Prepare to hate me.
I’ve just returned from four days in sunny Jamaica (on the heels of several days in sunny Los Angeles). I didn’t announce my travel plans here ahead of time for fear that burglars would break into my apartment only to be disappointed by the distinct lack of valuable merchandise — unless mountains of Zhu Zhu pets, Barbie dolls and children’s artwork qualify as valuable merchandise.
While decamped at a beachfront all-inclusive in Montego Bay (which we got for a very good price) with my husband, kids and mother, I couldn’t help thinking about how very easy it is to dismiss such an experience as nothing more than a decadent and frivolous luxury.
Such dismissals were fresh in my mind, because I’d just returned from covering a Jewish day school conference and have been lurking for over a month on a blog for Modern Orthodox parents frustrated with the high cost of day school/yeshiva tuition.
Understandably, with the economy being what it is, day school scholarship committees have been starting to crack down on families that accept financial aid while simultaneously finding room in their budgets (or parents’ budgets) for family vacations and summer camp.
My daughters both go to public school, a fact I was a bit embarrassed to admit while at the day school conference, in part because I like the financial freedom this allows our family. We do not have to submit tax forms to a scholarship committee, and do not have to justify any of our spending decisions. We can afford to go on vacations, belong to a synagogue, give to tzedakah, send the kids to ballet lessons, soccer classes, Hebrew school and camp (this summer Ellie will go to a Jewish sleep-away camp) and save for retirement.
In the day school world, where intensive Jewish education is seen as a necessity worth all manner of sacrifices, my priorities no doubt seem selfish and shallow. The conventional wisdom is that nothing is more important than providing the best education possible, that one cannot put a price limit on education. And were I a day school grad, or wealthy enough that I could pay tuition without a second thought, I might agree. I’m sure in many ways my daughters — and our whole family — would thrive in a Jewish day school environment.
Unfortunately, private school is such a large expense that it is a game changer, capable of instantly transforming a family like mine from comfortable to virtually impoverished (and with our hands out for scholarships).
While I respect many families that do make sacrifices, I think it’s important also to acknowledge that vacations (and classes and summer camp) are a different kind of luxury than, say, granite counters or designer clothes. An intensive Jewish education is, of course, an intangible, life-changing experience, but also of intangible, life-changing value is being able to spend time together as a family, to be unburdened by debts and yes, to experience the beauty of a Caribbean sunset, see tropical fish through a snorkel mask and grow up remembering relaxed moments surrounded by parents and grandparents.