I have conflicting values. I send my children to a Jewish day
school because I value the religious education they receive, but I feel guilty for not supporting the public schools beyond my tax dollars.
As presented, at least two values are presumed to be in conflict. The first is the mitzvah of “veshinantem levanekha” – to Jewishly educate our child(ren) with a Torah education. Of course, providing our child(ren) with liberal arts, math and science education is also fundamental to raising literate, culturally attuned and pragmatically skilled, and therefore, employable, self-reliant human beings. While a “secular education” can be accomplished through a good public school education, it is also assuredly achieved through a good Jewish Day School education, as well. Furthermore, for many a child, a public school’s social environment may undermine the raising of a Jewishly committed, halakhically practicing and Torah literate Jew. Thus, without a doubt, training our child(ren) for a life of Jewish observance and engagement with Torah and Mitzvot, along with equipping them with a quality “secular education,” is best and most thoroughly accomplished through sending our child(ren) to Jewish day school.
The second value, as stated, is “supporting the public schools.” This indeed can be said to be a Jewish value. First, we are privilege to live as equal citizens with constitutional guarantees of religious freedom in our great country. As part of our social contract, we certainly have a duty to support public education. Second, more fundamentally, we have a religious obligation of “darkei shalom – the ways of peace,” which is a halakhic meta-principle articulated through specific duties that obligates Jews to assist non-Jews with life necessities and mandates that Jews constructively participate in bettering society at large (Tosefta Gittin 3:13; Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melachim 10:12). Society at large and its non-Jewish citizens themselves have a religious obligation to establish a public school system. In the Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 56a), the rabbis establish that all human beings share in a basic covenant of seven categories of law known as the sheva mitzvot B’nei Noach – the seven Noachide commandments. Six are prohibitions and one is an affirmative duty:”Dinim – to establish a just court system.” Many medieval and modern commentators have understood these “commandments” to be categories of obligations, in addition to specific duties. Since a public school system of education is a necessary part of establishing a just and good society, it too may arguably fall within the scope of the Noachide obligation.
The question at hand is whether sending one’s children to Jewish Day School contravenes support for public school education. I don’t think so. First, as the questioner points out, a portion of her/his tax dollars financially supports the public education system. The question of contravention may arise in the political consideration of “voucher proposals” which would allow taxpayers to have the government direct the education component (or a portion thereof) of their tax dollars to support the private school education of their children. However, even here, there may not be an applicable conflict of the two values given that private education can serve public goals and public education may still be sustainably funded. Second, even if one sends one’s child(ren) to Jewish Day School, one can still choose to support public education through financial contributions and volunteerism should one be so moved. Actual guilt and culpability, as opposed to guilty feelings, requires the commission of an offence or a violation of an ethical standard. I discern no offence or violation in choosing to send one’s child(ren) to a Jewish Day School. On the contrary, I perceive only the performance of mitzvah.
Finally, although the questioner did not mention it, my experience as a rabbi has been that some people feeling the financial burden of Jewish Day School education may choose to rationalize their flirtation with sending their child(ren) to public school through such moral argument as implied in the question at hand. To all those feeling such financial stress, as a Jewish Day School tuition-paying father of four, as they say: I share your pain. However, let us never forget for a moment that while the stock market, inflation and interest rates may rise and fall, the surest investment we can make in our child(ren) and in the future of the Jewish people is the Jewish education of our child(ren).
First of all, I'd like to commend you for sending your children to a Jewish day school. This is a serious financial commitment as day school tuition has risen significantly in the past decade while economic hardships have grown for middle class Jewish families. I also want to commend you for recognizing that the public school system still depends on your support (beyond your tax dollars).
Jewish families choose the day school option for many different reasons. Just because you send your children to a Jewish day school, however, does not mean that you can't support your local public school(s) by volunteering your time, donating to school functions and after-school activities, and speaking positively about the school in your community. You can also encourage your children to participate in community sports teams and other programs so they become friends with the neighborhood children who attend the public school.
Finally, in addition to your tax dollars you should use your voting right to help ensure the best people are in leadership positions on the school board. There are many other ways you can support the public schools in your area and I believe that doing so is a strong Jewish value.
You present an interesting dilemma, one with which I have personally grappled as a Jewish parent of school-aged children. What you have here is a conflict between two goods.
In the question of where to send our children for their education (which is perhaps the ultimate pledge of support when we consider not only the tuition dollars or PTA dues but also the hours of volunteer labor, not to mention the incalculable value of our voices, concern, presence, and more), we must weigh the good of supporting our public school system, upon which depends the quality of our society and the strength of our democracy in the United States; against the good of supporting Jewish day schools, which do a wonderful job of raising future Jewish leaders and generations of committed Jews. The public school system exists by law, but can languish, underfunded and underachieving, where parents most concerned about their children’s education choose to send them elsewhere. The Jewish day school can only exist with the support of the Jewish community, with the enrollment of Jewish children.
The decision of where to send one’s child to school is an intensely personal one. No two children are exactly alike; no two families are exactly alike. Children learn differently, thrive in different settings. Only we can know how “wanting the best for our children” translates into real-life choices and actions. Many Jewish parents share these goals for our children’s education: that through it they grow into strong, proud, knowledgeable Jews and citizens of the world who value and thrive in a diverse society; and that it provides them with an opportunity to fully develop their individual talents and potential while also gaining an understanding of and respect for their obligation to support the public good, to protect the interests of the less fortunate. We can achieve these goals whether sending our children to Jewish day school, to a non-Jewish private school, or to public school.
No need for guilt. What matters here is what you do with your children when they are not in school—and perhaps, what you do yourself when they are in school. Children not attending Jewish day school need Jewishly interested and involved parents to support and augment whatever they receive in their supplementary Jewish school program. No 2-, 4- or even 6-hour-a-week school can ever give children everything they need to become even the most basically knowledgeable of Jews. So we take our children to services, to synagogue programming for children. We celebrate the holidays, and especially Shabbat, at home. We send them to Jewish camps. We learn about Judaism with and in front of our children—there is always more to learn.
Children in Jewish day schools may need experiences that put them into regular contact with a more pluralistic population of children, that teach them of a world in which most people look different and think and act and believe differently than they do. (Depending on where you live, children not in Jewish day school may need this, too!) They might like to spend time tutoring or mentoring in a public school. Parents whose children are not enrolled in the public school system may nevertheless work to strengthen it—by volunteering, sharing expertise, serving on the school board or, if all of that seems too much, simply by supporting a public school fundraising effort, or donating a few items from a pta wish list. And make sure your child sees you doing it.
Your values are not conflicting. Both your Jewish and your civic values are at work in a situation where you have more than one acceptable, perhaps even desirable, course of action. Make the best decision you can for your child and your family, and then get back to the hard work of Jewish parenting, which no school can do for us.
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