Home schooling: Instilling Jewish family values

Observant Jews reciting the Sh'ma say it three times a day. Crosby, Stills & Nash sang the words into popularity more than 20 years ago. "Teach your children well."

Looking for an alternative to overcrowded classrooms, dwindling per-student funding, metal detectors and mediocre curricula — not to mention such social pressures as drugs and sex, conflicting values and prohibitive private school costs — a growing number of parents are opting out of the American education system.

They're taking the biblical imperative more literally than ever and educating their children at home.

Once the bastion of fundamentalist Christians, home schooling is attracting a growing number of Jews, many of them in the Bay Area. Among them are Shoshana and Abe Socher of Berkeley.

Five days a week — Sunday through Thursday — after 4-year-old Coby has left for preschool and Abe for U.C. Berkeley, where he is completing his history doctorate, Shoshana Socher sets to instilling their family's values and knowledge in her daughters, Naomi, 9, and Anna, 7.

After praying together, they focus on Jewish and secular studies from 9 a.m. to about 1 p.m. On Mondays they set up goals for the week — some math and Hebrew just about every day, a weekly book review, violin lessons, science through correspondence classes offered by the Boston Museum of Science.

"We learn every day. You can't help but do otherwise," said Socher, who is Orthodox.

For example, building a sukkah becomes an exercise in math and carpentry skills, Socher said. "Everyday life provides subject matter for schooling."

Other Jewish home schoolers agree, pointing out how various activities — donating blood, for example — can be a way of integrating mitzvot [commandments] into everyday life. They say meeting merchants, police officers and postal carriers during their workday replaces an average second-grade curriculum unit dealing with service workers who aid their communities.

This fall marked the beginning of the Sochers' second year of home schooling. The system is getting high marks in their household.

"My children are spending most of their waking hours learning. Now I'm certain that the education they're receiving is reflecting our values," she said.

Educators are sympathetic to the tough schooling choices facing parents in 1995. However, most philosophically oppose the idea of home schooling.

"Kids need to belong to a community of peers," said Vicky Kelman, director of the Family Education Project at the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education.

"Students who are homeschooled may go ahead academically but I don't think they develop the same social skills as their peers. I think it's hard to know who you are if you only see yourself through your parents' eyes."

Henry Shreibman, executive director of Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco and Marin agreed, adding that, in a sense, home schooling is the antithesis of Jewish learning.

"We [Jews] are a tribe, a religion, a social entity. We count minyans. We are by definition people who educate in groups," he said. "Talmud and midrash aren't monologues. They aren't even dialogues. They're a plurality of voices crossing intellectual abilities, space and time."

Home schooling, in fact, isn't officially legal. It is defined by the California Department of Education as "a situation where noncredentialed parents teach their own children exclusively at home, using a correspondence course or other curricula."

Children schooled in that manner are considered truant by the state, and turned back to state-approved education systems, public or private.

Legal options include private tutoring by an instructor with a valid California teaching credential, enrollment in a private school that has filed an affidavit with the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and independent study organized through a local public school system.

Three years ago, Helene and Barry Rock of Los Altos Hills chose that last option. They obtained a transfer to the Cupertino Union School District and registered with its independent study program.

The "Conservadox" couple and their daughter Mia, 8, now meet regularly with a resource teacher. Helene Rock sends in samples of Mia's work along with attendance records. For its part, the district provides legal protections and a library comprising textbooks, software and videos.

The Rocks began their home-study program nearly three years ago after ruling out other education options as unacceptable.

"Every school had a mission statement, and in most cases it was bland. The Jewish day schools' statements warmed my heart but had little bearing on the classroom," Rock said.

In one school she visited, Rock found but one single computer, about 10 years old. In addition, many instructors teaching the lower grades were not Jewish. "I want our Jewish life reinforced. My daughter doesn't need to learn about how to be Jewish [from] someone who isn't," she said.

Caught in the crossfire of providing every Jewish child who wants one with an education while battling increasing costs, many Jewish day schools don't have the means to technologically compete with public and private schools.

Even in Boston, where the Socher family used to live, Shoshana and Abe pulled their daughter out of a day school with excellent facilities and reputation because "their vision wasn't our vision." The attitude "was work, work, work and then go to Harvard. Well what if your child doesn't fit that model?" Shoshana Socher said.

In fact, institutes of higher learning do accept home-schooled children. Colleges and universities depend on standardized placement tests, personal interviews and essays to admit students without high school diplomas.

Of more immediate concern than college to both the Sochers and Rocks is Jewish education. Both families identify themselves as committed and observant Jews. The Rocks are members of Conservative Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. The Sochers worship at Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley.

Neither sends their children to congregational religious school. Instead, Jewish learning is incorporated into daily education.

"Judaism isn't an after-school, extracurricular activity," Helene Rock said. "Besides, Tuesday and Thursday from 4 to 6 p.m. and Saturday morning [are] just terrible for Mia. It's her time to get involved with other kids and other interests, not sit [at] a desk.

Instead, Mia spends late-afternoon hours in art classes, Jewish Girl Scout troop activities, practicing gymnastics and meeting with the South Bay Storytellers — a group of which Mia is the youngest member by at least 20 years.

Mia and Helene Rock also meet other home schoolers on "park days" — designated times when parents and children not attending public school meet to talk and play. In addition, Rock has found several home schooling families, like the Sochers, through the Jewish Home Educators' Network (JHEN).

Created by former San Franciscan Janie Levine, JHEN serves about 1,000 subscribers worldwide — including about 300 Bay Area families — with its bimonthly newsletter Bo Nilmad (Come and Let Us Learn). Available for $12 a year, the 16-page Bo Nilmad includes advice from rabbis, Jewish and secular educators and home schoolers.

Reflecting another sign that Jewish interest in home schooling is growing, Levine said she receives an increasing number of calls and inquiries each week.

Levine also publishes National Home Schooling Journal, a secular version of Bo Nilmad that serves about 1,500 readers, who pay $15 a year.

Both periodicals grew out of Levine's own experiences with home schooling.

"We were terribly illegal when we began, but nobody cared," Levine said of home-teaching her children — now aged 13, 22 and 25. "Now there are compulsory education laws [regarding home schooling] in all states. Back then it was a gray area."

Levine decided to blaze her own trail 15 years ago when her family moved to Washington state, where they found no Jewish day schools.

"The Jewish part was number two," she said. "Number one was [that] I wanted my kids to know how to learn. I didn't see a love of learning being taught. I saw creativity being squelched, and I saw people teaching who didn't love the company of children."

After trial and error, Levine decided she would not try to emulate the more structured school experience at home. Like Socher, Levine believes "the learning doesn't end."

However, Levine remains a strong supporter of the public school system, by paying local property taxes and by believing in public education.

"People are looking to meet their children's needs," she said. "I choose to not use my public schools but I support them. We have a duty to support an educated population."

After all, she added, "Not everyone can and should do what I do."