31 for 21 – Values based decision regarding boys’ schooling

Today is Day 17 of 31 for 21, a blogging effort to raise awareness of Trisomy 21/Down syndrome.  Thanks to the recent birth of our baby who has an extra chromosome, this is the first year that I’ve been a participant.

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Yesterday morning I got a call from ds6’s teacher at Amichai.  After she told me how wonderful he is (nice when your child’s teacher appreciates him so much!), she got to the point of the call.  She heard about what was going on with the cheder giving us the runaround about not accepting our kids, and wanted to offer her support in advocating for us if we wanted it.  I thanked her and then spent the next half hour explaining why we’re going to keep the boys at Amichai.  Not just until the end of the year, but with the intent to continue there long term and we plan to enroll ds5 in Amichai’s first grade next year.   She kept asking me if I was really okay with this decision or if I was assuming this position by default because we had no choice.  I explained that we aren’t leaving the boys at Amichai because we  have no choice – the cheder will definitely take ds6 and it’s possible they’ll eventually take ds10 if we continue to pressure them.  But we decided that’s not what we want and to drop our pursuit of this school transfer – and we did it from a position of strength.

My husband and I do a lot of talking about the education of our children and the values we hope they have, but this has been seriously ramped up in the last six weeks, as we’ve been deciding where the best elementary school for our elementary aged boys is.  We had decided to transfer them to the local cheder from the school they are currently in, then ran into trouble when we were told our kids wouldn’t be accepted.  But because it wasn’t a real ‘no’, we were in limbo for a while.  This provided us with more opportunities to think again, and again, and again about if this was really the best decision for our boys.  (I wrote about the differences between the two schools here.)

To recap, we thought that making the transfer would assure their social transition into our community and that being in a different school from everyone else in the charedi community would be a big strike against them.  We also felt that the boys in the school we wanted to transfer to have a more carefully guarded home atmosphere, which is similar to ours in many ways.  And yet the school they were in- Amichai – still had all the positives that we saw when we made the initial decision to send them there.

There were so many  issues involved in this – the macro and micro view both religiously and socially, which are intrinsically intertwined.  Religiously things are much more stratified here than in the US, and the boxes you need to fit into are much narrowly defined.  If you don’t choose your box, others will do it for you, but you can’t stay outside of the box.  A big part of this decision was about choosing our box.

There was a strong emotional pull towards and away from both choices, and the more we talked the less clarity we had.  Finally, we sat down and wrote out a list of what our values are.  Decisions this big aren’t based on little things like how long summer vacations are (actually, that can also be a values decision since a longer vacation can mean more family time), but about how well your values match the institution where you send your child.  And to be fair to our children, the school we send them to and ourselves as parents, I think it’s important that we’re consistent in the spoken and unspoken message we project. I don’t want my children caught between different world views and feeling they don’t fit anywhere.

Writing out our values was important because it took the emotion out of the discussion. We looked at each value, as well as the advantages of each institution.  When we did that, we were able to clearly see that the main value in sending to the cheder was social and that our desire to transfer the boys to the cheder was motivated by fear: basically, fear of doing something different.  I’ve never believed that fear is a good place to make a decision from.  But we are looking at the realities behind those fears in order to address them.

When we looked at the positive values we have, we were able to clearly see (once again) that Amichai came out ahead in almost every single category.  One factor we discussed at length is the long term view: what do we want our children to be like religiously and spiritually (those aren’t the same thing!) when they’re adults?  These decisions are being made when you put your children into elementary school, because the schools are tracked and once you’re in one track, it’s not so simple to transfer your child to a school that is in a different religious track.

One issue in which our thinking differs from the charedi community is that we see a positive value in our children learning secular subjects at the high school level.  However, secular subjects not being taught during the elementary years wasn’t a major concern – this is something we could and would supplement on our own.  I know quite well as a homeschooler how little time it actually takes to teach these subjects once a child is ready for them.  So we would have been fine sending our boys to a school without secular subjects for the elementary years.

What I was more concerned about is how this attitude towards secular subjects as well as towards those outside the charedi community would influence their long term choices and their self-image if they chose to make decisions that were different from their peers. I felt it would be unfair of us to have expectations that our boys would get a certain kind of high school education, but put them in an elementary school that had different definitions for success.

