By Yehudis Litvak
When my daughter was five I decided to take her out of school. For a number of reasons I felt that my daughter would do better at home. The school, however, felt otherwise. They told me to ask a shaila. I dutifully called my rabbi, who felt that it was not a matter of a halachic shaila but of getting appropriate advice from an expert. So I called Rebbetzin Rochel Schochet, a”h. An experienced educator known for warm and nurturing relationships with her students, Rebbetzin Schochet said to me, “Sometimes a five year old needs to be with her Mommy.” I got my stamp of approval, but I still felt very much alone. I was going against the accepted community norms, and not everyone in the community was as understanding as Rebbetzin Schochet.
I called a friend, Mariela Broome, who homeschools her children in the Valley. She in turn gave me the number of another Valley homeschooler, Sharon Schwartz. It was very encouraging for me to speak with these two mothers. I got the support and advice I needed, and my daughter got playmates. Homeschooling was looking more and more realistic.
Then it got even better. That same year, several other Jewish families decided to homeschool their children. Two of them were the Rosenmans and the Silveras. They also felt a lack of support in the Jewish community and they decided to do something about it. This is how LA Jewish Homeschoolers (LAJH) was born. At first it was a small group consisting of about ten families, both in the city and in the Valley, some of them experienced homeschoolers and some of us who were just beginning the journey. The group decided to hold a “park” day twice a month where local Jewish homeschooling families could get together, socialize, and receive support and encouragement.
Over the years, the group has grown tremendously, and now includes close to a hundred families. We get together to celebrate Jewish holidays with Torah learning, music, singing, children’s performances, carnivals, and arts and crafts. We have taken countless fun and educational trips together and these days there is a trip scheduled each week so it’s hard to choose which to attend. We have participated in many classes organized by LAJH members, such as hands on chumash, Hebrew language and Jewish history, as well as secular subjects. We have watched our children grow and blossom, both academically and as people. Time has shown that Jewish homeschooling in Los Angeles is indeed a viable option.
Even though the idea of homeschooling may seem foreign to today’s Jews it was actually the original method of education prescribed by the Torah. The responsibility to teach our children Torah rests first and foremost on the father (Devarim 11:19). The Jews that were present when the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai taught it to their children, who in turn taught it to their children. For over a thousand years the Torah was transmitted from father to son.
Towards the end of the era of the Second Beis Hamikdash, Rabbinical Judaism came under attack of the Sadducees who not only denied the Oral Torah but also sought to gain political power. Their leaders became the High Priests and members of the Sanhedrin. They made their own laws and controlled the country. The Oral Torah was at risk of being forgotten. Rabbi Berel Wein explains in his book, Echoes of Glory (p. 96), that Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, the leader of Rabbinical Judaism at the time, came to the rescue of the Oral Torah by appointing teachers in Jerusalem who would teach children Torah, both Written and Oral. However, it was still the father’s responsibility to bring his child to Jerusalem to learn from the appointed teachers. Several decades later, Yehoshua ben Gamla, the High Priest at the time, ordained that teachers of young children should be appointed in each district and each town so that children who had no fathers would also have an opportunity to learn. The Gemara credits him with saving the Torah from being forgotten by the Jewish people (Bava Basra 21a).
The school system was established in order to counteract the neglect and denial of the Oral Torah at that time. As they say, desperate times require desperate measures. Even though the responsibility for Torah education rested on the fathers for many centuries, at the time of Yehoshua ben Gamla’s innovation the fathers were either not available or lacking in their own knowledge of and commitment to the Oral Torah. The leaders of Rabbinical Judaism responded to such unfortunate circumstances by creating the school system. Perhaps they meant it as a temporary measure. We will never know.
