What’s the big ‘gap’ of a Jewish education?

By Natalie Barnett (This article was first published by, and printed with permission from DafkaDotCom)

To my utmost delight I no longer find myself schlepping my kids to and from school every day.

This is not because of lockdown but rather, as of last year, all three of my children have now matriculated, each having spent every year, from pre-school to grade 12, at a community Jewish day school. If recent research on the South African Jewish community is anything to go by, this may be unremarkable to some and quite expected by others. But for me it wasn’t what I had originally envisaged for my offspring. My husband, however, was determined that they follow in his footsteps at United Herzlia Schools.

Over the years, I questioned whether we had made the right decision, but that was more often about the individual child and his/her particular personality and needs rather than whether the school was living up to our expectations. I realised then, that no matter which school one chooses, it’s ultimately up to us, as parents, to fill the gaps in our children’s education. Now that they’ve all matriculated, I can reflect on their experiences and consider the adults they have become. I am also realising how my views have shifted over time.

​According to the 2019 Jewish Community Survey of South Africa (JCSSA), 75% of school-aged Jewish children in South Africa currently attend Jewish schools. Although the findings suggest that the majority of parents send their children to community schools “primarily to help strengthen their children’s Jewish identities and sense of belonging, and to give them a strong grounding in Jewish studies”, I can’t help but wonder whether other parents share similar concerns and considerations when choosing to send their children to a community school.

Initially we sent them to Herzlia because the school provides an excellent education, my husband is an alumnus, and the fact that it was a Jewish school was a bonus. I, on the other hand, having grown up in Johannesburg, was educated at public schools, where over half my classmates were Jewish. My sister and I attended private Hebrew conversation lessons and received much of our Jewish education from cheder and shul. Our Yiddishkeit, however, came primarily from home — our parents and grandparents — and covered a vast spectrum due to the diversity of their Jewish identities. So, it was strange to me that we would have to send them to a Jewish school so they could ‘grow up Jewish’. It never entered my mind that they wouldn’t.

I had to weigh up the pros and cons of both options, balancing what they’d be missing out on by going to an elite, faith-based, predominantly white school against what a good former ‘model C’ school had to offer: diversity of religion, culture, race, and socioeconomics. Granted, public schools looked very different in the 2000s compared to my experience in the 1970s/80s, but, in our newly formed democracy, I wanted them to be a part of the ‘Rainbow Nation’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the JCSSA indicates that the main reason (50%) parents send their children to a non-Jewish school is to obtain a diverse cultural experience.

​Initially, for us, it was about the individual child and what they required. This included a solid academic foundation and a social set-up that would guarantee a suitable friendship group. I didn’t think much about their identities at the time of them starting pre-school, other than knowing they would always be South African and always be Jewish.

I committed to myself then, that I would keep my finger on the pulse by involving myself wherever I could, in order to complement, and possibly ‘counteract’, what my kids would be learning at Herzlia. For most of my 21 years of being a Herzlia parent, I served either on the PTA or the Board of Governors, or both simultaneously. These provided a different perspective to that of ‘just a parent’. It opened my eyes to other parents, their attitudes and expectations, as well as to the schools’ needs and goals.

​As a lay leader, one is exposed to myriad challenges faced by the school, and the act of decision-making takes on a new dimension. This was where I learnt to put aside my personal views and what would be best for my own children, and rather represent the school by choosing options to best benefit the majority. For example, in trying to encourage greater participation in school extra-murals, a rule was proposed requiring pupils to do at least two per week. My children, however, were involved in a range of activities outside of school, which helped to balance the lack of diversity at school by introducing them to other children, teachers and courses. By ratifying this rule, the pressure on my children would either be increased or they would have to drop an activity. But considering many children would not otherwise have done any extra-mural, the choice had to be made for the greater good.

Such decisions, however, could not be based on hearsay and anecdotal evidence, but on data that helps inform decision-making. While serving on the Board’s executive, in December 2016 we conducted a Barrett values survey of all Herzlia stakeholders (parents, pupils, staff, alumni and donors). Valuable insights were gleaned from the results and subsequent focus-group discussions took place with many common, but often diverse, perspectives brought to the fore. Many of these touched on issues that I found important: Is education only about academic achievement or should it include holistic development too? If so, how could Jewish values, character development and 21st century skills be incorporated and measured, and, more importantly, prioritised by parents? Is Jewish education merely creating a foundation of Jewish knowledge, values and practice, or is it also about striving for meaning-making and relevance in pupils’ lives? How important is a sense of belonging and community, and how are children introduced to communal organisations and later engaged by them? What is Israel’s relationship to the Jewish people, and is Hebrew the glue that keeps us all together?

Through this Barrett survey and various scenarios with which I was later confronted as Herzlia’s chairperson, it became apparent that our community is not homogenous and, despite us all being Jewish, our values are weighted and expressed differently. Jewish identity, for one, may not mean the same for another, and parents’ expectations of a Jewish education are vast and varied. Just because we are all Jewish, doesn’t mean we can all be grouped together. This has continued to intrigue me. How does a community school serve such a diverse community? Even though there are similarities to other Jewish communities and Jewish schools globally, we live in a unique context with our own special brand of ‘Saffa Yiddishkeit’.

2020 was my final year on the Herzlia Board and I then segued onto the Cape Town Jewish Community 2040 Vision planning team. In a nutshell, various workstreams have been tasked to audit our current communal organisations and structures, review the results of the latest Jewish community surveys, research other global Jewish community frameworks, and present a proposal to carry us forward successfully in the face of the current coronavirus crisis, economic climate and shrinking Jewish community and resources. This has enabled me to view Jewish education from the ‘outside’ — from the perspective of communal goals and priorities — obliging me to look at what the community requires from its members, and most importantly, from its community schools. The relationship between the two — between community and community school — is fundamental for the continuity of both. As a community, we have been extraordinarily successful despite our size, but how will this be sustained? How can we ensure that our youth will continue to prioritise and contribute to our community?

Circling back to my children, I am grateful for what they achieved academically, and know they have strong and meaningful Jewish identities. But will they live their lives as committed Jews, marry Jewish partners and raise their children Jewishly? Will they support the State of Israel and Jewish self-determination despite questioning some of Israel’s governmental policies? Will they be as ‘woke’ about antisemitism as they are about gender-based violence, Black Lives Matter and alternative sexualities? Will they be participants in, and contribute to, Jewish continuity and community?

​Over recent years, the world has changed radically, and I wonder if I would make the same choices today. I remain curious as to what continues to motivate parents to send their children to Jewish schools, as well as how much responsibility they place on the school to educate their children Jewishly. I have selected this topic for a research project that I am conducting for my MA in Jewish Education. I hope that the results will not only satisfy my curiosity (and concerns), but also help parents better understand the importance of the choices they make, help school leadership better comprehend the nature of the community the school serves, and enlighten the community as to what is required educationally for its sustainability and continuity.

Hailing from Johannesburg, Natalie Barnett completed a BSc at UCT. She has been involved in education for over 25 years in both the Jewish and broader communities, and is currently studying for a Masters in Jewish Education. She lives with her husband and three children in Cape Town.

• Published in the PDF edition of the October 2021 issue – Click here to get it.

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