One of the things I passionately love about Judaism is the focus it has on lifelong learning, the idea that even if you’ve read the weekly parsha every week for your whole life there is still some little bit of wisdom hidden there for you to dig into. Or, the idea that there are so many different perspectives to study, even where they conflict and intertwine. Especially, though, that education is really one of the highest priorities in life, for life.
Jewish education, though, can sometimes be daunting if you’re joining it mid-stream.
There is a steep learning curve for many people joining an Orthodox community. There is Hebrew to learn, often yiddish jargon to figure out, cultural bits here and there to decipher…it’s a lot to take on. If you have children, this also means teaching your children as well so that eventually they can integrate into an Orthodox Day School environment. For conversion candidates, this is most often something they need to do before their family will be considered for conversion and there is usually a stipulation at the time of their conversion that any future children must attend Orthodox Day Schools.
On the surface, this might seem unfair. My born Jewish friends can send their children to any school they choose and they and their children will be absolutely Jewish, even if they receive little or no Jewish education. Another way of looking at it, though, is that the Rabbis who oversee conversion what a newly converted Jew to have everything they need to succeed already set up before they convert so that they can successfully make that transition. For children converting, this means having more than just their parents who may or may not have their own Jewish education there to help them learn what they need to know to be observant. Being in an Orthodox Day School environment provides them with plenty of role models of what observance looks like and it teaches them things that a convert parent might not be able to. Essentially, it helps replace Jewish grandparents, aunts, uncles, and all that other extended family that a born Jewish child might have to help teach.
Orthodox Day School is a whole other world from public school. Most of these schools follow what is known as a “dual curriculum,” which means children spend half of their day in secular studies learning the subjects that their public school peers would be learning in their home language. The other half of the day is spent on Judaic studies which differs somewhat between what boys and girls learn in some schools. School often goes a little longer than public schools because there is so much more to cover and optional classes are minimized to make room. By high school, most boys go to Yeshiva, which is pretty intense. The most rigorous Yeshivas will have boys studying up to or over 14 hours a day with little time for much else. Girls high schools are sometimes less intense but still most follow a dual curriculum.
I’ve had my children in day schools for elementary school briefly and now I’m working to prepare them to go back. Each time, it’s been tough to figure out exactly how best to prepare them to make such a transition, but I have noticed that over the past 5 years or so, there are a lot more and a lot better online resources for Judaic studies for children. The first time around, we supplemented what we could teach our children with a local private tutor who was warm and wonderful and that seemed to be enough, although my son still struggled a bit to keep up. In many communities, there are kollel students or even Rabbis who are happy to take on tutoring arrangements for reasonable fees and this can be a good option.
This time around, we’re trying something different and going with an online day school. These programs are often designed for parents who, for whatever reason, are opting to homeschool their children using a dual curriculum and help fill the need for the Judaic studies portion of the day. In some cases, you can also purchase a secular studies option as well. There are various to choose from with some meeting in realtime with a class and a teacher on Skype and others being more independent study. The one we chose is independent study, mostly because we’re in such an odd timezone and the children will still be putting in a full day at public school as well. This could really be a great option for other conversion candidates with children as they prepare to move to a day school or for BT’s with children looking to supplement without a day school.
There are also more online and better resources I’ve found for just general Jewish study for children. In our first years of conversion, my kids watched Shalom Sesame and some videos on Chabad.org and we worked on coloring books for Hebrew. Now, there are some great cartoons out there that teach Jewish topics in fun ways and finding books and resources online is a lot easier than it was even only 5 years ago.
I’m going to add a section to the conversion resources page for learning for children to kind of gather together some of the resources that have worked well for us in teaching our children far from a large Jewish community.
They say that you can tell what a person values by how they spend their time and money. By those measurements, it’s pretty clear that education tops the list for most Orthodox Jewish families. It’s also woven through holiday observance, with specific attention paid to passing on the stories and traditions of Judaism on to younger generations.
I hope, one day, to pass on what I have learned to Jewish grandchildren, although if everything works out well, they’ll probably already know more than I do. I think this is probably the dream of every BT and convert out there, to have children that surpass us in Jewish education and to watch them find their place among the Jewish people.