Jewish Day Schools? Our Future Depends on Them

'Home-Schooling' Is No Substitute for Organized Education

No Substitute: There are many ways to bring Junior up Jewish. Day schools are an indispensible component.
No Substitute: There are many ways to bring Junior up Jewish. Day schools are an indispensible component.

By Helene Wingens

Published August 05, 2013.
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Jordana Horn’s recent article asks the singular question, Who Says You Need Day School? The question is simple and so is the answer.

Nothing less than the future of the Jewish people rests on the existence of vibrant Jewish day schools. If we are to have a future as a people — we need day school!

In her piece, Horn discusses a spate of recent articles which lead her to conclude that: “I’m not against day school, per se. I just don’t think that day school is essential in order to raise children who are Jewish and proud to be Jewish. The “secret” to a successful Jewish life and future is not the “magic bullet” of day school attendance. The real secret lies in what could be called “Jewish homeschooling” — supplementing after-school Hebrew school (a necessity) with real and vibrant Jewish family life.”

Horn holds her family out as proof of the efficacy of her conclusion. Despite attending public/non-Jewish private schools in their youth she and her siblings have all in-married and are active and engaged Jewish adults. While this may be an interesting narrative, it’s anecdotal and has virtually no bearing on the crucial role of Jewish day schools to Jewish continuity. In other words, it worked out great for the Horns but does it have any meaning for the rest of us?

While I agree with Horn that there are many ways to raise an engaged, Jewish adult, I think it is reckless to dismiss day school attendance as simply not “essential.” While, I’m not arguing that day school is the panacea for everyone and I understand that there are a multitude of difficult issues surrounding affordability and accessibility, the bottom line is that Jewish day schools churn out future Jewish leaders in large numbers.

They produce kids who have strong Jewish identities, who are connected both to their local communities and to Israel, who speak Hebrew and who in-marry in greater percentages than their public school peers. Day school attendance together with “Jewish home-schooling” should be the ideal and aspirational model.

While informed “Jewish homeschooling” alone is laudable, at the end of the day, it is neither realistic nor scalable. A brief look at the data shows that a minimum of six years of day school attendance is the most predictive factor of future Jewish engagement.

A 2007 Brandeis University study concluded that: “Regardless of what facet of Jewish campus life is considered, day school students stand out in their strong engagement with Judaism. They participate 
in Jewish activities, worship services, and Jewish studies courses in much higher percentages than their peers from public and private school backgrounds. They self-report greater knowledge of Israel, and they stay connected to Judaism and other Jews on campus. As expected, many of these effects are strongest for Orthodox students but are also reflected in the attitudes and behavior of day school students from non-Orthodox backgrounds.

Horn’s article suggests ways to inculcate or “homeschool” Jewish values into your children including making Judaism the backbone of your family, putting joy in your Jewish observance, becoming part of a synagogue community and take advantage of Jewish teachable moments. But, are these options only available to non-day school families? All of these ideas are fantastic but why is it either/or, why not and/all? Is Horn saying that these are the things parents should be doing in lieu of day school education? No one has suggested that sending your child to day school obliterates the need for parenting.

To the parents who say that they don’t know enough to teach their kids about Judaism, Horn suggests: “There are books, classes and online resources, though, that can teach you much of what you need to know. Work on learning Hebrew together at home. Make sure Jewish books are not only on the shelf, but also read by all the members of your family, and discussed. And when you travel, do some research into the Jewish community in the place where you’re visiting. My parents took us, as children, to visit synagogues all over the world, from Singapore to Santiago. The feeling of learning Jewish history by seeing where it takes place.”

In a perfect world, yes, parents would be teachers but is it realistic to believe that most parents can teach Talmud as well as a Talmudist or Hebrew as well as someone fluent in the language?

If I became ill, I would chose to be treated by someone with a little bit of experience in the field rather than by someone consulting through each step of the diagnosis from WebMD. Further, not every family can afford the time or money to schlep from Singapore to Santiago to teach their children Jewish history.

Historically, the center of Jewish life and yes, the “secret” to a successful Jewish life has always been the family and the school (the cheder).

There are no “magic bullets.” But it’s a sad day when we are encouraged to envision a world with fewer places for our children to gather together and learn together as Jews because we can engage them just as well at home.

Helene Wingens is a mother of three boys, who all attended Jewish day school. She blogs on Figuring it Out and is a participant in The Parent To Parent initiative of The Jewish Education Project, which empowers Jewish day school parents to share their experiences and personal reflections on social media.


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