For Rachel Blau, far left, senior year is bittersweet. Courtesy of Naomi Bernstein
I could not help but feel a sense of sadness upon stepping into school on the first day of my final year. September was the start of my senior year at the Schechter School of Long Island (SSLI) — a place where the teachers’ room was always open and no one used a lock on their locker, a place where the principal knows me by name and trade and older kids high-five me in the hallways. This was the place where I built my solid foundation upon the principles of leadership, spirituality and an understanding of the world in which we live. And at the most vulnerable time in my life — when I had to figure out who I was and what my passions were — that support system that fostered creativity and built character was exactly want I needed.
My day school education got me well past the front door my freshman year. I quickly recognized the potential that I could have at this school. When anything was possible, no opportunities were stifled. We learned about Malala Yousafzai’s courageous efforts in our current events class, and I couldn’t stand idly by. Like her, I began to recognize that an education was not a right for most girls my age around the world, and because the world was my oyster at SSLI, I felt I could make an impact.
The notion of tikkun olam, repairing the world, was something that was strongly instilled in each of us from day one. By my sophomore year, I had opened a line of communication with a co-ed school in a small village in Tanzania. Over the next few years, my school emailed with the students there and fundraised for them. We sent them more than $2,000, which they used to pay for electricity. An unbelievable story, made possible by the worldly environment of my small, Jewish day school.
On a cultural level, a Jewish school provided me with an invaluable working knowledge of my heritage, my people and of Israel. Balancing a curriculum with both Judaic and secular courses is not easy. But I know my hard work is worth it when my Jewish history teacher steers the conversation to the inherent qualities of humans through the lens of the Cossacks’ horrifying crimes, or when my Bible teacher asks, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” when discussing the Book of Job. Because these are the kinds of big questions the come up every day at a day school. These are the kinds of questions that we all wrestle with at one time or another, but are rarely addressed in a communal, intellectual environment. It’s that kind of big thinking that I know will serve me well in anything I choose to pursue.
The one-on-one attention from teachers. The opportunity to take on leadership positions within the school. The religious and cultural enrichment. The empowering nature of the system on the whole. All of these things are features that you will not find anywhere else. I’ve done my share of surveying other schools and I can tell you that there is a legitimate reason why day school graduates are such “good kids.” It’s because they graduate empowered, with the confidence to fulfill their goals and the drive to discover new passions. Also, they graduate eager to meet new people from different cultures and remain deeply connected with their own, on a level that they will not realize until they are surrounded by those who are unlike them.
You’re in good hands in a Jewish day school. I can tell you that as a product of a holistic Conservative Jewish education, my story will continue to build on the healthy foundation that was the Schechter School of Long Island. When I think about the college years ahead of me, I know that regardless of where I end up, my day school education will follow me and will enable me to tackle any challenge that comes my way.