At the recent funeral of David Stamler z”l, beloved father of our Director of Education, Ricky Stamler-Goldberg, her brother, Jonathan, shared the following story –
“My father was a religious man, but exceptionally tolerant. When I told him growing up that I intended to break Shabbat, he said he would give me his blessing on one condition: that I would give my kids the same choice he had given me, and for that they would need to be schooled, because you can’t choose what you don’t know. I was 18 and he was ensuring that his grandchildren would have a Jewish education. My children are Jewish.”
As a parent, and now a grandparent, those words resonated deeply within me. I have encouraged my children to do the same for their children. Time will tell.
There is no doubt that many Jews feel Jewish. For many of us Judaism has an emotional appeal, it is bound up in memories of our childhood. It’s the memory of the smell of grandmother’s holiday cooking, a Hanukkah party, the family Passover gathering. We want to pass on these experiences and create memories for our children. But, memories are not enough. Grandmother may no longer be in the kitchen. The world has changed. The memories of yesterday do not reflect the realities of today.
I recently revisited an article written nearly eight years ago titled “The (Un)Importance of Jewish Difference,” by Riv-Ellen Prell, now Professor Emerita of American Studies at the University of Minnesota. She was responding to an article written by Wertheimer and Cohen, “The Pew Survey Reanalyzed: More Bad News but Glimmer of Hope.”
Her analysis was not so optimistic. She viewed the Jewish people as reflecting the larger American society and increasingly less unique, noting that the vast majority of American Jews casted their fate with the promises and rewards of American society. “We have now arrived at a time when Americans do not value marriage, the post-modern embrace of self-invention…has undermined traditional forms of authority… [and] younger Jews have rejected the importance of Jewish difference,” she wrote. She described younger Jews as individuals who tell themselves that whatever they practice is by definition a legitimate form of Judaism. It should be noted that historically marriage was the single most important predictor of religious affiliation in the United States.
In 2014, Jack Wertheimer and Steve Cohen, reexamined the Pew Study and suggested that the situation could be reversed. Their optimism was linked, in part, to education. Again and again, they pointed out, and a multitude of studies continue to show, that Jewish adults who are most engaged in Jewish life — who are most likely to in-marry and who are most likely to support Jewish institutions — had a strong Jewish education. The data is unequivocal – day school education for nine years or more ranks the most effective followed by Jewish summer camping and Israel experiences. The less exposure, the less Jewish engagement.
Interestingly, the latest parent survey conducted at Schechter Bergen this past fall, indicated that for 82% of our current families, at least one parent had attended a Jewish day school as a student. This survey seems to prove the point. Intensive education is the key.
You can’t make informed, meaningful choices if you do not know deeply what you are choosing (or rejecting). That is what David Stamler, z”l knew – as do many Schechter parents and grandparents.
Eight years after Riv-Ellen Prell’s article was written, not much has changed. If anything the larger, secular culture has further eroded the Jewish difference. This is not someone else’s challenge. It is a continued challenge facing every Jew who cares about the vibrancy of the Jewish people and the Jewish community in America and anywhere outside of Israel.
How often then do we really think about the importance of our Jewish tradition, Jewish knowledge and Jewish culture? How important is it to be versed in Jewish texts, to live a life according to Jewish values, traditions and Jewish law? How important is it for Judaism to thrive for the next century and beyond? These are some of the core questions that speak to the very essence of the Jewish people and a dynamic and vibrant American Jewish community.
Current day school parents, whether they went themselves, or made the decision to begin this journey with their children, have already indicated the importance to each question raised above. I believe parents committed to the Jewish day school also know it is not only about Jewish literacy–it’s more. It’s the empowerment through skills, values and experiences to become educated members of the Jewish community. The dual and integrated curriculum and the use of Hebrew as a living language develop children’s capacity for multifaceted learning – something not found in other educational settings.
Though some would argue with me, I believe there are many ways to live a meaningful, authentic Jewish life. But you first need to know the lines and boundaries before you can “color outside” of them.
So, what are the barriers that keep so many parents from even considering a day school education or leaving before their children graduate? One I would like to examine is those who fear their children will not be “prepared” for high school or college in the same way non-day school students are prepared.
This is simply not true. While a dual curriculum may result in progress being made on a marginally different timetable than in public schools, the vigorous day school curriculum prepares graduates well for advanced study. Students who attend Jewish day schools are well prepared for their next level of education and life. Day School graduates are known to be complex and critical thinkers. But perhaps, most of all, the Jewish day school promotes and fosters ethical and moral identity development in each individual child.
There is ample anecdotal evidence to support these claims. Just ask the 82% of parents at Schechter who attended a day school themselves. In addition, several years ago there was a comprehensive study comparing college students who graduated from day schools to students who graduated from public or private schools. The study found no academic difference. The difference was noted in leadership roles on the college level – day school graduates were more likely to hold leadership positions than non day school graduates.
“You can’t choose what you don’t know.” – and you, our Schechter day School parents, are already part of the solution. By gifting your children this education, you are doing your part, providing them with deep knowledge and skills to prepare them to say yes to living Jewish – to be knowledgeable, participatory and supportive members of the Jewish community. And you are significantly increasing the probability that your children will live Jewish lives as well as your grandchildren.