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My wife and I are both half-Jewish. I was raised more observant than she was, but both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She wouldn’t be as used to the elementary school, where the classes are located, as those who took them there; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?
JANE LARKIN: Whether you and your wife identify as Jewish-Americans or American Jews, being Jewish is part your daughter’s identity. The more she knows about where she comes from, what communities she belongs to, and who she is, the more confident she will be.
A Jewish early childhood education will teach her what it means to be Jewish in a fun setting and encourage a healthy acceptance of her religious identity. Being Jewish is one characteristic that makes her different, but she will learn that everyone has something that makes him or her different including race, ethnicity, and gender. If she respects the qualities that make her special, others will respect her too.
Regarding the cost, private education, Jewish or otherwise, is expensive. Schools offer financial assistance, as do Jewish organizations such as Federations. More people than you think get help. At one Jewish school in my community, over 30 percent of the families receive some form of tuition assistance.
Your daughter may be unfamiliar with the local school, but kids are adaptable. My son started kindergarten at a school that had a preschool that most of the other children attended. Through orientation events, visits to meet the teachers, and before school get-togethers, he easily transitioned to the new environment. Because people move or use alternative preschools, you will probably find that your daughter isn’t the only new kid, or Jewish kid, in her class. Every year, my son’s class has welcomed additional students.
Worry less about the small stuff. Think about early Jewish education as an investment in your daughter’s identity. My son graduated from Jewish preschool. The experience instilled in him Jewish values and culture, and pride in his religion. Nurturing your daughter’s Jewish identity now will boost her confidence and help her thrive in secular and non-secular environments in the future.
Jane Larkin writes about parenting for InterfaithFamily.com, a website that supports interfaith families exploring Jewish life. She is the author of the forthcoming book, “From Generation to Generation: A Story of Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity.” She lives with her family in Dallas, TX.
STEVEN COHEN: The value of a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten to you both depend upon your interest in assuring your daughter a solid Jewish identity, one that will carry her into adulthood and will strongly influence her choice of spouse, as well as whether to raise your grandchildren as Jews.
All the research demonstrates that strong Jewish social networks — lots of Jewish friends, school-mates, neighbors, etc. — appreciably raise the probability of in-marriage and of raising one’s children as Jews. So, if your daughter’s attachment to the Jewish People is important to you, then definitely invest in her Jewish pre-K and kindergarten education — and do take advantage of the opportunity for yourselves of forming community with the other parents.
Last, if I may, perhaps you can start thinking of yourselves as fully Jewish. If you have a Jewish parent (or two), and you think of yourself as in some way Jewish, then you’re (just) Jewish! And, it turns out, most Jews would agree with me.
Steven M. Cohen is Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at HUC-JIR, and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner.
CAMILLE DIAMOND: As a fellow half Jewish Parent, I understand seriously thinking about what would be best to do for your daughter. Both the pros and the cons you list are worth considering. In my experience as a parent, I find that the best decision is that which makes it easiest for the family on a day to day basis. Is the school so expensive that you must do without vacations or eating out occasionally? Is it so far away that it would make daily drop off and pick up a stress filled hassle? Or do you and your wife feel a deep connection and responsibility to a Jewish life and community that would make this sacrifice completely worth it?
My husband and I sent our children to a preschool at the 14th street Y, open to all and with curriculum informed by Jewish values. My children learned Shabbat songs and rituals, enjoyed Passover class Seders and Purim parades, and enjoyed storytelling based on Jewish texts. I happen to work at the 14th Street Y so for us the choice was a win-win, convenient for family, a great employee discount, and a really amazing preschool education through a Jewish lens. It was perfect. That being said, when my daughter had the chance to go to a public pre-k program in the same place her brother went to elementary school, that was also a win. One drop off. And free!
If what you are looking for is connection to a Jewish community and friends for your daughter but not necessarily private school, you might be surprised at how many Jewish organizations are creating spaces and places for families just like yourselves. Shabbat singalongs, yes, but also performances, classes and holiday events. Check some of these out. You may find that public school is a great fit for you after all, without sacrificing a Jewish community.
Camille Diamond is The Director of Community Engagement and Communications at the 14th Street Y, and an ordained interfaith minister from One Spirit Interfaith Seminary.