Squeezed into a child’s seat, Nora Lavender, mother of two young sons, sits across from her oldest, 7-year-old Shalom Yehuda, at a small wooden table in a corner of an office in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, leading him through spelling lessons. In the background are the sounds of children at play, which mother and son ignore.
Shalom Yehuda, his kipa featuring a soccer ball design, aces this afternoon’s spelling lesson. His reward is a Harry Potter sticker, which he adds to the growing collection in his workbook.
The two are in the waiting room at Sensory Freeway Therapy Services, a therapy center that treats children with a wide variety of special needs and where Lavender’s youngest son, 3-year-old Dovid Efraim, comes several days a week for treatment for mild cerebral palsy.
The setting is also a school for Shalom Yehuda.
The Lavenders are home schoolers, which for them means education that takes place at home, in therapy centers, museums, parks or other places where they can carry some books. While Dovid Efraim gets therapy, Shalom Yehuda learns; Sensory Freeway has become as familiar to the family as their living room.
Paralleling a steady rise in the number of American families who have decided in recent decades to take their children’s education into their own hands — a movement especially in vogue among Evangelical Christians who distrust the secular bent of public education — home schooling has also become an option for a growing number of Jewish families. While Jews of various denominational backgrounds have started to home school, Orthodox Jews are thought to represent a majority of Jewish home schoolers. The evidence is heavily anecdotal however; while there are about 1.5 million home schoolers in the United States, according to the most recent statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, no one has figures breaking out the Jewish numbers.
Home schoolers themselves, along with outside educational experts, speculate that at least several hundred American Jewish families, probably as many as several thousand, will be home schooling their children when the school year begins in September. That’s a steep increase from the estimated few hundred a decade ago.
Home schooling “is growing” in Jewish circles, says Jonathan Woocher, chief ideas officer of the Jewish Educational Service of North America. “People are looking for more customized ways of dealing with their Jewishness.”
Ilana Masri, a home schooling mother in Brooklyn says she loves “the freedom that home schooling provides us. Our children are not bound by the confines of traditional school in terms of what they learn and how fast they have to learn it.”
Susan Lapin, a longtime home-schooling parent who now lives in Baltimore, says, “It is only in recent years that the number of Jewish home schooling families has grown significantly.”
“There are reasons why Jews lagged behind in this American trend, including loyalty and well-deserved respect and affection for the system of religious private schools which has burgeoned in America since the end of World War II,” she writes on her blog, susanlapin.typepad.com.
Yehudis Eagle, conference coordinator of the Torah Home Education Group, which sponsors an annual Jewish home schooling conference, says she has witnessed an increase in the last few years of Jewish home schoolers. With approximately 200 participants, this year’s conference in Baltimore was more than double the size of last year’s gathering, Eagle says.
“We are not alone anymore,” she says. Home schooling, while still practiced by a distinct minority of Jewish families, is achieving a critical mass and a recognition as a valid, no longer fringe, educational alternative.
Why do Jewish parents decide to do home schooling?
It’s not just for financial reasons, like out-of-reach day school tuitions, Eagle says. She estimates that a third of Jewish home schooling is done for “grass-roots, philosophical reasons,” a third for economic reasons and the other third for a variety of reasons.
Primarily, she says, “many of us don’t want to delegate [responsibility for children’s education] to a teacher.”
“Sometimes,” says author and home-schooling mother Evelyn Krieger, who lives in Sharon, Mass., “when you are in the system, such as working in a school, you see practices, administration, curriculum and social issues that bring you dismay. Much time is wasted in the typical school. Often, I would say to myself, ‘I could do better for my own kids.’”
A decade-old study of home schooling in the general community conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics found that the desire for a “better education,” “religious” motivation and a “poor learning environment” at established schools were the reasons most often given for home schooling.
“I wish there were fewer kids doing home schooling,” for the sake both of the children and of established Jewish schools, but sometimes it’s “in the child’s best interests,” says Rabbi Shmuel Klein, a spokesman for Torah Umesorah, the national association of mostly Orthodox Jewish day schools. “It’s a good thing that [a choice] exists. Bless the good Lord that it exists as an opportunity.”
The growth of the Jewish home schooling movement poses no threat to day schools, most of which are flourishing as the Orthodox population has grown in the last few decades, Rabbi Klein says. “The system’s thriving. Our schools are growing.”
For Jewish home schoolers, the setup varies. Some parents arrange joint lessons for several children in Hebrew or other subjects; others follow a traditional pattern of classes, homework and grades. Lessons can be parent-led or can involve children developing their own, independent learning skills; sometimes families participate in home school-geared programs offered by institutions like museums and galleries and the Hudson Valley’s Eden Village Camp, which last year established a Farm & Forest Homeschool Program whose holidays-oriented fall session starts Sept. 6.
