Why a Jewish education matters

Studies confirm that a Jewish day school education can be the most effective and impactful way to increase Jewish identity.

‘NUMEROUS STUDIES confirm that students who study a foreign language demonstrate cognitive advantages over students who do not.’ (photo credit: REUTERS)
‘NUMEROUS STUDIES confirm that students who study a foreign language demonstrate cognitive advantages over students who do not.’
(photo credit: REUTERS)
North American Jewry is in a crisis of continuity and its future depends extensively on the ability of the current generation to enhance Jewish identity in the coming generation.
Studies confirm that a Jewish day school education can be the most effective and impactful way to increase Jewish identity. Jewish day school graduates are more connected both to their local communities and to Israel, and in-marry in greater percentages than do their non-Jewish day school peers. The alarming reality however is that just roughly one quarter of non-Orthodox Jewish students are currently enrolled in a Jewish day school. An increasing number want to send their kids to Jewish day school but simply cannot because of affordability issues.
Generally, those parents who do send their kids to a Jewish day school and those parents who want to are the choir to whom little to no preaching is required.
But there are the many parents beyond the choir; namely the Jewishly disengaged who do not want to send their children to Jewish day schools. But the common denominator of all parents is a desire to provide the very best education for their children. A Jewish education can do just that.
Beyond the invaluable emotional attachment to Judaism and Jewish life that a Jewish education can provide, a Jewish education can serve as a framework of practical competencies to operate successfully in dayto- day life and in almost any work environment. In order to understand the principles of Judaism and the Jewish experience, students face a highly rigorous and intellectually profound education. Studies confirm the efficacy of a Jewish education. TanenbaumCHAT, the Diaspora’s largest Jewish community high school, reports that six in 10 of its graduates go on to complete graduate degree studies or higher, with one in five either becoming a doctor or a lawyer.
So what is it about a Jewish education that helps to produces such impressive results? First, the study of Torah, classic rabbinic literature and rabbinic writings from later periods is a common features at most Jewish day schools. Torah study and rabbinic Judaism envelops students and draws them in to the intellectual orbit of Jewish tradition. The study of rich and complex texts requires conscious, sustained mental effort which forces the brain to create new neural pathways. It is a cognitive exercise which can significantly sharpen critical and analytical thinking skills.
The study of Talmud for example, utilizes the hypothetic- deductive model of text interpretation, a rigid form of logical reason, which mirrors the scientific process and achieves a higher level of cognitive functioning.
Recognizing the great intellectual benefit of Talmud study, the South Korean ambassador to Israel in 2011, Young-sam Ma, stated: “Twenty-three percent of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish people. Korean women want to know the secret. They found the secret in this book [the Talmud].”
At most Jewish day schools in Canada, students learn two foreign languages: French and Hebrew. Numerous studies confirm that students who study foreign language demonstrate cognitive advantages over students who do not. For the mind, learning a language is more a problem solving activity than a linguistic activity.
Not surprisingly, students who study a second and third foreign language out-perform their non-foreign language peers in both music and mathematical skill development. The mental gymnastics involved in language acquisition may also increase cognitive flexibility, executive function, critical thinking and creativity.
Jewish history plays a fundamental role in a Jewish education. Not only does Jewish history significantly strengthen Jewish identity, it endows students with invaluable mental power. Jewish day school students acquire not just extensive knowledge about the Jewish experience throughout time and place, the study of Jewish history teaches highly transferable and marketable communication and analytical skills and research and essay writing skills, which enrich a student’s ability to excel in other academic pursuits. For example, students of Jewish history learn to methodically decode complex primary and secondary sources, taking into account language, reliability, authorship, intended audience, era, omission and commission, and many more.
Behind every strong Jewish curriculum are a group of professionally trained Jewish educators. Teachers are the backbone of any educational institution and at Jewish day schools, only the best Jewish and general studies teachers are recruited and retained. Jewish day school teachers are a highly qualified and highly inspiring group of people with a personal love of their subject.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the “once-in-a-millennium scholar,” defines a Jew not as someone whose grandparents are Jewish, but rather as someone who wants his or her grandchildren to be Jewish. A Jewish day school education can make Judaism and Jewish engagement an organizing principle in the lives of students. Moreover, a Jewish day school education develops in students a balance of analytical, practical and creative abilities for success in life. This is why a Jewish education is priceless.
The author is co-head of the Jewish history department at the Anne & Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto and vice president of Federation of Teachers in Hebrew Schools of Toronto.