Friday, 1 March 2013

Weighing the Value of Jewish Day School

This year will be Mr. CL' s and my 14th year together. We met in high school, and started dating in university. Before we were together, Mr. CL invited me to go camping with his buddies.  I was "strategically" (I later learned) seated beside Mr. CL, and we had a long conversation on the ride up. The conversation comprised mostly of swapping stories about our horrible experiences at our respective Toronto Jewish Day Schools. I distinctly remember thinking to myself "Wow! A Jewish guy who won't insist that I send my kids to Jewish Day School - perfect!" I was wrong.

Once we got serious, Mr. CL made it clear that he had no intention of "depriving" his kids of the Day School experience. And I made it clear that I don't love camping. So, I guess we're even. In any case, for Mr. CL, a strong Jewish identity is something he intently wants to impart on our children, and, he feels that Jewish Day School is one of the best vehicles with which to do this. (That I left Jewish Day School practically antisemitic for a couple of years, and refusing to acknowledge that I was Jewish lest I be associated with the kids I went to school with there, doesn't sway him.) He argues that just because we had bad experiences, doesn't mean  that our kids will, and he's probably right.

In any case, I'm not entirely against the idea of Jewish Day School for two main reasons:

#1. I think the academic standards are generally higher in private schools. I'm very skeptical about the quality of public education in Toronto. I'll admit that the skepticism is largely based on personal experience rather than research. As an elementary student I found that the public school system here had far lower expectations of students than the public schools in South Africa, and the local private schools. As a professional in the public system, I'm constantly watching educational services get cut. The recent teacher's strikes also have not done very much to inspire my confidence. And, though I'm sure I'll offend numerous in saying this, to be honest, I think the standards for becoming a teacher are far too low in the Toronto universities. (Having said that, the quality of the training of the teachers in the private system is by no means guaranteed to be inherently better.)

#2. I'm willing to pay for my children to be fluent in a second language.  Now, I'm not entirely sure that Hebrew is necessarily the language I would want to invest in. I think the kids will get more bang for our buck if they learn French, Spanish or Mandarin. However, Hebrew does have personal significance for our family . . and man do I wish I could speak it!  So, I'd be happy if they came out with a good Hebrew foundation, and hopefully they can pick up another language later on.

The Jewish Day School that looks good on paper for our family is Bialik. Mr. CL likes the level of religious education - i.e. children who graduate from this school will not be lost at a seder table, or a shabbat service. For me, I like that the school has more of a cultural/Israeli bent than a religious one. Children are not required to be halachically Jewish (an automatic deal-breaker for me about Associated Hebrew Day Schools). Though they learn about Judaism, religious practice isn't forced on the kids - they aren't made to wear kippas, they don't have to bring kosher lunches unless there is a class-wide event, and they aren't asked to daven.

Nevertheless, I do have some reservations.

#1. The expense. It's not just the tuition. Bialik is nowhere near us.(Let's leave the discussion of moving out of Toronto in the burbs for the North campus for another post. Right now moving North of the city is not something we want to consider). The South campus is in a very expensive area. Our options: a) stay where we are and be able to afford the school, but have major problems getting there - and back to work - especially in the winter, or b) move a reasonable distance from the school, but then not be able to afford the tuition.

#2. If we're paying that much $$, is it worth limiting ourselves to Jewish school? For Mr. CL - it's a resounding yes. He doesn't have the issues with academic levels, or the strong desire for second language acquisition that I do. The Jewish part is the part he wants to pay for. While for Mr. CL, the motivation for sending our kids to a Jewish school comes in part (IMO) for our lack of religious observance at home (i.e. to make up for what we're not modeling),  for me, it is precisely our secularness* that makes me question whether a Jewish education is worth paying for. I get if you're frum, why you would want to pay for a Jewish education . . . there are so many details involved in maintaining an Orthodox lifestyle etc. etc,. . but for us . . . why?? Is it worth forking over basically my entire pay cheque so that Mini CL can be Abba Shabbat? In other words, while I think we shouldn't pay for a Jewish school because we don't live in a Jewish world, my husband thinks we should pay for a Jewish school precisely because we don't live in a Jewish world.  Your thoughts???

*Although, I should point out that Mr. CL does not consider himself secular as he observes Rosh Hashana, Pesach, and Yom Kippur. We also put up a Sukkah, and our kids dress up for Purim.


  1. After we took our kids our of day school they got a really good education in an excellent school system. I definitely regret the 100,000 (at least) we spent up till then for a greatly inferior secular education.

    Obviously, YMMV and it looks like a quality public education is not a possibility for you. But c'mon, justifying it because your kids will learn Hebrew??

