I’m not one of them. Although at times I feel frustrated and resentful of this truth, I’m trying to stay focused on how lucky I am to have a supportive community and choices in how we educate them. This fall, we’ll be visiting three Jewish day schools in our area in hopes of finding the right match for our family, as our older daughter will be entering kindergarten in the fall of 2014.

You know the old joke about the Jew who ends up on a desert island and builds two synagogues–one he wants to attend, and one he would never set foot in? Not only am I happy that I’m not raising my kids on a desert island, but I’m immensely grateful to live in a time and a community in which there are multiple ways to raise Jewishly educated and engaged children.

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