July 20, 2024
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July 20, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

“Let me not mar that perfect dream,” writes Emily Dickinson, but I often think of this line in the context of the dreams and stories we create for ourselves about our children. “We dream—it is good we are dreaming/It would hurt us, were we awake/…It’s prudenter—to dream.” The world of dreams and self-imposed narratives can collide with realities for parents, as they feel that they have “…never lost as much but twice” with the concurrent mixed emotions toward God about their children differing from their expectations.

This time of year we are immersed in both the Chanukah story and the story of Yosef and his brothers. Although there are certainly numerous and famous lessons to extract from these narratives both as educators and as parents, there is much to glean from some less-commonly dwelled-upon facets as well. Chanukah reminds us of how challenging it can be to stand up for what is right in the face of overwhelming public discomfort, and the story of Yosef poignantly evokes how difficult it is to dream of a future that the majority cannot even imagine. Both of these are important themes in Jewish education.

The role of all schools has shifted dramatically in recent years, as schools have been charged with responsibilities that are significantly greater than imparting academic skills. Specifically, the role of Jewish schools has changed dramatically, as well, with the democratization of the yeshiva system and a day school education open to myriad Jewish children. This was certainly not the case in Europe when my great-grandfather or my husband’s great-grandfather went to school! Their stories are part of the fabric of our family’s narrative but also explicate the wider harsh realities of our educational past, where a Jewish education was not easily available to regular people.

Two compacted tales of Jewish education:

One seemingly peaceful morning in a small village, a six-year-old boy from a poor family walks to cheder. Suddenly, a wagon drives by and a man scoops up the boy, kidnapping him. He had been grabbed by the Jewish “chappers,” for the czar’s quota of Jewish boys for the Russian army. He sought to rejoin the Jewish community and Lubavitch embraced him, creating a deep connection that remains until this day.

In another small village, there was an extremely poor family who had a son who was an “ilui,” a genius, and he had quickly outgrown the little cheder in the town. He began learning with the local rabbi and his son (Rabbi Schmuelevitz and his son, Chaim) in his yeshiva, and from there he was sent to an elite yeshiva, Slobodka, and after World War I made his way to Rav Yosef Kahaneman in Ponevezh. These were not options available to every child from his town of Stuchin, but rather selected children were chosen to continue to go to higher levels. He received smicha in preparation for coming to the United States in 1924 because he felt that if he were a rabbi in America he would be more likely to be able to keep Shabbat.

Because these young men came to America, our family is here, and their great-great-grandchildren are in yeshiva, something that was not simple or easily accessible in their days. Jewish education today is both a product of our European past but also of the day school movement in the United States and the quiet heroes who saw those dreams of a Jewish education available to all Jewish students come to fruition.

Our children are often the repositories of our greatest hopes and dreams and we send them to schools that are a fulfillment of many national dreams. Reality does not always match dreams, though, as we know from our Torah. God essentially “lends” us our children as gifts, and it is our job, as parents and educators, to be partners with God, as it were, in maximizing their unique path to development.

I frequently tell this story that I remember so vividly. As a sixth grader, I kept badgering my father and teachers over and over again about the story of the birth of Shmuel Hanavi. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea of a mother choosing to bring her little 3-year-old to Eli the kohen after she had cried and prayed for so many years to have a child. Then, why is she “giving him up”? As a child, I never felt I had a satisfactory answer to this question. It was only when I became a parent myself and recognized that the root of Shmuel’s name is related to “lend,” I grasped the idea that our children don’t truly “belong” to us but rather we have a purpose and the child has a purpose. From Chana I learned that number one, we daven for our child, and number two, we place our child in the learning environment best suited to his needs.

In ensuring that children are in fact placed in the most suitable learning environment, the mantra of “best intentions assumed” is most helpful, both for parents and for administrators and teachers. Relationships between parents and school appear to be smooth and simple on the outside—even obviously transactional. It would seem straightforward that parents pay tuition to a school so that teachers and administrators can impart academic knowledge to a child. Of course, it is not that simple! School is a complicated social environment. Tuition does not adequately cover what it costs to truly educate a child, and children learn best when teaching is completely individualized to them, to the best of everyone’s realistic abilities.

In an ideal world, each child would have an individual teacher who was perfectly attuned to his/her social/emotional/academic needs. As children grow, individual masters with expertise in their fields would be engaged to individually prepare the child. In fact, before the advent of mass public education, this was the style of instruction, and only wealthy people could afford to get an education! The style of differentiation and small-group instruction in our day and age seeks to recreate the best of this type of personalized learning while in the social framework of school.

Actively involved parents shape the narrative of their child’s education and frame the inner and outer events of their children’s academic, social and emotional learning arcs. They can choose to create this positive narrative by making the effort to understand their school’s educational philosophy and hashkafa/mindset and explicitly sharing this alignment with their children. The social milieu created by like-minded parents thoughtfully choosing a school with their values supports a richer collaboration between parents and school. The extra effort expended by parents to build bridges with teachers and administrators and to understand the underlying approach and intentionality of how the learning environment is prepared, leads to many rewards, not limited to beneficial outcomes in a mutually trusting relationship.


Chana Luchins is the principal of general studies at Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva.

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