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Raising joyful Jews — the case for day school education
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Opinion

Raising joyful Jews — the case for day school education

Rebecca Berman
Rebecca Berman

As a day school parent and lay leader at Golda Och Academy (GOA) in West Orange (a pre-K-12 school), I am often faced with the question: “Why should I send my child to a Jewish day school?” I did not attend a day school, so I believe my perspective provides a helpful degree of objectivity when assessing the many benefits of a formal Jewish education.

The true gift of a day school education happens most profoundly during unscripted moments. It is in the sense of community exhibited by the fifth grader who high-fives her kindergarten buddy as she passes her in the hallway. Or in the smile on a teacher’s face when my children and I fortuitously bump into her at ShopRite during our pre-Shabbat shopping. 

My friend’s son, a GOA graduate, is living post-college in Manhattan. On Friday nights, he and a bunch of his high school friends take turns hosting Shabbat dinner in their respective apartments. They have each gone out into the world, attended college, and began their professional careers — yet they choose, out of instinct (or I submit, by design of the day school experience), to find their way back to one another. 

These moments are the product of the careful cultivating of a sacred environment which manifests itself in unpredictably beautiful ways. When you choose to send your child to a day school, you invest in your child’s Jewish future and that of your entire family.    

Commitment to Judaism and Jewish values

Graduates of day schools are able to walk into virtually any synagogue in the world and participate in the service and, in this topsy-turvy world, always have a spiritual and communal place to call home.   

We develop children who are joyfully Jewish, foster a strong sense of achdut (unity) and, as our students grow into young adults, they assume a deep sense of responsibility to maintain the Torah and its traditions from generation to generation. They also bear a communal responsibility to better the world through tikkun olam.

By imprinting memories of warm, communal experiences — including the celebration of lifecycle events and holidays — day schools inspire and equip the next generation of American Jews to find their rightful place among the Jewish people.    

Commitment to Israel and the Hebrew language 

Day schools empower our students to develop a personal connection to Israel by studying its history, culture, and the Hebrew language. Students learn in the classroom the importance of Zionism, and by traveling to Israel they experience our connection to the Jewish state through a contemporary lens. (GOA’s curriculum includes trips to Israel for high school freshmen and seniors.)

Our children begin their days singing “Hatikvah,” setting the tone as they engage in activities that help them learn and appreciate Israel’s history and rich culture.

Beyond facilitating engagement in prayer and text study, Hebrew also provides a connection with Jewish communities around the world (our “secret code,” as I like to call it). On a trip to Paris, my husband (who attended The Brandeis School on Long Island) used Hebrew to converse with shopkeepers to help us find a synagogue where we could celebrate Purim. It was a profound moment of connectedness among members of the tribe, using our shared language to find common ground and a sense of shared purpose.

Remembering the Holocaust 

Upon receiving his Nobel Prize in 1986, Elie Wiesel said, “I have tried to keep memory alive. I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.” Day schools keep memory alive every day through formal Holocaust education and by building the next generation of Jewish leaders.

We keep memory alive by witnessing first-graders confidently strut onto a stage to receive their siddurim (prayer books) in front of a packed gymnasium of proud family members, teachers, and clergy. And we keep memory alive when GOA students participate in the documentary-making program “Names Not Numbers,” or when seniors visit Yad Vashem during their semester in Israel; our students bear the responsibility of internalizing “Never Again” as a sacred, lifetime duty.

As Holocaust survivors age, day schools have become an essential reservoir of memory. 

Excellence in education

GOA combines Judaic studies with excellence in general studies to give each student an exceptional educational experience (including a small student-to-teacher ratio of 5 to 1). 

In particular, GOA has made a serious commitment to develop a top-notch science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) program, complete with a dedicated state-of-the-art 4,000-square-foot STEM center.

In many respects, day school graduates are better prepared to tackle the rigors of college academics due to their experience with a dual curriculum and commitment to critical thinking at every stage. It comes as no surprise that day schools have a proven record of success, including students’ admission to prestigious universities, alumni populating a variety of professions, and building leaders in our Jewish community. 

Affordability 

Day school tuition can be a financial challenge. Fortunately, the issue is being addressed in a variety of ways, including locally by the Greater MetroWest NJ Day School Initiative. The initiative is a multi-year, multi-million- dollar investment in academic excellence and affordability, making the four day schools affiliated with Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ more sustainable and the experience more manageable for families. 

With respect to GOA, thanks to the generosity of many loyal donors, we are able to partner with families on an individual basis. I urge prospective families to confer with their local day schools (and federations), as many have creative and discrete methods to make Jewish education accessible. You may be surprised at the options available.

‘Brothers and sisters’

In speaking with alumni of our school, I am struck by the way they refer to their former classmates as “brothers and sisters for life.” Of course, people can make life-long friends at any school, but doing so in a Jewish environment elevates the experience and enhances the odds of our children emerging with friends who will share life’s joys and sorrows for many years to come. This connection of one Jew to the next permeates the students, faculty, and parents. The examples are too numerous to count, ranging from students visiting a teacher sitting shiva, parents joining together to say tehillim (psalms) in support of a student battling an illness, to a cadre of seniors attending their prom as a group to ensure no student is left out. Such acts of loving kindness are true mitzvot that impact all who belong to our day school communities. These moments cannot be captured in a brochure or promoted on a website; they happen only through a collective Jewish experience.

After our son read Torah for the first time, I recall my husband proudly turning to our rabbi, Alan Silverstein of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, and proclaiming that in that moment he felt as though he had succeeded as a parent. Our rabbi, always full of wisdom and guidance, turned to us and said that we would truly be successful Jewish parents when our grandchildren read Torah. Put simply, the best way to ensure that your grandchildren will be Jewish is to send your child to a Jewish day school.

Rebecca Berman of West Caldwell is chair of the board of trustees of Golda Och Academy in West Orange. She is the founder/president of Berman Branding, LLC, a boutique marketing consulting firm.

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