Dear Jewish parents with young children,
At Shabbat lunch after our last day of school, my dad asked me, my step-brother, and a close friend of ours to reflect on our experiences at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (JDS), where we had just finished classes. Our friend said he thought his parents’ decision to send him to JDS was the best one they ever made for him. I felt the same gratitude towards my parents, and I’d like other Jewish kids to feel similarly at the age of eighteen.
I hope you — parents of Jewish children — will empower your kids to contribute to the Jews’ collective survival and prosperity with the combination of Judaic and general education that only a Jewish day school can provide.
JDS prepared us intellectually, morally, and socially for adulthood within the Jewish people. This education began in elementary school, when we learned how to read English and Hebrew and then studied Genesis and Exodus, together with the laws of the Jewish holidays. We continued to study the two languages throughout our school careers. We studied Jewish history from Biblical times to modern Israel, in addition to American history and other aspects of world history. JDS equipped us to study Jewish texts in Hebrew, to pray in any synagogue, and to teach our children – and others – about the traditions of the Jewish people.
The same skills developed in Judaic studies helped us excel in our general studies. Studying the complex grammar and vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew prepared us to parse and contemplate the poetry of Shakespeare and Wordsworth. Analyzing the Bible and Talmud sharpened skills that we have been able to use in studying general history, drama and even the sciences. It taught us how to think critically about evidence and how to search for wisdom in the work of those who studied the subjects before we did.
In addition to our academic education, JDS imparted to us the Jewish values of tzedakah (charity and righteousness), kehillah (community), and v’ahavta l’reacha (loving one’s neighbor). While these values can be gained in many schools, learning them in a Jewish context sets our experience apart. Through our studies of Torah, we were given ethical insights that encourage us to be better Jews and better people. While fulfilling our community service requirements in high school, we consciously emulated the figures – like hospitable Abraham and selfless Ruth – who have taught Jews (and the world) the moral imperative of working with kavanah (intent) to improve others’ lives.
In college, I plan to focus on the humanities and social sciences. I am confident that my Jewish day school education has readied me for the work ahead. I have received the benefits of not one, but two great intellectual traditions: Jewish and Western. And I have heard from JDS students who have completed college that my experience in handling the dual Judaic and general curricula will allow me easily to handle the workload at even the most difficult universities.
Earlier this summer, the three of us returned from our school’s three-month graduation trip in Israel. There, we learned more about the language, the religion, and the people we love, and practiced ahavat yisrael (love of Israel) in the land itself. We prayed with Haredim at the Western Wall, did five days of military training, worked on a secular kibbutz and in youth villages, and slept three nights in tents as we hiked from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee.
If you choose to send your child to a Jewish day school, he or she can get the unique combination of Jewish and secular education that the three of us were grateful to have received. We’ve developed a strong sense of community at JDS – however our community is not limited to our peers, teachers and families. I am not religiously orthodox, but, after 13 years at JDS, I feel like a part of the 4,000-year old Jewish nation. Your kid – in the spirit of the Talmudic dictum that “great is learning which leads to action” – can use such an education to improve him or herself, to pass Jewish and Western civilization forward, and maybe even to improve the world. And, if they feel as good about it as I do, they’ll thank you when they graduate.
Dore Feith is a graduate of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md., and is a freshman at Columbia University.