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Sunday, March 07, 2010

Guest Post: Private School or Bust, The Gerim Edition

After writing the post mostly highly commented on post "Private School or Bust", I received a letter from the wife of a sincere convert who wanted to share with the readership the challenges and concerns that families with converts share when it comes to educating their children. Converts have essentially promised to send their children to yeshiva, but perhaps the choice won't be the best one for their children (I know of such a case myself where there were special needs involved that the school couldn't meet), or perhaps it will be completely out of the ballpark financially. I have slightly edited the post, mostly to keep personal details out of the hands of those who might be able to identify the couple in question. Please use your commonsense when commenting. Post follows:

I'm a regular reader the blog and some of the recent activity in the last few posts has prompted an honest evaluation of what Jewish education options we might pursue in the future for our family and how this may affect other choices. We are in our early 30s, have been married for a short time, and do not have children yet. I think our situation raises some other concerns about how much our Orthodox communal leaders refuse to see anything other than yeshivah or day school as a means of delivering Jewish education, and I would love to see this addressed on your blog.

My husband is a ger and I am from an Orthodox home. I went to an Modern Orthodox schools and spent a year in Israel post high school. My husband went to a Catholic school for the earliest grades, but my mother-in-law switched him to the local public school because she was unhappy with the quality of education at the Catholic school. With the help of some sweat equity, my in-laws were able to live in a more expensive neighborhood with well-regarded public schools.

In our most recent discussion about Jewish education prompted by the discussion on this blog, my husband informed me that during his geirut process, the beit din "asked" him if he would send him children to yeshivah/Jewish day school, with the clear indication that there was only one right answer to the question: of course he would! The beit din gave him a very hard time throughout the process for reasons completely unrelated to his kabbalat ol malchut shamayim, and so, my husband did what he did in every case where he felt that the beit din was imposing on him an "illegitimate" condition for geirut: he went along with it, while knowing in his heart that he planned to be an observant Jew, committed to the Torah, but not necessarily promising to engage in every single expectation that this beit din imposed. [And no, my husband did not realistically have other batei din options for overseeing an Orthodox geirut. The current mess of how geirim are treated is a whole other post. I still experience some disbelief that my husband even had the fortitude and love of Torah to make it through, despite facing rude and outright cruel behavior.]

The "Will you send your children to yeshivah?" question is standard operating practice in geirut. This is true for single men and women planning to convert. This true for married people planning to convert. This is true for parents who wish to convert a child that they have adopted. It is the norm in the frum world, and the beit din establishment expects nothing less. They do not want to hear about public schools or charter schools and supplemental Torah education. They do not care if a potential ger or giyoret (or adoptive parents) can not afford yeshivah tuition. Perhaps they would accept homeschooling or co-ops, if an FFB parent or local Rav is involved, but maybe not. I'm sure they haven't even considered more broadly what might happen if a ger has a child - or an adopted child him or herself - has special needs that can't be handled in the frum community.

Right now, if someone wants to convert, they are not merely expected to keep mitzvot and continue learning. Universal yeshivah or day school for children is mandatory. While we explore alternatives for our own individual families and our community at large, I think we need to make ourselves clearer to the establishment: There should be no pricetag on becoming Jewish! Private school is a luxury, and nowhere do the criteria for accepting gerim - either as adults or as children - mandate the need for wealth to afford luxuries. While frum Jews who explore other options worry about their children being shunned from having playdates or shidduchim, other, legitimate gerim are being *forced* to accept this as a pre-condition to being Jewish! This is disturbing, and most people are not even aware that it exists.

My husband assures me that he had the frum equivalent of "crossing his fingers" in his heart if he ever "promised" or appeared to promise to send his future children to yeshivah. He knows that it is extremely expensive, though I was surprised to learn this past week that he really doesn't know just *how* expensive. I think my mother-in-law fell off her chair when I told her! More important, my husband recognizes that there can be more than one way to deliver a quality Jewish education, and that even if we will have the money to afford yeshivah/day school tuition when the time comes (who knows), it might *not* be the best return on the money in teaching our future children true Torah values, knowledge and skills. Furthermore, both my husband and I are unwilling to send children to any school that would teach them blanket negative things about "goyim;" you know, people like my absolutely wonderful and accommodating in-laws. Until we are in a position to decide, we do not know what we will do. But we plan to be creative for our own family, we support communal options that do not demand significant wealth, and we want to speak out for the small community of geirim (adults and children) who are being asked to take on the yoke of yeshivah tuition as the price of entry to our people.

