April 20, 2024
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Another Look at Yeshiva Break

I would like to thank the yeshiva principals who wrote a joint letter a few months ago about the issue of the yeshiva break coinciding with MLK day (“Letter From NJ Yeshivot Heads of Schools Regarding Winter Break,” November 3, 2022). I appreciate that in the future they say they will seek feedback to jointly move forward for the ultimate benefit of most of our parents.

If the goal was to increase the number of families taking far-flung and exotic vacations, then the MLK overlap calendar this year seems to have been a resounding success. Kosher venues and shuls from Vail to Panama appear to have seen a great influx of yeshiva families. I want to raise the question, however, if creating this kind of communal norm should be our yeshivot’s goal. My secular work colleagues with families, by contrast, generally took vacation during the Christmas school break, and mostly did not travel, but spent time visiting friends and family or taking local trips.

If yeshiva winter vacation was a single week, as was the case not that long ago, it would not be that hard to ask kids to entertain themselves, to be satisfied with local outings, and for parents to make short-term child-care arrangements. When vacation stretches to a week-and-a-half though, that, in practice, becomes much harder for parents. This extended length, as well as the January timing, is expressly said to be for the purpose of facilitating travel, so it naturally increases the expectation within families that a travel vacation is required, as well as the communal expectations, in a continuous feedback loop. Perhaps many of us have become accustomed to this after years of this yeshiva schedule, but that means we have created a norm of materialistic expectation that exceeds those of our secular peers. In my office, no one assumed and asked each other where they traveled over the Christmas break. In shul though, nearly everyone asked about yeshiva break.

Many families can, of course, well afford travel and should be free to enjoy that; but at the same time we are often told by many yeshivot that up to a third of families are receiving some form of financial assistance. We also know that many others who don’t nevertheless struggle to save for retirement and college while paying yeshiva tuition, and that financial pressures lead many in the community to family strife and even breakups. In these circumstances, is it appropriate to foster an expectation of a week-and-a-half of travel? Restoring the break to one week would still allow those families who wish to travel to do so, while lessening the pressure on those who can’t afford to, can’t take the time off, or don’t wish to raise their kids with that expectation.

The extra vacation days also come on top of most local yeshivot being closed shortly before for a day each, of Christmas, New Year’s, Chanukah, and for some, erev Presidents Day and after “song festivities.” Which also comes on top of combined Pesach and Shavuot breaks of well over two weeks compared to one week of public school spring break, and two weeks of fall chagim, with nothing comparable for public schools. With the yeshiva calendar already being so much shorter than public, charter, private, and Catholic schools’ calendar due to chagim, adding on a longer winter break takes away yet more school days. This adds more stress for students and teachers trying to complete curricula that were designed for the longer non-yeshiva calendars. And we learned during the pandemic that kids’ overall mental health is actually better—surprise—when they are in school.

Whenever I have asked individual school leaders why the winter break stretches longer than a week, I have been told there is nothing they can individually do because that is what all the other schools do. The principals’ joint letter indicates, though, that there is an opportunity for joint action that could benefit many parents and students. I therefore invite the letter writers to also seek feedback from parents about limiting the break to one week. The alternative is for their schools to continue to foster communal winter vacation expectations that exceed those of our secular peers, and to exceed non-yeshiva peer schools in the number of days closed to Torah learning, secular learning, extracurriculars and kids’ socialization.

Dan Barenholtz
Teaneck
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