I was one of those odd kids who actually enjoyed Hebrew school. Beginning in third grade, two afternoons a week, Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday, depending on the year, my class met in the charmingly retro classrooms of B’nai Jacob Synagogue in Charleston, WV. There were only three or four of us in each grade level and we were taught by Mrs. Sherman, a kind and funny mom who had outspoken opinions, bright red nails and bold, 1980s sweaters. She had been to Ulpan and assured us that if we went to Israel to study, we would be speaking the language in six weeks flat.
Mrs. Sherman taught us the Alef Bet, basic Hebrew vocabulary and some of the prayers in the siddur. Even though I quickly grasped and excelled at these lessons, I knew I was already behind. My mom recalled that in her youth, Hebrew school began in first grade and met as often as four afternoons a week. I used to think about how much more I would know if I had started learning to read Hebrew at the same time I began learning to read English.
A few times a year, my cousins from Cincinnati would visit, and I remember feeling embarrassed that my younger cousin was so much more fluent in Hebrew, and generally much more knowledgeable about Judaism. She had attended Jewish day school from “pre-primary,” and had been studying Hebrew and Judaics from her toddler years.
I was close to my cousins, and even though I only saw them a few times a year, I learned a tremendous amount from them. I learned about the prohibition of carrying outside an eruv on Shabbat, and the importance of saying brochot before and after eating. On one visit, when I was about 11 years old, I became frustrated when, after eating Shabbat lunch together, my cousins said bircat hamazon seemingly effortlessly while I found the long prayer to be daunting. One of my older cousins, who had tremendous patience, sat with me later as I painstakingly sounded out every word. Because my reading was so slow, it literally took half an hour.
If I had grown up in a larger Jewish community, attending Jewish day school might have been a possibility for me as well, but with only about 1,000 Jews in the whole community, there just wasn’t the critical mass to make that happen. I was fortunate to become involved in the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) in my early teen years, and that helped me connect to other study opportunities and led me to attend Stern College for Women. In four years of college I was able to “catch up” with much of the Judaic content I had missed in earlier years, but the frustration I first felt as a child when I recognized the deficits in my knowledge continued for many years, and still affects me from time to time even now.
Long before I became a parent, there was no question that I would send my children to Jewish day school, and I am incredibly fortunate that my children have the opportunity to attend a wonderful Jewish day school with strong secular and Judaic curricula, as well as a warm environment where Judaism, and being Jewish, is actively celebrated.
You can’t put a price on the opportunity to raise children with an innate sense of their religious and cultural identity. To grow up in an environment in which they are educated in the language and beliefs of their people, even though they are a small minority in the surrounding culture. Such an education is priceless. However, the real world cost of providing this education is significant, even when most day school teachers earn less than public school teachers. As a result, day school tuition becomes a significant portion of families’ expenses.
Before I had children enrolled in Jewish day school, I never really thought about the monetary cost of day school education in a practical way. As a former reporter for a Jewish newspaper, I wrote periodically about the expense of Jewish living, and even once did a monetary breakdown for an article, which considered the actual cost of tuition for the three Jewish day schools in my community. I spoke to parents who said they made sacrifices to send their kids to day school, but those sacrifices – foregoing fancy vacations, delaying the purchase of a new car — didn’t sound so terrible. It was worth it to them. It was all about priorities.
But in the decade or so since I did that line item breakdown, a lot has changed in our economic realities. Salaries have stagnated, while costs of housing, medical care and other expenses have risen. Families are stretched thin. While day schools extend themselves to provide scholarships to many families, parents still have to make a significant financial commitment, and it’s not easy.
More and more I hear fellow parents discussing the financial strain of day school education, with some even toying with sending their kids to public school and somehow reviving the old Hebrew school model. This is despite the fact that Jewish supplemental schools have been in decline for decades across denominations, and their efficacy has long been questioned.
Generations of Jewish children resented the obligation to spend their afternoons in Hebrew school while their non-Jewish classmates participated in other activities, and that’s unlikely to change now. If the model itself produced a high level of Judaic knowledge, it might be worth exploring. However, by and large, the Jewish knowledge base of Hebrew school graduates is mediocre at best, and frequently dismal. When supplemental school is the best or only option for families, it has its place, but it’s wrong to assume that Hebrew school is just as good as day school, even when the teachers are as devoted and wonderful as Mrs. Sherman.
I don’t have an answer to the financial question of how to make Jewish day school education viable. I suspect that any solution will contain elements of what has worked in the past (and continues in most schools): community fund-raising, and providing scholarships to families that can’t fulfill the tuition burden on their own. The community throughout the United States is long overdue for the next big idea that will make day schools more financially viable. For now, the system is imperfect, and still requires families to make some sacrifices in exchange for an intensive Jewish education for their children and other children in the community.
However, the question of whether Jewish day school education is worth it is not just financial, but also qualitative. Some parents note that day school education cannot guarantee that children will feel connected to their heritage, or want to maintain observance after graduating. They also note that the experience of Jewish day school isn’t always as positive as hoped – sometimes children are bullied by classmates, and sometimes the academic offerings or social atmosphere of a local public school seem more positive.
It is true that students may go through years of Jewish day school and have experiences that turn them away from Jewish observance and communal life, rather than bringing them closer. It is horrible when this happens, and it is terrible when the atmosphere or educational quality of schools contributes to this phenomenon.
Fortunately, there are many day schools that provide largely positive experiences. Jewish day schools have come a long way in recent years in adhering to high academic standards and addressing social problems within their student bodies. There is always room for improvement, but the fact is, the day school model is the best option we have for providing a foundation in our heritage, language and beliefs. Realistically, some portion of day school graduates will choose, for various reasons, to reject Jewish observance, but they at least have the background to know what they are rejecting, and the knowledge to reconnect with their heritage later in life, should they choose to do so.
When I watch my second grader studying texts, in Hebrew, that I did not study until college, I am comforted that whatever sacrifices or trade-offs we make for day school education are more than worth the expense.