This article was written and published in the April 10, 2016 issue of the CJN.
As head of school at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, I frequently speak about the importance of a Jewish high school education and why I love what I do. It centres around three factors.
First, a Jewish high school education plays a vital role in solidifying a teenager’s Jewish identity. Adolescence is such a turbulent period of life that teenagers often reject, challenge, question and doubt some of the most sacred family values and norms. This is even true for children who have had an elementary Jewish day school education – one week of adolescence can wipe out a lot of tuition dollars quite speedily.
What Jewish high schools do is maximize the investment that parents and teachers have made during the early years of life and help students emerge Jewishly whole and strong.
Second, the big, complex questions are discussed and debated in high school. In elementary school, children gain a foundation in Hebrew, Jewish history and Jewish texts. The deeper questions lie ahead. I often hear some parents say that their children don’t want to continue their Jewish studies after their bar or bat mitzvah. Sometimes I hear middle school students say that they already know “enough” Hebrew and Judaics.
I’m not sure why so many parents accept that argument. If a Grade 8 child were to say, “I know enough math already,” we would roll our eyes and say, “That’s why I am the parent!” The same should be our response when 13- or 14-year-olds say to us that they know enough about their heritage or Israel and don’t need to continue their Jewish educational journey. There are a lot of understandable reasons for why parents may not choose Jewish high school for their child. “Knowing enough,” however, is not one of them.
Third, a Jewish high school education prepares students to feel comfortable in their own Jewish skin when they face the “real world” outside the Jewish bubble. Some parents will be surprised to hear this because they think that Jewish day school only solidifies the bubble. They believe that only public schools or non-Jewish private schools prepare their child for the “real world.” Skeptics will say: “How will my child ever be able to deal with the open, diverse world of the university if he or she is sheltered in a day school all his or her life?”
The most perceptive response I’ve heard to this question comes from a former high school student of mine. “When I get to the university, I will have developed such a strong sense of who I am as a Jew that I will be able to contribute to that diversity,” he said. “And that’s only because of my Jewish day school education.” Out of the mouths of babes comes the most powerful advice to us adults.
So, has your child had enough Jewish studies by Grade 8? Hopefully you will agree, absolutely not. Every day that I walk through our school doors, I see firsthand the path to passionate and committed Jewish adulthood being shaped – each student strengthening a Jewish future for all of us.