If we have children that we do not send to yeshivah, there may be people who question my husband's geirut. We don't believe in retroactivity in geirut; obviously, there are those who disagree. Our current community is an accepting one, where most people send children to yeshivah, but not everyone does. I'm sure my parents, who do not live near me and did everything they could to send their children to yeshivah, would initially be skeptical. Yet they know that we don't make decisions without doing our homework, so I am optimistic that they would be open to hearing about how we plan to provide our children a Jewish education, and I'm pretty sure they'd even be happy to participate in a process that asks them to devote some of their time learning with their grandchildren, rather than money.

I suppose the "good" news is that no one can question *my* Jewishness, so no one can doubt whether any children we have are actually Jewish. I worry what may happen to a giyoret who shuns yeshivah or day school for her children, even if it comes from financial necessity. I worry what happens to a family that adopts a child, converts him or her, and then can't afford a tuition bill. The Torah is clear on what our obligation to gerim is and this requiring this type of tuition is a form of "oppression."


Avivah @ Oceans of Joy said...

I know of a family who was homeschooling their children for a number of years prior to the conversion of one parent. The conversion was initially held up since they were committed to homeschooling (because of the quality of education and quality of life)and didn't believe that wanting to live a Torah life precluded homeschooling. With time the beis din saw their sincerity and commitment to mitzvos across the board, and the conversion was completed.

I can hear your frustration, and I think that an important thing for particularly someone in your situation is to have a rav; you need someone who knows you, who you can speak to about issues that come up. Having the backing of your rav will give you much more confidence when making choices that aren't the norm.

Though I realize that asking a potential convert about his willingness to send his child to yeshiva is a standard question,I believe it's important to understand the intent behind it - it's basically intended to ask if the potential convert understands the importance of providing his child/ren with a Torah education. Because yeshiva is how most people do it, it's automatically assumed that's the only way. This can be now be discussed with your rav, bringing up your financial concerns, etc.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

As a giyores who homeschools with her Rabbis express permission/pride, I can say people have not shunned our family (maybe they thought us a bit odd...) nor has the kashrus of my gerus been questioned. I think the Rabbonim are concerned that many people who convert/want to convert will not be able to give their child a quality Jewish education since the ger did not have a thorough Jewish education (either self-taught, one-on-one with a Rav, or at a BT yeshiva).

If a family's goal is to teach their child the "standard" curriculum, it will be harder (although not impossible due to tutors, online learning, or the parent learning slightly ahead of the child) to accomplish. If gerim and children of gerim have issues of acclimating to the general Jewish population, homeschooling could also make it harder.

Obviously, it can be done, but I think it would have to be done with consulation/da'as Torah with rabbis who really understand the family situation.

Anonymous said...

The Curmudgeoly Israeli Giyoret says:

Another reason for aliyah.

Actually, I converted way before marriage and way before children, and I agreed to the primacy of giving my future kids a Jewish education. In each case, it's been the best we could acquire for the particular child.

I would think that a homeschooling parent, with or without the scholarly background, should be able to find tutors who can supplement on whatever level they might need, and probably for a lot less than American day school tuition. We might all have been happier with the outcomes of each child's Jewish education had we not taken what the schools supplied "off the rack", so to speak.

David said...

I converted about 12 years ago with an RCA beit din. One of the standards they had then, and still do (to my knowledge) is an absolute requirement that children receive 12 years of (Orthodox) Jewish day school.

This is something which is heavy in my heart as well - my wife and I do not have any children, but we terribly fear both the price (I would be unwilling to apply for or accept "financial aid" - I see that as knowingly making myself a burden on the community) and the indoctrination of many abhorrent values which masquerade as Torah (such as disrespect for Gentiles [like my loving and accommodating parents], unethical financial behavior, or the like).

I do not know whether we will have children, but the prospect of confronting this issue head-on is one which does not bring me comfort.

Anonymous said...

