Education: Secular or Jewish


Education: Secular or Jewish


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The Importance of Jewish Education

By Deborah Biskin Levine

With all the discussion about vouchers to help defray the cost of parochial education, there are still many who are opposed to the Jewish day-school concept on a philosophical or a practical level. Even if they were to receive substantial help from the government or the organized Jewish community, they still would not take advantage of an intensive Jewish education for their children. Like most of us who are committed to the ideal of day-school education, I have received my share of flack for choosing to send my children to the Hebrew Academy.

In some circles, it's not fashionable to require your child to spend half their school day learning about Judaism. Some think it's provincial and almost un-American. Others have confided in me that they would be embarrassed by their son getting on the school bus wearing a kippah or by their daughter carrying a book with Hebrew writing on the cover.

My kids always joke that the yearbooks of the local suburban schools look like GAP advertisements–filled with blonde haired middle-class kids wearing chinos. Interspersed among the pictures of the white, gentile children are the Jewish students, one or two African Americans and three or four Asians. Many of the parents of the Jewish children swear that they send their progeny to public schools and not to the Hebrew day-schools so they can encounter a diverse peer group. A noble and democratic ideal. Why then do these families flock to schools where almost everyone is white and living in three or four bedroom colonials with two and a half bathrooms and two car garages?

Over the years, my children had experiences meeting poor, immigrant students from the former Soviet Union, Israeli children whose parents were born in places like Yemen and Morocco and even black Jews from the southern United States. Admittedly, these kids were all Jews, but their backgrounds were colorful and varied. This particular argument against day- schools would be more believable if parents actually sent their kids to schools in places where they might experience people from different cultures and lower socioeconomic levels.

Others say that day-schools are not reflective of their religious values because they don't observe kashruth and/or Shabbat in their own homes. I wonder if those people who are concerned that their children are exposed to Jewish teachings that they don't feel are applicable to them also worry about their kids being exposed to Christmas trees and Easter bunnies. Why is it acceptable to learn about those Christian rituals when they are not practiced in your home? I can't help but conclude that there is a certain amount of guilt attached. If the children don't learn about critical aspects of Jewish life–then they can't question their parents about why they don't observe them.

On the other hand, if the kids ask why they don't put up a Christmas tree–the parents can proudly and self-righteously say–"because we're Jewish." Thus, the parents feel they are fulfilling their role in educating their kids without having to look at how they are living their own lives. On the other hand, I have met several nonreligious and non-Catholic Christians who send their kids to Catholic school and don't worry about the religious aspect, they actually seem to welcome it. They want their kids to learn discipline and Christian values. Why shouldn't Jews feel the same way? Maybe there is something about Jewish self-hatred here.

Parents often worry that their children will know more about Judaism than they do. How will they be able to help them with their Hebrew or Bible homework? The truth is–hopefully–they won't be able to. Their kids will know a great deal more than they do. Most likely, these same parents won't be able to assist their kids with the new math or their computer assignments either.

It may be frustrating for the moment–but in the long run it usually fills mothers and fathers with pride when junior surpasses them. They know that their children will have to live in another world and they will need to know more and different things than their parents in order to be successful. Somehow, the same doesn't carry through for Judaic studies. Parents appear threatened when kids know more than they. As this generation of kids grows up, they will be increasingly assimilated into the culture and in order to be successful as Jews, they will need to know more.

"Our children need to learn to live in the real world," is a popular lament among day-school detractors. On a practical level, the proof is in the pudding. Day-school education is no longer a new concept, and untold numbers of graduates make the transition easily into "a real world." What may be different about many of these alumni is that they look at Judaism as a pro-active experience. Being Jewish doesn't mean that "we don't celebrate Christmas," being Jewish means we have a Seder and we build a sukkah. Most don't view themselves as Jews in terms of what they are not relative to the Christian majority–but they see themselves based upon what they are relative to three thousand years of Jewish history and culture. Indeed they live in the real world, but they see it through a Jewish lens.

Other parents are concerned that their children won't have the time they feel is necessary to devote to their other interests and passions. It's usual for Jewish parents to devote countless numbers of hours (not to mention huge sums of money) to enable their child to master the tuba or complete an axle on ice skates. Realistically, most of these parents don't believe their child will be a virtuoso or an Olympic athlete. In fact, in many cases, these avocations will probably not last into adulthood. However, they are willing to help their child pursue something that will enrich their lives–at least for the moment.

It is also true that most Jewish parents would like their children to (at the very least) find Jewish spouses, circumcise their male children, belong to a synagogue and have Bar or Bat Mitzvahs for their kids. Most Jews would like to have Jewish grandchildren. In the end, parents will not be brokenhearted if their child can't play the tuba, but they will shed many tears if their child is married in a church. So then, why are they more willing to invest most of their time and energies into their children's development as a tuba player or an ice skater than as a Jew?

Deborah Biskin Levine is a writer living in Albany, New York.

from the February 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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