Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Letter on Charter Schools

Dr. Elliot Prager, Principal of the Moriah School in Englewood, NJ, recently sent out this letter to the school's parents about the Shalom Charter School.


Dear Moriah Parents,

During one of last week’s First Grade Chagigat Ha’Siddur celebrations, a parent leaned over to me and whispered: “I wonder if the Charter School will be able to match this.” Much has been written and spoken about this new educational initiative and it is not my intention to repeat the many reasons for choosing a Moriah education over this alternative, nor is it my desire to criticize anyone opting for a charter school education. But, as I sat through each of the Siddur celebrations it occurred to me that there is one overriding factor which has not been sufficiently emphasized in making the “case” for a yeshiva education.

Aside from the sheer breadth and depth of Jewish knowledge, aside from the daily immersion in living Jewishly (not just Hebraically) and the critical element of sharing in that daily Jewish life with one’s peers, a yeshiva education like that experienced in Moriah is the source of a child’s emotional-affective relationship with Judaism, second only, perhaps, to what s/he experiences in the home. The Charter School cannot possibly envelop the child with the Jewish warmth and joy that is felt in our school day in and day out. It isn’t only about a Siddur celebration here or a Chumash ceremony there, as moving as those moments are. It is about the continual shared experience of midot (traditional Jewish values imbedded in our sacred texts), of daily, weekly and monthly rituals, of the cycle of the Jewish year, of Jewish music and celebration, of Ahavat Ha’Shem, Ahavat Torah and Ahavat Ha’Aretz – which ultimately make the greatest impact on a child’s Jewish heart and mind. It is the JEWISH NESHAMA which is tapped, mined and nurtured at Moriah more than any other resource. And, faced as we are today with the powerful forces in the larger society which continually erode the fabric of Jewish life and weaken the substance of our children’s Jewish identity, it is the battle for the heart and emotions of our children which is the most critical battle of all. No amount of Hebrew immersion and no supplemental, after-school program or tutor can provide the rich soil in which our children’s Jewish hearts are nurtured.

Not for a second do I minimize the enormous financial burden which a yeshiva education entails. That is why one of the cornerstones of Moriah’s mission is the commitment to enable families in need to send their children to our school. And not for a moment do I criticize any family who decides that the Shalom Academy is the only alternative which they can provide for their children. As others have stated, better a Charter School that provides a Jewish child with a solid grounding in the Hebrew language than a regular public school, devoid of any connection with the Jewish people. But, before making that choice, it is imperative for a family to understand that a Charter School is not and cannot be a substitute for a yeshiva education.

The great 20th century Jewish poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik captured it best when he wrote: “The Bet Midrash (the Jewish house of study) is the incubator of our people’s soul.” That “soul,” the nefesh of the Jewish people, can only be created in a holistic Jewish environment which envelops the child every day and in every way. Yes, it may require sacrifices, but when it comes to the Jewish neshama and hearts of our children we all must stand together and declare: “Hineni – Here We Are!”

Dr. Elliot Prager, Principal


Yossi Prager, Executive Director of The AVI CHAI Foundation’s North American office, Op-Ed on Jewish Charter Schools can be found in the Jewish Standard.

4 comments:

  1. This article raises some interesting points,, but it is written from the standpoint of a person who child(ren) is enrolled in yeshiva education. True, the holistic envelopment of the yeshiva environment does wonders in terms of growing and enabling the "nefesh" to expand and reflect all that is being disseminated in a yeshiva environment, but what about those families that are not even considering a private school/yeshiva education for their children. Public school is oftentimes the only educational route that is considered, and for various reasons.. So, for these families I feel a Hebrew Language Charter School is an amazing offering. Anything slightly religious, let alone a Siddur Party, would never be part of the curriculum at public schools.

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  2. This letter is currently being discussed on the Lookjed discussion list - http://lookstein.org/lookjed/read.php?1,19490

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  3. I realize that I am submitting this comment months after the original post. However, I want to raise the question for Rabbi and Yossi Prager - what about those parents who find the quality of education in our Jewish Day Schools to be sub-par. Is it better to leave my children in a mediocre environment where standards are far lower than when I attended, so they can go to a mediocre colleges- all to keep the Jewish daily living experience?

    Or should I consider sending them to the outstanding public schools in my district (which is not an option in many frum communities) so they can excel and compete with the Chinese and Indian kids who are taking all the spots at top colleges?

    Moreover, I can take the saved tuition and send them for the summer to Israel and put away for their future rather than mortgaging it all on a mediocre education at a Jewish Day School.

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  4. Thanks for the question. If you live in a community with multiple day school options, it's unlikely that all of the schools are "mediocre." Certainly, some of these day schools can point to many, many alumni who attended elite colleges and competed successfully against the Chinese and Indian kids you refer to.

    If you are in a community with only one day school option, the choice you describe can be a painful one. I would not want my children to receive a mediocre education, nor do I believe that trips to Israel alone will produce literate Jews. There is a third option: get involved in your local school to improve it. As a person who has spent considerable time in my private life as a day school lay leader, I can tell you that it has been rewarding in many different ways. And I hope that my children have a better school experience as a result.

    B'hatzlacha!

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