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Who Says You Need Day School?

Recently I’ve read several pieces in which Jewish parents expressed their belief that day school is critically necessary to raising their children as Jews — and that without it, there would be no certainty that their children would maintain a firm footing in the Jewish world. One mother even wrote that she had decided to go back to work full time in order to finance her children’s day school education, sacrificing a significant degree of her own presence in their lives in order to ensure their attendance at day school.

Not only do these comments speak volumes about the high costs of a Jewish day school education, but they show that financially and, in that particular family’s case, emotionally, it isn’t worth it.

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.

My three siblings and I went to public school and spent a few years in private school (not a Jewish school). Fast-forward 20 years or so: All four of us have married Jews. One of us is a National Jewish Book Award winner. One of us writes for Jewish publications. One of us teaches at a Jewish day school. All of us know how to read Hebrew and Torah. On any given Saturday, a high percentage of my parents’ 11 grandchildren — each of whom had a bris or naming ceremony — are attending Sabbath services at synagogue. And every single one of those grandchildren old enough to go to camp is attending a Jewish camp this summer.

How can I be so sure, you might ask, that my kids will be happily active Jews in the future? That’s easy: Because these kids are being raised to know that Judaism is such a central part of their existence that to take it away would be to take out a structural component of their life’s scaffolding. We were never threatened to marry only Jews; instead, it was taken for granted by all of us that we wouldn’t want to marry someone with whom we could not build a Jewish life and family. 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.

This can be done regardless of whether one considers one’s self Reform, Orthodox, Conservative or Reconstructionist. Here are some how-to’s:

Make Judaism the backbone of your time as a family. Each Friday night, we take 10 minutes to bless our children, light candles, drink wine or grape juice, and eat challah together. Saturday mornings, our family goes to children’s services at synagogue, and then Saturday night we light the Havdala candle, smell the spices and drink the wine or grape juice. These things have become just as much a part of the rhythm of our family as taking baths, setting the table or reading stories before bed — so much so, in fact, that our children would feel that if we didn’t do one of these things, there would be a palpable sense of something out of place or missing.

Put joy in your Jewish observance. We add other components to the Sabbath for our younger children, like singing songs from nursery school, reading books and mentioning, each week, things for which we are each particularly thankful. We dance, poorly, with the babies. We laugh. We do this each week. In doing so, we implicitly show that Judaism is not something boring, nor is it to be taken for granted: It is a priceless legacy, which we treat with appreciation and gratitude. This goes for the holidays, too, of course, from making (terrible tasting) hamantaschen and (delicious) apple cake to teaching each child, even the little ones, how to light a hanukiah. We let them help build and decorate the sukkah in our backyard. By infusing each act with togetherness, we reinforce Judaism’s central role in our lives; by infusing each ritual with fun and creativity, we give our children the chance to put their own stamp on their observance of their tradition, however small.

Find a synagogue, and become an active part of that community. A synagogue is a place for prayer and a place for community, as well — and you may find yourself surprised by either or both. I believe it is incredibly important for Jews to belong to a Jewish community. Our religion is structured in a way so as to not broker free-floating: You even need 10 people in order to pray. Observant Jews couldn’t just “go it alone” — they’d need a kosher butcher, a mikveh and a chevra kadisha in order to eat, have sex and die. However observant we are, we can take a page from that. Synagogues are not only places to pray, but also places to make friends, to grow and learn from others.

Take advantage of Jewish teachable moments, both when you are at home, and when you are away. “I don’t know enough,” many parents tell me, “to teach my kids about Judaism.” 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. Learn by doing: For example, what a hakafa is is best learned by actually experiencing one in a synagogue. 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 — and of course, travel to Israel being a key component of this journey — is one that is virtually impossible to shake.

These are only a few how-to’s and are by no means exhaustive — but hey, they’re cheaper than day school, and, I’d argue, longer lasting.

The other day, at synagogue on the Sabbath, a congregant overheard my 8-year-old son telling his 2-year-old sister, “When the Torah comes out of the Ark, you have to be quiet and respectful, and watch it go around the room, the way you would watch a queen or a president.”

“Where did you learn that?” the congregant asked my son.

“From my mom,” my son said.

“Good for you,” the congregant said to him. Then the congregant leaned over to me and said: “I was going to say, I’ll definitely send my kids to whatever school he learned that from.”

Schools are vital, but at the end of the day, real education can’t be completely outsourced. Instruct a child in the way he ought to go, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it. And I didn’t learn that at day school.

Jordana Horn is the former New York bureau chief of The Jerusalem Post and is a contributing editor to the parenting website

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