Columns | First Person

Jewish day school? Not for one observant Jewish family

WEST BLOOMFIELD, Mich. (JTA) — “I’m sorry, but we’ll have to pass.”

That was not the answer I wanted to give. It certainly was not the answer my friend expected to hear.

You see, my friend’s son attends a local Jewish day school. My son does not. But the boys are friends. So when the day school’s annual “Bring a Friend to School” event rolled around, the other boy was eager to invite my 7-year-old son to join him.

I think it’s a great idea. Both kids get to break out of their regular routines, with the host child showing off his school and the guest getting to see how the other half lives. It’s fun for the kids — and brilliant marketing for the Jewish school, as dozens of public school children go home and ask their parents to sign them up.

That’s what I wanted to avoid.

“I’d love to say yes,” I said. “But we’re really not interested in being recruited.”

It’s not that my wife and I oppose the day school; far from it. The school offers pretty much everything we would want for our children, academically and socially. It also boasts a lovely new building that is located even closer to our home than the public schools. We know plenty of people who are very happy with the education their children receive at the day school, and we are sure our children also would thrive there.

In fact, we think day schools play a hugely important role in maintaining Jewry in the Diaspora. What’s more, my wife and I both work in Jewish education: She is the director of congregational learning for a large Conservative synagogue, and I am the director of marketing and communications for a large Jewish high school. Ideologically and economically, we have a clear interest in the success of Jewish education in our community.

Really, my wife and I are perfect candidates to send our children to day school. We keep a kosher home. We observe Shabbat. Hebrew fluency, Jewish literacy and a life of Jewish action are very important to us. And we know that none of that is easy to maintain when you send your kids to public school.

So why does our eldest child attend public school? And why will our youngest join him next year when he goes to kindergarten? To a large extent, it’s about money. But it’s also about integrity.

Tuition at the day school runs close to $20,000 per year. The repercussions of paying that much for one child, let alone two, would be disastrous for us. Granted, we live fairly comfortably;  if needed, we could cut back a little and still consider ourselves fortunate. Committing to a dozen years of day school tuition, however, would bury us in debt.

Sure, financial aid might lower the costs to a figure we conceivably could afford. But we believe that private school is not a right that some anonymous benefactor owes us; as a matter of principle, we try not to rely on the largesse of others. We can pay our own bills, and we aim to keep it that way.

If we someday are able to afford it, we will happily pay to send our kids to day school. Until then, we don’t think we should ask anyone to subsidize that luxury for us. That model has already bankrupted several schools across the country, and we don’t want to contribute to its ruin of another one in our community.

No, we don’t have a plan to fix the high cost of day school education, a topic that has inspired enough soul searching, wailing and brainstorming to fill several books – but not, as of yet, a scalable and sustainable solution. For now, avoiding the problem altogether is the best my wife and I can do.

That does not mean, however, that we have thrown our hands up and surrendered to cruel fate.

In lieu of sending our boys to day school, my wife and I have taken direct responsibility for their Jewish education. In addition to our ritual observances such as Shabbat and kashrut, we work to ensure that our children can speak and read Hebrew fluently. We study Torah and Talmud with them and challenge them to engage with the texts according to their ability. We encourage them to participate with us in the performance of mitzvot such as giving tzedakah. We discuss our Jewish lifestyle choices with them openly, so that they can bring mindfulness to their actions.

We also have made Israel a cornerstone of our children’s Jewish education. My wife and I moved there as young adults and left it only reluctantly, less than two years ago. Our boys were born there, and their identity is forever bound to it. Annual visits to Israel help us maintain our ties to the country in a way that nothing else can. So, forced to decide between sending one child to day school for a year and bringing our entire family to Israel each year, we unreservedly choose the latter.

Is our way perfect? Probably not. But this is its result: Jewish practices, texts, language, culture and homeland are not abstractions to our children. They are intimately familiar with them.

Our boys are doing a fantastic job of maintaining their complex identity beyond the supportive confines of the Jewish community. They are the only children they know who wear kippahs to school each day, yet they are not self-conscious about it. They have no difficulty in observing dietary laws or refraining from “normal” weekday activities on Shabbat. And they do this without withdrawing into insularity. They interact on a daily basis with people of different races, religions, colors and creeds, learning from and respecting each one while never losing sight of who they are.

In short, our children are about as knowledgeable about their Judaism, and as comfortable in it, as any children we have ever met. This is a product of their Jewish education, which has cost us more time and effort than money — and has been well worth the investment.

(Sam Ser is the director of communications and marketing for the Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield, Mich.)