Learning Talmud from Your Child: Day School Value Proposition for Parents
I went to public school. My parents went to public school. My grandparents went to public school. I never considered the idea that my own kids wouldn’t go to public school. And then I married into a Jewish day school family. My husband went to Jewish day school, his parents went to Jewish day school, and his grandparents went to Jewish day school.
If I’m being honest, when I was in high school, I didn’t even know Jewish day schools existed. As our own Jewish journeys were progressing, I was open to the possibility of this experience for our own kids. In September 2006, I dropped my oldest off at kindergarten at our local Jewish day school; 16 years and three kids later, my Jewish day school experience is closing in on its final chapter. Our youngest is finishing 10th grade and I feel the time running out.
Yes, I feel the time running out. Our son might also, but I think I feel it more acutely. I’m sure any good psychologist will say that I’m conflating my anxiety about becoming an empty nester with the ending of our Jewish day school experience. Of course, that is partly true, but to be honest—what I’m really going to miss is all of the learning I have had access to both explicitly and implicitly by being a Jewish day school family. As a parent who had little to no formal Jewish education, I have learned so much from being a Jewish day school parent about faith, practice, Jewish history, Hebrew and more.
Here are some of the ways that our family has grown from being part of a Jewish day school.
Beating to the Rhythm of the Jewish Day School Calendar
One of the most impactful parts of being a Jewish day school family has been adjusting our calendar to the rhythm of the Jewish year. Friday early dismissals to prepare for Shabbat can be frustrating for working parents, and yet they also caused our whole family to alter our weekly rhythm in meaningful ways. Friday afternoons were times for long walks, cooking together and playdates we couldn’t squeeze in on other days. My husband and I juggled our work schedules and often had to call in for reinforcements to cover those Friday hours. And yet those Friday afternoons with the kids home from school early will always be a central point of our family time.
And it’s not just the times when school is closed; it’s also what happens when school is open. If you had told me when I was in high school that I would know when every Rosh Chodesh would be and that I would be so excited to hear from my kids what awesome things they had done that day to welcome the new Jewish month, I never would have believed you. Will I remember it’s Rosh Chodesh when my calendar is not synced to a Jewish day school? I sure hope so. Learning to live my life to the beat of the Jewish calendar has been a gift that Jewish day school has given to our whole family.
Friends Are a Family Affair
I’m often amazed when I think about how I know every parent of my kids’ friends. It is so rare in today’s disconnected world to have that kind of connection with community. And not only do I know their parents, I know so many of their grandparents. Because Jewish day schools are a daily lived experiment in dor lador, from generation to generation. This tethering to family and connection between multigenerational families is an incredible gift, not only to our students but to all of our families in the day school community.
Recently I was talking with my son, a Jewish day school alum, about the conflict in Ukraine. He shared a story he remembered from fifth grade when one of his classmate’s grandfather came to speak about his experience emigrating from Ukraine. My son told me that he recently messaged that friend to check in on his family and how they were holding up during this conflict, and to ask if they had family who had remained in Ukraine. I was amazed not only at the friendships that endure but that the impact of multigenerational family connections can be so strong, even years after graduating. This gift has not only widened our social network as a family, but connected us in a deep and meaningful way to people we would have never met had it not been for our Jewish day school experience.
The Child Becomes the Teacher
This has been perhaps the greatest value for our family, to have a child come home from school and be so excited to share what they learned. The amazing thing is when they share what they learned in their Jewish studies classes. It was Judaism 101 for me. Quizzing the kids with Hebrew flashcards, I learned critical Hebrew words like magevet (towel), zayit (olive), mischakim (games) and mada (science). When they studied and learned tefillah, I learned alongside at night listening to recordings of the teachers singing the tefillot, improving my own relationship to prayer and practice.
When my oldest studied the many rules of kashrut, we made significant changes to our kitchen. Even to this day I call him when I have a question. The knowledge our kids gained permeated every corner of our family, our rituals, our practice and our conversations. My husband, who had a similar day school education as our children, was amazed when the kids came home with some tidbit of information that he may have forgotten. The confidence a Jewish day school education gives to our kids to become the teacher is an enduring benefit.
As I begin my final years as a Jewish day school parent, I am having the ultimate experience of my child as teacher. On a Shabbat afternoon during the Omicron surge when we were back hiding in our homes, my 10 grader and I got into a heated debate. I was pushing him to read for fun—to improve his vocabulary and to keep him from Covid boredom. He pushed right back saying he studies Talmud nine periods a week and from that experience learns more critical-thinking skills and expands his vocabulary than any book I could suggest he read “for fun.” As the debate raged on, we ended at an impasse and agreed he would read a book of my choosing and I would study Talmud with him for the first time in my life. How hard could that be?
What seemed like a simple challenge has continued; he has read three books so far, while I’m spending two to three hours a week studying Talmud with him. From these study sessions I am witnessing all that Jewish day school has given to our family. Effortlessly, he teaches me what the Talmud is, how it is organized, what else was going on in Jewish and world history at the same time, where geographically different conversations take place, what were the social and religious practices of the time. He pushes me to read the text out loud, gently correcting my bumpy Hebrew reading and encouraging me to keep trying. He is the one to say, “Come on, Mom, let’s learn together tonight.” It might take us several months to get through one of the smallest tractates, but as many say: It’s the process that matters most here.
In the Talmud, many ideas are taught “in the name of” the original person who discussed a topic. Every day that we are learning together I know that my son is teaching me “in the name” of his beloved teacher Rabbi Jaffe, and I also know he is teaching me “in the name of” his and his brothers’ entire Jewish day school experience. What they learn is what we learn as parents.
I’m so glad we have two years left as a day school family. Two more years of calendar notifications, getting to know parents and grandparents of our kids’ classmates, and expanding our learning and our minds along with our kids. I am so deeply grateful for the path that led me to Jewish day school for my family and to the wonderful school communities we have been blessed to join.
As my son and I prepare to make a siyyum (celebration of learning) later this spring, we will do so in the Jewish day school lunchroom with his peers and teachers—a small way to say thank you and to share this experience with our school community who has given us so much.