Learning Torah with 7-year-old, Dad achieves his dream

This fall, for the first time ever, I studied Torah with my son.

For years I had dreamed of the moment. I was helping my 7-year-old, Joshua, with his second-grade homework and, together, we read and translated the Hebrew words from his Chumash, or Bible.

Both Josh and I only started learning Hebrew about a year ago, and the dream that came true this fall was not only mine but one of his, too.

Ever since we started attending synagogue on a regular basis, Josh has been fascinated with reading from the Torah. And ever since some relatives gave him a paper replica of a Torah-scroll, my son has longed to be able to read it.

As a surprise, when his homework was done, I brought him the scroll, rolled it to the verses we had been studying, and asked him to read from it and translate what he had read. He did, and with such excitement he could barely contain himself. As a parent, I felt his joy vicariously — and, I think, even more intensely.

My daughter Eliana, in kindergarten, is in many ways already ahead of me. She reported to my wife and me that she had learned in school about the mitzvah of hashavat aveidah — she was kind enough to translate the term for us, "returning lost objects" to their owners. She's learning not only mitzvot but middot (proper behavior) from each weekly Torah portion, things like the importance of being thankful, respecting one's parents. In general, these are precisely the kind of values that we do teach at home, but which need reinforcing at school. The kind that we only wish our public schools could teach.

For both of them, reading Hebrew is as easy as reading English. And why shouldn't it be? They were taught a "B" and a bet at the same time. A new letter is a new letter, and, at that young age, everything is new. In one year, my son, academically average, learned four alphabets (upper- and lowercase English, Hebrew block and Hebrew script) without problem and now reads them all just as well as any average 7-year-old can read English.

So what is someone like me, a person who, for most of his life, has wavered between being a staunchly Reform and staunchly secular-ethnic Jew, doing sending my kids to an Orthodox Jewish day school?

Well, for one, I am determined that they get the Jewish education I never received. Secondly, I am determined that they learn values and ethics that they won't likely learn in a public school. Thirdly, I am determined that they not get "burned out" on Judaism by having to spend precious play time in a Sunday school or in an after-school Hebrew program.

Many of my friends and relatives wonder if my kids are being deprived of a "multicultural" consciousness, and if, as they get older, they will be able to "fit in" to the larger American society.

My answer to them is quite simple: Hey, if you live in America, you are exposed to American culture, whether you like it or not. My children hardly lead insulated lives; they learned to skateboard from the Catholic kid next door. My son's into "The Phantom Menace"; my daughter, "Toy Story" (I and II) and both are avid fans of "A Bug's Life," among other contemporary offerings.

But any loss born of lack of exposure to all that American society has to offer (much of it, in any event, hardly healthful) is more than outweighed in my mind with what my children have to gain from receiving a strong Jewish education.

I often think about how many Jewish adults today feel reluctant to go to a synagogue because of the hard time they have figuring out what's going on. Until two years ago, that huge group included me — and I still get lost occasionally! One of the reasons I never once visited the Hillel at my college was that I feared my lack of Jewish knowledge would be exposed. That four-year separation from my Jewish religious heritage all too easily stretched into 10 years, and I was ever-so-close to dropping out of Jewish identity completely. I don't want that to happen to my kids. No way.

An extra bonus of my children's Jewish education is that, by playing my parent's role as homework-helper, I myself am getting the Jewish education I never had. In two years Joshua will be reading Mishnah, the code of oral laws in the Talmud, in the original Hebrew, and I hope I will be doing the same.

And then there are the ethics. Even if responsible Jewish parents teach their children the Jewish way — that "returning lost objects" is a mitzvah, that lashon hara, even truthful hurtful speech, is a sin — how great can their influence be when their kids spend most of their waking hours at school, where the ethical model considers "finders keepers" and "dissing" acceptable social convention?

Josh is blessed, moreover, with a fabulous Jewish studies teacher. This young, dynamic, enthusiastic "rebbe" thinks nothing of standing on his desk to make a point, or pacing off 300 "arm-breadths" at recess to demonstrate how long Noah's ark was. He pointedly plays with the kids during recess in order to use the playground to inculcate Jewish ethics and values in his charges. It's all part of the Jewish educational process, he says.

And as far as the school's secular studies are concerned, not only did my careful comparison with the public school curriculum show them to be right on grade level, but the yeshiva high school into which the day school "feeds" offers a broad assortment of impressive advanced-placement, secular studies courses. I now understand why Jewish day school graduates seem to succeed in such high proportions in higher secular education.

Some of my friends chide me for my educational choice, and claim that they send their own children to public schools in order to support public education. But my tax dollars support public education as much as theirs do. The point, though, is that I would never sacrifice what I consider the best interests of my children in order to make a political statement — and doubt that my friends would either. They just don't realize how much a Jewish education could benefit their kids.

Why so many Jews think that Jewish day school is only for the Orthodox is beyond me. If non-Orthodox Jews care so much about "informed choice," isn't providing their young with a Jewish education the best way to keep them informed, to be in a position to make rational choices about their Jewish futures?

Where I live, in northern Virginia, it seems that almost every Orthodox child attends a Jewish day school, but no more than 5 percent of children from Conservative families and only a handful of children from Reform backgrounds.

What is interesting, though, is that the overwhelming majority of local rabbis — and that includes the two Orthodox rabbis, and many more Conservative and Reform rabbis, even the rabbi of a non-denominational gay and lesbian synagogue — send their children to day school .

Do they know something most other Jews don't?