Homeschooling is beginning to boom amongst Orthodox Jews. Last summer, a Baltimore woman, Mrs. Avivah Werner, organized The First Annual Torah Homeschool Conference along with other local homeschooling parents. People came from as far away as New York, Michigan, and Sharon, MA to attend the conference. Presenters spoke on subjects ranging from different homeschooling philosophies and methodologies to practical issues such as dealing with state regulations. It was so successful that this summer, on Sunday June 13th, Mrs. Werner has organized the Second Annual Torah Homeschool Conference, to take place at the Park Heights JCC in Baltimore. Rabbi Daniel Lapin will be one of the featured speakers. (Schedule, speakers and registration info: http://jewishhomeschooling.wordpress.com/ )
The phenomena of homeschooling has exploded in America in the past decade, growing 12 times faster than public school enrollments. As of 2007, 2.2 percent of American children were being homeschooled, 1,508,000 all told. While its modern roots are in progressive alternative educational theory, its biggest practitioners are committed conservative Christians, who often reject public school for its ostensibly decadent secular program of indoctrination, and whose vision of an ideal pedagogy often harks back to very traditional methods. That homeschooling isn’t big yet amongst Orthodox Jews is surprising given that many Orthodox families are dissatisfied with the secular academics in yeshivas (associated with traditional Orthodoxy), and often with the religious studies in day schools (associated with Modern Orthodoxy), and that some children fail to thrive and even suffer socially, intellectually, and even spiritually in these institutions, and that this can contribute to children “going off the derech” (becoming alienated and non-observant), a trend that yeshiva education doesn’t seem able to fully stem, and in some instances, may accelerate. Consider too that yeshivas and day schools can cost significantly more than $10,000 per child per year, a very daunting figure for even relatively small Orthodox families, which are still significantly larger than the average American family. Given all these factors, and considering homeschooling’s deep roots in Jewish tradition prior to the industrial revolution, it would seem like a natural fit for significant parts of the Orthodox Jewish community.
Avivah and Rabbi Osher Werner started homeschooling after they returned to America from living in Israel, and their 7 year old son was unhappy in his new school. Initially, they intended to pull him out just for a few months, hoping that he would re-adjust, and then they could send him back to school. When they saw his behavioral issues rapidly resolve, and how happy he became, they read more about homeschooling, connected with other homeschooling parents, and decided to pull their other children out too. They have now educated all of their 9 children, who range from a one year old to an eleventh grader, at home.
In the Werner household, learning is both a collaborative and independent activity. The older children often teach the younger children, and this has fostered unusually strong sibling relationships. Though Mrs. Werner still teaches them as well, she has fostered a sense of self-confidence and independence in her children. She uses largely self-teaching texts, and when they come to her with a question, she’ll first ask, “Did you read it properly? Did you think about it? Go and check your work before you hand it to me.”
“This is how adults learn,” says Mrs. Werner. “And parents don’t have to know everything! There are so many resources that you’ll find that can help you -and you‘ll teach them how to find the answers themselves too. I love that quote from W.B. Yeats, ‘Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.’ Education isn’t a jam factory where you fill ‘em up and cap ‘em off. I believe that God created the world, and created our capacity to learn, and that learning is supposed to be fun.”
Rabbi Werner, who works full-time and has a long daily commute, says that learning with and teaching his children has been transformative. He said, “I grow through giving to my children. Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz said, ‘everything for the other,’ you should always be learning so that you can share it with someone else.” He made a conscious choice to make his children his chevrusas (learning partners) instead of one of his own peers, given his busy work schedule and limited time for Torah study, because they were more important, and because he could give them far more than he could a peer. “My 16 year old and 10 year old learn with each other too,” he said. Both Rabbi and Mrs. Werner come from very serious Orthodox backgrounds and find it a little ironic that they’re considered mavericks of a sort. Rabbi Werner cited many Torah sources that not only endorse homeschooling, but identify the parent teaching a child as the preferred and obligatory option, and delegating that responsibility to others as a second-tier choice.
Rabbi Menachem Goldberger, of the Tiffereth Israel synagogue in Baltimore, spoke at last year’s homeschooling conference on educating a child according to his way: an ancient Torah injunction. Twenty years ago when people began approaching him about homeschooling. Rabbi Goldberger had been hesitant to support it because he wasn’t familiar with it, but now he says he can point to so many successful, bright, well-mannered homeschooled kids, that he has great confidence that for many families homeschooling may be a valuable and viable option. He spoke of children who have gone on to solid yeshivot and seminaries, and who have married well, things that some of the novice homeschooling parents who attended the conference were worried about. He cautioned however against parents putting their own agenda before the needs of a child, and said that sometimes, school can indeed be the best place for a particular child, and felt that a child struggling in school may require professional assessment. He says though that, “A child who is in school for 8 or 10 or 12 hours a day will not necessarily be better prepared or capable of extended Torah learning than a homeschooled child -he may even have a bit more resentment.”
