Choosing Jewish day school – not the only ones anymore

Written for the October PJ Library enewsletter

onlyone.jpgIn this month’s PJ library selection, The Only One Club, a young girl discovers that she is the only Jewish child in her class after being asked by her teacher to help decorate the classroom for Christmas. She eventually creates a club that recognizes and celebrates that everyone is the “only one” of something – that uniqueness is something to be proud of. 

My children love this book. Apparently, lots of children do. As a teacher, and a parent (and a writer, but I’ll keep quiet about that part), I have some issues with it. I don’t like seeing a teacher in what appears to be a public school decorating her class for Christmas (Oh yeah, and for Chanukah. A little bit, anyway.) As a parent, I don’t like the way the mother and father accept this as a matter of course. I understand that this isn’t a book about the issue of separation of church and state, but I’m uncomfortable with the celebration of Christmas in the public schools being presented as completely normal. 
 My two children both attended a secular preschool, where they were essentially the “only ones.” (They weren’t the only Jewish kids, but they were the only kids from an observant family.) As I wrote in a column last December, the school made a decision not to teach about or promote any religious holidays. Instead, all families were encouraged to come into the classroom and share something about their own traditions, Consequently, my daughters learned about St. Nicholas and Easter eggs, as well as solstice, and Ramadan (and Rosh Hashanah and Passover) without my ever feeling threatened or uncomfortable as a Jewish parent. 
This very positive experience might have led me to continue my daughters’ experience as “only ones” and send them to public school. And while I’ve heard some horror stories about extraordinarily blatant promotion of Christmas and Christ (their word, not mine) in some allegedly secular schools, my guess is that in our progressive and pc-to-a-fault town, this would not have been a problem. Nevertheless, we chose to send our daughters to a Jewish day school, where they are definitely not the only ones. 
Choosing a day school was not an easy decision. It means that we pay for school (albeit with some generous financial aid) when there is a very good free school literally two doors away from our house. It means that our children have many fewer classmates with different ethnic and religious backgrounds, and it means they are no longer experiencing daily the kind of diversity that enriched their preschool years. I acknowledge that these are real losses. 
Our choice of day school was not a rejection of the public schools or of diversity. It was a choice to help us, an interfaith couple, instill a positive Jewish identity in our kids – to give them a chance for six or seven years of school for their Judaism to be completely normalized instead of the exception to the rule. I’m glad for all information and skills they are learning, but I’m even more glad about how natural Judaism feels to them. When I overhear Zoe belting out Hebrew songs while taking a bath, or when Ella chose to create a book about Passover as her very first piece of writing, I’m literally moved to tears. They will have the rest of their lives to be the only ones. For our family, this feels like the right start.
(r) cmyk PJ Library logo with tagline and piecesThe PJ Library® program sends Jewish-content books and music on a monthly basis to families with children through age eight. Created by The Harold Grinspoon Foundation, The PJ Library is funded nationally in partnership with The Harold Grinspoon Foundation and local philanthropists/organizations.
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Jennifer in MamaLand

posted September 19, 2010 at 10:05 pm

YES! My thoughts almost exactly. They have a lifetime to discover how infinitesimally small Judaism is in the world, but only a few years – relatively speaking – to determine how MUCH of their identities it will become.

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Morah Mary

posted September 20, 2010 at 8:29 am

Interesting…. I converted after our oldest was born and we faced some of the same self-probing questions (even though our family wasn’t “interfaith,” half of my children’s extended family wasn’t Jewish).
The question of home observance first came up when our oldest was three and taunted by a neighbor child that “you must really be bad if Santa doesn’t come to your house.” My response: “Christmas isn’t our holiday; we celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Sukkot and Simchat Torah and Chanukah and Purim and Passover and Shavuot. Best of all, we get Shabbat every week.” My kid was okay with that…. but then I realized that if we were going to use that as a comfort, we needed to really DO it!
We weighed and measured the day school option from many angles and ultimately decided on secular school, for some of the same reasons you mention above. For us, it was the right decision, made mindfully.
Isn’t it wonderful that there is no “one right” way, but rather many right ways, to reach the same goal of raising Jewish kids???

