Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On Jewish Day School (vs.? and?) Jewish Camp

In our home, this conversation is about a year older than our oldest child:

Jewish day school is an incredible thing.  Children get Judaic and Hebrew studies right along with their regular school subjects, many times beautifully integrated (a science lesson about recycling is connected to the Jewish value of shemirat hateva, for example.)  They are part of an everyday Jewish prayer and learning environment that also imparts a strong sense of community and love for your fellow Jew.

We are definitely sending our children to Jewish day school.  It is important, and we are very principled about that.  Wait.  It costs how much?

We kept having the conversation about whether to send them to day school, until we said the one thing that pretty much ended the conversation for me: "Maybe we should just stop at three children, so that we can (maybe?) afford Jewish day school." Uh, what?  Was I seriously letting the cost of Jewish day school dictate the size of my family?  This was the turning point for me.  Now, whether we go on to have a fourth child, obviously, remains to be determined.   We did conclude, as a result of the fallout from that comment, was that we believe it is possible to raise happy, Jewishly-identifying and knowledgeable children without sending them to day school.  So, here are the three reasons we are okay with not sending our kids to Jewish Day School:

1.  You can give your kids much of the Jewish education and experience that Jewish day school can.

I truly believe that any family can impart a sense of love for being Jewish and tidbits of Jewish and Hebrew learning in their home if they are even a little bit determined.  It takes hard work, yes:
  • You have to to celebrate Shabbat - every week.  
  • You have to read Jewish books and listen to Jewish music - all the time.  
  • You have to take your kids to shul, and not just for their friends' bnei mitzvah.  
  • If you keep kosher, you have to pack lunch for them - every day. 
  • Jewish values language has to become part of your everyday vocabulary.
  • You have to make a big deal about preparing for and celebrating the holidays - every holiday.  
  • You have to prepare yourself to answer your kids' questions about Judaism and God, or at least know how to find the answers with them.
  • When you send your children to Hebrew school, you have to make it a priority, take it seriously, review/reinforce at home, and  make sure they attend - every class.

These are things I would like to see every Jewish family doing regardless of whether they choose to send their children to Day School.  (I'm not saying that Day School families don't do these things, and in fact, when Day School families do them, their children's takeaway from Jewish Day School is that much higher.)  

2.  It is just not in the budget.
We simply don't have the cash to send all three of our kids to Jewish day school.

I've personally lived in cities where Jewish day school tuition (as advertised) runs from around 7K (yay, Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy!!!) up to 15K and beyond.  Per child.  And that's before the expected additional donation.  Per child.  I'll let you do the math.

Most schools do have a generous scholarship system, but we wouldn't qualify. My husband makes a very generous salary, but the monthly take-home pay reality is much smaller because of the payments we are making on the student loans that it took to get us the education we have.  

We scrimp and save - eating beans and rice-type meals most nights, for example - just to get some cash into savings.  After almost a year and a half of working on it, we are still only halfway to building our minimum emergency fund.  We're not even close to being able to put a down payment on a house - a dream three to four years off, at least - and those student loans?  We'll have gray hair before they're paid off.  

At the end of the day, it is more important to us to provide a strong financial foundation for our family and teach our children about financial responsibility - not spending beyond our means - than it is to keep up with the Cohens and spend more than we can afford sending them to day school.  Financial responsibility is just as important a Jewish value as providing a Day School education.

3.  When forced to choose between Day School and Jewish Camp, Camp wins hands-down (for our family.)

Jewish camp costs about one thousand dollars per week per child, making it about as expensive as Jewish Day School at the very low end.  So, obviously, it's a luxury, right?

Well, to us, no.
We have slowly been realizing just how expensive child care is.  When there are two work-outside-the-home parents (and I hope to be one of those again sooner rather than later,) you have to pay someone to take care of your kids during the summer, because school isn't in session. Day camp is nearly as expensive as sleepaway camp, and doesn't offer the same Hogwarts-like magical experience.

Kids almost never L-O-V-E going to school every day.  Almost every kid I've talked to who went to sleepaway camp L-O-V-E-S camp and everything about it.  Forced to choose, I would rather pay for my kids to have an intensely positive takeaway from the Jewish educational experience I pay so many thousands of dollars for.  And I do believe that Jewish camp is an seriously educational endeavor, for all the reasons Rabbi Sommer discussed in her post here.

I am 100% that the Jewish Camp we've chosen for our children will give our kids a rich Jewish experience, teach them a lot, and go a long way towards making them into adults who are knowledgeable and strong in their Judaism, respect others, and, above all, love their fellow Jews.  What more could you ask for?

And now for the big fat final disclaimer, copied from my friend Mara's post that inspired this one and discusses almost-the-same-but-totally-not topic:
Hopefully I didn’t step on any toes. Obviously the conclusions that I draw are for my family – and my family alone.  I’d love to know how you all are dealing with Jewish Day School (vs.? and?) Jewish Camp decisions. 


  1. Leigh Ann, it really looks like you guys thought this through to the bone! I agree with all of your reasons. If the well is dry, what can you do? Make the best of it! Great example! I'm learning a lot about Jewish culture from you, thanks!