Giving your child a Jewish education is critical, and I think the question is not about homeschooling but about whether or not a potential ger plans to embrace the Jewish community. Raising a Jewish child, ESPECIALLY when gerim have to continue close relationships with non-Jews in their birth family, is very difficult in the absence of being able to give your child a strong identity as being part of a religious community. If you still have relationships with lots of non-Jews and send your kid to public school to be friends with non-Jews, it is going to be really hard for your child to get the feeling that he is growing up just as religious as the kid whose parents are not gerim. As to the people who think religious schools teach hatred of non- Jews and unethical business practices, I think that you are really off - I attended many religious Jewish schools and was always taught beautiful Torah values. Choose a school that does for your child. And as for the money, take it one child at a time and see if you can afford it, rather than saying "we can't." Maybe by trying you will then get the help you need and find that G-d sends you more money...

tikkun said...

to anon 2:54 - the problems you describe are possible. however, (and this problem is certainly not limited to geirim but applies to all orthodox jews) if the price of admission to orthodox judaism - especially modern orthodox judaism is earning $300,000 plus per year in order to afford $17,000 elementary school tuition and $25,000 high school tuition - then you are limiting membership to the top 1% of american households - i am sure that there must be another way to follow the torah - perhaps home schooling or aliya to israel - the way the system is set up now only the very wealthy , the children of rabonim and teachers (who get free or discounted tuition) will be able to be orthodox - that is reality and no amount of pontificating will change that - i can not blame anyone who wants to homeschool

David said...

@Anon 2:54: you said...

Raising a Jewish child, ESPECIALLY when gerim have to continue close relationships with non-Jews in their birth family, is very difficult in the absence of being able to give your child a strong identity as being part of a religious community. If you still have relationships with lots of non-Jews and send your kid to public school to be friends with non-Jews, it is going to be really hard for your child to get the feeling that he is growing up just as religious as the kid whose parents are not gerim.

Now, this is precisely the attitude which I find so problematic. Do you think that knowing or being around gentiles will give Jewish kids "cooties?" Whether one is religious or not is a personal decision which is between that individual and the Creator, blessed is He. An identity which requires absolute separation from disagreement or difference is hardly an effective way to be an or lagoyim, don't you think?

There is something significant to be said for being around other people who think in a similar manner - it reinforces one's own beliefs, and it makes it easier to not be the first person to ask for Hol Hamoed off. However, it can also breed groupthink and promotes an inwardly-focused narcissism which is neither good for society nor one's relationship with God. If the whole religious identity that a child has is only in the context of an immersive environment, what happens when s/he leaves that environment? This, in my opinion, is part of why stories of folks who go so far off the derekh during college abound.

Shlomo said... absolute requirement that children receive 12 years of (Orthodox) Jewish day school.

This is something which is heavy in my heart as well - my wife and I do not have any children, but we terribly fear both the price (I would be unwilling to apply for or accept "financial aid" - I see that as knowingly making myself a burden on the community)

I'd say to go ahead and accept the financial aid. If the community demands that your kids go to Jewish schools, and then gives you the money to pay for it, it's hard to say you're being a burden on them.

Nice Jewish Girl said...

Do we really think that being frum is so distasteful that Jewish children will abandon it at the first hint of an "outside" world?

There were Jews, chinuch, and geirut long before there was day school. Rabbis can't ask for something over and above kabbalat mitzvot. It's got nothing to do with the conversion.

Lion of Zion said...


"I'd say to go ahead and accept the financial aid. If the community demands that your kids go to Jewish schools"

the community doesn't demand it.

Lion of Zion said...


"Rabbis can't ask for something over and above kabbalat mitzvot."

rabbis can ask for whatever they want. i could be wrong, but i don't think the option to convert into judaism is a "right." various communities over time and in different areas have defined the criteria for conversion differently. some have restricted it in toto.

i don't know what size community the guest poster lives in, but i can understand why the yeshivah requirement would exist for example in a small community.

in any case, it's a crappy situation to be in and i hope she and her family (and the rest of us as well!) find a satisfactory resolution

aml said...

Hmm. I'm trying to remember- I went through my conversion almost 11 years ago and I remember nothing about day school, but I was just a kid myself at the time. And my kids are in public school and are getting their Jewish education at home for now. No one has really questioned it, but we live in a pretty open community.

