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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Madda uTorah instead of Torah uMadda

I came across interesting comments by a Ya'akov Simon. The email address of the commenter corresponds to Rabbi Ya'akov Simon, a Yeshivat Chovevei Torah graduate (at the time, he was a YCT student). The commenter responds to "negative reactions" of the Jewish Week op-ed article, "Choosing Public School Over Yeshiva" by a Ms. Bat Sheva Marcus (a founding board member of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance). The synopsis of the Jewish Week article is that Ms. Marcus sent two of her three children to public school instead of a Yeshiva/Jewish school because of secular considerations.

My commentary is interspersed within the commenter's text:
I am shocked at the negative reactions to Ms. Marcus' Op-Ed piece in the Jewish Week. I grew up non-observant and attended public school in the 80's. I agree with the critiques that the challenges that are faced in public school are difficult, but I do not think that they are insurmountable.
Response: Should an Orthodox Jew view public school as a viable educational alternative to Jewish school, but with challenges that can be overcome? Whether or not a Jewish child/teenager can successfully integrate within a secular educational system and still be a Torah-observant Jew is irrelevant. Public schools represent values (e.g. immodesty) that a young Jewish person should not have to contend with on a protracted, unrelenting basis.

Day-School education is very expensive and it is understandable that a family would choose not to spend money on it.
Response: "Day-School education is very expensive." That is obvious. The Jewish educational system is very broken in this regard. However, it is not "understandable that a family would choose not to spend money on it." That is a cop-out. There are options (e.g. scholarships) to make the finances work better. It's unfortunate that the finances of Jewish education can be a burden, but that is an issue to be dealt with, not disregarded by leaving the system.

If a child has a n'tiah [proclivity] for secular subjects that are taught better in a public school, then let them learn in public school and receive private tutoring for liumdei kodesh.
Response: I am troubled that this statement prioritizes secular over religious studies. Why not hire tutors for secular subjects instead? There are other great ways to supplement both limudei chol and kadosh outside the confines of standard school. For example, computer-learning, and some Torah-observant Jews may disagree with this secular suggestion - supplemental classes provided by a public school or university. The primary schooling must remain Jewish.

If we are willing to send our children to secular universities, then one could make a convincing case that it is similarly acceptable to send our children to secular secondary schools. Because a high school student will live at home, unlike a university student. And a strong home environment and influence can counterbalance the influence of secular culture in public school.
Response: A Jewish way of life is a Torah way of life that rigorously revolves around time (e.g. daily prayers and Jewish holidays), religious observance and service, and community. Should pre-college Jewish students be placed into a daily environment that is antithetical to that way of life? At the college level, there are very few Orthodox Jewish options available and one would expect a college student to have a less-influenceable established pattern of behavior than a secondary school student living at home or not.

However there is one important caveat, education is unique to each child. One child can thrive in public school where another will fail. How do you know that this child, Yedidyah, would thrive in day school. It is possible that he could be intellectually bored and frustrated and have a negative Jewish experience. I have met many adults that were turned-off to Torah and Mitzvot because of their Jewish Day School experience. I agree that as a general rule it is better to send a Jewish child to Day School than public school. But exceptions can and should be made. I am not saying whether I agree or disagree with Ms. Marcus' specific decision, but I think that a blanket rejection and personal attacks are unwarranted.
Response: Personal attacks are unwarranted. Blanket rejection of full-time public school attendance by pre-college age Torah-observant Jews is warranted. A Torah-observant Jew should prioritize religious education and environment over secular.

There are reasonable extenuating circumstances why a (pre-college) Jewish student would attend a secular school instead of a Jewish one. For example, a student may be denied admissions to a Jewish school because of insurmountable behavioral problems. Or, a child may have severe special needs that cannot be met by a Jewish school. Lack of an exceptional secular education is not a "special need" that warrants leaving the Jewish school system. Parents should expect academic excellence in both religious and academic subjects from Jewish schools - with the presupposition that Jewish education comes first.

I wonder if Yeshivat Chovevei Torah or Yeshiva University concur with the idea that secular academic standards are a valid reason for a Jewish child/teenager to attend a public school over a Jewish one.

Jewish Week letters to editor, responding to "Choosing Public School Over Yeshiva": Relevant links:
- Evanston Jew: Orthodox Poverty and Wealth

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