We’ve talked a lot about how to walk this very fine line – how to affiliate with the charedi community while not going along with the party line in some areas.  This was a tough, tough decision that requires a lot of independent thinking and willingness to walk a non-mainstream path.  You can see how hard this was since we were initially so clear about what we wanted but then we still got off track after hearing opinions from others.  This won’t be an easy thing to do (nor would it have been easy to deal with the challenges we would have faced at the cheder), but it resonates with us emotionally and intellectually.

This decision follows over a decade of homeschooling.  For years, we had to walk our own path and believe in what we were doing without any positive feedback from others; certainly in the very beginning we would have been strongly dissuaded if we had asked for advice.  But as the years went by and the kids got older, people started to see how our kids were turning out and they started telling us how lucky we were, that hey wished they had the courage to do what we did, and asking us how we had the strength to swim upstream.

Similarly, this isn’t a decision that we’re going to get much support about and in the short term I think very few people will be able to understand why we’re doing what we’re doing.  It’s just too different a way of thinking about education and the goals of education. This decision was really hard but we’ve learned again and again that you get the best results when you act in line with your deepest values and conscience.

Our family is in a unique position to be a bridge for others who may want a choice within the charedi world that allows for more appreciation of diversity, and I hope that more families moving to Karmiel will seriously consider Amichai.  I’ve said before that I really think it’s a much better fit for American immigrants than the cheder in a number of ways.   However, regardless of what anyone else chooses to do, we’re glad to have gotten clarity and realigned our actions with our beliefs.

Avivah

23 thoughts on “31 for 21 – Values based decision regarding boys’ schooling

  1. I really admire what you are doing. When we make Aliya, we hope to do the same thing. Can I ask, what type of school is Amichai? Is it Chardal?

    1. It’s charedi philosophically but the student body has varying ranges of observance. But since it’s run according to government standards, it has a schedule that isn’t typical of charedi schools. (There’s a link in the post above to where I wrote about this school in more detail.)

  2. Avivah, thank you so much for writing about this. You have no idea how many of your thoughts echo my own…
    Basically- do I want to identify as chareidi, or as dati leumi? Because its a choice of one or the other in this country- army or kollel? And if you say neither, as I am wont to say… you really can’t… Because either by action or inaction, you make a choice where you are identifying yourself. What yarmulka do you wear? One that identifies you as chareidi, or as dati leumi? What kids do you want your kids playing with and becoming friends with- kids who are dati leumi or chareidi? And if you say I don’t mind either, do you mind if your kids are playing with kids who are watching movies at their house, so that your kids will want to come home and watch movies at your house? And if you don’t have a problem with that, then what about when your kids are older and their friends want to watch movies that may be acceptable in dati leumi circles, but certainly aren’t considered kosher in anything even near chareidi circles…
    This is actually what is going through my head right now. We’re in a mixed community. My kids dress chareidi. I WANT to identify as chareidi. But my kids play all the time with our neighbors who watch movies with my kids, and my kids watch them at home, and I’m starting to doubt whether I really want my kids watching movies, since they won’t stay content with disney style movies once they get older, but even if I try to get them to stop watching movies, what about at friends? Tell them not to be friends with those kids? Those are our neighbors. Move? Where to? This is just such a great community…
    But I’m looking long term and I’m not sure that this community here is conducive to the type of children I want to raise… Then again, not sure where in Israel would be conducive.

    1. Ronit, I’m going to respond to a little detail rather than the overview of what your’re commenting on. It sounds like you’re struggling with the bigger picture of where to affiliate, which I very much understand. I’ll post more about that.

      But for the minor point about videos – if you’ve decided this isn’t something that you want for your kids, stop watching them in your home. And tell your friend that you’d rather they don’t watch at her house, either. My kids grew up with a number of friends who did watch videos and they knew that we didn’t do that. As they got older, they would call and ask me if a particular video was okay, as would the parents of their friends.

      I’m thinking about your larger point, and if I’ll have time to respond to it with a separate post. I’m not sure I can because I’m so short on time but perhaps my next post will be of help.

      1. Thanks for the answer about movies and videos. What do I do now that my kids already do watch movies at their freinds houses, just kid movies and rated G, but still? Tell them that if their friends are watching a movie, they have to come home?

