Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Day School Debate

I signed up for some local suburban Jewish listserves recently--mostly to hawk my Jewish Music Festival in their little suburban inboxes. My intention was to use it when I needed it, but before I knew it I was sucked in...reading it, following the debate raging hotly in my inbox.

The issue? The cost--and possible unsustainability--of the Jewish Day school model. Gluckel recently pointed out an editorial in the NY Jewish Week that explores the same question.

It's a difficult conversation for many--if not most--Jews trying to live a committed Jewish life. Jewish life is by definition not easy. If Kosher food became (hah!) prohibitively expensive, would we eat traif? If synagogue membership became exorbitant would we stop praying with a minyan? No...we find workarounds, support systems, we find a way to make Jewish life work, and even flourish, despite the difficulties and the cost.

But day school seems to be an intractable problem. They've become unaffordable to all but the most wealthy, and in these "difficult economic times" family after family that were just barely making it work before are seeking scholarships in record numbers. And that sky-high tuition is just barely covering the needs of the schools--the teachers are not in BMWs, the schools aren't pocketing massive surpluses...it's just that somehow, along the way, it just became that expensive to give a child a good-quality Jewish and secular education.

So how did it happen? Was it when we started demanding world-class teachers and facilities for our children? When we started trying to make our children as prepared for Harvard as they were for Yeshiva? Are we asking too much from our day schools when we ask them to be top-notch Jewish schools AND match and exceed the best that the private and public school system has to offer? Or is this really what we need to live and succeed as modern Jews in America?

We all struggle with the public school question. I myself went to public school for the first 8 years of school and it wasn't a bad experience for me. But I will say that despite the fact that there were lots of Jews in my school most of my friends weren't Jewish. That I learned countless Christmas carols and have fond memories of decorating trees and dying Easter eggs. And that at least one girl that I counted as a best friend was probably a little curious about my horns.

What do we lose when we send our children to public school? A body of knowledge, to be sure, but also a way of life. Within just a year of being at a Schechter school I had stopped dating non-Jews, by two years I had stopped eating traif meat. And that was with very little explicit pressure from my teachers and peers. My day school--an average one in most ways--showed me how--and maybe even why--to be Jewish.

These kind of influences on our children can be gained in other ways--in after-school programs, from mentors and tutors, in youth groups and summer camps (perhaps the brightest possibility) but can anything really compensate for the loss of year-round immersion? I'm not so sure.

And so I face down the cost, kind of frightened. Two years ago I figured that God--in the guise of the kindness of richer people--would provide. But now I'm not so sure. And age 5 doesn't look so far off.

But hey, I know this guy promising 200% returns on my investments....

1 comment:

homeshuling said...

My daughter started day school this year. Fortunately, our school is moderately priced, and we do receive financial aid. But were we to lose that aid, I would now do almost anything to keep her there.

Here's just one example of why:
http://homeshuling.wordpress.com/2009/04/01/why-i-send-my-daughter-to-preschool/