Back to Day School

Jerrold I. Katz, Head of School
Back to school message written by Dr. Jerry Katz, Head of School, as part of the fall issue of RSS Connect the parent driven RSS newsletter
My wife, Marti, and I certainly chose a path to raising our children as Jews that was very different from the experience that you are giving your children at RSS.
When our first son was born, we had moved to Newton, MA, a suburb of Boston with a substantial Jewish population that was known for its excellent public schools. We never gave a moment’s thought to The Rashi School, the very fine Reform Jewish day school serving the Boston metropolitan area. To be honest, even if we had, we would have quickly ruled out Rashi as too homogeneous. It was important to us to raise our children in an inclusive community, where they would experience racial, religious, and socioeconomic diversity from a young age. To give our thinking context, I need to step back for a moment to tell you a little about each of our personal stories. As a former history teacher, I’ve always believed that time and place inform a great deal about the identities we form and the choices we make.
I had the unusual experience, for a member of my generation, to have four grandparents who were all born in the US. Their families emigrated from various parts of Eastern Europe during the 1880s. They put a good deal of energy, upon arrival in this country, into assimilating. Nonetheless, my parents belonged to a Reform congregation in Chicago, and when they relocated to Detroit shortly after I was born, they became involved in forming the first Reform congregation to serve their new community.
I remember, as a young child, attending High Holiday services in borrowed space in a nearby church prior to the construction of a new synagogue during the mid-1950s. I attended “Sunday School” there from first grade through confirmation. On any number of Sunday mornings, getting me there was a struggle, but by the time I was confirmed, I was a leader in my class. I did not speak Hebrew, but I knew who I was as a Jew. My only living grandparent came to visit each year at Christmas, because that was when she got time off from work. I told my parents that we really needed to be celebrating Chanukah.
Marti grew up in a Protestant home in Swarthmore, PA. Her connection to Christianity was important to her, but it was more through a fondness for annual traditions of Christmas trees and Easter eggs than through any expression of faith.
Prior to getting married, Marti and I worked hard on our interfaith relationship, particularly with an eye on the future possibility of raising children together. We had the privilege of being counseled by a Reform rabbi who was progressive before his time. Marti agreed to take a course in Jewish education, if I would do it with her. We celebrated Passover and Chanukah each year with my parents, first in their home, then in ours. Marti never considered converting, but she gave up traditions that she loved to raise our children as Jews.
For us, that meant not only celebrating Jewish holidays in our home, but also finding a place for our public school children to participate in Jewish education. I was the parent
most reluctant to join a synagogue, and we were fortunate to find a nearby “Sunday School for Jewish Studies” (SSJS). For ten years, we became deeply involved in this progressive, humanistic Jewish community. I served as Board Chair for several of those years, and Marti became somewhat famous for her annual “best in class” haroset. The culmination of Jewish learning at SSJS was writing one’s own service as a B’nai Mitzvah. In addition to being tutored in Hebrew, the expectation was to create a service that combined traditional prayer with original writing, poems and readings that spoke to one’s values, faith and personal identity. It was a remarkably meaningful process for each of our sons and for our family. Along with their later opportunities to travel to Israel with “Birthright,” I believe that this experience went a long way to giving our sons a clear sense of being Jewish.
Fast forward to the present…many of you know that Marti and I now are proud grandparents. Our oldest son is also in an interfaith marriage. We provide an anchor of Jewish experience in our home at Passover and Chanukah, but our grandson’s religious identity is, at best, uncertain.
Over the past two years, I have observed the pride and joy in their understanding of Judaism that children at RSS experience throughout their years here. I know that not all families have chosen RSS because it is a Reform Jewish day school. However, by sending them to RSS, you are giving them more than the gift of an excellent education. By sending them to RSS, you are making more than an explicit choice to raise your children in a nurturing community that cares deeply about the development of their character and values. By sending them to RSS, you also are giving your children a strong beginning to their own journeys of Jewish identity–with an emphasis on pride, joy, and a belief that they can make a difference in “healing the world.”
There is a remarkable article entitled, “Why My Kids Are Going Back To Jewish Day School” on RSS social media. In it, the author, a Jewish mom who took her children out of a Jewish day school in Pittsburgh to send them to a very good suburban public school, reflects on her decision. She says: The true gift of a Jewish day school is elusive. It is in the air, it is the energy, the families, the songs, the food, the ‘menschiness.’ The public schools are excellent. They will teach my children to read and write and add and subtract.

They will prepare them for higher education and work. But they cannot partner with me to raise my children to live good Jewish lives, to know who they are, to feel that they are indispensable members of a community. For that, children need RSS. I am more than a little envious.

[An article from RSS Connect, Volume 2, Issue 1 - click here to download.]

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