On a child flying solo — and how Jewish education helps

Illustrative. Students studying, conducting, literary analysis, or the like. (iStock)
Illustrative. Students studying, conducting, literary analysis, or the like. (iStock)

Annals of Appreciation: In 2018 I reached a milestone both mundane and magnificent — one of my birdies flew from the nest, and she is soaring.

This child, who when last I checked could barely pour her own milk and whose room resembles Times Square after the ball drops (only with way more trash on the ground) has made it through her first semester of college with flying colors. She studied! She ate! She made new friends! She found someone willing to room with her, who apparently loves stepping on trash! I could hardly ask for more.

But there is more! University administrators talk about college as the “real world,” something I question, given that all meals are prepared by others and the bills go to Mom and Dad. But leaving home did offer real-world moments, and again, she succeeded. My baby bird managed to get her own passport, a process that involved many complicated new procedures, like entering a post office and filling out a government form. It required reading long boring instructions and gathering multiple documents at the same time, not to mention remembering where to put stamps on an envelope, a task she last did when her first-grade class did a unit on mail. (The other class learned how to make chocolate, a much more useful life skill.) She learned a new subway system and navigated airports and security lines and flight delays — actual flying! And she even called her Bubbe and Saba once in a while. Such nachas!

As for her actual studies, I found it hugely satisfying to see how much her Jewish education propelled her to success, and how much she acknowledged this to be the case. We chose to send our children to Jewish schools for many reasons — to learn their religion and heritage, develop their spirituality and ethics, connect to their community, ensure the continuity of the Jewish people. We want quality secular education too, but rarely consider how each part improves the other. More often, parents bemoan the tradeoffs of the dual curriculum. Such a long day! So much pressure! So many subjects! Do they really need all that Gemara? How can they compete with hours and hours of Jewish studies taking up time that could be spent on math and grammar and other critical knowledge?

How gratifying, then, to see that the Jewish studies actually were the foundation for her success in every subject. Yes, in all the ways building character and good work habits help, but also in unexpected ways. Acquiring a huge body of knowledge few possess is like wearing a superhero costume — it may not show on the outside, but you know you have special powers. And when it is revealed, admiration and awe abound. When the TA in her archaeology course asked how she knew so much about ancient Mesopotamia, she felt like a genius.

In the social sciences and humanities, learning Torah is like having The Force. Bible study is rarer than ever for entering college students, yet it remains fundamental to any topic dealing with the last few thousand years of Western civilization. Literature, history, political science, philosophy, art, music, sociology, and psychology all draw on this universal source of shared morality and memory. My daughter’s Chumash teacher found her knowledge ordinary, but her tenured professors of art and history thought it outstanding, God bless them. She may have laughed when they complimented her “rare” knowledge of the Bible, but she also recognized it as an academic superpower.

And she had yet another secret weapon forged from ancient texts. Jewish studies classes develop incomparable analytical skills, which in turn lead to original insights. In what other curriculum do students study the same text repeatedly, year after year, accruing depth and nuance with each rereading? What program shares our focus on close readings, finding inferences, and comparing multiple critiques of the same text, all routine in every Talmud, Chumash, and Navi class? The analytical abilities and habits of mind most college students work hard to acquire flow naturally to those accustomed to traditional modes of Jewish learning.

Most of all, my daughter’s lifelong immersion in Jewish education developed her comfort with choosing a path of her own, the root of all success in life. Disregarding the standard advice to take some intro classes and knock out a requirement or two, she devoted what seemed like excessive time to selecting her courses, and chose several with narrowly focused subjects, including two with no other freshmen and only a few undergrads. What appeared odd choices in fact showed wisdom. Instead of fretting that her learning differences present challenges, she searched out classes that played to her natural academic strengths. Recognizing that her inner slacker would be tempted if she could hide in the back of a large lecture hall like a normal freshman, she chose tiny classes, knowing it would force her to show up prepared. Her comfort making decisions that differ reaped rewards of loving every class, developing close relationships with her professors and classmates, and strengthening her confidence in her abilities and her choices.

In a world that grows more complex every day, and requires ever more skill to navigate, all parents wonder how to best give their children the education they need to succeed. I’m grateful to know that the time my daughters spend pursuing their heritage also gives them the lift they need to fly high.

May you continue to soar in 2019, baby bird! And please, clean up your nest!

About the Author
Laura Fein is an attorney and non-profit consultant. She speaks frequently on Israel, BDS, and the impact of government and intergroup relations on the Jewish community.
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