As our children head back to school, it is crucial to remember how powerful schools are in creating community.
Jewish immigrants arriving to America relied on public schools to integrate their children into American society. We can see in today’s documented intermarriage rate of 58 percent among American Jews just how transformative our school enrollment decisions can be within the span of a generation.
When the bell rings at the end of the first day of school, we’re likely to ask our children, “So, what did you learn today?” This year, let’s try asking something else: “So, who are your new friends?”
For every child, and many of us adults, fitting in and finding friendship and connection is a top priority. Our innate desire for approval and love comes to the fore whenever we encounter a new grouping. Often, we don’t pay enough attention to this aspect of our daily lives.
Those of us who choose a Jewish day school for our child also have some investigating to do. Look into your child’s eyes and probe to figure out, how welcoming is my child’s school? We can’t afford the consequences of school settings that are fracturing the next generation of American Jews by marginalizing some children. Differentiation is beneficial when it comes to structuring a science lesson, but never as a school community. It threatens our Jewish future when any school groups together more advantaged kids, or students whose first language is English, families that vote Democrat or Republican, or those who appear more religious or appear less religious.
As I attend back-to-school parent programs, I see in the eyes of parents two levels of concern. One, how do I fit in among this community of peers? Two, how do imagine my child’s growth within this setting? Remember, first days of school are anxious ones.
Do you wonder if what I see is accurate?
Consider this: The US Supreme Court decision to integrate schools in 1954 is the development which has arguably had the most sweeping positive impact on American education in the past 75 years. Our society has thankfully rejected “separate but equal,” regardless of how much further you think we still have to go. By sitting in the same row of desks, playing together and eating lunch together, and using the same bathrooms, belonging in America has been redefined.
But what are we doing about belonging to the Jewish people?
We owe it to the future of each of our children, and whatever future American Jewry will enjoy, to give this aspect of school serious consideration.
As a Jewish school leader, I see this as my highest calling. How welcome is each and every student? How integral does the child feel within his classroom community? I am happiest when I hear from a parent whose child missed a day due to illness that the child protested, “But Mom, my class needs me to come in today.”
I lead a diverse school, Soille San Diego Hebrew Day School, where it is likely that parents enroll their child knowing relatively few other families. San Diego is a decidedly unaffiliated Jewish community — two Jews, three opinions, and often no synagogue affiliation. It is geographically separated by mesas and valleys, so if your best friend lives one neighborhood away, the canyons and freeways make it impossible to connect by bike. Yet we are a school with a strong sense of community. When a family faces difficulty or tragedy, other families reach out with support and genuine concern. Jewish unity is created by simply learning Torah with one another, an outcome of parents deciding to raise kids together, sharing the joy of seeing your child and mine progress as a mensch and as a Jew.
The long-term outcome? Lifelong friendships grow among families with varying affiliations, speaking different languages at home, eating different varieties of Jewish foods, and traveling to school from different neighborhoods.
Can we muster the courage to commit to Jewish schooling, sending our kids without reservation to a place which will connect them and us to one another and to the Jewish people for our entire lives? Do it, and you will learn that it is all possible.
As school restarts for 2019-2020 academic year (5780 on the Hebrew calendar), let’s set aside for at least a week our considerations about whether Harvard or Yale should be the first choice for college, or if the new math teacher is capable of getting our child into graduate school by age 20. Instead, let’s focus on enabling kids and their parents to overcome mundane insecurities and petty differences, while new friends are made and new teachers are embraced.
We can start the school year celebrating that our child’s classmates may be their best friends forever; that our families will become increasingly connected to Israel and Jews everywhere; and that the odds of marrying a fellow Jew dramatically increase year by year with participation in Jewish education.
Boys and girls in Jewish schools learn how important being Jewish is, how gratitude is foundational to happiness, and how meaningful 21st-century living can be. Simultaneously, we affirm a parenting tradition which has served Jewish families in good stead ever since Sinai.
Welcome to the new school year.