The Jewish education conundrum
Last week, JTA published an essay by Sam Ser entitled “Jewish day school? Not for this observant Jewish family.”
In his piece, Ser, a Michigan native who works for his local Jewish high school, summarized the grave challenge facing the Jewish education system: Here is a man who wants to send his kids to Jewish day school, and yet he can’t afford to (and won’t accept a subsidy). Instead, Ser and his wife (who also works in Jewish education) have decided to enrol their kids in public school and do Jewish education on their own.
As I read the article, I found myself nodding along, and I know I wasn’t the only one. Ser’s model of cheap, customized Jewish education is a compelling alternative for the growing number of young families crippled by the cost of Jewish schools – a do-it-yourself approach to Jewish education. Why spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on day school when you can offer your kids their very own, made-to-measure Jewish education at a fraction of the price?
I confess to be considering just the kind of thing Ser outlines. At the current rate, I won’t be able to afford Jewish education for my daughter without accepting dramatic lifestyle changes (for myself, but also for her), and I don’t think I could stomach someone else paying instead of me. So she might go to public school and get her Jewish education at home.
I could very well end up being my daughter’s primary Jewish educator, unless day school gets a lot more affordable very soon – and I think I’m fine with that. In fact, I’m fairly confident I can, with a little help from family and friends, bring up a good Jewish daughter without day school.
That’s exactly why it’s important to be reminded every once in a while why many Jews continue to assert that day school is so essential, and why they are willing to bear the financial burden associated with it.
An appropriate example made headlines recently when two Orthodox high schools in New York decided to allow female students to wrap tfillin during prayers. (As The CJN’s Sheri Shefa reported, Rabbi Lee Buckman, head of school at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, supports female students at his school who might want to follow the lead of their American cousins.)
Whether you’re of the opinion that women being permitted to wear tfillin is a bold step forward for Orthodox Judaism or you believe there’s no basis for such an interpretation of Jewish law, this episode proves young people are invested in shaping the future of Judaism, and that the day school system is an incubator for their exploration.
If my daughter doesn’t attend Jewish day school, will she miss out on being part of the evolution of Judaism? For everything I can teach her about our religion, I fear she’ll be less likely to participate in the development of Judaism if she’s not enrolled in day school – where, as the tfillin story proves, that process is very much underway. And that makes me wonder whether I can afford to deprive her of such a unique opportunity, whatever the cost.