Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Jewish schools give kids identity, academics and connectedness

Lisa Richler and two of her children, who attend Toronto Heschel Jewish day school in Toronto.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

When it came to deciding where to send her two children to school, Lara Rykiss only had to look at her husband's upbringing.

"I wanted my children to develop a circle of friends that they will have for the rest of their lives, even if they spread out all over the world," she says, explaining why she sent them to Gray Academy of Jewish Education in Winnipeg. "I've witnessed this with my husband's group, the year he graduated with [his cohort from Jewish school], and I want my children to have that."

Developing a solid support network of friends is one of the many reasons that parents choose to send their children to Jewish day schools in Canada.

Story continues below advertisement

"I think people turn to Jewish day schools for a number of things," says Daniel Held, the executive director of the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education at the United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Toronto.

"They're looking for quality and excellence," in traditional subjects such as math, science and literacy.

"They're also looking for institutions which will interest their kids in the Jewish identity and their connectiveness to their Jewish lives and to their heritage, religion and culture, and which add to the cultural mosaic of what it means to be a Canadian."

Lisa Richler in Toronto didn't attend Jewish school herself, and admits she had a preconceived notion of Hebrew schools as being somewhat parochial and out of touch with the modern world. But after attending teachers' college and seeing the way in which the Canadian educational process was moving, with an emphasis on more hands-on learning, she found that Jewish schools were already ahead of the curve. When it came time to send her three children to school, she found all that she was looking for at the Toronto Heschel School in North York, in northern Toronto.

"The way classrooms are set up, you don't see rows of desks. Sometimes the kids will sit in groups and they will focus on collaborative work, sometimes it's a semi-circle so that they can be encouraged to have discussions," she says now, in her dual role as parent and admissions officer for the school.

"It just did not remind me at all of how my own elementary school was and it was not at all what I thought a Jewish school would be. It seemed very much more geared toward fostering the kinds of skills that I see as being useful: being able to collaborate, being able to think creatively and express yourself creatively and being able to tap into children's curiosity."

At Heschel, a co-educational school that admits students from junior kindergarten through to Grade 8, the education is split roughly 50-50 between Hebrew and English classes, although they are placed intermittently throughout the daily schedule. Annual education costs up to about $16,000, but the school provides a tax receipt, and also awards subsidies on a case-by-case basis.

Story continues below advertisement

Given that there are about 20 Jewish schools to choose from in a strong Toronto Jewish community, Heschel draws mainly from the North York area, although some students come from the suburb of Thornhill, and downtown Toronto.

"It's a great city to be living in if you're looking for Jewish education," says Ms. Richler, "because there are a lot of choices and I think every family could find a place where they could really feel it's the right fit."

Further afield, the choices are generally more limited – there are no full-time Jewish day schools east of Montreal, for example, but communities and Jewish federations do their best to ensure that Jewish educations can be provided for those who want them.

"I believe it will give my children the most well-rounded tool box for living their life and that's why it's very important to me," says Tracy Kasner-Greaves, who, like Ms. Rykiss, sends her two children to Gray Academy in Winnipeg, and is also the president of the school's board of directors.

Gray Academy runs classes from junior kindergarten to Grade 12. Like many schools, it aims to accommodate a range of families' views about what being Jewish means. For instance, there is the issue of Zionism (support of a Jewish homeland in Israel).

"We do definitely teach about Israel and I think you would find that most of the parents and teachers are likely quite pro Israel," Ms. Rykiss says. "I wouldn't say it's a force-it-down-your-throat kind of Zionism. I think somebody who wasn't a Zionist could still send their children there and be fine with it."

Story continues below advertisement

The emphasis on Hebrew lessons is varied as the students progress through different grades – resulting in dual General Studies and Judaic Studies diplomas at the end of Grade 12.

As for the Judaic studies component, "some schools will have it 50-50, some schools will go 60-40, 70-30 in either direction, and some schools will teach all their Jewish studies in Hebrew and some schools will have less of an emphasis on Hebrew," Mr. Held says. "As diverse as the Jewish community is, our Jewish day schools are diverse as well."

At the King David High School in Vancouver, which teaches English and Hebrew classes on an 80:20 ratio, the quality of the education is the most important thing to the parents.

As a young school – now 10 years old – King David was founded to provide students with the tools to thrive at university level, above and beyond any religious emphasis. Its mandate is to provide education to anyone who defines themselves as Jewish, and offers financial subsidies to those who can't meet the full cost of education, which is almost $16,000 a year.

But while head of school Russ Klein says he doesn't think of his school as a religious school, he does focus very much on the opportunity he feels has been presented to him and his school.

"People underestimate that high school is when teenagers determine who they're going to be," he explains. "In Vancouver, there's been a real emphasis on elementary school. Get them bar mitzvahed and get them out into the real world.

"It's now starting to change as people realize that actually, if you want to keep them Jewish, you better educate them when they're thinking about their identity."

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
We have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We expect to have our new commenting system, powered by Talk from the Coral Project, running on our site by the end of April, 2018. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.