Last year, I published an essay on MyJewishLearning.com called “Seize the Day School.” I worried about this essay. “Seize” spelled out, in great detail, my own ambivalences — note the plural — about sending my daughter to Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston. I feared that once the piece was published, her teachers might treat my little girl…differently; that the school moms would stop smiling at me and my wife; that our tuition bill would start growing exponentially.
I recall very clearly the afternoon in the early 1990s when the male eighth graders at the Jewish day school I attended learned about AIDS. Our physical education teacher, one of many Israelis imported to Toronto to staff the school, gathered us under the basketball nets in the gym and described the deadly disease. Then he told us that there are three ways to get AIDS. “First,” he said in his heavy accent, “before you’re born, if your mother has AIDS, you can receive it directly from her. Second, if you use heroin, you can get AIDS from sharing someone else’s needle.” He paused. “And there’s also a third way.” That was the end of the lesson.
‘Yes, Rabbi Wolf was gargantuan,” I tell my children. “A giant of a man, with more hair protruding from his knuckles than I had on my head, even back then when it was covered with thick curls. He was the one we were sent to for serious disciplining. But he wasn’t the mightiest rebbe in our yeshiva.” No, in this all-important debate that raged for years in the halls of my school, I stood with those who favored Rabbi Chafkin. “The man could rip right through a Brooklyn telephone book….saw him do it with my own eyes.” My kids offer a polite, glazed half-nod. They’ve heard these recollections before, the thinly veiled comparisons of my yeshiva escapades with their own more temperate school experiences.
At least once a month, someone, usually a business acquaintance who doesn’t know much about my private life, will ask what my 14-year-old daughter is up to at her Hebrew day school, and then go on to let me know in no uncertain terms that I am a traitor to every aspect of the Yiddish language and culture from which I make most of my living, from the fondly remembered labor movement to the Yiddish-speaking Orthodoxy in which I was raised. They’re upset that someone like me, who spends so much of his time writing and lecturing about Yiddish, has been sending his kid to an Ivrit b’Ivrit (Zionist Hebew-language) day school in which the study of Yiddish is, quite literally, not an option.
Rather than jet to tropical party capitals for spring break, about 105 Jewish college students are choosing to do something a little different during their time off.
In the past, many Southern colleges and universities had few, if any, Jewish students roaming their campuses. But recently schools below the Mason-Dixon Line have stepped up their recruitment of Jewish students. They offered scholarships, built centers for Jewish learning and socializing, and engaged the surrounding Jewish communities in their efforts. The Forward interviewed students from four schools across the Southeast to get a read on the changing face of the Southern Jewish college experience in 2010.
When I was in high school during the early 1990s, I needed very little prodding to study the Holocaust. Historical accounts of the horror and the depravity of the Final Solution, recounted by teachers, textbooks, documentaries and the prerequisite screening of “Schindler’s List” — which our entire school was marched into a movie theater to watch — engrossed me.
Once a year, the eighth graders at a synagogue I’ll call Temple Beth Torah spend an afternoon volunteering at a soup kitchen. During the bus ride to the site, the teacher passes out a Talmudic quote about feeding the hungry and spends a few minutes trying to engage the students in conversation about the passage. When the group arrives at the soup kitchen, the director, who seems a bit frenzied, puts the students to work setting the tables.
The morning oration is like a normal university class: a professor, an engaging intellectual lecture and questions at the end. But the similarities between a regular college class and the new Hebrew University “Scientists on Trains” program pretty much stop there.
The call came at 9 p.m. on a recent school night, caller ID informing me that it originated from SAR High School in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, where my youngest child is a freshman.