Turning Living Rooms Into Schoolrooms

Long a Domain of Religious Christians, Home Schools Make Jewish Inroads

By Jennifer Siegel

Published August 13, 2004, issue of August 13, 2004.
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As a transplant from Philadelphia to Nashville, Tenn., Bill Bernstein resigned himself to a life with fewer opportunities for the perfect bagel or for kosher Chinese food. But when he discovered that his 9-year-old son, Viktor, was bored and unhappy at the only Jewish day school in the city, Bernstein refused to accept his lack of options.

Instead, Bernstein, who attended Horace Mann while growing up in the Bronx, N.Y., joined the ranks of the small but growing number of Jewish parents who are choosing to home-school their children.

“It was a solution to a problem,” he said. “[My son] hated school.”

Home schooling, which is typically associated with religious Christians seeking control over their children’s education, recently has attracted a cross-section of Jewish parents. Like Bernstein, many are observant Jews confronted with somewhat limited options for religious education outside major cities.

For others, home schooling is the perfect chance to customize their children’s education. “Parents want choice,” said Yael Resnick, the editor and publisher of “Natural Jewish Parenting,” a magazine that encourages individualized child rearing. “It’s a matter of being very tuned in to your children’s lives and personalities and their changing needs.”

Resnick, a mother of three who lives in Sharon, Mass., combines home schooling with the Jewish day-school experience. For instance, she did not initially send her son to the local Chabad day school because the first grade “just wasn’t a match” for the boy’s boundless energy, but she did enroll him in the second grade there. On the other hand, last year she decided that her 10-year-old daughter, who also attends Chabad, should be home-schooled in the secular subjects. This time, values played a role in her decision. Afraid that her daughter’s attention was straying from her religious studies, Resnick wanted to signal that “the Jewish part of her day was the most important.”

For less observant Jews, home schooling can be a way of guarding against the peer pressures of public school. Celia Greenberg, who identifies as Conservative and lives outside Washington, D.C., has relied on home schooling to educate her oldest daughter, Miriam, now 18, as well as two younger daughters. She believes the extra time she spends with them has helped instill the right set of values. “In the teen years, you really know who your kids’ friends are, and who their parents are,” she said.

Whether their initial motivations were secular or religious, the parents agree that home schooling provides a unique opportunity for them to spend time with their children and to integrate education into daily life. Bernstein, a manager of rental properties, once turned a trip with his son to buy plywood into a lesson on fractions. “Right there in the Home Depot, I said to him, ‘Tell me which is closest to a three-quarter inch.’”

This practical approach to learning fosters self-sufficiency, according to Greenberg’s daughter Miriam.

“When I was younger I had a friend, and he was amazed at my ability to make Web pages,” she recalled. “I said, ‘You just go to the library and pick up a book and read it.’ For high school, most everything I [did] was self-driven.”

But if such self-sufficiency is a source of pride for home-schoolers, some traditional educators worry that it isolates them from other students and the Jewish community.

“There’s a reason that we have schools, and that is the social dimension [of learning],” said Richard Wagner, head of school at Ben Porat Yosef Sephardic Yeshiva in Bergen County, N.J., as well as a board member of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education. “Learning has a multiplier effect when it takes place in groups.”

Wagner believes most children are better off in school, and worries that home-schooled children can experience difficulties if they later return to traditional schools. “You know the line that’s been popularized — ‘does not get along well with others.’ Well, if you have no experience getting along with others, it’s hard to do it,” he said.

Wagner also questions whether the very nature of home schooling contradicts Jewish values. “In Jewish life, the group, the peoplehood, the community — these are essential things, and it seems kind of antithetical… to those Jewish qualities to pursue home schooling,” he said.

Resnick, however, insists home schooling need not isolate children. “Most home-schooled kids are involved with activities outside of their homes,” she said. “Also, since they’re not in school all day, they can fully participate in all aspects of family and Jewish community life.”

For his part, Stan Beiner, head of Atlanta’s Epstein School, acknowledges that he has not seen “a tremendous issue for the kids transitioning [into the school setting].” But he warns that building the grass-roots social networks upon which home-schoolers rely requires a great amount of parental time and energy.

“I would never say home schooling is bad,” Beiner said, “but you also have to be prepared to really put your time and resources [in] to make sure your child has the experiences they [can] have in school more easily.”

Building these social networks can be particularly challenging for Jewish home-schoolers, who often find themselves a religious minority within the movement. When Shoshana Sloman, a mother of six in South Bend, Ind., first started home schooling 10 years ago, she found that many resources were geared to Christians. “When we first started, some people would use Christian materials and cross out the parts that dealt with Christianity,” she said.

In response, Sloman founded her own Torah-centered list-serv specifically for Jewish home-schooling parents. It has subscribers from all over the world who share advice and support. “I wanted to be able to have contact with other Jewish home-schoolers… and encourage each other if there’s trouble,” she explained.

In areas with a greater concentration of Jewish families, parents have founded their own home-schoolers’ groups, which arrange outings, social events and educational field trips. In recent years, home-schoolers of all denominations in the Massachusetts area have come together through the New England Jewish Home-schoolers group, which hosts secular field trips as well as Jewish events, such as a sukkah party and a tour of a matzo factory during Passover.

For Ilene Heller, a moderately observant home-schooler living in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, such gatherings provide not only an opportunity for Jewish learning, but also a chance to meet other families with similar values. Frustrated by what she perceives as anti-Israel sentiment within New York’s secular home-schooling circles, she advises younger parents to take initiative. “If I had to start over, I would have started a Jewish home-schooling group,” she said.

This may become easier if the number of Jewish home-schoolers continues to grow. Nationally, there were 850,000 home-schooled children in 1999, according to the Department of Education. And while no organization tracks the numbers of Jewish home-schoolers, some parents and educators think the trend is rising.

“We used to be pretty much it, and now we’ve got 100 other Jewish home-schooling families we can play with,” said Fern Reiss, who lives in Boston and is active with the New England Jewish Homeschoolers. “Many more home-schoolers are Jewish.”

More is better in the view of Barbara Mazor, who home-schools her children in Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood. “When [school] works, it works great, but when it doesn’t work, it can be a disaster,” she said. “If you can find something else that works for you, then do it because it’s your kid and you only get one chance.”

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