  2. argh - maybe a non-Orthodox school will have higher standards, but orthodox schools have much lower academic standards than even average public schools here in my neck of the woods. I found this out the hard way.

    Does your husband feel guilty about not leading a more Jewish life at home?

    1. zach - quality public education is very hit and miss here. And in my experience - more miss. The Day Schools (at least the non-Orthodox one we're considering) has a very strong academic reputation. Though my husband is quick to point out that our public school also graduated many successful/respectable professionals.

      tesyaa - Orthodox schools were never on the table for us, so I'm not sure about their secular education standards relative to the school we're considering - which would generally surpass secular school standards.

      I don't think he feels guilty about not leading a more Jewish life (although i sometimes wonder if he wishes he had a "more Jewish" wife ;) ). I think the importance for him comes out of a love of learning history, and a desire (which I share) that our kids be well versed in Jewish/Israeli history.

  3. I'm very familiar with both Bialik and Associated. I also went to public school in Toronto, and am related to several public school teachers.

    1. Academics:

    In the public system, quality really depends on which school you attend, and the top schools tend to be in really expensive areas and don't accept students from outside that area. [I think it's taxpayer subsidized elitism, but that's a rant for another day.] The only exceptions tend to be specialized programs, such as French Immersion or arts-based programs, simply because they attract parents who care. French Immersion, though, doesn't always have the greatest teachers because the pool of teachers qualified to do it is relatively small.

    Both Bialik and Associated have high academic standards, and 100% of the parents would expect their children to go to university. Either will be somewhat more depending than a regular public school, simply because the school day is longer and the children are taught in 2 languages (plus receiving some instruction in French, and a bit of Yiddish as well at Bialik).

    2. Student body:

    Bialik attracts a slightly wealthier and more "Canadian" student body, because of its location. On paper, the school is Labour Zionist, but in reality they get a lot of rich kids who aren't choosing it for socialist theory.

    Associated is more diverse, esp. the Kamin (Thornhill) branch. My kids have friends who are Israeli, Russian, Moroccan, Indian, Mexican, South African, etc. Over 30% of the students are on subsidy, so it's not just a bunch of rich kids. The south (Posluns) campus is slightly less diverse, and a slighty more religious (mostly because it's not located right next to Netivot, like the Thornhill campus is). The Thornhill campus is quite large, the Posluns campus is quite small. The philosophy at Associated is that they are open to the entire Jewish community, so there are no requirements or assumptions that families will keep any level of observance. Many are secular (esp the Russians and Israelis). They do request that you don't schedule birthday parties on Shabbat or serve non-kosher food, but it's framed as a matter of including all students so that observant students aren't left out. If you send lunches, they need to be meatless, kosher and peanut-free. I'm not sure about the "halachically Jewish" part - I'm pretty sure that my kids have had kids in their classes who weren't.

    3. Practicalities:

    Commuting time matters. Be realistic about how long the drive will take, esp. in winter, at rush hour. Find out how crazy the parking lot or carpool area gets at pick up and drop off.

    One of the deal-breakers for us was before and after school care. I don't have a nanny. I drop the kids off at 8 a.m. and pick them up between 5 and 6 p.m. Sometimes, they have programs (extra cost) running on Passover for Chol Hamoed, or other days off. From what I remember, Bialik didn't have this option.

  4. Comment contined:

    4. Approaches to Judaism and Jewish education:

    Bialik is officially part of the Labor Zionist philosophy. They will teach ABOUT Judaism and Jewish history, but they are not teaching children to be observant Jews. They will have the tools if they wish to do so later, by having the language skills and knowing how to study Torah.

    As a public school graduate, I was initially a bit worried about the religious level of Associated. I'm relieved to say that it is not at all the way that it was 30 years ago when my husband attended, and I haven't had any cringe-worthy moments. While they teach to a generally traditional/Conservadox standard, they want to make all students feel comfortable. Students will do a Shabbat play and learn how to make kiddush for Friday night, but they will not be telling their parents that they are wrong if they are not shomer Shabbat. They will learn how to sing Hatikvah, but won't be chanting "Not One Inch". Jewish studies teachers are now required to have real teaching qualifications - in the past, they just hired Israeli shlichim who often had no teaching skills. The school, in both general and Jewish studies, focuses on values such as environmentalism (learn to pack a litterless lunch), tzedakah and volunteering, and preventing bullying (which some more religious schools do NOT do). One Jewish studies teacher spent most of her interview with us talking about her concerns about our daughter being excluded from a group of girls in the class, and the efforts that she was making to get them to include her. The teacher and vice-principal (now working in Orange County, too bad for us) were simply amazing in dealing with this, and the issue resolved.

