We sat uncomfortably around the conference table in the Head of School’s office for another parent teacher conference. “Of course we can accommodate your son!” the rabbi asserted. A side glance at his teacher’s downcast face suggested otherwise.
I thought about this teacher’s class: 22 second graders , all of them boys. I knew she was exhausted or perhaps exasperated. The hours are long in our Orthodox school and staying focused is a very hard concept to appreciate for kids. My son Avi struggled to stay in his seat. He loved school but was taking a huge hit to his self-esteem; he simply couldn’t keep up with the pace of a dual curriculum. He knew he was well behind his classmates and was beginning to look for other ways to gain acceptance. Let’s just say, less productive ways.
For 12 years, our family lived a Modern Orthodox lifestyle. I dabbled with covering my hair and wearing skirts, I struggled to find comfortable modest clothes and settled on the shlumpy look. We did everything by the book, not necessarily because we believed that it was truly ‘the way’ but because we wanted our children’s friends to eat in our home.
For a time, I was confident we were raising our children the right way. Before my husband and I got married, I was adamant that my children would not be assimilated American Jews. They would be raised with a traditional Jewish education, Shabbat observance, and a strong love of Israel. I dreamt of spending summers in Israel, letting my children roam freely in bands of youths all day long, gaining a sense of independence, responsibility, and collaboration unknown to American children whose parents find it safer, quieter and easier to sit them in front of the TV.
I admit it, I loved being part of a community. I loved knowing my neighbors, swapping books, sharing recipes, and laughing over too much wine with them over Shabbat. I loved when my kids told us what they learned about Torah and showed us their creative Judaic projects; I was proud of their knowledge and innate love of Judaism.
But I saw my bright older son’s frustration with his teacher’s inexperience in managing a class with wide range of academic and behavioral needs. Something had to give. That’s when my husband and I knew we had to reshuffle the deck. We evaluated our options, we labored over our priorities and took a second look at our once non-negotiables.
Ultimately, we decided it was time to go. We sought out the best public school district and we jumped ship. Our children thrived in the public school system —Avi got the remediated assistance he desperately needed and jumped two grade levels in one year to finally get on grade level. Asher inhaled the learning in his gifted classes and the disciplined and respectful behavior of his peers. We committed ourselves to greater shul involvement and attendance to reinforce its value. We drove to Chabad on Shabbat mornings, played kickball in our yard in the afternoon, and my husband and son’s returned to shul for afternoon and evening services.
School was our first step away. A few years later, another move, another step away. If we truly had the conviction that Day School was the only option, we would have stayed. If we truly had the conviction that living a Modern Orthodox lifestyle was the only option, we would have stayed. But that is ultimately what we struggled with.
You have to completely buy-in to stay in the system.
Leaving was a surprisingly seamless transition for us. Some things we deliberated on–the only Sunday youth basketball league was 30 minutes away, but we joined so we wouldn’t be playing on Saturdays. Other things were no brainers–Summer Shabbats are long and boring so after exhausting our game supply, we started watching movies.
You know where it goes from there.
We enjoy going to shul for our friend’s happy occasions, their simchas. We show up in our old community and reconnect with everyone. It’s easy to spot my husband–the lone light purple dress shirt in a sea of black jackets. Everyone embraces us and asks how we are and what we are up to. The truth is, I miss the collective embrace and the sense of belonging with the security of a community.
We had tried for many years to put our children first by giving them that sense of belonging, and ultimately, we did put them first: We chose their secular education over religion. I know many people who were able to stay in their community while their children got what they needed at their local public schools. We would have loved that option if it had been available to us.
Today, I feel less sad, less conflicted about our decision to leave. Sometimes I think we slipped through the cracks, other times I think we just walked out the door. I wanted to raise my children ‘frum from birth’ so they wouldn’t struggle with their identity, with family that questioned their religious decisions, with rationalizing the cost of tuition and to truly fight assimilation. But it wasn’t to be.
How I long for a meeting with the crystal ball psychic —will my children have a connection to Judaism when they get older? Will they struggle with their Jewish identity? Will they value it and in what why will they incorporate Judaism in their lives when they’re older? Do we incorporate enough Judaism into our home? Will it make an impact? I’ve read the statistics.
Ultimately, finding their place in Judaism will be a journey our children will have to take on their own, and perhaps that’s a gift we’re giving them too. We hope the values they get at home will launch them on a quest to better understand their relationship with their faith and to educate themselves instead of taking Torah observance for granted. But mostly, we hope to will lay a good foundation for their future—however our children choose to define their own belonging.