CJN DEBATE Jewish education: Day schools worth fighting for

Lorraine Sandler

I was not born in a time when day schools as we know them existed. My Jewish learning was delivered by a kindly, well-meaning European melamed. What I learned was rudimentary, and what I didn’t learn was monumental. My Jewish education was supplemented in my home and from Habonim, the Zionist Youth Movement. How I wish I had the opportunity of attending day school. Three hours a week – even three hours a few times per week – does not give one the kind of Jewish literacy I have so craved in my adult life.

When I advocate for day schools, I advocate for rich, sustained, meaningful Jewish education, which is the birthright of every single child born into the Jewish world. It is indeed the fundamental duty of Jewish parents to provide for the Jewish learning of their children. Some of us, while well meaning, do not have the requisite skills, but the responsibility is still ours.

The Jewish day school is an extraordinary environment to develop and enhance the Jewish learning of our children. The day school experience builds community spirit and belonging. Students make lasting Jewish relationships, even ones that result in Jewish marriages. A five-day-a-week school program allows for reinforcement, repetition and constant practice. This is the way children learn best.

While primary day school education is the foundation on which to build Jewish literacy skills, it is the high school experience that begins to cement that education and to embroider it with the depth and nuances of truly educated learning. One would not stop teaching a student math and English in Grade 8. Why then would one stop the teaching of Jewish material in Grade 8?

High school is where the knowledge and understanding from our teachings emerge – for understanding tolerance and respect, for a deep attachment to the Jewish people, for the emergence of leadership skills that will ultimately carry into one’s life, for relationship building and the understanding of inter-dating, for one’s relationship to the world and everything that is required of one to relate to it and all the peoples who inhabit it. 

It is recognized that day school students become the leaders in the Jewish community. They have a sense of social responsibility to ensure Jewish continuity and the maintaining of rich Jewish life. The fact that these community activists are Jewishly literate ensures that our institutions and values are governed with respect, dignity, insight and a deep awareness for the needs of the vulnerable. 

I make the case for day schools passionately. Notwithstanding the cost of a day school education, which the Jewish world must grapple with, I beg the question: “Why would parents not want their children to be competent and comfortable Jews?” The concept of facilitating Jewish ignorance in our children is very hard to stomach.

Numerous Jewish children attend private schools. Clearly cost is not the issue, since the cost of those schools is often greater than Jewish day schools. While parents might feel there are other incentives, I would challenge their motives. We need those children in our system. Our day schools must be as inviting. We cannot afford to lose one single child.

I do not for a moment negate the pressure under which parents are put, when having to make financial decisions of such proportions. It is frightening, and being middle class is punishing when it comes to having to make the choice to walk away from day school education. We need a groundswell of parents to fight for this right and to be vocal in large numbers and we need benefactors to understand that they have the future of Jewish literacy and belonging in their hands. This is a cause worth fighting for. 

Lorraine Sandler has been a Jewish early childhood educator for over 50 years, including principal of the Holy Blossom Temple preschool in Toronto. She is currently a parenting consultant with a private practice.