    5. More considerations

    VISIT the schools. Speak to actual students and families and staff members. The best fit depends on so much more than what works on paper. It could be a great school secretary (just remember that Rivka from Bialik is transfering to the North branch in September), or an amazing teacher, or the right friends, or have a schedule that works, or having the right school size, or having the right amount of parent involvement and comraderie, or having a school that can meet any special needs, or defusing a bullying situation before it gets out of hand, etc.

    1. JRK - thanks so much for your input!! Excellent food for thought.

      re: [I think it's taxpayer subsidized elitism, but that's a rant for another day.]

      I 100% agree, and can add in the options that I listed, option c)With the money we save on Day School, move to an expensive area, and send the kids to the local public school (for me, this would be Claude Watson/Earl Haig).

      While you're doing a rant, please add the ridiculous issue of PUBLICALLY FUNDED Catholic schools that won't hire non-Catholics. It aggravates me to no end. Total tangent, I know - sorry.

      The student body of Associated is a plus. So far the families I've met from Bialik have seemed very nice, and didn't find bullying an issue, but you never know. And given that snobbism/elitism is really a large part of what made my personal Day School (Leo Baeck) experience so miserable, I'm very wary of this aspect of Bialik. The mixed economic/cultural backgrounds at Associated is a plus.

      >I'm not sure about the "halachically Jewish" part -
      It was on the brochure thy handed out at the parent information tour I went to last year.

      >They will teach ABOUT Judaism and Jewish history, but they are not teaching children to be observant Jews.

      Huge points for me, here.

      >but they will not be telling their parents that they are wrong if they are not shomer Shabbat.

      My friends' kids (at the South campus) have "corrected" their parents . . but maybe that was the exception rather than the rule . . .

      Final score:
      Bialik and Associated are tied in terms of quality of secular and convenience (we'll need to move in order to get to either reasonably).

      Bialik wins for meeting our Jewish education aims, and Associated wins in terms of the Student Body being more reflective of our family.

      >VISIT the schools. Speak to actual students and families and staff members.

      Very good advice. I've done one info session, at each school, but next year will really be decision time, so we should revisit . . .especially since choosing a Jewish school would mean moving. Thanks again for your feedback - lots to mull over, here!

  5. Re before and after care at Bialik: I was wrong, Bialik now offers it at both the North and South branches.

    I had a miserable middle school experience in public school, in part because the kids were snobs. It sounds odd, but my kids are exposed to more economic diversity at Associated (because of a wider area and subsidies) than they would be at the local public school.

    Let me know if you have any other questions! My BIL sends his son to Bialik and my MIL works there, while we send our kids to Associated and know several staff members.

    1. Thanks so much!! I'm sure I'll hit you up with questions as we go!Much appreciate the offer. Is your BIL's son happy there?

  6. Hi there, great blog, I just came across it today. Here in Ottawa, Ontario I currently sent my kids to the only day school for non-orthodox available, called the Ottawa Jewish Community School. Unfortunately they have recently announced a price increase that might prevent us from continuing to attend. The choices in Ottawa are slightly different in Toronto, but overall the public system here is considered quite good. Ottawa being the nations capital and billingual, has led many Jewish parents to choose French immersion as the best option for their kids. Its never an easy decision especially if finances are consideration on top of that.

  7. Hi Jackie! Welcome! Thanks for your compliment, and comments :)!Really interesting to hear how different things are not too far away . . . though the prohibitive nature of tuition seems to be universal :).

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  9. I am pondering this very question--we are moving to Toronto and are trying to choose a Jewish day school for my little one who is entering JK.

    Associated is out for us, as LO is only halachically Jewish depending on whom you ask... Have you heard any more about Bialik vs. say, USDS Robbins Hebrew Academy? We put down a deposit (!) on Bialik but I've since heard mixed things about it. I tried to visit today, and because I had only called ahead that morning, and not three days in advance, a secretary in the main office pretty well told me to get lost. I wasn't expecting a grand tour, just a little courtesy.

    Is Bialik terrible, or is it just this one secretary?

  10. When dealing with Bialik secretaries, ask for Rivka by name. She is fantastic (but will be at the northern campus in September).

    Associated has accepted kids who would not necessarily be considered Jewish by Orthodox standards.

    The curriculum at USDS is quite similar to Associated - the northern branches of USDS have closed, and Associated took in many former ASDS students and some of their staff, including the current Judaic studies principal at their north campus. I believe that they both use the Tal Am curriculum. The main differences are that ASDS is much smaller, and that Associated is not affiliated with any movement but aims to be a "community" school.

    1. Thanks very much; every little bit of info helps me to get a better idea... it would be so much easier if we were staying in our current city: only ONE day school!

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