Why I chose to send my son to a Jewish school

He will miss out on exposure to many different cultures, but at least he will know who he is

September 14, 2023 10:17

"Mummy, when are we going back to the mosque?” Not the words a Jewish parent expects to hear, perhaps, but in fact a pleasant by-product of my son attending a multicultural nursery. In the last few years, he’s also visited a Hindu temple, made a reindeer Christmas card with his face on it, and marked Eid, Easter, Diwali and Holi. On the last occasion, he returned home gleeful but covered head-to-toe in colourful powder.

The Jewish festivals have not been forgotten. He’s had apple and honey, a parent invited in to talk about Pesach; in short, a little bit of everything. And he’s loved it, as have I, seeing his horizons expand and his mind fill with newly acquired knowledge.

That changes this week, as my son starts reception at a Jewish school. And while I’ve welcomed the diversity of the experiences he has benefited from until now, against expectation, I couldn’t be more excited for him to be leaving it all behind.

I didn’t attend Jewish schools growing up, acquiring my religious identity at home, shul and in my youth movement. I’ve always been grateful that this made it necessary for me to make an active choice to be Jewish. Starting at university wasn’t the culture shock it might have been, thanks to an education that exposed me to a multiplicity of faiths. So for a long time, I didn’t see Jewish schools in my (then-hypothetical) children’s future.

Yet that was then, when many of my peers also went to secular schools, albeit often (like mine) ones with thriving Jewish societies. Today, with some 130 Jewish schools across the UK, attendance has skyrocketed, even as Britain’s Jewish population has fallen.

In short, it is becoming increasingly common for Jewish kids to attend Jewish schools. And there’s something comforting to know that my boy — just four years old, my precious baby — will be in an environment where he is the rule, not the exception. Growing up is hard enough without having to explain who you are all the time.

I’m delighted he won’t have to sit on the “kosher” table at lunch as he does now, or miss parties held on Shabbat. He won’t spend September explaining to teachers and friends that he’ll be off for yet another set of days this week, this time for the festival where we build a hut and parade around with palm fronds. He’ll be in a school where the Jewish milestones are celebrated, where he learns ma nishtana before Seder.

Judaism is a huge part of our family life. Through Covid, we braved freezing temperatures to enjoy toddlers’ services outside, he having made his first appearance at shul at five days old. Faith is far from the only piece of the puzzle, but it is formative to our story. So I’m excited for him to learn not just how to read, write and add up, but to develop an informed passion for Jewish practice, life and culture. I want him to anticipate dressing up for Purim with his friends; for him to learn about tzedakah and tikkun olam, to greet Chanukah with the same delight everyone else does at Christmas — and not feel the odd one out for doing so.

Of course, we could instil that enthusiasm at home. We could, as was common for my generation, send him to cheder, which I trust has improved somewhat since the stale wafers and poor decorum of the 1990s. School isn’t everything.

But that’s the point. I can’t expect it to do everything for me or him. As much as I want my son to develop a Jewish identity, I don’t want him to shed his wide-eyed fascination with the wider world. I want him to understand that Judaism is one of many faiths, that people can be different religions or none at all, that not everyone is like him and that the world is better for this diversity.

Once, I worried that a faith-based education might prevent him from understanding this. Now, I recognize that it won’t, partly because the school he will be attending makes an effort in this regard, but more importantly because the onus is on his parents to bolster what he learns in the classroom.

Shortly before my son was born, I interviewed the author Taffy Brodesser-Akner about her very, very Jewish novel Fleishman is in Trouble. Was she risking alienating non-Jewish readers? Her answer has stayed with me. “The world assumes Christianity, the world assumes Christmas,” she said. “It felt very good for the assumption inside my book to be Jewish.”

I never thought I’d feel this way and I love that I had a non-Jewish education. But, to borrow from the above, it feels good for the assumption for my child’s education to be Jewish. At least for now. Ask me again when we start thinking about secondary schools.

September 14, 2023 10:17

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