Jewish Education Guide: How Do I Find the Best School Near Me?

Choosing a Jewish education for your child is a critical decision for any family. According to the Talmud, providing a Jewish education is one of the things that parents are obligated to do for their children. For families who live in large cities with a sizable Jewish population, the variety of programs and number of choices can be mind-boggling and overwhelming.
Perhaps one starting point in making the decision could be your own Hebrew school or Jewish education experience as a child or youth. Did you have a dynamic teacher who taught you Hebrew on Sundays? Did you attend a local Jewish day school and have wonderful memories of Judaic studies and Jewish holiday celebrations? Or, perhaps you didn’t receive a Jewish education at all and that is what is motivating you to enroll your child in a Jewish program.
We’ve put together some general but important things to look for as you weigh the options for a Hebrew school, Jewish day school or afterschool program that’s right for your child and your family.
Understand Jewish School Terminology
What’s the difference between Hebrew Day school, Sunday school, day school, supplementary school and a religious school? Most often, a part-time Jewish educational program that is run by a synagogue teaches a wide variety of subjects, ranging from Hebrew and prayer to holidays and values. Part-time Hebrew schools could have a strong emphasis on teaching the Hebrew language, but sometimes simply use the name and also teach Judaic studies and Torah. Sunday school is a more old-fashioned term that was coined years ago when Sunday was the only day Jewish programs were taught. Most part-time schools now meet either on Sundays and a weekday or just on a weekday afternoon. Day School is the term used for full-time, private Jewish schools. The term religious school can be applied to either part-time supplemental programs or full time Jewish schools.
Does the Program Suit Your Family’s Lifestyle?
In exploring the programs offered at each school, think about how it fits into your family’s lifestyle, level of observance and daily routines. The most obvious of these factors is your family’s level of observance: are you secular, Conservative, Traditional or Orthodox? It’s best to find a school that aligns with your beliefs. Also choose a Jewish school that doesn’t conflict with your child’s schedule or yours. If your child has soccer league games on Sundays, then a Sunday program will clearly be a problem. Geography often plays a large role in the selection process. Is the best school near me? Or will you need to add a long commute to your daily schedule in order to have your child attend the best Jewish school. If your child has learning needs or specific interests, find out if the school can accommodate those needs. Your needs as a family are unique and schools are not one-size-fits-all.
Schedule a Tour
You can tell the most about a Jewish school by visiting it during school hours. Do things seem to be running smoothly? Are the classrooms full of activity? Do the students look happy and engaged? A good program will “feel” good when you’re in the building. Remember that sometimes religious school programs are housed in spaces that are not traditional classrooms — they could be held in preschool classrooms, libraries, synagogue halls or even offices. Students in these unusual settings should still be actively engaged in meaningful and stimulating learning. Also, some Jewish day schools may have more or less funding for facilities. One school might not have the bells and whistles of another, however, repeated research has shown that the facility has very little effect on the quality of a child’s education, so don’t be fooled by the flash of a fancy campus.
Do Your Homework
Ask current parents, in addition to the principal of the school, about the academic curriculum to make sure it aligns with your educational goals. Parents may want their child to become fluent in modern Hebrew, but the school emphasizes liturgical Hebrew. Some Jewish schools emphasize tefillah, or prayer, over other areas of study; some have Hebrew instruction only twice a week in their program. Are you looking for a Jewish school with very little Judaic studies, a balance of both general and Judaic studies, or a primarily religious education with only the very basics of Language Arts and Math? It’s important to take a close look at the curriculum and make sure it addresses your priorities as a family.
The educational leadership and faculty are the foundation of a school. Meet with the head of school or principal and ask about the educational vision of the school. Come prepared with specific questions about the variety of subjects, philosophies and approaches to Jewish education. Ask about the teachers - how long they’ve been in education, what their credentials are, and how their teaching styles vary. Take a look at the textbooks and other materials being used. Even if you don’t understand education, you will sense from the educational leadership if they are passionate and confident in their approach.
Parent involvement
A key component of a Hebrew school’s success is the involvement of parents. Find out if there is an active Parent Teacher Organization or Parent Committee of volunteers. Are parents encouraged to contribute to the school? Do parents serve on the school’s board? In a strong Jewish school, parents are actively involved in the governance of the school, in planning and executing programs, and in creating a warm, inclusive community.
Jewish Experiences for the Entire Family
A Jewish education is not a stand-alone experience. A robust Jewish school can become the hub of family life, contributing to the Jewish experiences of not only the child attending, but his/her siblings, parents and grandparents. Jewish schools, whether they’re independent or part of a synagogue, often offer holiday programs such as Tashlich at the beach, Chanukah performances and High Holiday services that involve the whole family. The school could also offer parenting classes, family education programs where you can learn side-by-side with your child, and other enrichment opportunities.
Making the Decision
Choosing the right Jewish education for your child is a true commitment, spiritually as well as financially. For the experience to be a positive one, parents and school leaders must be partners in the child’s education and commit to that partnership from the moment the child enters the school until he or she graduates. The entire undertaking is, however, a very personal one, and should be reflective of who you are, and who your child is, and the dreams and aspirations you have for your family. The fit should feel just right.
Article courtesy of Kadima Day School in West Hills, CA. (818) 346-0849.

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