The circumstances did not improve. With the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash and the terrible persecution that followed throughout this exile, only very few Jews were able to receive a thorough Jewish education. Most Jews were not knowledgeable enough, or available enough, to educate their children. It wasn’t until very recently that things began to change. And now we find ourselves at an unprecedented point in Jewish history, when Torah learning has become widely accessible. Many Jewish homes today display not only Mishna and Gemara, but many other scholarly works on Jewish law and philosophy. Many of these books are available in English translation, as well as in other languages. And many parents, thank G-d, are proud to devote time and effort to studying these books and teaching them to their children. Perhaps for the first time in many centuries Jewish parents are now able to educate their children at home, without compromising the quality of their Torah education.
When I began homeschooling my daughter I saw how much she was gaining from being home with me. She expressed interest in davening because she watched me daven. She got excited about each Shabbos and Yom Tov because she had the opportunity to be fully involved in the preparations. She was receiving the mesorah not only through book learning but through spending her days in an active Jewish home. Impressed by what we had accomplished that year, and armed with the support of LAJH, as well as the support from Rebbetzin Schochet, I took the plunge again and began homeschooling all of my children.
Since then, I have found increasingly better support from Torah authorities. Today, our group even includes Torah teachers and a Rebbetzin of a local shul. The idea that homeschooling is somehow against Torah values is becoming obsolete.
In the secular world, homeschooling also had a rocky history, but is now accepted as legal in many countries, including the U.S. While the original laws about compulsory school attendance in America were intended for the children’s benefit, such as preventing child labor and increasing literacy, many original homeschool activists found that the traditional school system caused more problems than it solved. Authors and educators, such as Raymond and Dorothy Moore and John Holt, wrote articles and books about the dangers of compulsory schooling, explaining that a child learns and develops best in a supportive home environment. After many complex court battles homeschooling became legal throughout the country, with each state maintaining its own requirements for homeschooling. Here in California, we homeschoolers have a lot of freedom in choosing our own educational approach and philosophy. The only requirement consists of filling out an affidavit stating that the child(ren) will be taught all the mandatory subjects.
As homeschoolers, we are not against schools. Baruch Hashem, Los Angeles is blessed with many wonderful institutions providing a warm environment and an excellent education. We believe, however, that no school, no matter how dedicated the teachers, could possibly provide the limitless possibilities available in the home setting. We are able to give our children the time and space to develop and mature at their own pace. They are able to truly get to know themselves, find their strengths and G-d-given talents, and use them to reach their full potential. Miriam Dayan, an LAJH member, quotes her children as saying, “homeschooling is fun because you get to decide what you want to learn and when you want to learn it and relax after you are done.” Homeschooled children don’t see learning as a chore, but as an enjoyable activity. As a result, they develop a life-long love of learning.
Much statistical data is available on homeschooling in the secular world. Overall, homeschoolers tend to do better than their school educated peers, both academically and socially (see, for example, Research Facts on Homeschooling by Brian D. Ray, Ph.D., available at http://www.nheri.org/research/research-facts-on-homeschooling.html). Homeschooling in the Jewish community hasn’t been as widely researched, but the experiences of LAJH families have been very positive.
Mothers find that homeschooling benefits the entire family because the family members spend much of the day in close proximity and are able to develop very close relationships that last throughout life. Leat Silvera says that her first goal was “to bring the family back together again. Juggling the long hours of school, homework, and the children’s social lives left us stressed and out of touch with each other. I wanted to create a year focused on the family and on helping the kids find what they love to do. The city was our classroom, and the nights were pure family time. No homework, no stress.” She recalls her son saying to her a few months into homeschooling that he felt that he got his childhood back. Mariela Broome says that homeschooling enabled her family to spend plenty of time together and they grew closer in a deep way. Sharon Schwartz adds that many people ask how homeschooling mothers can stand to be with their children all day. She explains that it is precisely because we have the opportunity to get to know them and develop close relationships that it becomes a pleasure to be with them and to watch them grow and develop.
