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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Article: Orthodox Homeschoolers Defend Their Choice

This is an article I wrote for the March 8, 2012 Live and Learn Education Supplement to the Canadian Jewish News in response to an article in Yated Ne’eman which is not available online.  You can read the rabbis’ individual responses as posted on this thread.

p.s. If you’re interested in reading more views from Yael Aldrich than I could cram into this article, click here for the full interview transcript.

image (reprinted with permission, © 2012, all rights mine)

We all try to make the best choices for our kids’ education: academically, emotionally and spiritually. That’s why many of my fellow homeschoolers were shocked to open the religious weekly Yated Ne’eman a few weeks ago to fi nd eight rabbis, leading educators, speaking out against this choice.
The weekly Chinuch Roundtable began with an anonymous question from a reader hoping to withdraw her daughter from school for “a year away from the social pressures and stress.”
Responses went far beyond socialization. Rabbi Yaakov Bender of Far Rockaway, N.Y., jumped in to call homeschooling “a fad bordering on epidemic,” and each rabbi in turn seemed determined to curb the “epidemic” as forcefully as possible.
Rabbi Dovid Engel, principal of The Toronto Cheder, an Orthodox boys’ elementary school, worried that parents might talk to homeschoolers who would “defend their choices instead of giving accurate pros and cons.” Perhaps he means parents like me, who rave about how much our kids are learning and growing, and what a privilege it is to join them along the way.
I called Rabbi Engel to clarify, and he explained that while the Torah’s responsibility to educate children falls on parents, as early as the fi rst century CE, children were losing out. “Parents weren’t educated enough, or [they] were labourers who didn’t have the time that the children needed.” Rabbi Yehoshuah ben Gamla stepped in to create elementary schools that grew into today’s cheders and day schools.
Yet, Rabbi Engel said, “school is not only about academics. The most successful children… are those that do well socially.” Socialization may be possible for some children through sports leagues, Boy Scouts and other extracurricular programs, but, “in a more haredi world… in our circles, that’s not true.”
As a principal, Rabbi Engel lists four essential ingredients for any teacher: “Foremost… is to have a connection with the rebbe [teacher].” He must also teach so that each student feels he can grasp the material, be punctual and act as a role model. Though Rabbi Engel says it’s important to develop connections beyond the home, he admits that “parents are certainly all those four things.”
However, he also wrote that “parents may fancy themselves as great teachers, but in reality they’re not.”
I suspect that, like paid teachers, some teaching parents truly are great and most are pretty good. Few are lazy, yet Rabbi Nosson Scherman, general editor of Artscroll Publications, who began his career in education, wrote that parents’ “drive to learn and teach will dwindle as the weeks go by.”
For six years, I schlepped my children 45 minutes to school, every school day. Did my “drive” to drop them off at school dwindle as the weeks went by? You bet, but they never missed a day. Some homeschool days are more inspiring than others, but you don’t stop showing up, which is lucky, because the good days – a symphony concert where your toddler whispers excitedly, “That’s a French horn!” or the moment your kid “gets” the link between Ancient Persia and the Purim story – are truly great.
Yet Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark of Beth Jacob Seminary in Montreal wrote that he’d only recommend homeschooling “when there is absolutely no other alternative,” while Rabbi Bender suggested it be “left only for those who cannot function in a classroom – a handicapped or learning disabled child.” Yael Aldrich, a Maryland homeschooler helping to organize the fourth annual Torah Home Education Conference in Baltimore this May, says, “These rabbis have never met a homeschooling family who have done it for positive reasons. “They’ve met families who are homeschooling because… a child is being bullied, a school can’t deal with the special needs of a child. That’s one way to come into homeschooling. Other people want to come to a place where their family is the centre of their life.”
Homeschooling is hard work. Even those who “unschool” (where learning follows children’s interests) usually educate themselves first, then plan and implement the best education for each child. Nobody should write this process off as a fad. Rabbi Avrohom Neuberger, an educator and translator for Artscroll’s Schottenstein Talmud, offered a rare quasipositive insight, listing three modern rabbinic leaders who studied unconventionally: “I guess the gamble sometimes pays off.” Rabbi Bender, too, sees homeschooling as playing dice with our kids’ souls: “We have all seen too many korbanos [sacrifices]. Don’t gamble with your children.”
Beneath these responses is a veiled threat that children who aren’t in Torah schools could be lost to Judaism. No parent wants to gamble with her kids, but faith that the education system will keep kids religious is also a gamble. If even one school offered a guarantee that graduates would love and live Torah forever, I’d sign up my kids in a heartbeat.
Aldrich, who began educating her four children at home with the blessing of an Orthodox rabbi who used to homeschool his own kids, says, “We don’t have any control over what happens to the neshamas [souls] that HaShem entrusted us with. We don’t say… they’re going to be chassidic if we’re chassidic. “We put our energy into them, try our best to do that, and daven a lot.” She hopes her children will appreciate the effort she puts into their education, and grow into “Ovdei [servants of] HaShem in their own way… whether they look or act different from me.”
Aldrich sees the rabbis’ responses as insecurity. “I was disappointed that they felt a need to belittle a different method of educating Jewish children.” Rabbi Engel stresses that this was not the rabbis’ intention: “A lot of thought goes into our answers.”
Despite the controversy, plans for the Torah home education conference continue. Aldrich hopes homeschooling will grow, inspiring more parents “to take full responsibility for their children’s education.” Yet there’s no threat to established institutions, she says. “Most people don’t live a lifestyle in which homeschooling will be honestly possible… We’re going to need those schools.”
Just as she has learned from friends who are classroom educators, Aldrich hopes the educational world will find something to learn from homeschoolers. “More honest give and take will be good for everybody.”
For more information on the Torah Home Education Conference, click here.

p.s. If you’re interested in reading more views from Yael Aldrich than I could cram into this article, click here for the full interview transcript.

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