Wednesday, January 7th, 2009
After all the years my wife and I have carried the burden of yeshiva tuition, we never thought we’d see the day we pull one of our children out because of an issue not related to money. But sure enough, because of learning issues that were impeding the progress of one of my kids, we decided an unusual mid-year shift was in order.
What kids who have difficulty meeting grade level expectations need are inclusion classrooms in which they get the help they need in the same setting as the other kids, something few yeshivot are prepared to offer. But that’s a discussion for another post.
Switching a kid from yeshiva to public school is so loaded with sociological, religious and emotional issues that it’s hard to begin describing it. There are few decisions with as many potential ramifications on a family’s Jewish heritage and legacy. Searching on the Internet, I was unable to find much in terms of resources for people who struggle with this dilemma or have taken the plunge. NCSY and Chabad are available with their afterschool programs, and I’ll be assessing and writing about them.
I have heard numerous people in my circles longingly dream of being relieved of their massive tuition bill, which can rival or exceed housing as their single biggest monthly expense. Often I hear the lament that, if enough Orthodox people would enroll their kids at the same time in public school, they would happily be part of that cohort. But to have their kid isolated, no dice.
What they are really saying is that they would enroll their kids in public school if they could be sure they would have enough observant Jewish friends with whom to fraternize and date. The obvious subtext is the fear public school will be the first step down the road to non-Jewish grandchildren.
But the fact is that much of the Jewish community we know today, including the Orthodox world, is built on public education. Two or three generations back, full-time yeshiva was the exception, rather than the rule, for the vast majority of all Jews.
According to the book “Jewish Day Schools in America,” by Alvin Schiff, published in the 60s, there were 28 yeshivot founded in North America between 1917 and 1939. In 1928, there were 4,290 pupils enrolled in 17 day schools.
Between 1940 and 1963, yeshiva enrollment boomed from 7,700 to 65,400, and from 35 to 306 schools. Today, the number of students is likely to approach a quarter million, says Jewish education expert Marvin Schick, who last counted 210,000 in a detailed survey, and suspects a new figure of 225,000 in the next poll.
Most of today’s yeshivot and day schools have existed in the range of 50-75 years, which coincides with the European immigrant boom of the early to mid-20th century. One of the oldest yeshivot in America, Mesivta Tiferes Jerusalem on the Lower East Side, was founded in 1907 as a Talmud Torah, and for decades it was typical for Orthodox immigrant families to send their children to afternoon ”cheders” or Talmud Torahs after school while getting their full secular education, kindergarten through college, courtesy of the city and state.
“Many Orthodox synagogues had significant Talmud Torah schools connected with them,” says Brandeis University Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna. “There were places where kids went for two or three hours every day and all day Sunday.”
But Sarna notes that many parents viewed these programs as “a way to keep kids out of trouble” in the days before little league and youth groups, and that “only the most studious kids benefited. It was a much weaker Jewish education and , indeed, it was common in Orthodox settings to find lay people with a sophisticated world view but a pediatric knowledge of Judaism.”
Still, those Jews in large part turned out no less faithful than today’s yeshiva students and their prosperity made it possible to build such landmark institutions as Yeshivah of Flatbush and Ramaz, or the Maimonides School in Boston. They also built up Jewish organizations, neighborhoods and contributed heavily to Israel and other causes. Maybe it was their lack of textual knowledge that spurred them to express connection more through action.
Yeshivot and day schools are overflowing today not only because they are ubiquitous and in large part people can afford them, but because public education has become so stigmatized among observant Jews. And that’s a disservice to those for whom yeshiva should not be the last option, whether because of finances or other, child-related issues.
Preserving our traditions and beliefs for the next generation is a sacred task, but we shouldn’t assume it is incompatible in and of itself with public education. The most important factor is surely what is taught in the home and whether kids are presented with a lifestyle they’ll want to duplicate in their own homes.
It’s in the best interest of Jewish continuity to provide more resources for problem-solving and peer support to those for whom yeshiva education is no longer an option, for whatever reason, but want to stay just as connected as ever to the Jewish community, and to God.