Many parents also find that homeschooling empowers them as parents. When my children were in school I felt that my parenting role was reduced to that of a drill sergeant: get dressed, eat, go to school, go home, do your homework, eat, brush your teeth, go to bed. There was no time to develop the kind of relationship where the children perceive the mother as an authority figure independently of school. When the children misbehaved at home I would assume that they were too tired because of the long school day and I did not feel that it was right to discipline them. Besides, I wanted to use the precious little time with them for positive interactions. When I began homeschooling the children could no longer use the “too tired from school” excuse and I could be sure that I gave them enough positive attention during the day and could raise my expectations in areas that were important to me. I felt that I gained more power as a parent to run the home in the way I saw fit.
Homeschooled children receive an individualized education, epitomizing Shlomo Hamelech’s directive of educating each child according to their own way. Miriam Dayan says, “Having three girls who for all intents and purposes had the exact same experiences I saw their natural tendencies to learn differently and focus on different things. I couldn’t imagine sending them to a school where they would all be forced to learn the same things at the same time without any consideration for their personal interests or aptitudes.” No longer tied to a rigid curriculum, a homeschooled child can learn on their own level, whether above their current grade or below. Most children will be ahead of their grade in some subjects and below in others. One of my children, for example, is a grade ahead in math and a grade below in English. At home, I don’t have to worry about her being bored during learning or about comparisons to others her age that would negatively affect her self-esteem. As a result, the children thrive academically.
Homeschooling also provides children with the optimal environment for maturation. According to developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld, maturation is not something that can be taught. It is a natural process that takes place under the right conditions, some of which include strong attachment relationships where a child feels safe to express his or her emotions (Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D. and Gabor Mate, M.D. Hold On to Your Kids. Random House, 2008). While in school both teachers and students have to work hard to create and maintain such relationships, at home they are readily available. Therefore, a homeschooled child is much more likely to develop resilience, which is one of the components of maturation. A resilient child, according to Neufeld, is able to handle adversity and adapt to change. Contrary to the popular belief, children don’t need to encounter bullies early on in life in order to learn to deal with difficult people. The best way to prepare children for dealing with adversity is by creating the optimal conditions for maturation. (For more on why homeschooling works, from the perspective of developmental psychology, see Dr. Neufeld’s presentations at the Global Home Education Conference, available online at http://www.ghec2012.org/cms/content/why-home-education-works-explanations-developmental-science and http://www.ghec2012.org/cms/content/developmental-scientists-perspective-neufeld, as well as the material available on Dr. Neufeld’s website, http://neufeldinstitute.com.)
The most frequent myth of homeschooling is that homeschooled children lack socialization. The facts, however, show otherwise. Studies show that homeschooled children measure above average in areas of social, emotional, and psychological development (see Dr. Ray’s article, cited above). As Jews, however, we have an additional requirement for our children’s social development: we want them to be committed members of the Jewish community. And that’s where LAJH plays a crucial role. LAJH provides all the components of a vibrant child-centered Jewish community, without requiring school attendance. For example, the Rosenmans and the Silveras began a homeschooling davening group, with the fathers taking turns leading the davening. All the families who participated felt that the children were involved in davening in a very personal way, learning the meaning of the words and saying them sincerely.
When I first began homeschooling I was concerned that my children would miss out on celebrating their milestones with their friends. I need not have worried. My children had their siddur parties, as well as numerous siyumim, well attended by their friends from LAJH. They were beautiful and meaningful events. We’ve also put on several all-girls plays. The most recent Chanuka play was directed by the girls themselves, with minimal adult involvement. We are currently working on a Purim play, with a fairly large cast of actresses.
Several LAJH families with older boys hired a Rebbi to teach their sons limudei kodesh. They learn in a small group for an hour, four days a week and get homework assignments. Even though they spend much less time with their Rebbi than their peers in traditional schools, the mothers find that the boys are covering more material than boys their age who attend local Jewish schools. The boys are very motivated, and the learning is much more meaningful to them. One of the boys undertook to learn more mishnayos on his own, in addition to the Rebbi’s assignments.
