Teaching our Children to Fish

I read the article about Orthodox parents sending their children to public schools, “Frum Times in Teaneck High” (January 12), on the Friday night it first appeared. To be frank, I didn’t like it, so I reread it after Shabbat, hoping that I would feel differently. Unfortunately, it did not improve with age.

Before I explain, let me first, in the interest of transparency, lay out some relevant personal biography, biases, and beliefs.

1. I am the proud product of the modern Orthodox day school system, from kindergarten through my graduation from Yeshiva College 17 years later. My four children likewise are products of that system, from nursery school through their post-high school gap year in Israel. My two oldest grandchildren have begun their day school studies in Toronto, and their younger sister soon will follow them.

2. The current vibrant Modern Orthodox community and its laity, highly literate in both Jewish and secular fields, in large part owe their existence and whatever success they may have achieved to the day- school movement.

3. Day schools are far from perfect; there are serious problems with their financial structure and the burden that places on families, as well as with certain educational areas.

4. Although there are many different types of day schools, they are not able to meet the needs of all members of the community.

5. Deciding what type of education to provide for your children is a primary parental obligation, and it should be based on what is best for the particular child, not what is best for the community. And since parents know their children better than others do, no parent should be criticized or judged by others or by the community for the educational choices they make.

6. It should go without saying that no child ever should be ostracized by others in the community based upon where they go to school.

With that said, I turn to my reaction to the article.

First, articles of this nature dealing with a highly sensitive subject should be balanced. Unfortunately, this one was not. It was certainly very important that the parents quoted had an opportunity to speak publicly about this issue, and I commend the Standard for giving them a platform to do so. But other voices, perhaps of day school parents but certainly those of yeshiva educators who are highly qualified to speak and most likely have other perspectives, also should have been heard. Discussing only one side was not only unfair to the side being ignored but also left readers with a skewed understanding of the issue’s complexity.

Moreover, the entire tone of the article was unbalanced; public schools good, day schools not so much. We were told that public schools have more academic support and a higher caliber of education, allow students to have a finer appreciation of what it means to be a Jew in the real world, have more professional teachers and a better standard of what they’re doing, are fairer in the manner in which they treat all children and parents, have better support and tactics for dealing with kids who have issues, take more responsibility in their dealings with parents, have more respectful students and less bullying, accommodate students’ particular needs more sensitively, react faster to aggressive situations, and have better extracurricular activities.
Really? I’m sure some of that is true, but all of it?? Really? Day schools come in second to public schools in all of these categories? Really? When I practiced as a litigator, one aspect of my preparation of prospective witnesses was to advise them to neither gild the lily nor close their eyes to problems with their testimony. Since every case has weaknesses, I would explain, overstatements and refusing to confront problems damage credibility. Had I been asked, I would have given this same advice to the parents quoted in the article.

My sense of day schools is quite different from the one presented in the article, based on decades of personal experience, both as a student and as a parent, in dealing with yeshiva teachers and administrators (I never missed a single parent-child conference) and being exposed to the schools’ curriculum and modes of education. That experience taught me that our day schools are overflowing with many superb educators and provide a simply first-rate education in many areas. It also taught me about the care they give and sensitivity they show to both their students and parent bodies. And I was not a macher or big donor by any standard.

I also know how well prepared my children and many of their classmates were for the sophisticated and high-level education they were exposed to, both in their gap years as well as in college and graduate school programs. While many factors went into this, the excellent foundation laid in their day school years was an important element in their success. Thus, the article presented an at best incomplete picture of what actually takes place in day schools.
And you needn’t take only my word for it. Read a masterful essay by Erica Brown, who attended a “fancy prep school” until she was 16, called “The Case for Day Schools,” which recently appeared in the Jewish Week and the Times of Israel. It makes the case for the excellence of day schools much better than I.

But perhaps the most critical substantive problem was the article’s almost complete silence regarding the main raison d’etre of day schools — teaching Torah and Torah values to help our children develop into knowledgeable adults committed to our tradition and community. Public schools, no matter what their virtues, cannot do this, and if their students want this knowledge they must go elsewhere to obtain it. While that’s not impossible, it’s very difficult to learn Torah rigorously while attending public school. As Dr. Brown wrote, the best case for day schools is “the life it delivers long after graduation.”
Again, let me be clear. I understand that legitimate reasons exist and sometimes the need to send some children to public schools overrides the difficulty, and often the impossibility, of those students learning Torah on a high level. And I therefore do not, God forbid, judge parents who make that decision. But at the very least, sacrificing an intensive and meaningful Torah education should be a significant factor in the decision-making calculus. If it was, no serious mention of it was made in the article.

And finally, I believe that all members of our Modern Orthodox community, whether or not they personally use the day school system, need to express hakarat hatov, their gratitude, for all that these schools have done in making our community the success it has become.

So I say to the parents quoted in the article, I appreciate your explanations about why you send your children to public schools. But don’t belittle the day schools by implication after implication that they are second rate as compared to the public schools. True hakarat hatov as well as a commitment to emet — to truth — demand better.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck's Judaica House and its website). A retired lawyer and long-time resident of Teaneck with his wife Sharon, they’ve been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.