  3. Ronit: hello! I just want to comment on your excellent thought- provoking comment. I completely hear what you are saying about the movies, and [ sorry if I’m missing the point of your comment :) ] but if you don’t mind me saying so, I would like to humbly suggest that it’s not as clear cut as chareidi kids watching movies and datei leumi kids not watching movies. There are obviously families across the spectrum who do and do not let those things into their homes (whether or not they talk about it publicly)– that is just the reality. Anyway I think I would think of it more in terms of wanting my children (and myself) associating with people who perhaps sometimes have movies in their lives but overall have a growth-oriented, avodas-Hashem centered home, as opposed to people who are strict about not having movies but don’t have the same spiritual focus. And that defies labels….it completely transcends them. It can totally go either way. It’s the inner feeling of the home that will penetrate the kids of the home and be mashpia [influential] on the friends who visit, in the long run. Feel free to disagree, just my 2 cents, and perhaps I am wrong? I’m only saying this because we recently stayed with a family that I found very interesting- they had way more movies lying around than I’m accustomed to seeing in most very frum homes (I don’t know if they officially call themselves chareidi or not, it’s hard to say in America sometimes!) but they were so, so inspired and inspiring, their kids are inspired people, and we had an uplifting experience with them.
    That being said, when you live in a neighborhood where everyone around you seems to be heavily relying on media for daily entertainment, it certainly must be hard to keep your kids more balanced, especially as they get older. That is very very very difficult. Wondering what Avivah has to say :) My only suggestion (and I don’t have kids old enough so this is totally not from any experience ) is could you make your home into THE PLACE that all the kids want to hang out? Have tons of snacks and fun stuff and try to draw the crowds there?

  4. And I had another question for Avivah- how does it play out practically to have different kids in hashkafically different school systems? What I’m really saying is- do you have a community to fit into now??

    1. Shuli, I’m glad you asked about this! This was a major factor that we discussed, but the post was so long as it was that I couldn’t put in the details of various aspects. PG I’ll post about it in my next post.

  5. I applaud your decision and the amount of thought and discussion that went into it. Your dilemma really gets to the heart of an issue facing any family trying to make the move from charedi America to charedi Israel. You articulate the issues so clearly, and I believe that your posts can be an invaluable resource for others considering the move.

    When all is said and done, I believe that the strength of conviction in your home will carry your children through and be the key to their success. You and your husband have a clear vision of the yiddishkeit that you want to pass on to your children and they will absorb and respect that. Challenges will inevitably come up, but their parents’ values will stand as a clear guide to them.

    Bravo.

    A couple of questions:

    1.Do you think that living ‘out of town’ (not in the big cities, like Yerushalayim) makes it easier to support diversity-within-a-charedi-hashkafa in chinuch in Israel?

    2.Based on your experiences, what advice would you give a black-hat/yeshivishe family moving from a city like Baltimore or Passaic to Israel regarding preparation for their aliyah?

  6. This is really brave of you and your husband. I’m an atheist who was raised Catholic so I have no concept of the religious implications of your decision, but from an outside perspective I think you made the right educational decision. The religious texts will always be there for them, and you and your husband can unquestionably instill a love of religious learning. But the negative attitude toward secular subjects seems unnecessarily damaging, especially when you have such an excellent alternative.

  7. Your point of noticing when you are acting out of fear was so powerful. I try to be mindful of when fear is my motivator as I don’t think it can ever compare to love and faith as a foundation for a decision. In my mind I think of it as two houses and you have to decide which one you want to come home to everyday. The one built on something you love or on something you want to run away from? You and your family are such an inspiration. I will continue to pray for you.

    1. Welcome, Eileen, and thank you for your beautiful and insightful comment! You’re so right that love and faith are much more powerful than fear. (Are you Anne’s sister?)

  8. >>Thanks for the answer about movies and videos. What do I do now that my kids already do watch movies at their freinds houses, just kid movies and rated G, but still? Tell them that if their friends are watching a movie, they have to come home?<<

    Ronit, you have to be clear about what you want. Once you do, things get much simpler. If you really don't want them watching movies, this isn't hard – your kids are about 3 and 5, right? Tell the mothers of the friends they go to, to send them home when their kids watch videos. If you think they won't be respectful of this, you shouldn't be sending your kids there in the first place. My kids have gone to the homes of those who were Christian, non Jewish, non religious Jews – but I knew that all of these people would respect my values even if it's not what they would do.

    You can tell your kids you're not watching videos anymore if you think that's appropriate but you have to be careful not to have a 'holier than thou' tone when you do it.

