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A Few Words in Praise of the Founder of Day Schools

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The first Jewish day school can be traced back to about 65 C.E. when, according to the Talmud, the high priest Joshua Ben- Gamla established a network of schools in every province and every city to teach Torah to children aged 6 and older.

Since that time, almost 2,000 years ago, Jewish parents have been writing hefty tuition checks and buying dozens of rolls of gift wrap through school fund raisers to support the grand and guilt-driven imperative of Jewish continuity.

In simple terms, Jewish continuity means that my four sons will one day write checks in even larger amounts for the Jewish education of their children.

But for now, Jewish continuity means that after 11 weeks, four days, seven hours and 45 minutes of summer vacation, three of my four sons are returning to Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, Calif. The oldest is entering ninth grade at Milken Community High School in Los Angeles, the largest non- Orthodox Jewish high school in the United States. This school provides him with the smallest opportunity to date non-Jewish girls.

Originally, my husband, Larry, and I chose Jewish day school for its convenient, one-stop shopping approach — no Sunday morning or late weekday afternoon carpools for religious school.

Now we praise Jewish day schools for their seamless approach to a Jewish way of life. Across the curriculum and across the calendar year, across grade levels and across lunch tables, my children are living, learning and loving Judaism.

My 7-year-old confidently and unabashedly belts out “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, in the checkout line at the supermarket.

My 9-year-old spends the month of December scrutinizing window displays, tallying up the Santa Clauses and dreidels and advocating for greater Jewish representation.

My 11-year-old has long lobbied for a family sukkah. This October, with the help of a prefabricated Tabernacles-for-Dummies kit, we will actually dwell in one in our own backyard.

And my 14-year-old continually tests our Jewish IQs. “What!” he recently exclaimed. “I can’t believe you don’t know who Amalek was.”

I can now authoritatively state, with some help from Exodus 17:8-16, that the Amalekites was the first people to wage war with the Israelites in the wilderness. In fact, the word “Amalek,” not unlike the word “teen-ager,” is synonymous with enemy.

Yes, Jewish day schools have added volumes of Jewish texts to our home library, from “The Alef-Bet” to “The Zohar,” from “Guide for the Perplexed” to “The Guide to the Jewish Internet.” It has sent my husband to Hebrew classes at the University of Judaism. And it has motivated our entire family to celebrate Jewish holidays and events more enthusiastically and more intensely.

Proverbs 22:6 tells us, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

The ancient rabbis knew this. They recommended that Jewish education begin at the early age of 5 or 6.

Modern researchers also know this. They prove to us, in recent national studies, that Jewish education beyond age 13 greatly reduces the likelihood of intermarriage. In fact, only 2 percent of children who attend Jewish day school through grade 12 marry out of the faith. Compare this to the 52 percent intermarriage rate in the general Jewish population, according to the Council of Jewish Federations’ 1990 National Jewish Population Survey.

But Jewish day school is not for everyone. A fellow soccer mom once confided, “I couldn’t send my son to Jewish day school. What if he grew up and wanted to become a…a…a cantor!”

Others believe that Jewish day schools compromise a student’s secular education, taking up too much time with “all that Jewish stuff.”

I can only report that my sons are eagerly learning reading, writing and Jewish rituals. They are confidently mixing mitzvot, Mishnah and math, English and ethics, prayer and phys. ed. They show solid academic achievement on standardized tests, and they have strong and enthusiastic Jewish identities.

And Jewish identity is, indeed, the key to Jewish continuity. But, unfortunately, with the seductions of today’s secular society and the growing acceptance of assimilation, Jewish continuity has become an endangered doctrine.

So, until we can resurrect Jewish matchmakers and arranged marriages, Jewish day school offers the most solid defense. That’s why the day school movement is mushrooming.

And that’s why I’m eternally indebted to Joshua Ben-Gamla for his foresight and footwork in laying the groundwork for the modern Jewish day school. If he were still living, I would shower him with gifts, all beautifully wrapped thanks to the many rolls of ornate and overpriced gift paper accumulating in my closet.

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