The case for day schools

Illustrative: American Jewish day school students studying outside. (Courtesy of Hillel Day School/JTA)
Illustrative: American Jewish day school students studying outside. (Courtesy of Hillel Day School/JTA)

“The world endures only for the breath of the school children,” stated Reish Lakish [BT Shabbat 119b]. This quintessentially Jewish teaching weaves family, education and the future into a lyrical portrait of continuity. Maimonides cites this passage in the mandate to establish Jewish schools “in every state, in every district and in every city.” Our best insurance policy is educating the next generation. God, in one talmudic parable, is asked how a Divinity spends time. It’s a fair question. God, it turns out, is busy in the fourth hour of the day teaching school children [BT Avodah Zarah 3b]. Imagine God as your homeroom teacher.

We’re hitting the season of school registration when parents decide to stay or try a new option. No decision may be more important to the life of a family than where your children go to school. It can determine your choice of neighborhood, your choice of friends, and the kind of moral universe you want to build together. So indulge me for a few minutes.

Please consider a Jewish day school education. If you’re thinking of pulling your kid out, please reconsider. Education involves more slow-cooking than microwave cooking. The fruits of day school education are cumulative. Parents and kids tend to think short-term about schooling. And you don’t need to be religious to want a warm, loving, values-based school community for yourself and your children.

I know this well because I entered day school at 16. I could barely write my name in Hebrew. Most day schools do a terrific job transitioning students like me and welcoming families new to Judaism or observance. When it came to where to send our children, there was never a doubt. Is it expensive? Crushingly so. Yet it’s our finest and proudest investment.

I came from a fancy prep school, but worked harder in day school. The rigor of the day over-prepared me for the demands of university. We have research from Brandeis University’s Cohen Center that day school graduates achieve among the highest levels of academic success. Central to that is the confidence these schools instill in their students to handle a serious workload. We talk a lot about resilience in education. Look at the stamina of day school students. They come early, leave late, balance a dual curriculum, and heap on extra-curricular activities.

The dual curriculum and language requirements help prepare the groundwork for critical thinking. I picked up the Jewish propensity to ask questions in English, math, history and science, but probably most in Talmud. The close reading of text in Bible helped me in AP literature and in valuing the interpretive process. Day school exposed me to a Jewish life that was sophisticated, embracing and challenging.

Day school also gave me a treasured group of friends, decent human beings who cared about each other and now care about the world. The Cohen Center study above demonstrated that day school graduates in college were less likely to engage in risky behavior, and after college were more likely to volunteer, to find careers that helped people, and to devote themselves in and outside of work to making a difference in society.

And how many people can say almost 35 years after graduation they are still in touch with some of their high school teachers? My teachers were mission driven. They wanted to grow us as students, caring most about our moral fiber and the totality of our lives.

Day schools offer living wisdom and a soul-stretching education I couldn’t find where I was. Prep school prepared me well for individual achievement. But day school gave me my first-ever community. It taught me to live responsibly in an I-Thou space. It’s no surprise that research done by the Avi Chai Foundation showed an over-representation of day school graduates in leadership positions. When Jewish organizations need leaders, chances are they’ll be filling slots with day school graduates.

Parents usually have three central concerns about schooling: Will my child get into a university of choice? Will my child be socially well-adjusted and achieve his or her personal best? And lastly, will my child embody the values we as a family hold dear? Let’s reverse the order of these questions. Nothing will make you prouder than raising a spiritual child who embodies compassion, uses good judgment, chooses good friends who are good people, advocates justice in the world at large… and gets into a good college.

In education, there is no one-size-fits-all. Discerning parents realize that day school deserves a fair hearing. You might find, as I did, that no single decision has done more to craft a life of meaning for a family. The best case for day school is not what it delivers short-term. It’s the life it delivers long after graduation.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at George Washington University and the director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. She is the author or eleven books; her forthcoming book is entitled Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet (Koren/OU, 2017). She previously served as scholar-in-residence at both The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston. Erica was a Jerusalem Fellow, is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation, an Avi Chai Fellow and is the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award for her work in education and the 2012 Bernie Reisman Award (Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, Brandeis University). You can subscribe to her blog, Weekly Jewish Wisdom at erica@ericabrown.com.
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