Why my kids are going back to Jewish day school

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For four years, my children attended Community Day School, Pittsburgh’s independent Jewish day school in Squirrel Hill, the city’s historically Jewish neighborhood.

The school’s mission is to “educate menschen: young people who are academically strong who grow to be good people, knowledgeable Jews, contributing citizens of the people of Israel, the United States, and our world.” Essentially, CDS promises not only a rigorous secular education — it promises to partner with me to raise my children.

Last summer, however, we moved out to the suburbs. We moved for the top-ranked (and free!) public schools, the trees, the space, the peace and the quiet. I knew that moving away from the heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and leaving the school that started the day with meditative tefillah (prayer), taught Hebrew alongside English, and infused Jewish studies into all aspects of education meant that I would need to ratchet up my Jewish mothering.

So, I resolved to do just that. We would have Shabbat dinner with homemade challah on Friday nights without exception. We would become active members of the synagogue and attend services. We would celebrate Shavuot and Sukkot and the other “small” holidays in addition to the more widely observed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I would speak Hebrew to the kids. They would attend Hebrew school twice a week.

I assured myself that I could make up for what my kids would be missing. As with so many other aspects of parenting, I thought I could provide everything they needed. After all, how could I not be qualified to raise Jewish children?

I am the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and the daughter of Israelis. Hebrew was my first language. I attended Gratz College’s Jewish Community High School in Philadelphia. I taught Hebrew and religious school for six years. I’ve been to Israel countless times. During college, I belonged to a Jewish sorority, I was a USY adviser and an intern for Chabad on Campus. I was a member of a chevra kadisha, a Jewish burial society, while in law school. I had a traditional Jewish wedding. As a professor, I am the adviser for my law school’s Jewish Law Student Association.

Surely I would be capable of raising three Jewish children, providing them with a Jewish education, and instilling in them a love of Jewish values, community and Israel even without their Jewish day school as a partner. My Jewish mothering would be enough.

Some families find that it takes a Jewish day school to raise a Jewish child. photo/shutterstock

Our move to the suburbs went well, and I was steadfast in my commitment. We joined the local synagogue and actively participated in family services. The kids attended religious school, where I substitute taught. We continued our tradition of Friday night dinners as often as our schedules allowed, joining with four other Jewish families to celebrate Shabbat once a month. I built my first sukkah — a very sad, unstable sukkah,  but a sukkah nonetheless. My daughter participated in the local Chabad Bat Mitzvah Club program. We volunteered with the Jewish Relief Agency to deliver food to families in need. All in all, I worked hard to ensure that my children continued to receive a Jewish upbringing.

Meanwhile, our experience with the public schools was positive. The academics were rigorous, the familieS were welcoming and the teachers and administrators were amazingly talented. My children were learning their secular subjects well. But we live in an age when “personal space” rules make it a violation for a kindergartener to kiss a friend, where educators are forced to prioritize standardized testing over deep learning and critical thinking, and where monitors instead of teachers supervise lunch and recess. Moreover, constitutional limitations, liability issues and testing requirements prevent our public schools from partnering with parents to raise children. And despite homemade challah on Friday nights and the sukkah in our beautiful, suburban backyard, despite attending Shabbat services and Hebrew school, that is what is missing from our lives.

The true gift of a Jewish day school is elusive. It is in the air. It is the energy, the families, the songs, the food, and the “menschiness.” It is the Yiddishkeit.

It is in the sense of community exhibited by the eighth-grader who high-fives my then-first-grader, Joseph, when we pass him walking down the street.

It is the kisses the kindergarteners give Benjamin during his birthday celebration and the card that reads, “For your birthday, I want you to be my brother.”

It is the sudden change in lesson plans to make time for students to discuss, process and reflect upon a death in the community or news of a natural disaster or war from a Jewish-values perspective.

It is the drum music, dancing and laughter that fill the gym during Kabbalat Shabbat.

It is watching my daughter chant Torah in fifth grade.

For these gifts and more, my kids will be returning to CDS in the fall, even though it means we will be shlepping to and from the suburbs each day.

Since announcing our news, many have asked us why we are leaving our highly ranked public school to return to CDS.

I tell them I was wrong. As it turns out, I am no substitute for a Jewish day school education. For my family, it takes a Jewish day school to raise a Jewish child. Despite my strong Jewish identity and education, I cannot provide my kids with what they receive at Community Day School.

I also explain that our decision is not a referendum on our public school district. The public schools are excellent. They will teach my children to read and write and add and subtract. They will prepare them for higher education and work. But they cannot partner with me to raise my children to live good Jewish lives, to know who they are, to feel that they are indispensable members of a community.

Rona Kaufman Kitchen is the mother of three children. An assistant professor of law at Duquesne University School of Law, her scholarship focuses on the intersection of law and motherhood.