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posted September 20, 2010 at 11:25 am

Amen to Morah Mary’s comment!
And a terrific, thoughtful column.

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posted September 20, 2010 at 11:44 am

Marjorie, I believe you specifically requested more writing about being an interfaith family sending our children to day school, so there you have it. Any more good ideas for me?

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posted September 20, 2010 at 11:10 pm

So much here resonates with me. Do I sound like a broken record yet? Yeah, I have some horror stories from American public school. In my case, I think being the “only one” was a galvanizing force in favor of Jewish identity, but not without a lot of (figurative) cost, I’d say.

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posted September 27, 2010 at 9:21 pm

I felt the same way about that book. I actually was the only jewish kid in my public school class and was placated by being “allowed” to make menorahs and dreidls while everyone else made christmas decorations. I’m glad my kids won’t experience that.

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Two boys

posted October 8, 2010 at 8:24 am

I attended public school and actually I loved the fact that I was one of the few Jewish kids in the school. It made me special! I remember teaching the class the Hebrew alphabet and everyone being in awe that not only could I write another language but I could speak it. I was different from the others and I was proud of that fact!! The world would be a boring place if we were all the same! I made people more aware that there are other religions and traditions. It is easy for the majority to forget that. So on the flip side, I do think that it is important for the rest of the world to experience Judiasm in their schools!

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posted October 9, 2010 at 6:03 am

My daughters grew up in a community where we were literally the only observant jewish family. Each year, I watched as the fire house was decorated with Christmas lights (with my tax dollars). It wasn’t until my oldest daughter was in kindergarten that I decided to go into the school and do a presentation about Hanukah. I always told my girls how special we were as a jewish family because no one else in town got to celebrate our holidays. As they grew older, other school children would ask them about being jewish, some even asking how they could convert!
To this day, and 18 years later, I go into the school at Hanukah time, and do a one hour comprehensive program for the first grade as part of their multiculturalism piece. I told myself I would stop doing this when my daughters were out of elementary school. They are all grown up and in their 20’s.
I am sure that if and when the opportunity arises for them, that they will continue this “educational” journey with their own children.

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posted October 15, 2010 at 5:16 pm

Frankly, I think some of the folks that have posted here need a refresher on the US Constitution. The First Amendment states freedom OF religion, not freedom FROM religion.
Unfortunately, we have gone from protecting minorities from “Majority Tyranny” to “Tyranny of the Minority”, evidenced by the incessant harping about Christmas every December by FoxNews personalities/morons.
The reality is that we live in a predominately Christian nation, and therefore it is simply not unexpected that children in a public school may be decorating religious objects, etc in art class. I, like “Two Boys”, simply made things that were relevant to my religion – under the encouragement of my teachers.
In a land of Majority tyranny (let’s say Spain circa 1490) I would bet our children would not have this option. In our Minority Tyranny land, we now have whiners complaining loudly that government entities should emulate Stalinist policies toward religion of any kind. No joy in that world, I bet.
Let me put it another way: If you want to see Majority tyranny, try taking an elevator on Saturday almost anywhere in Israel. No matter what your religion, you will find yourself taking the stairs. Me, I’ll take a few hundred “Merry Christmas” greetings over that any day.

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posted November 30, 2010 at 1:27 am

I agree with everything Joe says, except for the comment: “Let me put it another way: If you want to see Majority tyranny, try taking an elevator on Saturday almost anywhere in Israel.” Only about 25% of Israelis identify as either Orthodox (17%) or ultra-Orthodox (8%), which leaves 75% of the population not taking an elevator on Saturday? Most Israelis (including me) would guffaw at this comment. The elevator in my building, which is located in the heavily religious city of Jerusalem, may be in use more on Saturday than any day of the week, since guests are coming and going, and no one is at work.

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