April 23, 2024
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Torah Homeschooling Conference in Englewood on May 25

Englewood—“I was terribly disappointed with the education my children were getting; with an extravagant price tag too,” said David Giller of Bergenfield, who davens at Congregation Beth Abraham and homeschools his two daughters with his wife Tzippy.

This is the Giller family’s second year running their “Giller Academy/Yeshiva of Highgate Terrace,” and Giller said that while it was one of the most challenging projects his family has ever undertaken, it’s certainly been the most beneficial. “Our children’s academic performance, maturity, problem solving skills, and confidence have skyrocketed. Their competency in subjects like math, literature, vocabulary, grammar, science, and geography are exponentially better now than they were two years ago,” he told JLBC.

Before the family embarked on homeschooling, the Gillers attended a Torah Home Education Conference. “In one day we learned more about homeschooling than we could have ever imagined. Meeting other frum families that homeschool, hearing about their experiences, and discussing various issues and concerns were all enlightening, comforting, and reassuring. We left with a wealth of information and tremendous confidence that we could take on the enormous responsibilities of homeschooling—in spite of our own doubts and the expectation that our friends, neighbors, and acquaintances would likely think we lost our minds once they found out we were homeschooling,” he said.

The next Torah Home Education Conference will be held May 25 at the Moriah School at 55 S. Woodland St. in Englewood. It is the first time that it is being held outside of Baltimore. Organizers seek to serve the tri-state community of 70 families and also tap into the growing population of local families who are joining the Jewish homeschooling community each year. The conference is not just open to active homeschoolers, it’s also targeted toward Jews interested in this fast-growing alternative to pricey day school tuitions, Hebrew-language charter schools, and larger yeshivot attendees who experience bullying or what they view as substandard educational quality.

Organizing the conference this year is Yael Aldrich, who currently resides in Indianapolis. For the last five years, she has run the online community for Orthodox Jewish homeschoolers, which can be found at groups.yahoo.com/jewishorthodoxandhomeschooling. Aldrich said that the community is for members only, so as to provide a safe space for participants.

“Homeschooling is a doable, achievable goal. The questions are always the same. ‘I want to do it, but I don’t think I can. I can’t teach Gemara,’” she said of most initial queries. However, a wide variety of outsourcing opportunities are available, and the group is able to provide resources to help with any educational components that the parents are not comfortable teaching.

The reasons people look to homeschooling are varied. “I can’t pay the tuition; or my kid is being bullied; or I want an education that will help my child for the future; or I just want to opt out [of the current education choices],” Aldrich said. “They come to the group with their worries, talk about what’s holding them back, and then many of them decide to homeschool the following year.” She explained that while the membership of the group has held steady to around 300 families over the last five years, in the last year the group grew by a whopping 125.

“The conference is an outgrowth of this need. People are coming to it in greater and greater numbers,” Aldrich said. The conference functions as a place for people looking for alternatives or more information about how to begin homeschooling, she stressed, in addition to supporting and cheering on active homeschoolers.

The rising cost of day school tuition is no doubt a concern that drives people to consider homeschooling. “This may not be the full solution if your issue is solely financial, but if your issue is financial plus educational or social, this is a possibility,” said Aldrich. “But, if financial is your only reason right now, that’s fine. Come to the conference and by the end you will have other, better reasons for homeschooling,” she added.

The Torah Home Education conferences began in Baltimore with around 50 participants under the leadership of Avivah Werner, an Orthodox homeschooling parent of 10 who felt that the online homeschooling community needed a boost. The conference was the way to do it. In addition to the tri-state area’s 70 families who homeschool, Baltimore also has 70 homeschooling families, but they are more concentrated and know each other better because of Baltimore’s smaller metropolitan area. While Werner made aliyah three years ago, she is again homeschooling and will be Skyping into the conference from Israel. More information about Werner and her homeschooling approaches are available on her blog, at avivahwerner.com.

