So Done Being a Day School Parent

By Jane Ulman

Published January 20, 2010, issue of January 29, 2010.
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“Will you miss being a day school parent?” asked the head of school at Milken Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple, the largest non-Orthodox high school in the United States. This was last June. My youngest son, Danny, was about to graduate.

“I am so done,” I replied. The words flew from my mouth like those pillow feathers in the Hasidic tale that have been scattered to the winds and can’t be retrieved and re-stuffed. But here’s the thing. I’ve racked up 52 cumulative years on the day school mom job, and that’s not counting Jewish preschool, Jewish day care and — hold those oy veys— Jewish Lamaze. And while I’m not converting to Catholicism, as one fellow mom only half-humorously suggested, I’ve turned in my carpool decal.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s been a hell of a trek. And unlike Moses, who shepherded 603,550 cranky and argumentative Israelites, their wives and their kids, their flocks and their herds, to the Promised Land, I had to contend with only four boys. And they weren’t unceasingly cranky and argumentative.

Still, I was pretty much Jewish Mother of the Year, every year.

All told, I logged in enough carpool miles to equal eight round-trips to New York City from here in California. I attended four classroom Passover Seders each spring — one for each of my nonproverbial four sons in grades kindergarten through six — and I always sang all 11 verses of “Had Gadya.” Additionally, I purchased dozens of rolls of Sally Foster wrapping paper — check out the “Bright Stars of David” pattern — as well as a ready-to-assemble sukkah (I swear it was designed by an Ikea engineer) that we continue to drag down from the garage rafters every Sukkot.

And I wrote 52 hefty tuition checks.

“Stop,” my husband, Larry, would warn. “Don’t do the math.”

But whatever the numbers — and let’s just say that without day school, we could be vacationing right now in our Kauai condo — they were sacrificed on the altar of the glorious and often guilt-driven imperative of Jewish continuity. Most people translate that as, “Do you want your grandchildren to be Jewish?”

And while the answer is an emphatic yes, Larry and I originally chose Jewish day school for its convenient one-stop-shopping approach to education: eliminating the religious-school carpools and guaranteeing school-free Jewish holidays.

For this seamless segue, we can thank the High Priest Joshua Ben Gamla (whose kids probably didn’t even play AYSO soccer). In the first-century C.E., according to the Talmud, that collection of ancient rabbinic writings, he established a network of schools in every province and every city to teach Torah to children ages 6 and older.

I’m guessing, however, that Ben Gamla’s students weren’t sporting those iconic blue Kova Tembels (bucket hats), carrying handmade passports and unabashedly belting out “Am Yisrael Chai” — the nation of Israel lives — on a pretend trip to the Jewish homeland in kindergarten. Or dressing up with a pal for the middle school Purim carnival as the ’90s rapper duo Kriss Kross, complete with baggy clothes worn backward and a fake earring.

Those were just two of the ways in which my own sons enthusiastically embraced their Jewish roots at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, Calif., where they attended kindergarten through eighth grade. In fact, to secure a spot on the school’s coveted waitlist, I called the admissions office from my hospital room as soon as my oldest son, Zack, now 25, was born.

After they graduated from Abraham Joshua Heschel, my sons attended Milken Community High School. While Milken gave them the best odds of finding a Jewish girlfriend, it more importantly provided an environment that balanced menschlikeit (translate that as Jewish “nice guy-ness”) with the hard reality of college prep academics — and the concomitant parent pressure.

At both these schools, across the curriculum and across the calendar year, in math and in Mishnah (part of the Talmud), during prayer and during physical education, my sons were comfortably and solidly Jewish. And while they may have grumbled about having to attend minyan —“boring services,” in their words — every Thursday morning, or about having to write and present a senior sermon, they never complained that the school was “too Jewish.” (Not like the mother who once said to me on the soccer field: “Oh, I couldn’t enroll my son in Jewish school. I mean, what if he wanted to be a, a, cantor?”)

“I wish I could send everyone to Jewish day school,” my son Gabriel, 22, said. For him, it’s the concept of lishmah, of learning for learning’s sake, that’s so appealing. He added, off the top of his head, “My favorite story is the one in the Talmud tractate Bava Metzia 59b, with Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua.”

This is the same kid who, in 10th grade, didn’t want to be Jewish, or continue with Jewish day school, because he believed that Judaism was focused too much on prayer and too little on social justice.

The school staff supported his decision to apply elsewhere. At the same time, they engaged him in constant discussion, eventually convincing him of Judaism’s dedication to righteous action. Gabe opted to stay — and immediately helped organize a rally protesting the then imminent Iraqi War. (Yes, the other side was also represented.)

What this really means is that moral and ethical values are taught not in a vacuum, but rather in the context of a 5,000-year-old tradition. And concepts such as tikkun olam (repairing the world), b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God), teshuvah (repentance and return) and lashon hara (evil language or gossip) constitute a common vocabulary and a community response. Indeed, Jewish values rule. And most of the time, they rock.

“It’s a foundation for life, regardless of what you believe,” said Jeremy, 20. “I meet all these [non-day school] kids who are really not thrilled about their Judaism.”

And for Zack, 25, beyond the education and the opportunity to travel to Israel on a three-month school trip, what makes it special is the students. “All my close friends are still friends from high school,” he said.

While Larry and I have always been committed and intermittently observant Jews, I can’t say that we’ve become more religious. Sure, we celebrate the Sabbath more often. And our Passover Seder, complete with our creative Haggadah, ever-expanding plague-inspired frog collection and personal visit from Elijah, is an annual hit.

But without a doubt, we’re more knowledgeable. Our home library has expanded; IT GOES from alef-bet to the Zohar. Plus, Larry has been learning Hebrew, initially attending years of classes at University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), and now sitting at his computer via Rosetta Stone. And my career as a Jewish writer can be directly traced to an article I wrote — though, honestly, it began as a form of therapy — while fretting over Zack’s bar mitzvah.

It’s too soon, however, to worry about whether or not our grandchildren will be Jewish.

“We first gotta have the kids,” said Danny, 18.

Right. No hurry.

Meanwhile, in the words of Jewish educator Bruce Powell, our kids “know who they are and what they have to do.”

The same goes for Larry and me.

We’re the proud parents of four enlightened, enthusiastic and upstanding Jewish day school graduates. And every October, when the annual fundraising letter arrives in the mail, we’ll write a check to Milken Community High School.

Yep, we’re now alumni parents, and we are so not done.

Jane Ulman is a freelance writer in Encino, Calif.

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