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Busing program brings children to day schools

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Hamilton Hebrew Academy students ride one of the buses the academy operates to bring children in from outside the city. (Steve Arnold photo)

Every morning, Eliora Wolf’s two sons board a school bus near their Kitchener, Ont., home and head off for a day of learning with their friends.

Around 125 km away, in St. Catharines, Ont., some of Perla Zaltzman’s children climb onto a similar bus with the same goal.

The Wolf and Zaltzman siblings are among the 31 children who spend an hour or more every day riding buses from the Kitchener, Niagara, Brant and Halton regions, as well as Mississauga, in search of a Jewish education at Hamilton Hebrew Academy.

Getting that kind of education for many Ontario children who live outside Toronto is a costly and time-consuming effort, but parents say it’s a sacrifice they’re willing to make.

“It’s a big dedication for us to make, but we think it’s worth it,” Wolf said. “We think it’s the best way to instill them to live a Jewish life. Public schools are good for some, but they weren’t the right fit for us.… I sent my oldest son there for one day and it was a disaster. It was just not the right fit at all.”

For Zaltzman, who, with her husband Zalman, are the Chabad shaliach team for Niagara, getting the proper Jewish education for her children is so important that before connecting with Hamilton Hebrew Academy, she sent them to Buffalo every day.

“Our children are growing up with a sense of Jewish identity they never would have had without this kind of schooling,” she said. “Parents know that if they want their children to have any sense of Jewish identity, then this kind of schooling is
important.”

The busing effort has shown results for the students involved – the extra study time they get allowed them to sweep this year’s awards in the academy’s Torah Bowl contest.

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Hamilton Hebrew Academy’s current busing program was started four years ago by Rabbi Daniel Green, dean of the academy and spiritual leader of the city’s Orthodox Adas Israel synagogue.

Rabbi Green said that 80 per cent of Hamilton Hebrew Academy’s parent body comes from non-Orthodox homes “and we go to great lengths to show great sensitivity to Jews of all backgrounds and to be trans-denominational.”

He sees the bus program as a way of meeting a need for Jewish education in smaller communities. “Children outside major centres like Toronto and Hamilton are the most in danger of assimilation,” he said. “There needs to be a greater community response to serve those kids who are most susceptible.”

Efforts to find that response have been going on since the academy opened in the 1960s. Green’s father, Rabbi Mordechai Green, drove a school bus himself, to take children to the school.

Today, the academy has three buses that travel 1,000 km a day to bring 31 children into the day school for a mixture of secular and Judaic studies. A fourth bus ferries another group into Toronto every day to attend Jewish high schools.

Green said the initiative costs $190,000 a year. The expenses are partly supported by fees of $180 a month for the bus service, in addition to the academy’s tuition of $18,000 a year. An annual bike-a-thon also raises money for the service.

Reform and Conservative Jews face similar challenges. One of their answers is Kehila Jewish Community Day School. It operates out of Temple Anshe Sholom, a Reform synagogue in Hamilton.

“It amazes me, particularly in our smaller school now, what a large percentage of those kids that come are not coming from Hamilton and Dundas, they’re coming from other places,” said Rabbi Jordan Cohen, the shul’s spiritual leader.

“All Jewish education is about raising your kids to have a strong Jewish identity, to be part of an active Jewish community and to want to make Jewish homes and families.… If that means putting your kid for three hours a day on a bus in to Toronto … it’s important that becomes a priority choice.”

For parents like Naomi Bernstein, getting a Jewish education for her children comes at the cost of both time and money. She’s the incoming chair of the board of Kehila, a position just vacated by her husband, Mike Dressler.

The school was formed 18 years ago by families from the congregation. It ran through Grade 5 last year and expects to add a Grade 6 class in September, when enrolment is expected to rise to 30 students from 20.

“We had some tough times when it came to demographics and some families felt the school was too small, but it looks like we’re having a bit of a resurgence now,” Bernstein said.

For the next academic year, the school has become affiliated with the Heschel school movement and will be known as Kehila Heschel Hamilton. The Heschel program integrates Hebrew and Judaism into all subjects, rather than teaching them in separate classes.

What’s important to Bernstein is the school’s liberal approach to Judaism.

“For me personally, a more Orthodox approach doesn’t fit. If that was the only option, I likely wouldn’t have sent my children to a Jewish day school and that would have made me sad,” she said. “I wanted them to grow up knowing that women can be rabbis and cantors and be equal.”

Jewish education is so important to the family that even though their oldest son is only seven, they are already scouting out liberal high school programs for him.

Tuition fees for the school can be upwards of $6,000 per family. While that’s considerably less than the $11,000 the program used to cost, it’s still a sacrifice for many.

“We save and set aside and see it as an investment for our children,” Bernstein said. “It doesn’t seem like such a sacrifice when it’s for your children.”

While Kehila students come from across the region, Bernstein said having the school in Hamilton has also become a selling point, along with cheaper housing and living costs, in efforts to get new Jewish residents to the city.

Those factors, and others, were part of the equation that brought paramedic Yuval Farksh and his family to Hamilton.

“Having a liberal day school here was certainly one of the main reasons we decided to move, but being able to afford better housing was also part of it,” he said.

As with other parents, ensuring his two boys grow up with a strong liberal Jewish identity was important.

“Having a strong Jewish identity is very important. I grew up in Israel, but here you don’t develop a Jewish identity unless you seek it,” he said. “This isn’t a criticism, I just believe Orthodox schools are for the Orthodox.”

Jewish schools, and the buses that bring outlying students to them, are also important to the Jewish Federation of Hamilton, which puts up to a third of the money it raises in its annual appeal toward education. For the current year, that amounted to $480,000.

“We value education efforts and we put our money behind them,” said Federation co-president Jacki Levin.

The money question, however, is one Levin and Federation president Gustavo Rymberg see as troubling. With so many students coming from outside the Hamilton Federation’s turf, they feel that some of the money raised outside the city should be directed here.