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Nov 23 2010

To Jew or Not to Jew: Nursery School

By at 12:31 pm

Deciding between the aleph bet and the ABCs

It’s nursery school time. My son just turned 2 and we’re trying to figure out where he’ll go to school next year.

We know we want to give him a good education and socialize him in a group setting. With another child on the way, distance and price are factors. And we hope we’ll be able to stay with the same school for the second child.

So, we put three nursery schools on the list: the one I attended for  middle school and high school; the local Montessori school, and, finally, the nursery school that I attended, as a member of the very first class, Beth Elohim Early Childhood Center. It didn’t truly occur to us that my nursery school had a Jewish aspect because all I remembered was the dress-up area, the blocks, the place where we took naps and ice cream sandwiches.

Ironically, I didn’t remember learning about Jewish holidays or Shabbat there. My parents told me otherwise.

We decided to include Beth Elohim, anyway, as we knew we’d give our son a Jewish education at some point. This would start it early and would connect us to a new community of young Jewish families. But I had doubts about whether we would really send him; mostly, we only celebrate some of the Jewish holidays and participate in big life ceremonies like weddings or brises.

After hearing, on a moms’ listserv, about the outrageous line that develops at 5am on the day that the applications become available, I called to find out if this was really necessary. The school gives priority to temple members, siblings and legacy, and then goes to a first-come, first-serve policy for non-members. They encouraged me (a non-member but legacy) to skip the line and wait until my tour before applying. I was relieved  that the school didn’t perpetuate this competitive culture but that competitive parents did. So, I showed up at the school at 10:30am on the day applications were available. I think I was the 92nd person to sign in.

It seems that I should have clued in that this ridiculously competitive, highly sought-after school was much more than a perfectly fine school with some Jewish components. But, when we took a tour two weeks later, I was blown away. Many of the philosophies that we heard about are things that we already employ with our son at home. The Jewish element didn’t even come up until we were a quarter of the way through the tour and only because another parent asked.

They explore Shabbat and the holidays through cooking, music, art and books. When the children do acts of kindness or mitzvahs, they are posted on a board in the classrooms. Since the school is open to non-members of any background, they were specific in telling us that if a student came to school, talking about their Christmas, the teachers would still welcome that as part of the child’s experience. These were all things we could get on board with.

But, with my brother and Chinese sister-in-law living in Beijing and my French grandmother-in-law, we were curious how international cultures played into this kind of education. It was based on the children’s experience: should a student return from a multi-cultural experience and want to explore it further, a parent might come in to help with a one-time cooking or art project but it wouldn’t be a whole three-week unit unless it was something many students were experiencing.

Our end conclusion: it spoke to our high bar for education and to our values, some of which were probably seeded there 31 years ago. So now the only questions were distance, price and how the other schools measured up. The Jewish aspect had become an asset rather than a hurdle.

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