In the wake of the announcement that the Ottawa Jewish Community School (OJCS) is planning to phase out its high school division, we need to ask why only two per cent of Ottawa’s Jewish parents have chosen Jewish high school for their kids. I spoke to a variety of community members on both sides of the decision divide.
Among those who have enrolled their kids in the high school, or were planning to, Geremy Miller said, “It’s about being part of community.”
“I honestly can’t imagine not sending them to Jewish day school. It’s part of who they are,” said Lewis Retik.
“The education seems strong … and we like the idea of a community school where our kids can interact with people who are secular, shomer Shabbat, and people in between. And the kids we’ve met … seem like great kids, really balanced and worldly,” said Elana Aptowitzer.
“Elementary school grounds them in the basics, but, when they get to high school, they really start digging into the meat of Judaism, arguing philosophy, and so on,” noted Nicola Hamer.
Anne Vallely made the case for continuing Judaic studies into adolescence, if one hopes to secure intellectual and religious identity, while Golda Feig Steinman and David Roytenberg noted that OJCS high school graduates are well prepared for the Israel politics they will face on university campuses.
Steinman talked about “sense of community” at OJCS describing it as “a soft and gentle place” where “you get to know every individual in their own right without labels. It’s a Jewish lesson, it’s a universal lesson.”
Retik also said that Jewish day high school graduates go on to help build Jewish communities.
In the wake of the OJCS announcement, Roytenberg started a Facebook page called “Supporters of the Ottawa Jewish Community High School.”
“As Jews,” Roytenberg wrote on the site, “we are heirs to an incredibly rich heritage of law, literature and religious writings. Secular or religious, I think we owe it to our children to pass on as much of this knowledge as possible.”
And Ella Sabourin, a current OJCS high school student who started a grassroots fundraising effort to help save the high school, described the school as “something beautiful.”
And what about the parents and students who’ve opted out of OJCS at the high school level?
Justine Sider gave two reasons for not sending her three OJCS kids to the high school: The financial cost and “I want my kids to get a more typical high school experience than [OJCS] offers – more clubs, more sports teams, more trips, more people to meet.”
Adam Moscoe, who graduated from Hillel Academy in 2005, said he passed on full-time Jewish high school because “exposure to, and interaction with, diversity during the crucial teen years is hugely valuable, perhaps essential.”
Ottawa teen Buddy Bolton, while valuing the sense of community enabled by a Jewish high school, expressed concern over what he thinks would be a polarized atmosphere in an all-Jewish high school between those who hold different political and religious views.
Graham Sher, whose three kids attended OJCS at the elementary level, opted not to enrol them in the high school due to what he perceived as the “unidimensional” and “uninspiring” quality of the Judaic studies that he saw his kids having been “force-fed” via “rote learning” during their time at OJCS. It provided, he said, “an unbalanced understanding of the complexity of Jewish and Israeli life today.”
The “Judaic teachings they offered were not broad enough to include the multiplicity of social issues that children in our world … currently have to navigate,” added his spouse, Erica Sher.
“The school does not deal with LGBT issues the way I feel they should be. While I don’t feel there’s institutionalized homophobia, there isn’t open acceptance,” said Hamer who otherwise spoke glowingly about the OJCS high school.
Hamer said the subject of homophobia is conspicuously absent during anti-bullying week at OJCS and, unlike another local high school, OJCS does not have LGBT safe-zone stickers on its front door.
Michael Silverman described his and his wife’s Jewish choices as representing a meaningful way to inculcate Jewish identity to their kids even without Jewish high school via involvement in Torah High, JET, synagogue affiliation, and “modelling Jewish behaviour through family values.”
Silverman was also critical of what he said was fear-mongering among some OJCS high school supporters. His daughter, he said, doesn’t experience anti-Semitism “daily or weekly” at her public high school in response to some statements he’d heard from some OJCS high school supporters.
Jackie Luffman, a sociologist who has written about demographic and Jewish education data for Ottawa on her blog – https://ottawashtetl.wordpress.com/ – said there are various factors that make Jewish high school a tougher sell for Ottawa families including “good quality public high schools, the concern over bilingual/French education, and a geographically dispersed community.” Financial concerns, she added, are “equally important,” though “not unique to Ottawa.”
In future columns, I’ll try to further analyze some of these reflections and add my own. Those interested can find my personal approach to educating my children in my November 28, 2011 column – available online at http://tinyurl.com/OJBulletin-11-28-11 – but that is not the focus of this piece. For now, I suspect, much more parsing and debate will be forthcoming from the community. To my mind, discussing Jewish education is always a good thing.