  2. Have you thought about supplementary school for your kids?

    I am very interested in your story, as we are expecting in Aug and i so very much want to send our child to Jewish day school. I am not working on how to budget this expense, try and save for when the time comes (of course day care costs kind of eat into that). We are a single income family right now and trying to find out way.

    thanks for sharing.

  3. So glad to get this discussion rolling. It's very multifaceted, that's for sure. My pragmatism almost always wins out. (I'm not very much fun am I?)

    Where were you when you wrote this post? And what time was it? Good luck, travel safely and plan for a visit from us one day!! We will miss you. xxoxx

  4. I am not Jewish, nor do I really identify strongly with any religion, so you can take my opinion FWIW. However, I really want my son to go to public school. Why would I pay thousands of dollars in property taxes and then pay private school tuition on top of that? Also, I want to have money left for him to go to college.

    The JCC day camp here is well-regarded among parents. I'm thinking of sending Nathan there this summer, although I thought at $200/week it was expensive!

  5. P.S. My husband also has six-figure law school debt!

  6. Man, we have this debate all the time, and we don't even have kids yet!

    There's only one Jewish day school in town here, with 15k tuition per kid. *gulp* The cost is exorbinant, it's across town (so not easy for drop offs) and frankly, its religious leanings run pretty counter to our own.

    That said, I really want my kids to have a Jewish day school education. It did wonders for Raph, both in terms of religious knowledge, but more importantly, HEBREW (and Yiddish, but that's another story). As somebody who has had to try and pick it up as an adult, and had next to no success with it, I want my kids to have that immersion experience.

    Realistically, they will probably only have sporadic access to Jewish day schools anyways (not to mention synagogues!) since we're unlikely to be living in environments conducive to that. Saudi anyone? Yemen? Lebanon? A huge portion of their Jewish education will be at home, by necessity.

    Ugh. It's all so complicated! Thankfully, we have a few years.

  7. I love this post. We have had very similar conversations in our home and (as you can see by my four kids) we decided that public school was right for us as well.

    One more thing that was on MY list of reasons that my kid is in public school: we have a really diverse public school with a Spanish immersion program. This level of diversity gives me such a great opportunity to teach about respect for others and their cultures and languages...my kids are constantly immersed in Jewish life, thank God, and I love that in public school they get to see something else. It lets us have lots of great discussions.

    Thanks for the link :-)

  8. Seriously, just wrote you a super long comment and blogger had an error and it didn't post and I can't get it back. The gist of it was this (super DUPER cliff's notes version):

    Ivor and I hated Hebrew school and got nothing out of it, and we don't feel like we have the tools ourselves to give our children the Jewish education that we think is necessary for a strong Jewish identity, so we see no other option right now. But, I really appreciate hearing from a Rabbi that JDS is NOT essential to provide this for one's children, and that it's overpriced :)

    If I have a few minutes later, I try to rewrite my original comment, but sometime when you have the time, if you wouldn't mind sharing some great books and music to help us start some of this at home, I'd really appreciate it :)


  9. Wow everyone, thanks for your comments!
    @Mara - we should be back in Ohio by tomorrow, I'm typing this on my phone.
    @Shorty - The thing is, daycare costs almost as much as school!!!! Argh!
    @Halli - I'm not really saying its overpriced...just too much for us. No way I can find an extra $2000 in my budget every month.

    I will do a post on books and music, but for now, the first step is to Google 'PJ Library' and sign up. A free age appropriate Jewish book or cd every month. For each kid.

    Xoxo <3 you all!

  10. This question is moot for those who don't live anywhere near a Jewish day school, and never even considered the possibility (Fort Wayne, Indiana, anyone?). But your comments about living a Jewish life and reinforcing them in everything you do resonates. One child hated Jewish summer camp. The other went for about 6 years and then ended up a counselor. But it's an awesome option if the child takes to it - she's very grounded in her Jewish soul.

  11. love this thoughtful post. your kids' identities will be strong regardless of where they go to school, because they have dedicated parents. And quite right to think that one week can make more of an impact than an entire year!

  12. We are lucky to have a reasonably priced day school, thought it's still a big stretch for us (with financial aid.) Our plan is for the kids to go all the way through (it goes up to) sixth grade, and then we will look at Jewish sleepaway camp. So for us it's both, but not at the same time. But my kids do actually LOVE to go to school every day.


  13. Wow, thanks for more incredible comments!

    @Homeshuling We actually discussed the option of partial attendance (sending them up through a certain age, or starting them later.) We may still change our minds on this. It warms my heart to hear that your kids LOVE school. :) Good for them. (and you!)

    And I should say as an addendum that if for any reason we were concerned about the public schools (for Jewy reasons, like anti-semitism) we would absolutely do whatever we had to do to make JDS happen for our kids.

    The finances may still shake out to make it something we turn around and decide to do. But for now, it's just too crazy.

  14. Also, thanks to whomever of you sent this post to HH! You knew this week would be too crazy for me to do it myself, didn't you?

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  16. Hi,
    Can you give an update on this situation? How are your kids and you (modern Orthodox) family doing? I am smack dab in the middle of this difficult decision.

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