Alternative Paths to Jewish Education

Written by Natasha Nadel on . Posted in Features

Jewish parents may choose to send their child to a secular school, whether public or private, for any number of reasons. The cost of private school is high; transportation can pose challenges; perhaps their child is gifted, has a special need, or even both. Non-Orthodox American Jews have a long history of sending their children to Sunday school and Hebrew school, generally until their bar or bat mitzvah, but sometimes beyond. For Orthodox parents who choose to send their children to any school other than a full-time Jewish day school, there is pressure to ensure that their children still receive a Jewish education.

Investigation within the Greater Washington Jewish community reveals that there are several modes of Jewish education currently in use in addition to these traditional staples.

Stephanie Frumkin lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. A former elementary school teacher, she is in her fourth year of homeschooling her son and her second year of homeschooling her daughter. She cites a number of reasons for choosing to homeschool, including the difficulty of finding any one program, much less a Jewish day school, that could address the advanced academic needs of her 11-year-old son.

Many “twice exceptional” students (students who are both academically gifted and face challenges due to a physical or mental condition) are homeschooled, says Frumkin. “These children often find it especially hard to fit into the box of traditional, as well as Jewish, educational environments,” she says. Other reasons parents choose to homeschool their children include the flexibility it gives the entire family, and the ability to tailor the education to one’s values.

There are approximately 2,500 Jewish homeschooling families in the United States and Canada, and approximately 1500 of those families are Orthodox, according to Orthodox Jewish homeschooling advocate Yael Aldrich.

There is a large contingency of homeschooling families in the Washington area, says Frumkin, so there are many resources and classes for every type of learner, but the limited number of Jewish homeschooling families make Judaics more of a challenge. This year, Frumkin’s kids are participating in the Chabad online school where children learn with a live instructor and classmates they can see and interact with, two hours per day, four days per week. Her son has also used a private tutor in the past.

In northern Virginia, parents have to balance the cost of a private school education with the local public schools’ high reputation, says Oren Litwin. Litwin teaches at the Chabad of Northern Virginia Hebrew School in Fairfax and tutors homeschooled children as well.

The Chabad Hebrew School offers class once a week for two hours on either Sunday morning or Monday after school. Families include a few regular Chabad attendees; others frequent Chabad primarily on the High Holidays but want their kids to develop a background in Judaism.

Some parents who prefer to send their children to an Orthodox day school rather than the local community school, Gesher Jewish Day School, make the long commute to Maryland. A few families in the community are homeschooling as an alternative to both day school and public school. Litwin teaches Mishna in a two-family homeschooling class.

The lack of an Orthodox day school is a limiting factor in the growth of Northern Virginia’s Orthodox Jewish community, according to Litwin. “We need a good frum (Orthodox) school close-by, but that’s hard to get started,” he says.

Jewish Education, Tailor-Made

Ashreinu Educational Programs is an umbrella program housed at Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue in the Shepherd Park neighborhood of northwest Washington, D.C. Ashreinu Programs are designed for Orthodox students. Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz, who led the Woodside Synagogue Ahavas Torah for 22 years before making aliyah, serves as posek (halachic authority).

Ashreinu offers a full secular and Judaic studies program for homeschooled girls (middle school through high school), in which students can opt into all of the subjects or only the ones of their choosing — favorites include Halacha, art, Shakespeare, and math. There are anywhere from one to six girls in each class, says teacher Rabbi Hirsh Chinn.

“Ashreinu is for parents and students who want a more individualized education. The girls are getting a complete curriculum, but tailor-made.”

Ashreinu also provides an after-
school program for public school students on Mondays.

“Ashreinu is meeting the needs of people who are homeschooled or those who are in non-Jewish educational settings,” says Panina Licht, Ashreinu administrator and science teacher. “We try to teach them to be lifelong independent learners; it’s not just about studying text, but helping them find a meaningful path in Orthodox Judaism.”

“We have a whole community element,” says Licht, including Ashreinu’s all-girls talent show, a multi-day field trip to Colonial Williamsburg, and participation in the Folger Secondary Shakespeare Festival.

Ashreinu also offers a boys program for home-schooled middle school boys, but the structure is different. They meet with Rabbi Chinn at Ohev Sholom for Judaic studies five mornings per week, and go home for secular homeschooling in the afternoon.

“The boys’ program is different and brand new,” says Rabbi Chinn. “Some were homeschooled or attended day schools for elementary. Parents wanted a traditional rebbe for their boys, and we worked with Rabbi Breitowitz to develop a curriculum that would work for a kid who needed something different from the regular day school model. Ashreinu is not trying to be the same thing as day school. It’s a different curriculum.”

Hebrew School at Your Public School

Rivka Schreiber, mother to Eli (11), Boaz (6), and Zev (3), recently held an open house for families interested inKodem, a Judaics program designed forJewish families interested in attending Glen Haven Elementary School, a local public school.

