This is the most personal post I’ve ever shared in a professional blogging space. It makes me feel quite vulnerable. However, I believe that making the case for day schools for non-Orthodox Jewish families might be best achieved one story at a time. Here’s mine.
My Jewish Identity and Upbringing
I grew up in a very assimilated but very culturally Jewish family. I went to Sunday school and Hebrew school a few afternoons a week. I had a Friday night bat mitzvah service and went to High School in Israel. My family celebrated “major” Jewish holidays together (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach). Although I felt a strong sense of Jewish identity, I had (I understand now) very little Jewish literacy or knowledge of traditions or ritual. I don’t remember ever seeing my mother or grandmother light Shabbat candles, nor did I ever see my father or grandfather don tefillan or go to minyan. I never knew about kashrut, although we did not eat pork or shellfish “because we’re Jewish.” Looking back, I also realize that our family did not really mix meat and dairy in our meals although there was never a reason or structure given for this.
Raising Jewish Children
My grandparents, with whom I was very close and who, while they did not practice much ritual observance maintained a very strong yiddishkeit, counseled me throughout my young life of the imperative to marry a Jewish man. However, I was not grounded in Jewish tradition or, as I grew to be an adult, a Jewish community, and I discounted their wishes. At the time I got married (in my early 30’s) I had virtually no connection to Jewish life. Yet, I knew that it was deeply important to me that my children be “raised Jewish.” I put that in quotes because I never thought about what that even meant or how my husband and I would raise Jewish children.
When my son was born, in 2004, we were living in northern California. My Jewish friends were all intermarried; none were committed to raising Jewish children. I had friends who believed that circumcision was akin to mutilation and abuse. However, I took comfort in the lifecycle rituals that were there for me, guiding me, however minimally I understood them, in taking the first steps of parenting Jewish children. I wonder if the kind mohel who came to our house in Novato, California (Jewish population zero?) to perform our son’s bris said a prayer for this baby boy that put our family on the path to a Jewish day school.
Jewish Day School
I’ll skip the majority of details that led to us enrolling our daughter in the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School when it was time for kindergarten. But I can tell you this: I was NOT your likely candidate to become a JDS parent. In fact, had you told me, just a few years earlier, that I would opt to send my child to any private school, much less a religious school, I would have said you were nuts. As my father always says, “Never say never.”
A series of events took place, the foremost of which was me being offered a job there, that made us consider the school. I don’t want to say too much about why I believe this happened, but I will share that I did not seek out this job, nor did I even want it at the time. It was simply meant to be.
So, in 2006, both my daughter and I started Jewish day school, she as a kindergartener and I as the school’s new technology coordinator.
Our Family’s Jewish Journey
Fast forward eleven years. That baby in the earlier photo just celebrated becoming a bar mitzvah. As I watched my son lead prayers and read Torah I reflected with gratitude on the role that Jewish day school has played in all of our lives.
My daughter is now a sophomore at a public high school. When she was first starting school, it was important to me that she experience diversity. I thought it essential that she learn to understand and get along with a variety of people, and I worried that Jewish day school did not offer this opportunity. What I did not understand then was this: in order to be part of a diverse group, you must first understand who YOU are. What do you contribute to the diversity? My children are more knowledgable and literate as Jews than I ever was. They know who they are.
I have also learned and grown tremendously thanks to Jewish day school. Working at and sending my children to the school attuned me to aspects of Jewish life that I had either never learned or never understood. I have learned (and am still learning) what it actually means to raise Jewish children. I have embraced more mitzvos, holiday observances and Torah learning into my own life. Yes, Jewish learning (and all learning) begins in the home. But, although I had the sense of wanting to raise Jewish children, I was, I now realize, rather unequipped to do so.
I consider Jewish day school a vital partner in raising Jewish children. As I reflect, from my current vantage point on the journey, I wonder why it was even important to me to raise Jewish children. I think a big part of my original motivation was simply based in my own closeness to my grandparents, for whom that Yiddishkeit way of life was such a part of who they were. I wanted my children to have a connection to my grandparents. Now I understand more deeply how much Judaism is a chain of connectedness, L’dor V’dor. I think my grandparents would be pleased and proud.