HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Day School Through the Lens of an Interfaith Family

by Michael Brent Issue: Diversity

Perhaps it goes without saying that every interfaith family is different. Some families celebrate the holidays of only one religion. Others create an amalgam of their separate faiths. Others still navigate the calendar from one secular celebration to the next.

The school need not change or augment the curriculum for interfaith or non-Jewish families.

But every family – secular or religious, interfaith or in-married – always wants to do the best for their children, particularly when it comes to their education.

I would call our family a “Reform Jewish interfaith family.” We belong to a Reform temple but celebrate an American secular version of Christmas and Easter in our home in addition to the Jewish holidays. Although our community is home to a large number of private schools- many of them are Christian schools- we never really considered parochial education for our kids. We expected our children would go to a secular school and we would provide them their religious education at home and at temple.

The year before our children were to enter kindergarten, we went to our temple’s open house and a Jewish day school caught our eye. This Jewish day school courted and eventually won us over. The next year our children entered the school’s kindergarten and today our children are now entering 4th grade with our sights set on continuing at our school all the way through middle school.

How and why did we make this decision? Good academics was at the top of the list. Our young, small school didn’t have much of a track record yet but it did have a well developed curriculum and a willingness and ability to tailor the program to each individual child’s need. The school was a cost-effective alternative to our area’s outstanding public schools. The school cost about 1/3 more than our children’s pre-school day care but provided a huge amount of educational content for the extra money including a foreign language, lessons on morality and ethics, Jewish traditions, history and rituals. Most importantly, they made our family feel welcome and accepted without negative bias. We were not asked to explain our observances, defend our family decision, nor agree to assume religious practices at home as a prerequisite for enrollment. We soon learned that the openness and understanding expressed by the head of school was to be found throughout a school committed to Jewish diversity.

Why is a Jewish community day school a good fit for our family? For us it has been that word “community.” When we came to the school, we were a family looking to expand the community we had found at our synagogue to the broader Jewish community. There were families from all the branches of Judaism. There were non-affiliated Jews. There were secular Israelis. There were Russians and Romanians. There were interfaith families. And it was a community. Families looked out for each other. In the event of an emergency or sickness, children were looked after and food was brought over. Celebrations were shared. The school provided a simple framework for us to use outside of school and grow the community, with reminders of providing for those who keep kosher and not scheduling parties on Shabbat or other Jewish holidays.

The school uses a similar philosophy in its Judaics program to create an atmosphere where everyone can feel comfortable. All students participate in all parts of the Judaics program without regard for religious affiliation. The program takes a historical perspective and religious instruction focuses on process. Students learn rituals and can worship comfortably in any synagogue. They learn and understand the mitzvot and respect their observance. The emphasis is on the universal nature of these commandments. This education allows students to feel comfortable participating in discussions about what it means to be Jewish with Jews and non-Jews in any Jewish, non-Jewish or secular community. Students take pride in being part of the Jewish People; a religious people, a cultural entity and members of the family of nations in the world through Israel.

Finally, the school need not change or augment the curriculum for interfaith or non-Jewish families. All they must do is show respect for each family’s differences. With these efforts Jewish community day schools can develop, grow and maintain religiously diverse student bodies. ♦

Michael Brent is a parent at the Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette, CA. Michael can be reached at mabrent@aol.com.

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Diversity

Diversity in day schools usually goes well beyond the denominational spectrum that falls under the rubric of pluralism. It includes socioeconomic disparities, gender and sexuality, color and ethnicity, and other differences of religious practice and customs. In this issue, authors recommend ways for day schools to become sensitive to a range of diversity, to welcome all students and teachers and find ways for them to validate these identities within the school community.

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