And I agree with David. Anon 2:54's comments make my stomach turn. These are not the values I want my babies learning either.

aml said...

Hmm. I'm trying to remember- I went through my conversion almost 11 years ago and I remember nothing about day school, but I was just a kid myself at the time. And my kids are in public school and are getting their Jewish education at home for now. No one has really questioned it, but we live in a pretty open community.

And I agree with David. Anon 2:54's comments make my stomach turn. These are not the values I want my babies learning either.

Aliza "La Jewminicana" Hausman said...

I'm not sure if people realize that according to the updated standards for conversion through the RCA, not only must you agree to 12 years of Orthodox day school education (so now community schools), you have to agree to live in an area with an Orthodox day school that goes up to 12th grade.

I know someone who was making $60,000 a year...exactly what she would need to put two of her kids into day school for a year. They would not convert her or her children until she found an Orthodox day school to accept her children, despite the fact that many, many, many turned them away because of their lack of Hebrew and Jewish studies education. On top of this, she had to agree to come up with money to support weekly tutoring. She had to turn down her child's acceptance to a prestigious public school and the beis din would not accept a situation where this child could learn with tutoring or Hebrew school.

So if you're born Jewish, choose whatever you think is best for your kids. If you're a convert, then the beis din will just fill that in for you?

Aliza "La Jewminicana" Hausman said...

@The Curmudgeoly Israeli Giyoret

"New bill would make conversion insufficient for Israeli citizenship"

Miss S. said...

Thank you to the original author for penning this blog post so well. The state of Orthodox conversion to Judaism is an absolute mess. I know of gerim who converted 15-20 years ago who are horrified by the things I've been put through. However the rabbeim who performed their geirut are now nifter and there is a "new wave" of right-wing Rabbis that not only want gerim to be kabbalat mitzvot; but they also want them to simulate rich, yeshivish Jewish families as much as possible.

Why is it possible to be a religious ____ while having educational options but religious Jews have none?

aml said...

@ Aliza "La Jewminicana" Hausman: I was converted by an RCA beit din before this resolution (or whatever it is called) was adopted. I wonder what that means for me? I also became an Israeli citizen based on my conversion. Maybe they will revoke my status as a Jewess and take my Israeli passport? I'm feeling the love from all sides now.

ProfK said...

For better or for worse, the standard for religious Jews, whether in the US or elsewhere, is a K-12 day school/yeshiva education. Yes, there are exceptions--many of the commenters here are among those exceptions--but the "rule" still is a yeshiva education for the children. Unless or until there is a complete shift, so that yeshiva education is no longer the standard, it may well be that those who are in charge of conversions want geirim to fall into the mainstream of religiosity rather than on the outer borders. "Fitting in" may be hard enough for many geirim without adding in that they are "yotzai min ha'klal" in the area of educating their children.

LeahGG said...

While the bill that's on the table in Israel sickens me, I seriously doubt it will actually pass in anything like its current form.

My guess is that it's a power play that will eventually be able to knock out the option to make aliya with a conservative or reform conversion.

Dave said...

Slight quibble, ProfK.

What you say is true for Orthodox Judaism in America. This is not the same as being true for all "religious Jews".

Miami Al said...

Dave, which also raises the question of if the "extra Halachic" barrier to enter Orthodoxy that the Rabbinic establishment keeps raising are doing anyone any good.

As Orthodoxy raises the walls, people choose other options, if Orthodoxy was less restrictive on conversion, plenty of people might opt for a "Kosher" conversion over an easy conversion.

While that might not be ideal from the ivory tower, the massive number of non-Halachic Jews is astounding. Failure to address this threatens the Orthodox hegemony in Israel.

The Gedolim that we cite generations later are those that SOLVED the community's problems, not those that create them in the name of purity.

Dave said...

Some percentage of people who had gotten Orthodox conversions in the past (I don't think anyone has numbers beyond the anecdotal) did so so that they would have a conversion accepted by all Jewish sects.

When you combine the recent moves in Orthodoxy to make conversion recovable, along with increasingly more stringent standards, and the increasingly conversion-hostile mood in parts of the Orthodox community, I think a fair number of those people will decide "well, if the Orthodox won't accept us no matter what we do, why bother with even attempting an Orthodox conversion".

Dave said...

That was supposed to be revocable.

