No Kippahs, No Siddurs: Our First September (Ever!) as a Public School Family
by Deborah Grayson Riegel, MSW, PCC, MyJewishCoach.com
Every year for the past three years, our kids’ supply list has included three-ring binders, colored dividers, and calculators. This year is no different.
Every year for the past eight years, our kids’ backpacks have been filled with index cards, highlighters, pencils and tissue boxes. And this year is no different.
Every year for the past 11 years (since my twins were two), their curriculum has been filled with learning in both Hebrew and English, in both secular and Jewish subjects, and their calendar was blocked off for both national and Jewish holidays. Every year my son Jacob has gone off to the first day of school with a kippah on his head, while my daughter Sophie hoped that she could get away without wearing a skirt for Shabbat on Fridays.
But not this year.
For the first time ever, our kids will be attending public school instead of a Jewish preschool or a day school. The decision was deeply personal and painful — the kind that kept me and my husband Michael up many nights wondering if this was the right thing for our children and for our family. What made the choice hardest was that we adored our Jewish day school, we loved the families we shared sports teams and Shabbat dinners with, and we felt like we were a part of a Jewish community that was a warm and wonderful fit for our values and interests. And despite all that, when we really, truly thought about what was best and what was next for our two children (just for our two — not for anybody else’s), the answer in our heart of hearts wasn’t Jewish day school anymore. It had served our children’s and family’s needs beautifully…until it didn’t. The “why” feels irrelevant. The “now what,” however, feels very, very real.
So what’s the big deal? Our kids, like millions of others, will attend their local public schools for the next five years. They’ll make new friends (as will I, my wise daughter re-assured me), they’ll play on new sports teams, they’ll have a quicker commute, more local friends, and (to my son’s delight) they can take meat for lunch. It will be fine.
But I’m not fine. I mean, I know in my heart and my gut that this was the right decision, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not still mourning what we had, and, if I’m being honest, who we were as a Jewish day school family.
What we had was an immediate school community based on shared Jewish values, a collective commitment to putting our money where our morals were, and a hub for social action and the pursuit of justice locally, nationally, in Israel and around the world. What if in our new school all we have in common with the other families is a zip code and complaints about the sanitation department refusing to recycle?
Who we were was a family that wore its involvement in and commitment to Judaism on its sleeve, across the calendar(s), through its checkbook, in every homework assignment and lunch bag, and more. What if our involvement starts to flag and our commitment begins to wane without the structure that Jewish day school brings?
I recognize the anticipatory anxiety I have now that I didn’t have back when we were a Jewish day school family (was it only this past June?) is partially rooted in wanting to know how we will keep our kids Jewishly educated, active, involved and interested. It is also rooted in the admission I’ve made to myself that making a single monumental choice to send our kids to Jewish day school meant that the parents got to “coast” a little bit Jewishly. It was easy enough for us to say to ourselves, “What else do we need to do here? We’re a day school (AND a Jewish summer camp) family. Isn’t that enough? Dayenu!”
Well, here we are at the start of a new school year, and a new chapter in our lives as a Jewish family. Who knows what it will bring? I can anticipate a few things, of course: Our children will grumble about Friday school days that go until 3 pm (even in the winter) and they will need to tell their friends during sleepovers and parties that they can’t have the Buffalo wings because they keep kosher. Our children will also be exposed to new subjects and electives that weren’t available to them before, due to the time restraints of a dual Hebrew-English curriculum. The parents will need to actively invite both new friends and old for Shabbat dinners, and will commit to putting up a Sukkah (not me – my husband) even if we’re one of the few families or only family at their new school who does so. We will all need to find ways to discuss what’s happening in Israel on a regular basis, especially since this won’t be a daily discussion at school. We will need to blaze a new path for what we do and who we are as a committed Jewish family without the structure and support of being a day school family. We will all need to learn some new ways of Jewish being, doing, thinking, believing and belonging.
It’s back to school for all of us. In many more ways than we could have imagined.