I can go on for pages about how important a day-school education is toward ensuring the continuity of the Jewish people. Likewise, I could spend hours explaing how critical Jewish literacy is for Jewish life. There are no issues more dear to my heart than the importance of Jewish education and literacy.
But then I remember it’s actual people we are talking about here, not some vague statistics or ideas thrown around Jewish organization board meetings and think-tank sessions.
As someone who went both to day schools and public schools, yeshivas and Berkeley–and a few other secular and religious institutions in between–I have lived the dilemma that so many parents face in figuring out what educational environment is best for their children.
The truth of the matter is that there have been changes in Jewish education over the past 15 years (since I was a high school freshman). But I still think one thing remains the same: the question each parent needs to ask. First and foremost, what is best for my child? Unfortunately, day schools do not have the infrastructure set up to understand and accommodate all children.
Day schools for the most part demand that children behave a certain way, dress a certain way and think a certain way, and that kind of environment is certainly not for everyone. Most day schools such as the silly, pretentious one I went to in Brookline Mass., (that has subsequently been brought to its knees) are good at offering an educational environment that can breed a few miniature rabbis, doctors, and lawyers–but what about artists, musicians, and plumbers? What about the average kid who just is not so into Judaism and Jewish study or the precocious child who occasionally inhales something other than cigarette smoke? They simply have no clue how to deal with difference.
The person who really gets this issue is the ever-perceptive Marvin Schick, president of New York’s Rabbi Jacob Joseph Yeshiva. In commenting on how day schools deal with difference, he argued:
“Perhaps inevitably they operate at times in ways that counter the paramount precept of Torah education, chanoch l’naar al pi darcho–that each child should be taught in the manner that best ensures his advancement…Now, the attitude in too many of our schools is to reject applicants, as if this demonstrates that they are stronger Torah institutions. They also are quick to expel students who do not readily fit in. I have heard principals say that they never expel a student until they have found a substitute school, as if expulsion alone is not sufficient to destroy a child’s confidence and emotional underpinnings. In my experience, the truth is usually otherwise and students are expelled even when there is no other school that will accept them…The “if in doubt throw it out” attitude that used to be applied to food products is now being applied to Jewish children. This attitude must be challenged. I know this entails a risk, but it is one that must be taken in the face of unfolding tragedies in Jewish homes. If but one child is saved because of this protest, the risk will be worthwhile.”
Even though Schick might not admit it, there have been some postive signs coming from the emergence of interdenominational schools that understand the need for multiple models and frameworks for helping children grown and learn. The bottom line remains that day school education still has a long way to go.