Although recovable has a nice ring to it.

megapixel said...

here i was wondering what recovable means...

I have to agree with profK - with all due respect to geirim (and I do!) the general community being what it is, the children may have a slight stigma, and adding to that the fact that their education is vastly different from the standard jewish kids- that is a double stigma, and I think it may be a burden on those children. Kids who "stand out" for whatever reason have it easier if they "fit in" in every other areas.
A geir who wants to join Am Yisrael, presumably he wants to keep pesach, and other holidays and fast days, some more pleasant than others, yeshiva tuition is part of the deal of jewish life the way we know it.
I wish you the best! I hope i dont offend anyone.

Nice Jewish Girl said...


Actually, there is a strong case that conversion is a right. The gemara in Yevamot (47b-ish) discusses that after a person agrees to be Jewish, and has been educated in some of the minor and major mitzvot (not the overwhelming study we insist on today), we should convert the person immediately. The shulkhan arukh agrees.

Communities may, in practice, make up other rules, but that doesn't make those rules halakha, nor does it pasul a conversion.

Further, a double standard for converts vs. born Jews is assur (Bava metzia, 58b, the mishnah in the middle of the page. The gemara doesn't overturn it.)


LeahGG said...

Other issues notwithstanding, joining Am Yisrael is not a change in religion; it is joining a nation. It is important to remember that becoming and remaining part of the Jewish community is an integral part of this.

You can have lots of non-Jewish friends and still be part of the community, but somehow parents - and especially converts who don't necessarily come complete with a Jewish family and community attachment - need to make sure that their children are part of the community. That can be through NCSY, for example, rather than Yeshiva education, but it is a necessary part of being a Jewish.

Dave said...

Not all parts of the nation send their children to Day Schools.

I think that's the point.

aml said...

I think this is the first time I've disagreed with something that ProfK wrote, surprisingly. I think that line of reasoning fans the flame. MiamiAl, you once again echo what I've been saying for years. Make orthodox Judaism more accessible for everyone. I work in a campus that's about 40% Jewish (the undergrad student population, that is) and I can count on one hand the number of observant students there are. When speaking to them, the idea of dealing with the key cards at the dorms or a strictly kosher diet is enough for them to throw their hands in the air and say forget it. These aren't potential concerts- these are born Jews.

Miami Al said...


You have to start with more meaningful (to them) and less legalistic aspects to Judaism. Using a Key on Shabbat instead of a Key Card doesn't bring anyone to Yiddishkeit, it's something you do as an observant Jew to avoid a specific issue.

Sitting and eating in the Sukkah, celebrating Simchat Torah, celebrating Purim, celebrating Shabbat that's what brings people to Judaism.

The technical observance is part of the "dues" of Orthodoxy, not the draw.

Doesn't mean we throw out the technical observance, it means that it isn't the first thing you throw in their face.

aml said...

No Miami Al, I think you are wrong. These are kids who know about Shabbat and have experienced sitting in a Sukka. Many of them went to (non-Orthodox) Jewish day schools. The problem (as they tell it, not as I perceive it) is that they just can't be observant on campus so they're not even gonna bother try. The bar is set so high from the beginning that they just give up. We can shrug our shoulders and say who care, its their loss. But maybe its our loss too.

The difference is that someone who is a sincere convert (like I was) is going to bend over backwards to do what needs to get done to go through the conversion process. And I still get treated like a second-class citizen all this time later.

ss said...

I converted about 12 years ago and the rav who converted me is very right wing. I came into this religion with all these ideas of "Am Yisroel", etc. I really believed that when I pulled my son from a chaotic, disorganized yeshiva which had poor quality education to place him in a more MO day school (boys and girls in the same building), it was okay (alright all you FFB's you can stop laughing). My husband was lectured about sending our children to a 'non-frum' school, and we were made to feel so uncomfortable that we ended up changing shuls.I am afraid to know what he would say if someone called (say, if we moved out of town) to check on my conversion.
So, not only is yeshiva mandatory, but you must send to the 'correct' yeshiva. (BTW, we also switched our daughter to the same school when I realized the 7th grade girls in her previous school were learning math skills taught in the 4th grade in public school)
And the cost?...Don't even get me started. The time for Hebrew charter schools has come--but would the rabbis support it?

ora said...

