The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

July 18, 2013 by

Homeschooling While Orthodox

medium_6125411034I grew up peripherally aware of parochial schools. But most of what I knew concerned Catholic schools, land of the wealthy or otherwise unfit for public school. The Yeshiva system? That was an exotic new world I discovered post-conversion, along with gefilte-fish and dreidels. It is still largely mysterious to me, largely because it seems like the stuff more Orthodox Jews are made of. It is, unquestionably, training ground for a strong Jewish identity. In the mission statements of any yeshiva you pull up, you will find a reference to Torah, to heritage, often to Israel. Whether or not you feel like the educational standards are up to snuff, you can count on your kid identifying as a Jew upon graduation. But what goes into this machine? And what of those who don’t take this path? There is in fact, a small and growing contingent of Jewish families who have chosen to step outside of formal education. 

As I mentioned in my last post, I have chosen to homeschool my son. But this is a minor rebellion on my part; I’m not really going against the community grain. For a Jewish family living in Orthodox Brooklyn, homeschooling represents a clear departure from the very orthodoxy they have been raised to respect. How can they make this choice and still balance their obligations to community and culture?I interviewed a number of Orthodox Jews about why they chose to homeschool. Their answers varied slightly, but a few common refrains emerged: too expensive, too institutional, not academically rigorous enough, children are “institutionalized” younger and younger. Michelle Kleinman, a homeschooling mother from Borough Park, explained that her attitude shifted when her daughter was two. She was urged to put her toddler in school. Friends and relatives cautioned her that to hold off on applying would mean missing out altogether. Two’s programs lead to three’s programs, and so on, and unless you’ve gotten on board at the start of the trip, there just won’t be a seat on the bus by the time you get to it.

For others, the hesitation was both spiritual and pedagogical. As Ilana Marsi, a mom from Flatbush, mentioned to me, what does it signal to a child if he/she gets a C in Torah? Does this make the child a bad Jew? What are the spiritual ramifications of “dog eats Mishna homework”? It seems like if God is compartmentalized into a discrete subject, those wishing to impart deeply religious values might end up finding the opposite occurring. If you believe that God is all seeing, knowing and catalyzing, why isolate him into a discrete topic of study? Marsi explained that while the financial burden of the yeshiva system played a part in their decision, it really had less to do with finances, and more of a general discomfort with the educational paradigms in place.

And yes, tuition costs will forever be the elephant in the room. Some of the more exclusive schools don’t even disclose fees openly, hearkening to the old adage that “if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.” But even at the very low end, you’re shelling out $7K a year for each child (and per community standards, we’ll assume you have, or want, more than one). Financial aid is available, but comes at its own costs. Like my grandmother is fond of saying: “she who marries money, earns it.” There are always strings. Dignity, independence, privacy, you can set all of those aside. Hold off on taking family vacation, eating out, buying a new car, or getting a manicure. Because you have to disclose all of it, and the slightest indication of indulgence can throw your odds of support in jeopardy. I’ve heard of admissions counselors dropping by un-announced to take stock of an applicant’s penury.

Then, there is the question of ideological difference. This stems from the varied face of modern Judaism, the denominational differences, etc. I recently had dinner with some friends who, though they eventually landed at the “right” Jewish school, experienced a circuitous search. They are of means, have a handful of degrees between them, and are some of the most ardently nationalistic Jews I know. Tuition is not at issue, though with three children, it will always be of concern. Instead, they encountered a whole other set of hurdles. At one highly regarded institution (starts with an R, rhymes with the capital of Bolivia), they found themselves seated across from a dubious admissions counselor. She asked the husband, point blank, to rate how Jewish he is, on a scale of 1 to 10. To make a clumsy analogy of this situation (in light of who these people are, in fact, as Jews): imagine someone asking Malcom X, “how black are you really?” As far as I can tell, this admissions counselor was not asking anything. She was telling them that they did not fit the mold. So I think we can all be forgiven for feeling a little overwhelmed and fed up. The Yeshiva system’s prohibitive costs, the way it fractures the domestic sphere (by removing children from their mothers when they are barely weaned), and its ideological segregations, all seem distinctly in conflict with the values of a community and family it claims to teach.

Homeschooling is often cast as a rejection of community, when it is precisely the opposite—a chance to practice this religion of small domestic acts and rituals in its proper context. The Jew in his/her natural habitat—the home. Judaism is a daily religion, about small moments that you encounter throughout the day, and so is homeschooling. Jewish homeschooling prioritizes practice over theory. And isn’t it common knowledge that most people learn best by doing? This is a religion that places strong value in embodied knowledge, faith physicalized in the forms of food, sex, mikvah, and davening as a full contact sport. Comb through the various and growing number of homeschooling blogs. Ilana Marsi’s is one of many. All of them make use of the strong storytelling tradition already built into Judaism. There are multiple yahoo groups and list-serves serving the various contingents of Jewish homeschoolers. The face of Jewish homeschooling mirrors the religion itself: it is multifaceted, always unfolding and adapting. And Judaism is not a closed circuit. It is a community that is, and has historically been, a vibrant part of the larger world. This system of education allows for children and parents to be Jews from a secure base, their home, and branch out from there. It allows for women to retain and develop their roles as teachers and facilitators, even though they may have relinquished more “professional” roles. I encourage you to take a look, set aside your preconceptions, and, at the very least, allow that this is not the madness it first appears to be.



Image from jesuscm via photopin cc