Ahuvah Feldman, another Baltimore-based homeschooling veteran, spoke at last summer’s seminar on different methods of homeschooling. Some parents buy pre-packaged curricula: both secular and religious, while others customize the curricula from different materials and through taking field trips. Still other parents focus on presenting material based around their childrens’ specific interests, and yet others take an “unschooling” approach which, on the premise that children are naturally self-driven learners, allows their children to follow their own interests with guidance, support, and some teaching from their parents or other adults. Some parents hire tutors for their kids, while other parents band together to create learning groups, and others choose to teach their children everything –most parents find that at different times different approaches work better, and flexibility is important. Different states have different requirements that homeschooled students must meet, and often parents keep a portfolio and record of the learning their children do.
Yehudis Eagle has homeschooled all 11 of her children. Her oldest daughter, Toby, who tragically died in a car accident in 2007 at the age of 20, was something of a poster child for homeschooling. “She exemplified what it means to learn from every person in the world,” says Mrs. Eagle. Toby had wanted to do cancer research, an interest sparked by a homeschooling trip to a workshop on bioluminescence at the Columbus Center in Baltimore, a short-lived science museum. After being in a particularly intensive religious high school (she chose to go to high school after being homeschooled) and attending a seminary for one year afterwards, she went to Towson University, and taught herself high school math and science while taking her first year college courses, and landed an internship at Johns Hopkins University in the oncology laboratories. Toby was a very social girl, who from a young age was always starting learning groups amongst her friends.
All of the Eagle’s older children have chosen of their own accord to go away for high school. The Eagles are a Chabad family, and as the Chabad community in Baltimore is very small, the children have felt that they wanted to meet other Chabad kids. When her children did go to high school, there was perhaps an extra degree of skepticism about admitting them, she says, but they all were accepted to where they wanted to go, and they have all done well in their studies. This comports with the experience of secular and Christian homeschoolers: they’re often not just accepted to, but are sought out by many of the nation’s best universities. High school transcripts and even standardized tests are not always requirements, although homeschooled students test as a whole, significantly stronger on standardized tests than do conventionally schooled students. However, since on many tests, conventional schoolers are compelled to take them while homeschoolers aren’t, there is a self-selection factor that makes real comparison difficult. Nevertheless homeschooling is no barrier to higher education.
The Eagles, who both grew up secular, and became religious through Chabad started homeschooling from prior conviction rather than pragmatism. Mrs. Eagle had first heard of homeschooling in the late eighties, but didn’t implement it until her oldest son was in the second grade. Mrs. Eagle, although she only learned Torah at a seminary in Israel for a year, felt no inadequacy or fear when it came to teaching her children religious studies. “There was so much that was available in English,” she says. Furthermore, she continued, there were always so many living resources in the community.
Perhaps the most common misperception of homeschooling is that children don’t become adequately socialized or have enough chance to socialize. The two terms are often confused, explained Nechama Cox, a long-time homeschooling parent, who spoke last summer on the “The Myth of Socialization.” She explained that the kind of socialization (social conditioning) that children often experience in school comes from the least appropriate people, their peers, and consists in significant part of bullying, teasing, peer pressure, learning to be chutzpahdik (being disrespectful to teachers), getting caught up in fads and trends, the constant comparison and competition with other students, being subject to incessant Skinnerian reward and punishment in the form of the withholding or giving of gold stars, grades, praise, and even candy and toys (all of which Alfie Kohn persuasively argues in his book “Punished by Rewards” actually inhibits both learning and the love of learning), being artificially limited to being only around the same children of the same age every day in youth ghettoes, while being forced to sit still in confining chairs being stultified, and with only the most minimal of exercise and play allowed, and most of their creative energies stifled, is the exactly kind of socialization that children don’t need.
The children of the Coxes, Eagles, Werners and other homeschooling families demolish the perception that homeschooled children aren’t social or socially adept, though certainly as with schooled children, there’s a natural range of personalities, some of which are shyer than others. In addition to being involved in homeschooling groups, learning groups, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Junior Rangers, they have friends at synagogue, have (according to their parents) extraordinary sibling relationships, and participate in organized sports, dance, art, and martial arts classes. In fact, they and a great many homeschooled children of all backgrounds often seem far more poised with people from a range of ages than do schooled children, who spend most of their time with children of the same age. Their socialization (as opposed to their socializing) comes from normal non-compulsory human interaction, and primarily from their parents, their best models.