I don't agree with those saying that rabbis are adding an extra mitzva. Jewish men have a mitzva d'oraita to teach their children Torah. That's not something today's rabbis made up.

And while "teaching Torah" doesn't have to mean that your kid knows everything backwards and forwards by age 10, it's also not necessarily fulfilled by the non-orthodox method of Sunday school after a week in public schools that don't teach Torah.

It's a shame that the convert referred to in this post didn't ask the rabbis to clarify what they were saying. Why not ask - if I form a homeschooling cooperative with other frum parents, is that a good alternative? It's entirely possible that the rabbis just didn't think of that, and that the only options they were aware of are public school and yeshiva day school.

Previous posters mentioned the social aspect, and I agree that it's important. Not to keep kids away from non-Jews (although most kids will want to fit in with their peers, so it's not fair to expect them to have a peer set that's mostly non-Jewish or not-frum and simultaneously keep mitzvot - IMHO), but to make sure they get a chance to make friends with their fellow (frum) Jews. A ger or giyoret commits to raising frum kids (if applicable) - that includes making sure your kids are comfortable socially in a frum community (note the "a" not "the" - they don't have to fit into teaneck or brooklyn necessarily, but if they also don't fit in OOT, or in Israeli hareidi society, or in Israeli dati leumi society, or with sephardi Israelis, etc... then you've done them a big injustice).

LeahGG said...

totally off the dayschool topic - of course being Jewish has a pricetag - shul membership, kosher food, gemorahs, presentable clothes for Shabbos (I know non-religious/non-Jewish people who literally do not own one item that is appropriate for a synagogue), 2 sets of dishes (plus pesach)... none of these things are free.
If you're choosing to join the tribe, you should realize that it's not all about singing Shabbos songs around lit candles... there are sacrifices to be made too.

Whether exorbitant yeshiva tuition needs to be one of them is up for discussion...

LeahGG said...

*shabbos zmiros

Orthonomics said...

ora-I completely agree that if a family converts they should socialize their children in the frum community. I don't think many new converts really understand what tuition entails. I really don't think anyone without children in school can quite get their head around it. I personally would not expect a new convert to be in the position to negotiate out that requirement.

David said...


Day school (and the accompanying tuition) is presented as non-negotiable, sort of like the contracts you sign when you're buying a house.

I am terrribly frustrated that the Orthodox community delivers a mediocre education for top dollar, when compared with Gentile private schools which are providing very high-quality education for a lower price. I provide a comparison here.

Anonymous said...

I converted 17 years ago and was told I had to commit to yeshiva education for future children. I put my kids in the "correct" right-wing schools and found them to be very substandard vis a vis limudei chol. While that is not the reason they were in yeshiva, I felt they were actually being damaged by inferior teachers who most likely only worked there because they couldn't work elsewhere. The lemudei kodesh was outstanding, with the exception of a few warped individuals. Also, the behaviors (bullying/profanity) were detrimental to my children, so I pulled them out to homeschool. This has indeed tainted us somewhat as weird, but my kinderlach are not korbanos for the frum mafia to do with what it wishes. If I didn't have an amazing Rav in Eretz Yisroel I would have become despondent years ago. As it stands, these "tests" have only strengthened my emunah and resolve to do right by my children. Finally, I have told my children that if their Jewish status is ever questioned, they need to reconvert via a "chumra" which would only require a mikveh w/o a bracha. I really don't worry about all the "what ifs?" as I trust Hashem will take care of us always.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the person who is reluctant to become a "burden" by asking for reduced tuition--forget it. You will have to put aside your pride. I make $150,000, do not live in a major metropolis, and live in a 3 bedroom house. I am in the process of paying off professional school loans, and am still not quite able to afford sending all 4 of our children to school at $11,000 a pop.

I can be a tzaddik and move into a house that costs $70,000, but I won't. Not while the kollel guys, 40 hour a week folk, and rabbis live a comparable standard of living, do not work the same long hours I do, and expect if anything more handouts than I'm getting. Forget it--you don't have to sacrifice any harder than the average orthodox Jew. Let "them" try harder to fix the system rather than you trying to take the fall for the rest of the community. If you work an honest job, and are reasonably frugal (without cutting into retirement savings), you have nothing to feel guilty about.

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