  9. avivah- just wanted to quickly say how wonderful it was to read this post- it resonates with the strength of the True Avivah that is shining! hurray for finding the right path!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  10. Yashar Koach Avivah for having the courage to be authentic and for sharing this with us all.
    I have these kinds of thoughts all the time. BH we are very happy with our son’s cheder in Yerushalayim (and he is too). Apart from the fact that the Rebbes are wonderful and the place is full of simcha, we feel very comfortably there hashkafically. Recently we had to sign a commitment about internet use, and it was exactly in line with our own view on the matter BH.
    But now I’m thinking about where to send my girls, and I don’t feel wholehearted with the standard local options.
    I would consider an alternative Beis Yaakov option, but I have had thoughts similar to Ronit’s. Disney movies are where it begins, but a few years later those same kids are hanging around at mall late at night, texting incessantly and schmoozing with the world on Facebook. A friend of mine sent her daughter to an alternative chareidi high school and this is exactly what goes on.
    I’m not judging anyone else (I hope), but it is not my style to put my daughters in that kind of environment.
    But then I hear your perspective and it reminds me that the chinuch of my children is in my hands iYH, and I should look closely at my own values, rather than what other kids are doing.
    This is not easy. It is quite terrifying. But this world is not a popularity contest!
    Thanks for the chizuk!

    1. I really understand the dilemma; this is really something I’ve struggled with as well.

      My experience so far in having our kids in less conservative frameworks than our family is that they’ve done very well. This has been true of my oldest son, when we sent him to high school and then his first year of yeshiva (our choice, not his), the camps we sent them to, the high school my girls are currently in….we were always slightly to the right of where they were. I felt it was better to give the kids more room than to be too restrictive religiously, but at the same time we maintained a pretty strong family structure.

      None of our kids have adopted the standards of their camp/school environment (however, it was the exception when their close friends had dramatically different standards than we did). For example, they don’t watch movies, Facebook, listen to secular music – even though a number of people in their environments did/do and in those places they wouldn’t have been looked at negatively if they did. A couple of years ago we put dd in a framework that was really not appropriate based on misinformation, and she was incredible in how she maintained her standards where everyone around her was in a totally different place. When my dh was the rabbi of a shul in an outreach community, I was concerned about my kids not having a strong social peer environment. When I spoke to the placement rabbi as well as a well-known chinuch expert in EY, I was told that kids in kiruv families from out of town tend to be very strong. We were told that we should give our children a sense of pride in who we are and what we stand for, so that their identity would be based more on being members of our family than aligning with their peers. This is what we tried to do and plan to continue to do, and as with everything, we have to daven that Hashem will help us be successful.

      So just because others are doing it doesn’t mean your children will. It’s worked well for us not to be overly restrictive and to simultaneously give our kids a clear sense of our expectations, and it’s been interesting watching them choose a more conservative approach that comes from inside them, not because we forced them to do it.

  11. Avivah, I hear what you’re saying, and B”H that’s been my experience as well. I once overheard a conversation between dd and her friend, then age 8, about having a TV at home. Dd told her friend how wonderful it is not to have one, and the friend exclaimed, “You’re so lucky!” :)

    Having said that, don’t your kids feel lonely when other kids in their environment are “to the left,” as you said? I haven’t found a way to be in both worlds. It’s either everyone “to the right” or everyone “to the left.” And I live in the US!

    1. It’s not an easy question to answer, but I have to clarify and say that everyone isn’t far to the left of us – some more than others, some very close to us in perspective. Thinking about this decision has been a lonely process, as I don’t feel others in the community who share our beliefs are stepping forward to make decisions in line with that, and those who don’t share our beliefs don’t understand how excrutiatingly difficult these kinds of decisions can be. But as far as if the kids feel lonely, I can’t yet answer decisively since I don’t have long term experience with this particular situation. So far it seems fine.

  12. I’m so glad you posted this. I’m in the “information collecting” stage of making Aliyah. My first concern is finding a place where my kids will be accepted, given space, and educated. We are considering Karmiel for a variety of reasons, but i appreciate you making these comments. As a former homeschooling family I smiled in appreciation to how little time it takes to teach secular subjects when they are ready! I also very much appreciate the way you have taken the time to consider so many of the finer details. Your process of evaluation is similar to what we do.

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