A number of years ago, my husband and I assumed we had decided to send our children to Jewish day school. We are a “frum Conservative” family. We keep kosher. We observe Shabbat. No work or school on Jewish holidays, either. The kind of family that—for sure—sends their kids to day school.
When our oldest child was in preschool, I began bringing him to programs at the local day school intended for prospective students. Soon enough, we found ourselves applying to that same school for admission—and for financial aid. The financial aid process was excruciatingly stressful. After filling out the forms, we found ourselves wondering how on earth we would pay for 13 years of day school tuition for three children.
So, we decided not to do it. And we have no regrets.
Our experiences in public schools over the past six years have been wonderful. When curious friends and acquaintances ask us how our religious observance works with having our children in public school, we can honestly tell them that we haven’t had any difficulties. The teachers and staff have been respectful and helpful in every case. One first grade teacher called us during the school day to make sure our son was permitted to eat the treat that she had brought into the classroom. Some teachers have given our children their assignments in advance of holidays, while others have helped them catch up afterwards, either during the school day or after school.
But more than the ease of our observance, what strikes me most about our boys’ school district are the values that are woven into everyday learning. In elementary school, students are taught to “fill each others’ buckets” with kindness. They are taught to respect one another. They are taught to stand up for other kids against bullies. In both elementary school and middle school, students are taught to give back to the community with meaningful fundraisers throughout the year. One of my favorite examples of this is “Hat Day” at the middle school. If a student brings in a canned good or $1 for the local food bank, he or she may wear a crazy hat for the day. The kids are fully engaged in this type of giving. And by the time kids reach high school, they have mandatory community service—service is an obligation.
For our children, there really is no identity conflict. All three feel a strong connection to their public school community, where they are fully engaged with an interesting and diverse group of kids. Yet all three have strong Jewish identities. Two of our boys proudly practiced writing their Hebrew letters during free choice time in their kindergarten year. Two of our kids chose important Jewish role models—Leonard Bernstein and Marc Chagall—for school biography projects. At home, one boy loves reading and rereading his Torah stories (in translation), trying to absorb every detail that he can. All three boys film and edit home movies reenacting the Passover story. (Our 6-year-old plays a mean Pharaoh!)
Some might argue that our kids’ Hebrew would be more fluent and their Jewish learning would be more extensive in a day school environment. And they are correct, of course. But there are plenty of years ahead for taking on such challenges. For now, our boys are learning to navigate their Jewish identities in a secular world—a skill that will surely serve them well in years to come.