Rob Eshman: I’m a believer

I was a Jewish school skeptic.

When it was time to send our first child, our son, to school, my wife, a rabbi, insisted it be a Jewish school. I wondered, like a lot of parents, whether the quality of the education would be so superior to the local public school, or a similarly priced private school. I worried that he wouldn’t get the diverse social exposure pubic school provided. I doubted a school that divides its day between Jewish and general studies could excel at either. 

And the cost? I tallied 15 years of Jewish school tuition, from preschool through high school, times two children and figured we could buy an apartment in Tel Aviv for what we were going to spend. I thought a lot about what Rabbi Ed Feinstein told me at the time. When his kids wondered why he never drove a new car, he said, “I do buy a new car every year. It’s called a Day School Tuition.”

This past Sunday, as I sat in the sanctuary at Stephen S. Wise Temple and watched our son receive his high school diploma from Milken Community High School, it seemed like those 13 years had passed in seconds. Yesterday, he was the Shabbat daddy at Braverman Elementary Preschool at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Two days ago, he was standing inside the bubble machine at the Pressman Academy Purim Carnival. And — blink — Sunday he sat in his cerulean cap and gown among the 136 Milken graduates as we parents watched, wondering where the time had gone. 

In many ways, my son’s journey through the Jewish education system also became my own. I am a product of San Fernando Valley public schools. My religious and cultural identities were shaped at home, Sunday school and the occasional synagogue visit. When my wife and I debated where to send our son, I argued that you couldn’t find a more Jewish school than Birmingham High was in the 1970s, when the campus turned into a ghost town on the High Holy Days. My wife argued that there is a big difference between gathering whatever nuggets of Jewish knowledge and tradition happen to fall into one’s hands, and actually mining, systematically, deeply, the many deep veins of text, liturgy and history that make up Judaism. 

She, of course, did not say this with such a clunky metaphor. And, as I saw our son progress, I came to understand what she meant. Pressman Academy laid a foundation for the study of Hebrew, Jewish history, Israel. Milken High exposed him to advanced levels of Jewish philosophy, the power of makloket, or learning through debate, and integrated his understanding with a general studies curriculum that included everything from Latin to robotics to architectural design. Far from seeing Judaism as separate from general knowledge, he learned how each strengthens, challenges and reinforces the other. In other words, he learned how to be a Jew in the world, and of the world.

But beyond the academics and field trips, I also saw him grow up in institutions that strive to embrace values that will serve him well his whole life: tradition and community, service and a love of learning for its own sake. 

Sometimes they fall short, because they, too, are part of the society they are trying to mold. But in a world where even your friendly congressman can be a sexual predator, and the lines between business and thievery are forever being blurred, a school that attempts to inject the study of morality and values into a curriculum is a very good thing.

That resonated as I read a wonderful essay by David Brooks in the May 31 issue of The New York Times. Brooks argued that the primary baby boomer value of finding yourself and following your bliss “misleads on nearly every front.” Instead, he wrote, graduates need to hear the value of “sacred commitments — to a spouse, a community and calling,” to counterbalance the baby boomers’  “litany of expressive individualism.”

You could argue — correctly — that all good schools, public and private, teach these values, or attempt to do so. But what occurred to me as I watched the Milken graduation ceremony proceed from “The Star-Spangled Banner” to “Hatikvah” to a benediction and through the speeches was why a good Jewish school is different. You don’t just graduate from a Jewish school, you also graduate with a deeper level of Jewish life. You haven’t gone out, you’ve gone further in. That core identity is something you can continue to develop and draw from throughout your life, as a foundation for a way to live and also a way to improve yourself, and to connect more deeply with your family and the world around you.

The students who spoke at the ceremony — Bradley Friedman, Jacob Schatz, Celia Megdal and valedictorian Robert Ravanshenas — all emphasized the fact that a Jewish education has offered them not just a shot at knowledge, but at wisdom. In a life that will be filled with decisions, Schatz said, Milken didn’t provide the answers, but rather a foundation of values on which to base one’s answers: intellectual debate, honesty, a concern for making the world a better place.

Megdal delivered her speech in Hebrew. “We are not only individual students,” she said. “We … are a community, part of the living, thriving People of Israel. The world expects more from us. We cannot only learn, grow and celebrate, but we must teach, nurture and support. Today I ask each of you to do more. … We have been given an excellent education, and are therefore especially compelled to live meaningful lives — not only for ourselves, but for all the generations that came before us, and for all those who follow us.”

It was a beautiful speech. Fifteen years after enrolling, I’m a believer.

Rob Eshman is the Editor-in-Chief of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.