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Friday, December 26, 2014

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A bitter-sweet decision

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In recent years, our local Jewish day school has been struggling. Enrolment numbers have dropped and small classes have become even smaller. As a result, my husband and I have had some intense conversations lately about where our children should be attending school.

After lengthy debate and a lot of agonizing introspection, we decided on the public school down the road, ending an eight-year affiliation with the little private school that has given our kids a solid grounding in Jewish traditions, Hebrew language and friends who have shared those values.

The decision to move to public school has been a heart-wrenching one that’s prompted reflection about our priorities, the role Judaism plays in our lives and our hopes and aspirations for our children’s futures. As with other families who have wrestled with the same issue, there was nothing lighthearted or flippant about these discussions.

The move has been driven not by dissatisfaction with the education our identical twins have received to date, but rather by their tiny social circle. With such small classes, they have a meagre social life. Their small class means few birthday parties, rare play dates and an insufficient number of children to constitute an active social life. There just aren’t enough children for them to form separate, meaningful friendships.  

This past year has been a significantly difficult one for one of my daughters in particular, whose sad face at pickup time instigated the conversation about moving schools to begin with.

“I have no one to play with,” she would declare forlornly when she hopped into the car.

She’d proceed to list the other four girls in the class and the friendships they had formed, bonds that, particularly at recess time, excluded her. We’d arrive home and she’d pick up the phone, determined to schedule a playdate. Four phone calls later, no one would be available and she’d still be sitting sadly at the kitchen table.

My heart went out to her. As a parent, we do everything to try and make our kids happy, and the little Jewish day school just wasn’t working. I spoke to the principal, who promised he would “look into the situation.” I suggested that my daughter should join Girl Guides and meet some kids in the neighbourhood. And I took the issue to bed, where, in the safety and quiet of darkness, I vented my apprehensions to my husband.

“If our kids stay at the Jewish school, it’s social suicide,” he said bluntly.

Understand this: I’d resisted sending them to public school from the word go. Having reaped the benefits of a Jewish education myself, I wanted to give my children the same rich, Jewish experience that combined culture, religion, Hebrew and a strong social connection.

But that was 25 years ago, on a different continent where there were some 90 other kids the same age as myself, spread over six classes in the same grade. It was hardly comparable to a class of 12 kids where my twins constitute one-third of the girls.

In their new school, they will be in separate classes where they can explore their individuality without having a twin peering over their shoulder. I pray they’ll have a chance to nurture their sense of selves with new friends and teachers.

But every time I think of what they’ll miss out on, my heart aches for the loss. At public school there’ll be no acknowledgment of Yom Hashoah, no Israeli dancing practice sessions and no morning prayers. They won’t come home singing beautiful Hebrew melodies, nor will they anticipate the Jewish holidays with the same degree of knowledge and excitement.

It’s a bitter-sweet decision, their move to public school, and it will be an experiment that can always be re-thought and terminated, if necessary. In the interim, we’ll be joining other parents at Sunday school drop-off in an effort to give our kids a small dose of the Yiddishkeit they’re missing during the week. It’s little compensation, but at least it’s something.

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