Day school parents push for Jewish programs at Kemp Mill Elementary School

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A grassroots movement has taken off among Jewish day school parents in Silver Spring who are advocating for their local elementary school to include a course in Hebrew as a second language and an early-care Judaics program in an effort to reduce the outlay for their children’s education.

About 25 parents met March 22 in the Kemp Mill neighborhood to discuss the religious accommodations they would ask Kemp Mill Elementary School to make.


Those included providing kosher meals, arranging trips to Israel during the year and determining the amount of time their children would study Hebrew each week. The parents often found themselves in agreement on their overall goals but disagreed on the details.

Simone Ribke, who hosted the meeting, told the group that Kemp Mill receives Title I money. That means it receives federal funding to assist students from low-income families. She said this meant teachers would be equipped to handle a diverse population. But Jewish rituals, such as prayer, would need to be entirely student led.

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One parent said a modern Hebrew-language program will require an big commitment from the school to be successful.

“You can’t teach a language one day a week,” she said. “I think you’re more likely to teach religion one day a week than
language.”


Another parent said it would be more productive to focus on teaching students how to read Hebrew from the Torah before introducing them to a full Hebrew program.

“God willing, our children will have 120 years to learn the Torah. We don’t have to cram it all into kindergarten,” she said.

The group’s initiative is in response to the high cost of Jewish day school education.

In an interview, Ribke said kindergarten tuition at her daughter’s school starts at $15,000. (She declined to name the school, but the amount is close to the tuition at Orthodox schools Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy and Torah School of Greater Washington.)

“People are choosing between saving for retirement and saving up for a Jewish school,” she said. “I think our priority as parents at this age is to start saving for retirement and maybe help our kids in the future, not throw all our money into school and then we can’t afford to help our kids in college or buy a house later on in life. How are we setting them up in the future?”

Ribke said the cost of Jewish education forces many parents to take a second job. She said she is a graduate of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington and has seen the tuition crisis from both the student’s and parent’s perspective.

“I know it was a stretch for my parents, but it was far cheaper on a percentage type basis of their salary than it is for parents today,” she said.

Ribke told the group she has been in contact with Kemp Mill Principal Bernard James.

In a letter to Ribke, James wrote that Montgomery County Public School policy allows schools to educate students about religious holidays as long as it is done in a factual manner.

“School activities may feature the secular aspects of a holiday, but holiday activities may not involve participation in a religious practice or event,” he wrote. “Teachers should work to honor these requests by planning an alternate activity for students who request one,” he continued.

James also wrote that the county school board is reviewing all of its dual-language programs and will solicit input from the community to go along with a report highlighting the benefits of pairing native English speakers with native speakers of a foreign language being taught. He said there are no plans to add new language programs at Kemp Mill.

Also in attendance was Ira Ungar, a community liaison for Del. Bonnie Cullison (D-District 19). Unger said that he and Cullison have discussed the feeling many parents have of not getting enough services for the taxes they pay.

“We talked about what the needs were of Kemp Mill, and I said that the greatest need that this area has, in terms of its intersection with government, is in lowering tuition for those students,” he said. The parents are “paying taxes. Half of this county’s budget is public schools, but we’re not getting anything back.”

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