Other than financial, there are numerous other reasons people choose to homeschool. Aldrich is completing her sixth year of homeschooling her four children, and shared that she began homeschooling when her oldest was in first grade. Her family spent that year in Japan because of her husband Daniel’s job as a professor researching nuclear politics and post-disaster policy.

“There were no Jewish day schools in Japan, and I didn’t want my son in Japanese public schools or the international schools,” Aldrich said. “I did not think earlier that it was possible for an Orthodox person to homeschool, but I found that there were people doing it, so I tried it and was very successful,” she said.

Homeschooling went so well in Japan that she decided to continue homeschooling stateside. Her children were able to do things they would not have been able to do if they were in an institutional school system. For example, her children are very involved in martial arts. Being homeschooled, they have adequate opportunity to be involved with Kendo (Japanese fencing), Judo, and Tae Kwon Do programs because of their flexible schedule.

Living in a community without too many education choices for Orthodox Jews is also not as much of a problem for a homeschooling family. Daniel is now teaching at Purdue University, and the family davens at Congregation B’nai Torah in Indianapolis. While Indianapolis does have a community day school, the Aldriches continue to homeschool because it works for them.

Responding to a query on whether homeschooling parents need to have an educational background, the answer was a resounding “No!”

“I don’t have an educational background, but there are so many ways to educate your children all the way through. There are multiple ways to outsource, starting from kindergarten all the way up to calculus BC,” said Aldrich, who has an MBA in nonprofit management and a masters in Jewish communal service from Brandeis University. However, she said, her husband and she together are able to do most of the teaching required without outsourcing.

Aldrich also added that homeschooling does not necessarily mean that one parent has to stay home full-time. Some parents do part-time or flex-time, and take advantage of self-directed learning programs with the help of a babysitter for a portion of the day, if necessary.

Among those exhibiting materials at the conference will be the Jewish Online School, a Chabad-run school program for homeschooled children that also provides classes for those with no Jewish programming in their schools, and also provides after-school Hebrew school-type programs. Also exhibiting will be Sarah and David Interactive, which teaches modern Hebrew; several software companies that provide Hebrew, grammar, and bar and bat mitzvah training; and some Jewish publishers.

Rivkah Harper, of Rochester, NY, will be attending the conference for the third time. She and her husband James are members of the Chabad of Rochester and they homeschool their four sons, aged 13, 12, 10, and 4. “The benefits of attending the conference range from hearing different ideas to use with my children, to being able to see various books in person. I think the biggest thing I have come away with is the meeting and connecting with both new people and putting faces with the names I see on the Internet,” Harper said.

One thing that initially concerns parents is the social aspect of homeschooling. People are concerned that social development will be impeded due to the social circle being limited to a single family. In some ways, Jewish life helps by adding interaction with shul members and limudei kodesh teachers.

“For extracurricular activities, our children have chavrusas/group learning outside the house with friends,” said Harper. “Our boys are also actively involved in earning merit badges for the Boy Scouts, which encourages them to work on their interpersonal communications skills when talking to counselors and others. Harper added that her older boys often take local evening classes available in the community.

Other topics being addressed at the conference are special needs home education, getting your child into yeshiva/college, child-led learning, how to teach Chumash/Gemara, creating your Jewish preschool, educating multiple children and young adults, and technology and homeschooling. There will also be a rabbis’ panel and an experts’ panel.

But, like Harper said, one of the most valuable parts of attending the conference is meeting others and sharing resources. Giller, of Bergenfield, agrees. “Tzippy and I plan on attending this year’s conference, and we look forward to meeting other homeschoolers, as well as other families who are exploring homeschooling for their children. For those interested in more about the Giller family’s homeschooling experience in Bergen County, visit the ‘Giller Academy/Yeshiva of Highgate Terrace,’ at http://www.gilleracademy.com/.

Childcare is available at the conference, as is a catered dairy lunch. Sign up for the Jewish Orthodox Homeschooling Conference at this link: http://2014theconference.eventbee.com/. Those interested in more information are also invited to email Yael Aldrich at [email protected].

By Elizabeth Kratz

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