Somethings very wrong when we cant afford Jewish schools

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I had often heard that having children opens your eyes. My eyes have been opened.

I am a Jewess. From a young age I knew that Judaism was more than a code of ethics, a guide to living but something that went even deeper — it is a way of life. Throughout my youth and during numerous instances of anti-Semitism, I relentlessly defended my Jewishness with a passion.

Today I stand proud of the person, wife, mother, sister, daughter and friend that I am. I cherish the memories of family and friends at Shabbat dinners, holidays, our time in shul, my father starting a Jewish nursery school and kindergarten, my grandmothers cooking for the B’nai B’rith and women’s groups.

I, too, am haunted by my grandparents’ inability to talk about their past lives in Europe, and how they fled for their lives with the clothes on their back to start a new life for their future families.

Today I face a dilemma: Will my children be Jewish?

Naturally, by birth they will be, and, yes, most of our street is Jewish. We participate in our shul, we keep Shabbat and I do my best to raise menschen. Beyond our walls, we are limited to what our precious children are exposed to. As a mother and a parent I want only the best for my children, to protect them and to nurture them — to give them life’s greatest gift — wings and roots.

I would like them to be educated in a Jewish environment, to be enveloped by Judaism and drink in the beauty. Yet, we are an average middle-class family trying to make ends meet, and a formal Jewish education only seems to be affordable to those with means. The average Jewish day school’s annual tuition is $9,000 after give-and-get, security fee, PTA fees, etc.

According to the Florida census, the median household income as of 1999 is $38,819 in Florida and $41,994 throughout the United States. Effectively, in our tax bracket we would need to earn $11,700 before taxes just to pay for one child’s preschool tuition before even putting food on the table, buying clothes or paying our monthly bills.

By the end of the year, having two children in kindergarten and preschool would cost in excess of $17,000, which is half of the median household income. Who knows about elementary, middle, high school and college?

But the reality is we earn more than many, and we still can’t afford to put our 3 1/2-year-old in a full-day program at a Jewish day school.

These issues apply just as seriously in the Bay Area as in Florida.

We could apply for scholarships, which I find demoralizing and degrading, but they are not even available. Scholarships are only available from kindergarten on. People, we have sponges here and they are thirsty for knowledge!

My husband and I do have other alternatives, but are they really an option? Sending our son, with a bagged kosher meal to a more affordable, nondenominational kindergarten and then free, state-run institutions.

The saddest reality is that our kids are young once. The question that plagues me the most is, why is a formal Jewish education only available to the wealthy? Shouldn’t we be nurturing Jewishness from birth? How long do we wait before we address the issue of affordable formal education in a Jewish environment?

Think of the money we would save on adult outreach, how easy it would be to recruit volunteers, how teens would feel a sense of belonging because every Jewish teen would be gravitating toward Jewish events, not as a have-to-go but a want-to-go.

Ah, surely I can dream of a Jewish way of life.

The one spark of hope in this dilemma is that if all else fails, I can always rely on adult education and outreach when my children are older.

I’m not writing this to seek help solving my situation, but to make others aware of a growing problem. I was brought up to believe that education is not a luxury but a necessity.

I am writing because I respect people’s ability to make great things happen.

Heidi Eliasov-Hodes is a mother of two who lives in Florida.