Choosing a School
Hebrew school or day school?
In deciding whether to send your children to Hebrew Day School or Public School and afternoon Hebrew School it is important to look at your family’s finances, its lifestyle, your children’s academic abilities, the carpool or busing situation as well as where the majority of neighborhood kids go to school.
Why day school?
Many parents feel that the best way for children to learn about their Jewish heritage, Jewish ritual, observance, values and history is by sending them to Hebrew Day School. Today there are many choices for the parent who feels this is the route to go. Along with Orthodox Yeshivot, there are Day Schools run by the Conservative as well as the Reform Movements.
In Day Schools the day is divided between general secular subjects and Hebrew subjects. Schools differ as to which type of learning is emphasized. In Orthodox Yeshivot the study of Torah is paramount. In Conservative and Reform Day Schools there is more time given to general studies. Just as in public education, schools differ in terms of the quality of the students, the teaching staff, facilities, academic expectations, condition of the school building and tuition. Therefore, a visit to the school is a necessity. Check out the classrooms, condition of the bulletin boards, the athletic facilities, the library, cafeteria, art studios, science labs, playground . Meet with the principal. Ask about the orientation of the school and the expectations they have of students. Take a look at the curriculum. If your child has special needs, are there remedial classes? Find out whether your family’s level of religious observance is consonant with the level of observance of the other students in the school. Do you observe Shabbat, and keep kosher? In Orthodox and Conservative Day Schools your children’s social life may depend on your level of observance. If you need carpools or bussing, is it available in your neighborhood?
There are issues in choosing to educate your child in Day School. Some children are unable to handle the dual curriculum. Neighborhood children may go to Public School. The tuition may be prohibitive. You do not keep kosher and Saturday is your only day to get errands done.
There are benefits to a Day School education. The opportunity to study in depth the history, the rituals and practices of Judaism (with reinforcement at home—living what they learn) give Day School graduates a strong Jewish identity and Jewish knowledge base. They are definitely prepared to participate in Jewish life and usually maintain a close, lifelong connection to the Jewish community.
Public School and afternoon Hebrew School.
Most American Jewish families choose to send their children to Public School (see choosing a community) and educate them Jewishly in afternoon Hebrew Schools.
Many parents remember their own abysmal experience with Hebrew School and figure they put up with it so their kids will just have to also. The usual refrain is…"you just have to go until your Bar/Bat Mitzvah".
Most children begin their Hebrew School education seriously at age eight (although many children participate in Torah for Tots or other pre-aleph programs prior to entry into Hebrew School.) and study until their Bar/Bat Mitzvah at age thirteen. Some children in Conservative congregations continue their Hebrew studies in communal Hebrew High Schools through their High School Days. Many children in Reform congregations study through age sixteen when they become confirmed.
Conservative congregations are required to provide six hours of instruction a week to children in Hebrew School. Reform congregations may have as little as four hours of instruction a week In both movements, the emphasis of instruction is the preparation of the children to participate in Jewish life.
The negative feelings about Judaism that were engendered by bad Hebrew School experiences seem to have led many American Jews to look elsewhere to find spiritual fulfillment. This has been the impetus for the major movements within Judaism to create new and innovative curricula and programs designed to make Hebrew Schools more effective and yes, even fun. In an effort to stem the assimilation rates Jewish communities (Federations) are funding projects within congregations to extend, enrich and enhance Jewish learning for families of Hebrew School children.
You may think that all afternoon Hebrew Schools are alike. This is an incorrect assumption. If you want your child to have a good Hebrew School experience and learn about Judaism in a positive way, it is imperative that you speak to the Principal of the school and the Rabbi of the Congregation. Ask to see the curriculum for each grade. Are the children spending enough time on acquiring the skills to read Hebrew?. Are they learning prayer, Jewish life cycle rituals, Jewish holidays and values? Is there a music program? Does the curriculum include building a connection to Israel ? Will children at their Bar/Bat Mitzvah be able to chant their Torah and Haftorah portions . Will they be able to lead services? Will they be encouraged to continue their studies after Bar/Bat Mitzvah? Find out about the faculty, observe them in action. Are there family education programs? What about special enrichment or tutorial programs? Look at the textbooks. Do they encourage critical thinking, creativity? What are the opportunities for your child to participate in mitzvah (good deeds) or tzedakah (charity) projects?
If it is important to you that your child has a strong, positive Jewish identity, it is important that you as the parent reinforce what your child learns in school… whether it be Day School or afternoon religious school. Live Jewishly Follow the Jewish calendar. Celebrate Shabbat. Have Friday dinner together. If you can’t make a traditional meal, bring in pizza. If its not your custom to go to synagogue on Shabbat, try doing a special family activity to mark the day as special. Celebrate the Jewish holidays joyously. Invite company. Have festive meals…they can be take out. Buy new clothes. Try putting up a Sukkah, having a Tu B’Shevat seder in addition to a Passover seder. Have Jewish music tapes playing on your car tape deck. Have books dealing with Jewish subjects in your home library. Collect Judaica. Continue your own study of Judaism.
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