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by Annette van de Kamp-Wright
Editor of the Jewish Press

On Thursday, Dec. 5, I attended the annual Friedel Jewish Academy Hanukkah play. For the first time, my daughter wasn’t in it (she graduated in May of this year); my son, who is in third grade, represented the family. The show was phenomenal; the kids did great, and the JCC Theater was packed. And that’s as it should be.

There is something special about that Hanukkah play, and it goes beyond the obvious effort the teachers and students put into it. It’s an annual reminder that in this community, we can have a day school that welcomes Jewish kids from all walks of life, regardless of synagogue affiliation or family background. Here they mix, and it sets a precedent for life. There have been quite a few stories on the newswire lately about day schools across the country considering the same approach: allowing orthodox, conservative and reform students to mix, to open the doors to converts, and even to children of patrilineal descent. Partially this is in answer to decreasing attendance; partially, it is a sign of changing times. We need to stick together, even if “we” means many different things; after all, no matter our background, our Jewish identity is more important than our differences.

To me, it is inconceivable that many schools still have the narrow approach. To be honest, if Friedel only allowed students from one denomination, I wouldn’t have signed my kids up in the first place. It is exactly that exposure to other Jews from different ways of life I find so valuable. It is an education within an education; I believe it enriches their Jewishness tremendously. I don’t want my children to grow up in an echo chamber.

The biggest reason the Jewish day school landscape is changing is cost, and that continues to be something that’s difficult for many to talk about. Let’s face it: private school is expensive. Had anyone suggested 15 years ago that I would end up sending my children through seven years of private school, I would have scoffed. Like many others, I would have asked: “Are you crazy? When public school is perfectly acceptable, and free? How on earth would I afford that?”

The truth is, many parents can’t. Even with extremely generous scholarships, even when Friedel’s tuition is low compared to most other day schools in other communities (and many people work hard to keep it that way), the tuition payments are difficult. It also means having to say no to certain things, like a new car or a trip to see family.

It’s uncomfortable to think about, and even more uncomfortable to discuss. So why do we do it? Why is it, that Jewish parents across the nation, from different backgrounds and denominations, willingly make that sacrifice? Is Friedel really that good, that we would choose to bypass public school, just so we can spend thousands of dollars we really can’t miss?

Yes. Yes, it is, and I would make this same choice again, in a heartbeat. And in that, too, I am not alone. Because here’s the other thing: we may struggle with these payments, but we still have a roof over our heads, warm clothes, and enough to eat. Those cars may be old, but they do the job. Would my children be better off if we had more money, and no Friedel? I don’t think so, and what’s more important: my children don’t think so. What they learn and have learned at Friedel goes way beyond the classroom and will stay with them the rest of their lives. I look at my 12-year-old, and I see someone who navigates between being a Madricha at Temple Israel to attending classes at Chabad and everything in between. She is simply comfortable and feels at home everywhere. That comfort level has very little to do with role modeling and parenting; Friedel gets all the credit.

The other day, my son’s class visited Beth Israel. When I asked him where he went, he gave a very simple answer: “We went to the synagogue,” he said. The synagogue. Not: the orthodox synagogue, or the other synagogue, or Beth Israel. Simply “the synagogue.” To him, every shul is equal. As adults, we hear that, and think, well. We complicate things. But if a nine-year-old can start there, feel that way now, I think it says something about what’s possible in this community. And you cannot put a price on that.

A serious disclaimer: I am by no means suggesting everybody ought to send his or her kids to Friedel. Where and how to educate your children is, and should be, a very personal decision.