“Homeschooled children almost always seem to have an exceptional depth and richness to their souls that clearly comes out of the experience,“ said Rabbi Cary Friedman, who came from Passaic, NJ to attend last summer’s conference. He and his wife had homeschooled their own children for just one year when they were living in North Carolina, and the nearest day school was too far away to be convenient. The following year, when they moved to a mainstream Orthodox community, they put their children back in school, where they all did very well. Their homeschooling experience was “Phenomenal,” Friedman says, and coming to the conference stimulated his feeling of regret that they didn’t continue to homeschool their children, despite their having been successful in yeshivas. He was struck at the conference by, “the heroism, determination, and devotion” of the homeschooling parents.
Yaakov and Julie Bass, who pulled their 12 and 13 years old daughters from school last year, came to the conference from Oak Park, Michigan. Only one other family in Oak Park homeschooled, and Mrs. Bass spent a lot of time with them, asking questions and observing how they did it. Mrs. Bass says, “The year was amazing. Our relationship just blossomed. Before, I only got to see them at very hectic, stressed times like when they were heading off to school, but now we had the chance to have so many great talks, and do things together in a more relaxed way.”
Although saving money wasn’t their motivation, (and it isn’t the prime motivation for most homeschooling families) the Basses spent far less on the two girls than they would have had they been in school. Mrs. Bass bartered for a couple of tutors, and they paid for one other, having tutors for 7 hours a week. They spent less than $3500 cumulatively for both girls. This in fact was significantly more than many families spend. Yaakov Bass had initially been cool to homeschooling, Mrs. Bass says, but he gradually became warmer to it, and the conference really got him excited about it, for there he realized that it wasn’t a make-do kind of option, but a superior one. The Basses were both taken with the Baltimore community and particularly with Rabbi Goldberger, and are now contemplating moving there. Mrs. Bass said that of course they would keep on doing it in Oak Park, but having an accepting, open community like Baltimore with other homeschoolers nearby would make a big difference.
To some degree, most homeschooling parents, and perhaps especially Orthodox homeschooling parents face a world that looks warily and even disdainfully at the decision to homeschool. The parents who make this choice must be confident and know why they’re doing it and be unapologetic for it if they are to be happy and successful. The parents featured here are proud, outspoken advocates, and because of their confidence, have suffered little or no negative communal feedback, and are in fact often admired. On the other hand, without confidence and the willingness to be different, criticism can be incessant, and can put a real strain on family life. One New York man who didn’t want his name used, felt that the barrage of criticism he and his wife experienced for their decision to homeschool their son, ultimately caused the marriage to fall apart. Rabbi Goldberger says in this context, “We have become a very conformist society. Within the avenues of Torah there are very many ways to be a frum yid . . . the strength of our community will come when we have different ways to be frum yidden within the framework of Torah.”
Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, a social worker (LCSW-R) with a family counseling practice and a newspaper column co-written with his wife Chaya in the Jewish Press, and who will be speaking at this year’s conference, says, “There are many significant barriers to homeschooling in the Orthodox community, not the least of which are the need for a dual focus on secular and religious studies which can seem daunting, and the emphasis on conformity and the stigma that going against the crowd can create.” That said, he continues, “I believe that the time is coming when a critical mass of Orthodox Jews, whose children need creative and flexible learning either due to being gifted or challenged or both, will embrace homeschooling as an alternative to day schools and yeshivot which are simply untenable financially for so many, causing an inordinate amount of stress on parents and thus marriages, and which also can‘t meet the needs of every type of child. Consider this: if yeshiva tuition averages $12,000 a year, and a family has six kids, then poverty level is $150,000 a year before taxes.” Feuerman’s estimation of costs is in fact relatively low: many New York area Jewish day schools can cost in the range of $20,000 to $30,000 a year per child.
Feuerman believes that with the advent of better internet educational and communication technology, schooling at home will become much easier as well, and broader acceptance will follow. He says that he is familiar with a family who pulled their children who weren’t thriving in yeshiva out of it saying, “We’re paying so much, and getting so little,” and over the course of just one year the children did three years worth of high school online and got accepted to college early. They also had plenty of time to be tutored in Jewish subjects, faring even better than many of their peers who remained in school. However, even with the success this family experienced with their children, Feuerman says that the parents are still concerned about how it will be perceived in the community, and have kept it fairly secret except amongst close friends, as they are worried it may yet still affect their children’s chances in the arms race that is the Orthodox shidduch (matchmaking) scene.”
