A Study in Life

Why parents should learn to embrace 21st-century Jewish education.

By Valerie Lustgarten

Leah wakes up at around 6:30 every morning. She gets dressed, prepares her soccer bag, and goes downstairs to join her parents and little sister for breakfast. By 7:15, she is off to school. Her first stop is her locker, from where she takes her Siddur, her World History textbook, and her Science binder. Realizing the time, Leah runs upstairs where her T’fillah group is ready to start their morning prayers. Why begin an article about 21st-century Jewish education with a morning routine rather than a long schpiel on technology, AP courses, youth trips to Israel or college entrance exams? Or better yet, why not begin with grim statistics on dwindling numbers of North American Jews? These are all valid points, and although you could argue that one is more critical than the other, the stance I share with you today is that they are all fundamental and equally important.

Jewish_Education-2In reality, there is no substitute for an education at a Jewish Day School. The sights, the smells, and the sounds Leah experiences day in and day out are what will make her the adult she will grow up to be—of good moral character, with clear values, a sense of belonging and responsibility to others’ well being, along with a responsibility to her Jewish heritage and the world.

Even at her young age, Leah can already feel it. She sees herself as a Jew not only during prayers, but when collaborating with a community in need during a service learning project, playing on her school’s soccer team, when dressing up as Queen Esther and reciting the Megillah to the Early Childhood children down the hall, or when taking a Stanford distance learning class from the comfort of her school’s media center. She can feel the goosebumps on the back of her neck when she hears the Hatikvah at school-wide assemblies, as well as when she watches her peers perform a scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Her parents, on the other hand, constantly question their choice of a Jewish Day school for their daughter. As typical 21st-century parents, or “helicopter parents,” they hover over her regularly. Whenever they see Leah in danger of making a “mistake” or a “wrong” choice, they land at her side to “save” her. They dwell on her class schedule, her class’s social composition, her typing skills, her handwriting skills, her choice of APs, what she eats, the B in English that will taint her transcripts forever, and even her hair. Unfortunately, with the pressures of college acceptance and today’s sparse job market, it is understandable that they have lost the ability to see the big picture. I encourage parents everywhere to step back, trade that helicopter for a hot air balloon, enjoy the ride, and savor the view. Rediscover the sense of awe you felt when Leah took her first steps, when she read her first words. Look around: that Jewish Day School that you chose for her several years ago—when all you wanted was a safe and caring place for her to experience holidays, develop a love for Israel, and surround herself by a tight knit community—is now giving her the opportunities, choices, and experiences that will allow her to be whoever and whatever she wants to be.

Twenty-first century education is not only more technology and more knowledge at a faster pace; the world has become borderless. Markets are more global than local, and the jobs that our children will work in have not yet been created. This is where Jewish Day Schools come in. Twenty-first century education is about fostering values that open the doors to the development of fundamental skills such as collaboration, empathy and self-motivation. There is no other choice, no other goal—this has to become the role of Jewish Day Schools today. They must offer students the possibility to explore and establish their identity, as well as prepare for the future, whatever it may hold. In the 21st century, attending Jewish Day School must no longer be seen as a trade-off, but as the ultimate gift. It must be seen as a superior, more holistic approach to academic excellence, as an experience of a lifetime, as learning for a lifetime. Leah’s Day School experiences will provide her with the opportunities to attend Harvard or Yeshiva University, on a humanitarian mission to Haiti or a Biotech research internship in Tel Aviv; she could be a U.S. soccer champion or a Parsons web-design graduate; she could perform at the Met or practice law in a Miami courthouse.

The sacrifice Leah’s parents make today, to ensure their daughter’s education at a Jewish Day School, will most certainly pay off tomorrow. Just ask Leah’s grandparents. They recently attended Leah’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration at school; there was singing, marching, dancing, crying, as a community of a thousand plus youngsters celebrated the miracle that is the State of Israel. Leah’s grandparents couldn’t be happier, they had always known they had made the right choice when they enrolled Leah’s mom in a Jewish Day School, but at this particular point, watching their granddaughter, continuity was staring them in the face, and it was a warm gaze, one of complete approval.