What Is the Value of Jewish Day School?

Rabbi Jon Kelsen
Dean, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

What is the advantage of the day school model over that of the public or private secular school supplemented by (even excellent) Hebrew school? In a phrase: culture.

A day school, as an immersive educational environment, can be a world. Unlike Hebrew schools, with their relatively limited hours and scope, day schools can enact robust cultures, constituted of shared values and practices. In this world, each curricular and extracurricular component may be contextualized vis-à-vis all other components, the sum of which is greater than its parts.

All this is true of any immersive educational environment. What distinguishes day schools is the particular values and practices, the great things (à la Parker Palmer) situated at their center. Ideally, for day schools, those are Torah and mitzvot. By initiating cohorts of students into Torah and mitzvot, a day school helps cultivate the humanity of its students, to borrow a phrase from Martha Nussbaum (cf. the teaching of Reish Lakish, Sanhedrin 99b: “Whoever teaches the child of another person, it is as if he made him”). It can mold types of people, educated Jews, whose metanarrative is Torah, and whose values, dispositions and behaviors, as expressed in all aspects of their lives, are primarily informed by this discourse.

Dr. Ora Horn Prouser
Executive Vice President, Academy for Jewish Religion

I write as a Jewish educator, as a parent whose children attended day schools and as a day school alumna. I write as a biblicist whose love of Bible began in my day school years. I have seen the value of this education for myself personally, for my children and for students who attend the rabbinical school that I lead. I see that there are subjects learned, skills developed and ideas sown in serious Jewish education in childhood and adolescence that are not easily replicated in other settings or later in life.

Attending day school sends the message to students that their Jewish knowledge is important enough to demand a significant amount of time and effort. It makes the point that their family and community value their Jewish education. It emphasizes that they, too, should see this as an essential, not an additional, part of their development.

Attending a day school allows students to live Jewish culture and the Jewish calendar, and to understand that these should be seen as essential and vital parts of one’s life and experience.

Attending a day school enables students to experience the immersive nature of the Hebrew language. Hebrew opens the door to everything in Jewish life, academically, culturally and interpersonally. Learning and living Hebrew enables one to experience everything else in Jewish life on a deeper, more satisfying and more joyful level.

Finally, to those who think that attending day schools limits social ties, let me just say that this year, in honor of the fortieth anniversary of our high school graduation, four of the members of our graduating class had dinner together (more than 25% of our class). I cherish lifelong friendships made in my day school years.

Author
Jon Kelsen, Ora Horn Prouser
Issue
School Advocacy
Knowledge Topics
Recruitment and Retention