Marvin Schick, an advisor to the Avi Chai Foundation which takes a large interest in Jewish day school education says about homeschooling, “I can understand why parents with limited income who face high tuition bills might pursue that route, but even with the tuition crisis, I doubt that many parents will opt for homeschooling. For one thing, Orthodox families partake of the general societal trend in which both parents work. This alone makes homeschooling difficult.” Asked whether he felt that Avi Chai may take a position on home schooling or even provide support for home schooling families, he replied that Avi Chai is not presently involved in home schooling and that he is certain it will not provide support for home schooling. Nevertheless he does also acknowledge, “ . . . the inability of our schools to accommodate boys who are not good learners or students who are just a bit off the beaten track.”
As Mr. Schick observed, more and more, in Orthodox families, both parents do work outside the home, but this only provokes the question as to whether this is a good thing, or is something pragmatic and significantly less-than-ideal. Obviously, such high tuitions and large families (in tandem with the additional Orthodox obligations of paying for vast amounts of food for many holidays and the concomitant loss of wages) can’t normally be sustained by a less-than-unusually substantial income, and this forces many families to sustain dual careers and incomes, and certainly, if one parent could stay home and teach the children, tens to hundreds of thousands of extra dollars in income wouldn’t be necessary. Tuition is in fact, the most dispensable element of Orthodox financial obligations.
Having both parents working and farming the children out for care and education amidst masses of other children, even in infancy, to strangers is an unprecedented social experiment, both in the secular and the religious worlds, going back only a couple of decades, and even if we put questions of the wisdom of k-12 education aside (which is also an entirely modern, secular phenomena, barely more than a century old), there are studies showing detrimental short and long-term psychological, behavioral and physiological effects of putting infants and young children in daycare, contrasting them with children whose parents put them into school at closer to kindergarten or first grade age. The writer Mary Eberstadt analyzed this research data on daycare brilliantly in her invaluable book, “Home Alone America: Why Today’s Kids are Overmedicated, Overweight, and More Troubled Than Ever.” Many Orthodox mothers now return to work only a few months after childbirth, just like their secular counterparts, at least partly, if not primarily, because of the perceived need to save for yeshiva tuition. There is great irony in two-parent working homes having been pioneered by secular families, and that so many of the Orthodox have so blithely jumped into the same untested torrent, almost uncommented upon. (Indeed, to criticize daycare is to invite vituperation and self-justification. Certainly sometimes daycare may be a real necessity, but its current status as the default choice for so many people, is hard to justify.) Secular families who most often send their kids to free public schools, are paradoxically freer to return to a more traditional (and healthier) model of parenting and education (even though it is a more costly option for them) by one parent remaining at home than are Orthodox families, who have been socially conditioned over the past fifty years to pay huge ever-increasing sums to send their children to school, summer camp, and day care from earlier and earlier ages.
Arguably, Orthodox families should be more prepared to homeschool than the secular, not only because it is the traditional time-honored approach, but also because whereas for most people deciding to homeschool means directly increasing the cost of education, for the Orthodox, it can only mean reducing it. Furthermore, the rising awareness of the epidemic of child abuse in Orthodox communities, the reluctance of the Orthodox establishment to deal with it by reporting it to the proper secular authorities, along with the long record of protecting abusers rather than victims, and the concomitant awareness that just because someone is religious or a Rabbi, doesn’t mean that he can be trusted with one’s children should also be a factor in more Orthodox parents choosing to homeschool, for the line between delegation and dereliction of parental responsibility is a fine one, and letting strangers take care of your kids for most of their waking hours seems more likely to be the latter.
Many children are unhappy and fail to thrive in school, and while it may not be appropriate for every child, and not every parent can or should take on the responsibility of homeschooling, more parents are more capable than they think they are, and many more children can thrive this way they than might be thought, and increasingly parents from all walks of life are taking their children out of school, educating them at home and, on the whole, both children and parents are finding it a very gratifying experience which fosters a greater love of learning, better midot (good character traits) and greater maturity, and closer and warmer family bonds. Orthodox Jews, while cumulatively behind the curve of the trend, are taking notice and doing the same.
To register for the Second Annual Torah Homeschooling Conference: http://jewishhomeschooling.wordpress.com/ and contact either Alisa- 410-963-2977; or Sara – srayvy@yahoo (dot) com. Registration is $50 per person, $90 per couple.