Family & Education

Are Jewish schools worth the drive?

A place at a Jewish school for your child - a gateway to their success, or a school run from hell? Josh Howie weighs up the pros and cons


In retrospect there are many moments you can recognise shaping your life, but few shout out their import as they’re occurring: an accepted proposal of marriage, a birth, a Jewish school calling with a last-minute place. When the last of these happened, our family were attending a picnic for the impending Reception year of the school my son was meant to be attending, 30 seconds from our home, surrounded by a bunch of neighbours and friends we’d known for years whose children were also in the same class. Consequently I screamed less than at those former two events.

I pulled my wife to the side, urgently whispering the news. We had an hour to decide. Huddled together in the corner we tripped over the pros and cons, our subterfuge itself highlighting a giant con — we’d be hypocrites betraying our middle-class liberal friends and shared middle-class liberal values, which had previously made us feel so good about our choices. Except now, we actually had a choice.

PRO. He’d be learning another language. Hebrew or not, it still developed that region of the brain. CON. I’d have to drive him. PRO. The headmaster had a visionary approach to future-proofing his students. CON. We’d just bought the uniform. PRO. We’d be in the first batch of parents to attend the new school, helping to influence the kind of learning environment we wanted for our children. CON. I wasn’t sure that influence would extend to getting them to adopt the uniform I’d just purchased.

It’s been seven years since making our hasty retreat from that picnic with a “See you later suckers!”, throwing caution and uniform to the wind. But even with our eldest starting Jewish secondary school, and our fourth at Jewish primary, I still occasionally doubt my decision. In fact with a school run that ended up taking two hours every day, ten hours a week, 390 hours a year, a total of 195 days by the time I’m done, you could say I doubt more than occasionally.

And now with our son embarking on his own two-plus hours of bus rides, assuming the burdens of the father, it’s only natural to ask, is it really worth it?

I guess the crux of the matter comes down to how you feel about Jews. As you’re reading the JC I’m going to assume you’re pretty much for us, or a Corbynite digging for dirt, and if you like Jews, Jewish school is where it’s at. Just as I’d naively accepted the transport considerations, along with my wife’s promise of ever obtaining a driver’s licence, I’d failed to appreciate it’s not your kid that goes to a Jewish school, you all do.

I’d thought we were already part of the Jewish community; we had Jewish friends, regularly attended shul, my wife even teaching there, I talked about being Jewish in my work, performed at various Jewish charity nights… no. We were bit players.

Turns out the bima isn’t the centre of Jewish life, it’s the school gates. And while we’ve made friends for life, I tend to feel about Jews like I do my children: I enjoy spending time with them one on one, but when you get them all together it can get a bit stressful.

Like a hologram card, where you stand at any given moment can make “Jew” vacillate back and forth across the pro/con column. An abundance of well educated intelligent fellow parents? PRO. Coming last for seven years in a row at the school quiz night? CON. Committed parents who pack out the comedy fundraising night? PRO. Being called into the headmaster’s office because he’s concerned some of your jokes about the school got too big a laugh? CON. A close community that works hard to ensure everybody’s included? PRO. Say goodbye to every Sunday for the rest of your life as birthday parties dominate. CON.

And let’s not even get started on the drama that ensued when a parent suggested a birthday on a Saturday. The ensuing passive-aggressive social media messages clearly delineated the two types of parents who send their children to a Jewish school. Those who do it for the Judaism, and those who do it despite the Judaism.

Personally I’m in the liiiiiiiiittle bit more Judaism than I’m comfortable with camp, but I get that headteachers have a responsibility to find the balance between those parents expecting a yeshivah, and those who want a free public school. To that end an unspoken agreement is entered. The school gets to ram as much Judaism down their little throats as possible, as long as the rest of the subjects are five Michelin stars. Which is exactly what we get; an excellent education, and a focus on developing our children into thoughtful, caring young people. I just wish my neighbour’s kids didn’t seem so nice and intelligent too.

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