By Rachel Wizenfeld
The pros and cons of sending frum kids to diverse community day schools
While more and more Torah day schools are sprouting across the country, many families in smaller Jewish locales are sending their children to community schools with a student body from diverse religious backgrounds. Such an experience can be spiritually enriching—or challenging and even confusing. In the following article, parents, students and teachers talk about such a decision and the unique challenges and opportunities it presents.
Mariashi Groner, director of the Charlotte Jewish Day School in North Carolina, recalls many years ago how her daughter’s fifth-grade teacher approached her with concern. “Shaina’s always swinging on the swings by herself,” the teacher said, worried that someone had hurt her feelings. So Groner asked her daughter why she wasn’t playing with her classmates. Her daughter replied, “They’re all just chasing the boys. Do you want me to be chasing boys too?”
That was a perfect example, says Groner, who directed the school first as a Chabad community school and now as a nondenominational community day school, of how her daughter knew when to step back. All of her kids who have continued on to Orthodox middle schools and high schools and turned out “more than fine” knew when it was time to step back and when they could join in with their classmates.
Many parents in small Jewish communities, whether they live there for work, outreach or Jewish education, have faced the question of how to socially integrate their kids into community day schools while making sure they stick to their Orthodox value system. Most agree that it depends on both the school environment and the child him or herself.
Rabbi Moshe Yosef Gewirtz, a Judaic studies teacher at The Silver Academy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where about 70 percent of the students come from unaffiliated, Reform or Conservative homes, says it’s critical that children have at least one like-minded friend. In his experience—he’s currently sending his eighth child through the school—it doesn’t matter if the frum friend is a year older or a year younger, but they need someone to play with on Shabbat. For girls, it’s important they have at least one religious friend so they are not the only ones always wearing skirts.
While one of his daughters managed despite not having a close frum best friend—even becoming the star basketball player in a long skirt—he has seen other kids in that situation struggle and need more support, or slightly relax their standards. “You have to know your kids,” he says.
Rabbi Shimmy Trencher, a social worker who sends his children to the Sigel Hebrew Academy of Greater Hartford and serves as dean of students at Hebrew High School of New England (HHNE), both of which are Modern Orthodox schools but draw students from across the spectrum (“from atheist to Orthodox,” he says), echoes that sentiment. “The most relevant questions parents have to ask are: ‘To whom does my child gravitate? Whom is my child going to be friends with?’ Because for teens especially, friends play a significant role. And parents need to ask, ‘How strong is my child in terms of his or her own commitment and values?’”
Rabbi Trencher, who also served as assistant director of New England NCSY for several years, gave an example of a young lady who came to HHNE as an extremely committed Lubavitcher. Not only was her own commitment strengthened by her school experience, but she inspired many other students and went on to attend a top Lubavitch seminary.
According to Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK, the Jewish Community Day School Network, there are 130 community day schools, also known as nondenominational or pluralistic schools, in North America, each with its own unique blend of religious affiliations and influences. Some, like Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Kansas City, Charlotte Hebrew Day School in North Carolina, The Silver Academy in Harrisburg and Levey Day School in Portland, Maine, have several Orthodox families as part of the school and try very hard to accommodate Orthodox practice to make those students feel comfortable, whether by using an ArtScroll siddur during davening or by providing a kosher sukkah. Other schools have a less traditional bent and an Orthodox family might feel less comfortable there.
“For a typical Orthodox kid who can’t go to birthday parties and has to keep kosher [when his classmates do not], that is difficult, and I don’t think I would put kids through that,” says Groner. But Groner, who is Lubavitch, says that it can be different for Chabad families on shlichus. “Yes, they’re the only ones with tzitzis and a kippah, but they understand that they’re there for a purpose.”
Some parents may be concerned about their kids straying from the path when surrounded by students of different religious levels, but Rabbi Trencher believes those risks exist in any type of school environment, including more homogeneous Orthodox schools. However, he does find that the attraction of other types of lifestyles is more present and in public view when attending a community-type school, especially when the kids are very young.
Daniel Berman, a twenty-one-year-old studying in a yeshivah in Israel who attended a community day school on the West Coast, expresses how being in a religiously mixed classroom was confusing for him as a young child. [Full disclosure: Daniel is the writer’s younger brother.] He says that he would see his friends without kippahs outside of school, and while he looked at them as if they were doing something wrong, they didn’t act like anything was wrong.
In addition, conversations like the following only confused him:
“Why can he eat it and I can’t? Is he being bad by eating it?”
“No, he’s not being bad . . . ”
“So why can’t I eat it?”
“Because we don’t.”
“It’s very hard to explain to a child that you have to be religious because it’s the right thing to do, yet these people who are not religious and are not doing the right thing are good people,” Berman says. “This made me have a bit of a negative feeling toward [aspects of Judasim,] specifically Shabbos and kashrus, because my friends were allowed to play Gameboy [on Shabbos] and eat Skittles and [at] Chuck E. Cheese.”
Overall, though, Berman thinks there were some benefits to attending such a school: “Nonreligious people weren’t foreign to me. Some people growing up in [very insular] communities have difficulty interacting with those from other backgrounds. I think in that sense it helped.”
