Homeschooling and the Purpose of Jewish Education

Jews have always embraced the idea of a customized education. A small vanguard is now taking it to the next level.

What is the purpose of a Jewish education? Presumably, it’s to raise the next generation of knowledgeable and committed Jews. It’s ironic, then, that the cost of Jewish education is the most effective form of birth control for many Jewish families.

According to a late 2021 survey from Nishma, the cost of Jewish education is a major financial stress for American Jewish families. There is a clear correlation between a higher income and more children; only 37% of those making $100k a year and under have three or more children, but the percentage rises to 75% for those making $300k and above.

Nishma’s survey was also a window into the educational choices of observant Jewish families, with 96% of Modern Orthodox families sending their children to Orthodox day schools (87%) or pluralistic Jewish schools (an additional 9%) and 97% of Haredi families sending to yeshivas. Fewer than half see their household as financially strong, and fewer than half are comfortable that they will have enough money to retire.”

You might think, then, given this financial stress, that there is some kind of movement in the Jewish world towards educational innovation and out-of-the-box thinking. That is sadly not the case.

Among non-Jews, we’re seeing a surge in homeschooling, with at least 10% of American children living in a homeschooling household. The rates dramatically increased throughout COVID amid school closures, unstable schedules caused by quarantine rules, and mask mandates. Still, surprisingly, the rates haven’t seen a significant decline after a return to normalcy in the 2022-23 school year. That surge in interest in homeschooling has not yet been replicated among Jewish families, at least, not yet.

How Homeschooling Benefits our Family

My family is in the middle of our fourth year of homeschooling, never having done anything different with our five children, ages nine and under. This year we have three school-aged children: a daughter in third grade, a son in second grade, and another son in kindergarten. Our kindergartener and three-year-old are also enrolled in a very part-time preschool setting (twelve hours per week) with another local Jewish homeschooling family in order to afford me the chance to work more closely with my older children with fewer interruptions and allow the younger pair to have more age-appropriate activities and experiences.

It’s a lot easier doing a math lesson or visiting an art museum without a five and three-year-old vying for our attention or threatening to crash into a painting. And it’s a lot more pleasant for everyone involved for someone else to do a craft with my three-year-old if I’m being honest.

Recently a friend currently working as a principal of a Jewish boys’ school read a piece I wrote for SAPIR Journal advocating for more Jews to consider homeschooling and reflected on my family’s own Jewish homeschool, “I happen to think that the education in many private Jewish schools is rather sub-par in myriad ways. But I suspect that most of those schools will remain open. As long as the graduates head to good universities, they’ll keep their doors open. Because ‘Jewish education’ much of the time is not really about that. School tuition is the cost of admission to the meritocracy. What you are doing is an actual education; that’s the beauty of it.”

He went on to explain, “What you’re doing in regards to your homeschooling is a much more Jewish form of education; it really is an embodiment of the Hebrew word “chinuch.” The phrase that’s bandied about in Jewish education all the time is ‘Educate the child according to his way’ from the Book of Proverbs. At that time, there was no such thing as a Jewish school; they came later in the Talmudic period.”

In his decade of experience as an educator, my friend felt that the separation between home and school was becoming more pronounced and problematic in the Jewish educational world, explaining further, “Chinuch is an all-encompassing family endeavor. When we talk about a child’s chinuch, we talk about what the child learned in the home and in school. One of the real weaknesses of the Jewish school system is those two things are often divorced from each other… I was an educator for seven years, and Jewish schools have [instead] become focused on climbing the ladder of meritocracy.”

It’s a fascinating accusation, given how the New York Times has catapulted Orthodox Jewish education into the news, accusing New York-area schools of educational neglect. Writing for the Washington Examiner magazine (disclosure: my husband Seth is the executive editor), Jason Bedrick and Jay P. Greene explain many of the flaws in the Times piece. The two Heritage Foundation education experts explain that the yeshivas are not “flush” with public funding. The yeshivas barely receive a drop in the bucket compared to the public schools. The New York Times also cherry-picked testing data and made inappropriate comparisons to condemn the yeshivas as academic failures.

Despite choosing to homeschool myself, the Times attempted hit-job on Jewish education fell far from my personal critiques of the system. As I see it, the system’s flawed nature is shared by and made worse in public schools. My qualm is that the entire mass education system is flawed; we are putting our children through a factory system, with long days and without clear objectives and goals at the end.

Reflecting on the same phrase “Educate the child according to his ways” for PJ Media in 2015, Avner Zarmi explained his perspective on how it is reflected in our current system of educating young people.