Some children enter home schooling at nursery school age and stay there through high school; others start out at home, then transfer to an established school. Sometimes it’s vice versa. Some participate in what is called “unschooling,” which is more free form, following a student’s interests or abilities.
Jewish home schoolers are not a monolithic group, says Rebecca Masinter, Baltimore mother of five home-schooled children.
“Being a home school parent,” she says, “is only being a parent.” She grew up in a home-schooled family, and decided, with her husband, to carry on the tradition.
At the recent Jewish home schooling conference in Baltimore, a vendors’ exhibit featured books, curriculum guides and such high-tech educational aids as the KeyboardTownPals.com “instruction coloring storybook” and the LivingLessons.com program for teaching “Torah subjects.” Sessions included such topics as money management, home schooling the bar/bat mitzvah-age student, “Advancing the Relationship Between Homeschoolers and the Community” and “Bringing Technology Into Our Homes.”
The latter topic is a nod to online classes and other tech tools that have made the growth of Jewish home schooling possible. Home schooling parents have created a virtual community of like-minded parents.
“The Internet has changed everything,” Evelyn Krieger says. “The [home schooling] pioneers in the 1960s and ‘70s simply did not have the resources and connections we have now.”
“Social media has made it much easier to connect and exchange ideas with Jewish home school families all over the world,” Michelle Kleinman, a home schooling mother in Brooklyn, tells The Jewish Week in an e-mail interview.
Do home schooling families “burn out” from the 24/7 parent-child/teacher-student time together? No, they report. The home schooling serves as a bond, they say. But, Eagle says, “everyone needs a break and some personal space sometimes — home schooling moms too.”
Since the emergence of the home schooling phenomenon, home schoolers have faced the criticism that their stay-at-home children don’t get the same quality of education as that provided in a standard classroom, and that, by spending much of their time among their parents and siblings, they don’t develop the socialization skills necessary for dealing with other people in other venues.
The statistics of home schooled students being accepted into universities and flourishing there academically refutes the first charge, home school parents say.
As for social skills — “This is the most frequently asked question of home schoolers and the most dreaded,” Evelyn Krieger says. “We call it the ‘S word.’”
Her children, like most home-schooled kids, get out of the house on a frequent basis, she says. “Most cities and towns now have home school social groups and co-ops that meet for field trips, park days, open gym, as well as academic classes. Museums, YMCAs, libraries are now opening their doors to home school programs during the school day.”
For Shalom Yehuda Lavender, New York City is his classroom, and his place to meet other kids. There’s a joint Hebrew class with other home-schooled children, a home-school soccer league set up by parents, and clubs geared to students’ other academic interests.
He says he enjoys being a home-schooled student. “You get to do cool stuff.” Like the Bronx Zoo, Museum of Natural History and the Liberty Science Center (part of his individualized science curriculum). His favorite part is the integrated lessons that his mother offers, teaching, for instance, history through literature; he’s an avid reader, often of books above his grade level.
Today, he turns from spelling to penmanship. At his mother’s instruction, he traces letter after letter in English in a workbook.
His mother — his teacher — is satisfied with his writing.
He gets another sticker.
Home Schooling Resources Online
Among the home schooling resources available on the Internet:
♦ Room613.net — classes, curriculum resources and networking opportunities.
♦ Homeschooling.gomilpitas.com/religion/jewish.htm — clearinghouse for educational resources.
♦ ChinuchAtHome.info — curriculum guides and essays from an Orthodox perspective.
♦ Chinuch.org — printable worksheets, project ideas and lesson plans.
♦ Chesska.com/homeschool/chevra_faq.html — answers to “frequently asked questions” about Jewish home schooling.
♦ Home-school.LoveToKnow.com/Jewish_Homeschooling — a hands-on guide to specific concerns of Jewish home schooling parents.
♦ Successful-Homeschooling.com/jewish-homeschooling.html — the experience of one home schooling family.
♦ JewishHomeSchool.blogspot.com — the musings of “a Busy Jewish mom married to a Fabulous Jewish dad raising 5 amazing blessings.”
♦ JewishHomeSchooling.blogspot.com — a similar personal collection of insights and resources.
♦ Chayas.com/homeschoolindex.htm — a guide to home schooling by the now-defunct League of Observant Jewish Homeschoolers. Though LOJH no longer operates, its duties have been taken over by other organizations that serve the home schooling community, and its guide still appears on the chayas.com website. “The number of requests we receive about this topic is overwhelming,” the website states.