A Very Basic Primer on Jewish Kids (not) in Public Schools…

Posted on September 14, 2009


(This is a follow up to a previous post about Jewish Day Schools–the post right above this one.  I figured that readers may not be familiar with all of the issues Jewish families face with public schools.  So…here you go.)

Jewish kids are often a minority in a classroom, school, and district.  It can be extremely difficult to be THE Jewish kid.  For those of us who observe even a modest portion of Jewish rituals and holidays, schools are just not set up to accommodate us.  And I understand why.  But there are things you may take for granted that cause us great pain.

Our “High Holy Days” of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur generally fall within the first few weeks of school. There are several other Jewish holidays that follow along within the next few weeks.  Jewish kids need to make the choice between missing school or not observing their holiest of days.  No kid in the USA ever has to decide whether to miss school in order to attend Christmas services or to be with family across the country.

No minimally observant Jewish kid will ever receive the perfect attendance awards given out by most schools.  Our kids simply cannot qualify.  After all, many of our kids will miss as many as three days of school in the first weeks of the new school year–and that assumes they don’t catch whatever flu is going around at the time!

The Jewish sabbath (Shabbat) begins on Friday evening at sundown.  (All Jewish holidays start at sundown–and it’s generally the day before the day written on your calendar!)  For families who traditionally have a Shabbat meal together or go to religious services, this again causes Jewish families to have to make tough decisions:  should we let our kids go to the Friday night football game?

Shabbat is, for observant Jews, the holiest of days.  It is so important to us that we have it every week.  Traditional Jews refrain from most activities on Shabbat. They don’t drive, spend money, cook, etc….  Time is spent with family, or in synagogue, learning, praying, reading, and relaxing.  A Friday night football game is one of those American high school experiences that helps build camaraderie and reputations.  Telling a kid they cannot be part of that teenage experience is hard for parents, and a killer for the teenager who cannot join “everyone” else.

Unfortunately, there are instances where school administrations actually schedule major events on the Jewish holidays, even when they have a choice not to, and even when there is a significant Jewish population.  My high school did this.  A local elementary school scheduled their first major event for Friday Sept. 18, 2009–Rosh Hashana.  Any reason to do this?  When we’ve asked, we’ve been told that they won’t change the date because that’s the day they’ve put on the calendar.

Jewish schools close for the High Holy days and other holidays.  All of them…even those that you’ve never heard of, and most of us don’t celebrate.  Jewish schools close a bit early on Friday afternoons so students and staff can be home and prepared for Shabbat without rushing.  Jewish schools play sports any days except Friday afternoon through Saturday night. Jewish schools never schedule events on our holidays.  Nor do they ask our kids to sing overtly religious Christmas carols or participate in other activities that are contrary to the beliefs of the child and his or her family.

Most people are understanding.  Most teachers are helpful.  Some are assholes.  I can’t begin to remember how many times I’ve heard of teachers who knowingly schedule major tests on a major Jewish holiday and then treat the student horribly when they ask for some consideration.  Think about it:  how many times did you have to discuss your religious beliefs or observances with your teacher?  Odds are that if you are of a Christian faith, you’ve never even considered the need to do so as it relates to your ability to attend class or complete your school work.  Jewish kids often need to identify themselves as Jews within the first days of meeting a new teacher.  From personal experience, I can share how difficult it can be.  Especially if you happen across one of those asshole teachers. One of mine told me I’d burn in hell.  I couldn’t wait to tell my next teacher I was Jewish and would be missing class for a Jewish holiday.

Everything above is only one significant piece of the issue.  Another is that being Jewish and observing Jewish holidays takes a lot learning.  For starters, our Torah (“Old Testament” as it is known in some quarters) is written in Hebrew, as are many of our prayers.  Depending upon the branch of Judaism a family follows, prayers may or may not be in English.  Guess what that means?  Learning Hebrew. And there are really two forms of Hebrew:  biblical and modern.  Modern Hebrew is what is used every day as the primary language of Israel.  Biblical Hebrew is just that: the language of prayer and our Torah.  It is as different from Modern Hebrew as Shakespearian English is to Modern English (the language…not the band!)

Learning Hebrew is difficult, especially as the Hebrew letters do not resemble English letters at all.  It’s a whole new Alef Bet (Alphabet in Hebrew.)  When Jewish kids celebrate their Bar Mitzvah (boys) or Bat Mitzvah (girls) they often read from the Torah (girls usually do not do this in very observant families) in front of their congregation.  Reading is not always an accurate description. Chanting or singing is really what is done.  But the Torah has no vowels nor musical notes.  Can you imagine learning to sing in another language and then do it without the aid of the basics?  Learning these skills along with Jewish history, Jewish texts, and of course secular subjects that are required of all students takes far more time than would be available outside of a Jewish Day school.  Some Jewish day schools immerse their students in Jewish life  in all aspects of study.  Others, such as the school my son attends, has a Jewish environment, teaches Hebrew and Jewish History, but distinctly separates and focuses on secular subjects.

I could go on.  So to summarize thus far, Jewish parents often send their kids to Jewish day school because it is just works better for them and their family values.  There is not generally a desire to be separated from non-Jews (though this certainly does occur) but simply a reality that leading a Jewish life means being in an environment where Jewish observance is an integral part of the school.

Back to public schools for a moment.  I attended public schools.  One of my kids attends a local public high school. I understand how schools operate and understand the complexity of dealing with kids of various ethnic and religious backgrounds.  However, there is often an assumption that goes something like this:  we’re a Christian nation so what do you expect?  And to some extent, that is true. To be clear, I don’t expect that a school district with few Jewish kids would shut down on a major Jewish holiday the way schools in parts of NY and LA do.  However, I do expect basic consideration.

Remember too that the demographics of this country are changing. Look to Europe if you need a reminder that just because this has been a predominantly Christian nation doesn’t mean that it always will be.  There are already neighborhoods in some cities, or even school districts, where Islam, for example, is the dominate religion.  The best way to insure that all of our kids in public schools get a solid secular education is to insure that our school districts keep religion out of the classroom.  You may vote for prayer in school today, only to find that you don’t recognize the prayer read in your school next year.  Just a thought.

So why is one of my kids in a Jewish school?  Are we rebelling against public education?  Eh…I wish I could take the credit.  In a way I guess I can given that we lead an active Jewish life.  But in this case…our son wanted to attend a Jewish so that he could be around more people like him and fit in.  And at the end of the day, isn’t that what most kids want?