But this is instruction for the teacher (or parent) more than for the pupil, and so we are taught “by way of his circumstances and nature you should educate him.” There is no ‘cookie-cutter’ approach to education that can possibly work, and there is no substitute for knowing one’s students and, even more so, one’s own children. The wise teacher is aware of the differences in their personalities and the circumstances of their lives and tailors the instruction to them in order to achieve the best result, to cause the lessons to sink in and take root in the child’s soul.

This requires special emphasis in this age of mass’ education,’ of impersonal standards and tests generated at the federal – or even the state – level, which are supposed to suit all children from all backgrounds, regardless of their inclinations and the circumstances of their lives. Certainly, a range of material to be imparted must be set, and expected standards of performance, expressed as a range, are necessary; but how you get there must be as individual as possible. Education as a totalitarian straitjacket is worse than useless.

How you get there must be as individual as possible. Education as a totalitarian straitjacket is worse than useless.

The True Goal

Writing in one of her six volumes on education, Charlotte Mason, the visionary behind the philosophy of our and countless other homeschoolers, explained what she believed should be the true goal of education, “The question is not, — how much does the youth know? When he has finished his education — but how much does he care? And about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? And, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?”

What does Charlotte Mason mean by the room in which he finds his feet set? In short, have children been exposed to a wide variety of the best that life has to offer: Poetry, art, literature, craftsmanship, and music? How many schools, both yeshivas and public schools, are making sure that children have this feast of the human experience served to them on a daily or even weekly basis?

In our homeschool, this is the focus, alongside secular studies like math and Jewish subjects like The Five Books of Moses. The math is taught one-on-one, with a user-friendly curriculum where understanding, not memorization, is stressed. Because I am working with only one child at a time, we can fast forward or slow down as much as necessary to ensure a solid grasp of the material. Despite homeschooling, we avail ourselves of a myriad of group learning opportunities, both online and off. My children are enrolled in Zoom Judaic classes (called Gesher) for Bible and Hebrew, to name a few, while their offline group classes include Irish dance, taekwondo, sewing, art, pottery, horseback riding, violin, and swimming.

Given that extensive list of all of our activities, I’m going to decline to answer the most popular question we get as Jewish homeschoolers: “What about socialization?”

Instead, I’ll answer the next most common question: “How does it work legally?” The answer to that question depends entirely on where you live. There are some states where the regulations are minimal (like New Jersey, surprisingly) and some where they can be much more substantial (like New York or Pennsylvania). Other states, like my own state of Maryland, fall somewhere in between.

Here in Maryland, we have two options for legally homeschooling: We can submit ourselves to twice-a-year reviews with the county to prove we are providing regular and adequate instruction, or we can submit ourselves for review to a homeschooling umbrella. We have several options for religious Jewish umbrellas, and as such, we choose the latter route. Anyone can look up exactly what is required from their state by looking up the regulations with the homeschooling advocacy organization, the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA).

The biggest blessings of our homeschool are the gift of time and the reduction in stress that it brings.

The biggest blessings of our homeschool are the gift of time and the reduction in stress that it brings.

We have time with our children, and they have time with each other. In answering that ever-present socialization question, I always remind people that we have far more control over negative peer influences. The strongest social connections my children form aren’t with random other children who happen to be enrolled at the same school, but instead, with us and each other.

We set our own daily and annual schedules; we can start our school day at 10 am or play catch-up on a Sunday, and we can take a week anytime we want in order to take advantage of off-season travel opportunities. My children have time to learn at their own time, at their own pace, according to their interests. In practice, that means my oldest has hours upon hours to read and listen to audiobooks while she colors. My older son has hours to play on the piano and build with Legos.

Many parents whose day-to-day experience with their kids consists of the rush to get out the door and the dinner time, homework time, and bedtime crush, are incredulous when I say that spending all day with my kids is less stressful than sending them out to school all day. The difference is this: we set our own schedule, and we’re far less rushed as a result.

We don’t start our days at dawn and end them at dusk, desperately trying to stay on time. We’ll start school at 9:30, take a break at 11:00, and finish in the late afternoon if there’s still more to do. Or simply save what we haven’t finished for another day. No taskmaster tells us we ever have to finish that math lesson if my kid got the gist without doing the game or worksheet associated with that lesson. The nature of homeschooling is freeing, and the experiences we’re able to take part in are learning activities, just the same as a math lesson.

My children have their feet set in a large room, as Charlotte Mason advocated they should. They are caring and committed Jews, and we can afford the gift of a big family and the opportunity to set their feet in that large room, with things like violin lessons and educational trips to Colonial Williamsburg that we wouldn’t have the time or money for were they enrolled in a traditional Jewish school. We count ourselves lucky to have the opportunity and look forward to the day that our Jewish homeschooling world grows larger if perhaps more folks find themselves interested in taking the path less traveled.

Homeschooling and the Purpose of Jewish Education