LAJH has given local Jewish families that vital source of support that made Jewish homeschooling possible. Miriam Dayan says, “My girls have gained some friends who understand their lives as both homeschoolers and Jews.” Yael Resnick, a former LAJH member who made aliyah with her family last year, says that LAJH gave her “a safe place to take the risky plunge of doing something different than that which we were conditioned.” She explains, “Without LAJH already in place, I’m not sure I would have had the guts to start homeschooling. Knowing that there were other observant homeschooled kids that could provide the social outlet my kids needed, provided a great sense of comfort. The moms in LAJH were encouraging, supportive and knowledgeable in the areas of homeschooling. LAJH became not just our homeschool community, but a family to us.”
Yael is no longer homeschooling because she felt that her children would integrate into the Israeli society more naturally if they attended school. She says, “I feel that homeschooling gave my kids the tools to cope with future situations that will come their way. They have self confidence in themselves that was developed through years of homeschooling. They possess a maturity in their social interactions and the ability to cope through stressful situations. But best of all, they continue to have desire for learning, fiery creativity and you will never ever hear them say the words, ‘I’m bored.’”
Many past members of LAJH also feel that the homeschooling years contributed to their children’s success in their current endeavors. Some families chose to send their children to school as they got older. Many have sent to high school. Some just homeschool through the high school years. The paths open to homeschoolers are as individual as the homeschoolers themselves. Tzippy Rav-Noy, an LAJH member whose children’s ages range from preschool to high school, says that she find homeschooling tremendously beneficial for her sixteen year old son, Avremy. Homeschooling gave Avremy an opportunity to discover his passion for electrical and mechanical engineering. He attended the UCLA Tech Camp in the summer and participated in robotics contests. “Over the years, he’s had some amazing teachers, and went on amazing trips and tours where he could see robotics at work in real life situations,” says Tzippy. For several years, Avremy has been teaching electrical engineering and prototyping in several after school programs. He earns his own money and has an appreciation for what it means to support himself. He was able to save some money and buy himself a 3D printer to work on his projects. Tzippy says that he can spend hours at a time thinking of a project, implementing it, and getting it to work. Avremy is also taking courses at Santa Monica College and is planning on applying to engineering school. “Unlike many of his peers, he already has goals, knows where he wants to be,” says Tzippy. “Homeschooling allows me to help my kids find their passions so that they will support themselves and their families by doing something they love.”
Other families choose to continue their children’s education in a traditional high school. Sivan Wolf, who is currently in 11th grade at Bais Yaakov of Los Angeles, says that homeschooling helped her with choosing a path in life. “It helped define my own identity as a bas yisrael,” she says, “without peer pressure. I was able to grow without limitations in the way I wanted.” After homeschooling, Sivan started 9th grade at a different high school. She says that the skills she gained while homeschooling, such as learning on her own and not relying on others to make decisions for her, helped her see that the school she was in was not the right place for her. She wanted to be with girls who would help her grow, and she transferred to Bais Yaakov. Her sister, Chaya Leemor, a 10th grader at Bais Yaakov, agrees that homeschooling gave her the opportunity to define herself and who she really was. While both girls found it difficult to adjust to the large size of the school and the heavy workload, both are happy with their choices. Yehudit Wolf, Sivan’s and Chaya Leemor’s mother, says that the girls had no trouble getting accepted into local high schools. “They took the tests, just like everyone else,” she says.
As of today, formerly homeschooled children have integrated successfully into Toras Emes, Bais Chaya Mushka, Emek Hebrew Academy, Or HaChaim, and Hillel. Others went on to Bais Yaakov, Shalhevet, Bnos Devorah, YULA, Valley Torah, and Bais Chana. Several high school age students are continuing their education at the Santa Monica College. Homeschool “graduates” tend to do very well in school or college and are often noticed by their teachers because of their exceptional maturity, confidence, independence, creativity, and genuine interest in their studies.
Homeschooling is truly becoming the wave of the future. As LAJH increases its membership every year it continues to be an invaluable resource for the Jewish homeschoolers of Los Angeles. For more information, please contact Leat Silvera at (310) 435-0578 or visit LAJH’s website, http://lajewishhomeschoolers.com.