The Tyranny of Carpooling

Sigmund Freud says we owe our children travel, education and nice clothes.

Judaism says we owe them a religious and ethical upbringing.

But who says we owe them carpooling?

Who says that after years of catering to them and carting them around, we aren’t entitled, as Howard Beale, the newscaster in the film “Network,” urges, to roll down our car windows, lean out and scream, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Nope, I’m not going to take being chained to an SUV and a restrictive time schedule. I’m not going to take listening to the incessant bickering over who sits in front, who picks the radio station and whose backpack is blocking whose way. And I’m not going to take using my car as an office, complete with telephone, coffee cup holder and Post-it Notes.

Worse, I’m not going to take the fact that during 12 years of carpooling, to and from school alone, I’ve driven — trust me, I’ve checked the math — the equivalent of seven round trips to New York City. But instead of Mount Rushmore, the Mississippi River and the Statue of Liberty, I pass the Sherman Oaks Galleria, the Anheuser-Busch Brewery and six gas stations.

But gripe as I might, I still have to take a couple of more years.

And that’s why 20 moms and one dad from Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School are sitting in my living room and inserting push pins, each representing a respective address, into a 2-by-3 foamboard-backed Thomas Brothers map of the San Fernando Valley.

We are attempting to figure out how to transport our collective 30 children, entering grades kindergarten through eight in September, from the 91436 zip code in Encino to the corner of White Oak and Devonshire in Northridge. We are trying to do this in the most efficient, cooperative and least obviously selfish way possible.

I watch the four moms with incoming kindergartners, who are new to the school. Nervous and na├»ve, they don’t know what it’s like to find chewing gum stuck to their leather interior. They don’t know what it’s like to wait impatiently for a chronically late kid or to have their own youngster learn new and creative words for body parts and bodily functions. And they don’t know what it’s like to have another mom forget to pick up carpool one afternoon.

“Tell me that the driving isn’t that bad,” one of the new moms says to me.

“It is that bad,” I answer. “But it’s worth it.”

But I wonder, in hindsight, if I would commit to driving my four sons to a school 12.5 miles from my house for a total of 14 years. I wonder if this is really the cruel and unnatural price we have to pay for living in this sprawling city with the country’s worst traffic congestion.

“What do you do?” people often ask me.

“I drive carpool,” I answer in my more whimsical, or wacky, moods. “I have excellent references.”

Yes, carpooling has become my identity and, it appears, my destiny. As a result, I’ve become comfortable with the fact that I’m never going to win the “coolest mom in the carpool” contest. Indeed, with no compunction but with some embarrassment to my sons, I’ve outlawed chewing gum, food, fighting, rap music and excessive noise.

In essence, I’ve outlawed fun.

For me, the purpose of carpooling is merely to transport a group of kids to and from school in a safe, civil and timely manner. Nothing more.

But that’s not entirely true.

For carpooling has enabled me, as Judaism commands, to provide my children with a religious and ethical upbringing at a Jewish day school in which they have thrived.

It has also enabled me, as Freud recommends, to provide them with travel and education. And while the travel is tedious and repetitive, the education, experiential and often unexpected, is not.

Over the years, my children have learned to be prompt, flexible and amicable. They have learned to shut a car door without slamming it. They have learned to say please and thank you.

Additionally, over the years, they have learned to deal with a variety of personality traits and quirks. And they have learned that, while some parents and kids can be rude and manipulative, others, perhaps the majority, can be extraordinarily generous, thoughtful and accommodating.

As for the nice clothes that Freud advocates, those are for me. I’ll need them in exactly six years, when my youngest gets his driver’s license and I trade in my SUV for a two-seater sports car.

The Necessary Next Step

Alvin Schrage knows what it means to shlep. Every weekday he gathers his three children into his Plymouth Voyager and makes the commute from their Agoura home to Emek Hebrew Academy in Sherman Oaks.

"That’s my nonpaying second job," jokes Schrage, who returns from his commute to his home office and then does the whole trek again when the kids finish school.

He joined a carpool of several other Conejo Valley families but still laments, "It takes away the entire day. And if you have a child who gets sick or injured while at school, it’s a problem."

Schrage knew there had to be a change. Together with other local parents, he now serves on the board of directors of the new Conejo Jewish Day School. Slated to open in September, the school will serve children in grades K-3 with a combination of secular studies, Hebrew language arts and Torah studies. The school will be held on the site used by Camp Kinneret, a former Jewish camp in Agoura now owned by Gateway Church. According to administrators, the plan is to keep class size to 10 students, with one class per grade, depending on demand; already 23 children have enrolled for the 2001-2002 academic year.

Although associated with Chabad of the Conejo, Rabbi Menachem Weiss, the school’s principal, makes it clear the new school is not "a Chabad school." He points out that the school’s advisory board includes a wide variety of community leaders, such as Rabbi Yaacov Vann of the Calabasas Shul; Risa Munitz Gruberger, associate director of the Whizin Institute for Jewish Family Life at the University of Judaism; and famed radio talk show host Dennis Prager.

"There are approximately 50 children from Calabasas and Agoura who commute at least 40 minutes to school. So that spurred [the board] on, coupled with the desire to create a school sensitive to the needs of families here," Weiss said.

"We want to strike a balance that on the one hand stays true to a very rigorous Torah education and at the same time serves families who want their children to get that kind of education without being made to feel ‘less than’ because their families are not observant," Weiss said. "We want to be welcoming and accepting of families that are not necessarily Orthodox."

To that end, Weiss is planning an adult-education series to run in tandem with the children’s program.

"Once or twice a month we will offer a class in the evening that will be on topics the children are also learning in school, so we can all learn together," he said. "We really see the parents as partners in the education of their children, not just bystanders."

Prager said he was pleased to be involved with setting up the school and hopes it will attract local Jewish families who are currently sending their children to public schools.

"Today many of us parents are at war with the surrounding environment, in trying to instill good values in our children and to protect their innocence," he said. "I have spoken to hundreds of thousands of Jews in the course of 30 years in Jewish life. Not one has ever said to me that he or she regretted having a Jewish education. On the other hand, I have encountered innumerable Jews who deeply regret not having had one."

Schrage and other board members hold a similar view.

While all of Schrage’s children are past the age of enrollment, he believes that establishing the school is an essential next step in the Conejo Jewish community’s development.

"I firmly believe that in order for this community to survive, we need a day school," Schrage said. "Because after the day school comes the pizzeria and the kosher restaurants and so on…. Everything else will flow beautifully after this."

The Conejo Jewish Day School will hold an open house on Sunday, April 29, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call (818) 879-8255.