To strengthen his kids and ward off some of the more negative reactions that Berman describes, Rabbi Trencher says he holds frequent conversations with his children about their values and challenges that arise in school, and also makes sure to send his kids to strong Jewish programs during the summer where they will be positively influenced. Similarly, Rabbi Gewirtz says that he sent most of his kids to Orthodox sleepaway camps so they wouldn’t have to be in the minority all the time.
One benefit Rabbi Trencher sees in community schools is an added emphasis on middot. “With families that don’t necessarily value halachah as I do, why are their children in a Jewish school? Because they want their kids to be Jewishly knowledgeable and inculcated with Jewish values . . . it’s all about middos—that’s the predominant Jewish value, not halachah.”
As for the quality of Jewish education in community schools, Rabbi Trencher, who attended a Jewish high school in New York, says that when comparing his high school education to that of his children, his was “more rigorous in many ways.” But the educational benefit of these community schools is that there is a lot more room for asking questions and for discussion.
Parents need to ask, “How strong is my child in terms of his or her own commitment and values?”
“They may learn less halachah, but they are engaged in a process of understanding their Judaism and how it affects their lives in a way that certainly was not a part of what I had in a more homogeneous environment.”
Rabbi Gewirtz claims that in his school, the only areas in Judaic studies which need supplementing are Mishnah and Gemara. He has found that girls who graduate are sufficiently prepared for yeshivah and Modern Orthodox high schools, but boys often come to yeshivah high schools somewhat behind in their Gemara skills. Often it takes them a year or two to catch up.
To compensate, he studies with a few boys on the side, sometimes in an after-school club, and he says that although these boys do have a period of adjustment when attending a typical yeshivah high school, it is not a serious obstacle.
“We don’t have a strong curriculum because it’s not the same hours [as a typical yeshivah]—our day ends at 3:35,” he says.
The Benefits of Diversity
For some parents, a community school is even more attractive than a typical Torah day school because of the increased religious diversity, as well as the oftentimes stronger secular education.
Javid Noorollah, a chiropractor in Kansas City, moved with his family from San Diego to Kansas so his wife could attend medical school there. His wife had grown up in Kansas City and attended the local community day school, Hyman Brand. While both grew up Conservative, today they identify as Modern Orthodox and thus were pleased to learn about Hyman Brand’s newly operating Matmidim Program, a special Judaic studies track for observant children. For the Noorollahs, the school is ideal because the Orthodox track offers their daughter, currently in kindergarten, a strong social network of Orthodox kids and helps avoid situations where she would feel left out. At the same time, being in a school with Conservative, Reform and even unaffiliated students means they feel more comfortable with the level of secular studies, as well as the exposure their daughter will receive to different types of Jews, which the Noorollahs believe will teach students to learn to love all Jews and not be too insular.
“It really helps for building ahavas Yisrael and tolerance for other Jews,” agrees Rabbi Gewirtz. “You might not agree with everything that they’re doing and know they’re not doing everything according to halachah, but they’re Jews, and in many ways may be finer than you.”
The exposure to religious kids and families can be transformative for secular students as well. For Chana Raiskin, a now-Orthodox newlywed who grew up Conservative and attended South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale, California—a Modern Orthodox school where the vast majority of students in the 90s came from secular or traditional families (today the demographics are different)—going to the school gave her significant Jewish exposure and roots so that later, in high school and college, she was more easily drawn toward becoming observant.
“I had a strong association with being Jewish and I’m sure that the school helped with that identification,” says Raiskin, who’s spending her first year of marriage studying in Israel.
Similarly, Chanokh Berenson, a recent graduate of Yeshiva University who attended HHNE, gives credit to his school for introducing Jewish learning and practice to him in a nonjudgmental way, allowing him to take on observance slowly and at his own pace.
“Nothing was ever forced on me; no teacher ever said, ‘You have to do this.’ Everything I did was my choice,” he says. “When I first started wearing tzitztis, my friend said, ‘Oh, are you getting extra credit for that?’ and I replied, ‘in Shamayim.’ Only I probably didn’t know what Shamayim was back then, so maybe I said something else.”
Groner recalls that when she took her son, now twenty-three, to the arcade when he was ten years old and he was about to redeem his tickets at the counter which featured toys and candy, his ten-year-old friend, who was nonobservant, came running across the room, shouting, “He can’t have that and he can’t have that—he keeps kosher!”
“These are the things that warm my heart,” says Groner.
Rabbi Elie Tuchman, who previously served as head of school at OHDS for seven years (he’s currently the head of school at Yeshiva at the Jersey Shore), agrees that diversity has tremendous benefits. “It teaches you to appreciate the other,” he says.
However, he draws a clear line between true community day schools, in which the administration, faculty, board and student body draw from varied and pluralistic Jewish affiliations, to schools like Oakland Hebrew Day School in northern California, which are Modern Orthodox schools with a diverse student base.
“If you sign up for this school [OHDS], that means you’re going to have kosher food at birthday parties, you’re not going to have birthday parties on Shabbat or Friday night, and that’s really a huge deal . . . . Obviously everything is a question of degree, but when it’s within the Orthodox framework, there are tremendous benefits [to diversity]. And while there are risks, they’re not as significant.”
Whether you anticipate sending your kids to a community or community-type school or you already do, you should know yourself, know your child and know the school. Weighing all the factors will help you make the right decision for that most important thing—your child’s Jewish future
Rachel Wizenfeld is a frequent contributor to many Jewish publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her family.