“In Kemp Mill there are kids graduating out of their beloved Jewish, Hebrew-language daycare programs whose parents want to continue their Jewish education but can’t find an affordable, convenient solution,” an email advertising the open house read. “Meanwhile, a growing group of kids from Orthodox homes are entering public school with no access to daily Judaic programming. Kodem was established to meet this need, providing Jewish and kosher early and aftercare programming to bolster their Jewish education and Hebrew reading skills.”

Schreiber stresses that she is not recruiting familiesaway from Jewish schools.

“There are lots of Orthodox kids in local public schools, without a convenient and consistent program to reach them where they’re at. We’ve had meetingswith the Federation because they are interested in meeting people where they are,” she says.

According to Rivka, the program is very affordable because there are no building costs or full-time salaries to pay, just an hourly rate to rent a classroom and pay for teachers. There is currently one kindergarten Kodem class at Glen Haven. If more children participate, they will hire more teachers for different ages and subjects.

Schreiber’s oldest son, Eli, is in sixth grade at Berman Hebrew Academy. Their middle son, Boaz, attends Glen Haven Elementary School and is enjoying his classmates there.

“We’re teaching Boaz to be an Orthodox Jew in an un-Orthodox world,” says Schreiber. “It’s important that our children learn to not only tolerate but value other people.”

The structure for a before- and after-school program is in place. The hope is that the program will grow as more Jewish families with children in public schools transfer their children to Glen Haven Elementary School.

Hebrew Language is a Key to Jewish Heritage at MoEd

Now in its fifth year, MoEd is a Jewish after-school program originally created for elementary school students attending public school. Since the start of the 2016-2017 school year, MoEd now also offers special programming for children in sixth through eighth grade.

MoEd is located at Ohr Kodesh, a Conservative synagogue in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Participants include about 50 children from the Montgomery County and DC public school systems, and several JPDS students. Almost all participants are bused from their schools in Maryland.

Israel-American Orna Eldor Gerling is the founding executive director of MoEd. She started MoEd’s afterschool program with public school families in mind, to give their kids resources for learning Hebrew and building a sense of Jewish pride and community. Her goal is “doing it in a way that it’s part of their day,” she says. “Instead of sitting in a classroom, allowing them to play around and learn.”

The program eventually attracted the attention of working JPDS parents as well. They appreciate that the hours of operation work with their schedules, and the opportunity for their kids to practice their Hebrew, do their homework, and play in a warm childcare environment.

Eldor Gerling believes MoEd complements a child’s public school education by giving them “the fundamental basics of day school,” and learning Hebrew plays a key role.

“Lots of people believe that Hebrew is the key to acquiring more Jewish knowledge, understanding what’s going on in Israel, being closer to the Jewish religion because you can read more,” she says.

“Our biggest success to date is creating a Jewish kids’ community,” she continues. “Some of our families are interfaith, some Orthodox. For some kids, this is their only interaction with Jewish education. If they weren’t here, they would have nothing to do with being Jewish, and they’re proud of it, which makes me really happy because we are a part of that.”

The participants in Moadon, MoEd’s new program for middle school-aged kids, are primarily students who went from JPDS to public school. They meet two times a week, continuing their Hebrew and Judaic studies learning and engaging in social action through different Jewish organizations.

After-School Learning for Teens

The Kehilla Jewish Learning Program at Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah (BSCTT) in Potomac, Maryland is for high school students. While most participants are from the BSCTT community, some are from other synagogues, says BSCTT Rabbi Nissan Antine.

“Some were in public schools their whole lives, but we tend to get a lot of students who went to day school for elementary and now are in public school for high school,” says Rabbi Antine. “This allows us to use high level Hebrew sources and have most kids follow along.”

The program’s first goal is to create Jewish community, which is fostered through the first half-hour of the program where the kids eat dinner together and socialize.

The second goal of the program is to continue and strengthen participants’ Jewish knowledge and commitment. Rabbi Antine highlighted the program’s Israel education component, facilitated by Jewish Agency shlicha (emissary) and BSCTT Youth Director Rena Ableman.

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For the coming school year, Stefanie Frumkin’s son was accepted into the Takoma Park Middle School magnet program for math, science, and computer science. For Judaics, he will use a combination of private tutoring, learning with his parents, and Jewish educational apps (such as Pocket Torah which helps him prepare for reciting his bar mitzvah parsha in shul).

Frumkin’s nine-year-old daughter will return to Berman Hebrew Academy this fall after two years of homeschooling. Since her brother will no longer be homeschooled, says Frumkin, it makes sense for her to go “back to school” as well.

The importance of education is a core Jewish value, and parents are not afraid to blaze new trails to find a model that suits their family’s needs.