By: Avigayil Perry
Every morning, the four Aldrich children do not rush out the door to catch a bus or carpool–they head to the living room.
Ranging from the age of five to fourteen, the Aldrich children, who live in Indianapolis, Indiana, are part of a growing number of Orthodox kids across the country who are being homeschooled–that is, they are taught by parents who have made the decision not to relegate their children’s education to others, but to fulfill the mitzvah of chinuch themselves.
Homeschooling in the general US population is on the rise, becoming more mainstream and accepted, as is evident from the increasing number of resources available to homeschooling families. In the Orthodox community, it is still a small but growing trend.
Yael Aldrich, who is viewed by many as a leader in the Orthodox homeschooling community, sees homeschooling becoming increasingly popular among Orthodox families with young children. “More people are interested and actually putting homeschooling on the table of possibilities. It will be interesting to see if they continue homeschooling as their children enter elementary and middle school,” Aldrich says.
“A lot of people don’t realize that homeschooling these days is a lot easier than it used to be,” says Yael Resnick, a forty-seven-year-old mother of five in Sharon, Massachusetts, who has homeschooled her children for fourteen years. “It’s actually overwhelming how many classes and activities are being offered to homeschoolers now–at museums, libraries, schools, parks and community centers.”
In Baltimore, for example, home to many frum homeschooling families, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra offers midweek daytime concerts that attract homeschooling families.
Technology has also created an upsurge in Jewish homeschooling as online programs like Room613.net gain popularity. Six years ago, Resnick’s husband, Rabbi Yosef Resnick, who has a master’s degree in education, founded Room613.net, an online program with, he explains, “a relaxed and inviting atmosphere that encourages all students to learn at their best and feel confident.” Rabbi Resnick says he usually forms deep relationships with his students. “I really love and care about my students just like any teacher,” he says. “After a while, you forget that you are meeting in a virtual classroom.”
A Homeschooling Network
About two million children in the United States are homeschooled, according to the National Home Education Research Institute. The number of Orthodox Jewish homeschoolers is more difficult to determine. Aldrich, forty-one, runs an online support network via Yahoo for 450 homeschooling families–but the group doesn’t encompass everyone. She sees about 200 Orthodox homeschooling families in Facebook groups who are not in her Yahoo group. “Then people always tell me of other people who homeschool whom I do not know at all,” she says. “So I estimate two to three thousand Orthodox Jewish homeschoolers, and it’s growing!”
Aldrich coordinated the Sixth Annual Torah Home Schooling Conference over a year ago. Held in the spring of 2014, the conference, which took place in Englewood, New Jersey, drew about 100 participants from across the country, from young couples considering homeschooling their children to veteran homeschoolers. The presenters–most of whom are experienced homeschoolers–covered a variety of topics, such as “Homeschooling from a Father’s Perspective,” “Homeschooling Children with Special Needs,” “Finding Your Homeschooling Kodesh Style,” “Technology and Your Homeschool” and “Homeschooling the Preschool Years.”
What motivates these parents to turn home into school, to spend their days with pencils and textbooks, worksheets and word problems? Of course with escalating tuition, some families choose homeschooling as a survival tactic. But for quite a few Orthodox parents around the country, the decision is based on ideology, not finances.
“A lot of people don’t realize that homeschooling these days is a lot easier than it used to be…It’s actually overwhelming how many classes and activities are being offered to homeschoolers now—at museums, libraries, schools, parks and community centers.”
Rebecca Masinter, a thirty-four-year-old mother of six living in Baltimore, has never sent her children, ranging between the ages of five months to twelve years, to school. She describes Baltimore as a very accepting and inclusive community. “This is a bonus when choosing an alternative path for one’s family,” she says. “Because it’s a large community, you don’t experience the same pressure to put children in the local day school for the sake of supporting a [community institution], as is the case in some smaller communities.”
Masinter began homeschooling in order to have more quality time with and a greater influence on her children. Having worked as a classroom teacher prior to homeschooling, she was no stranger to teaching. However, homeschooling, she says, is very different from teaching in a regular school. “Homeschooling is mothering, twenty-four hours a day,” she says.
Homeschooling appeals to Aldrich because she can customize her children’s education to fit their needs. Aldrich has clear goals: to provide her children with a “broad education that gives them the ability to think critically about issues in the Jewish and secular world,” and to enable them to “become self-learners.”
One Family’s Homeschooling Journey
Aldrich, who holds master’s degrees in management and Jewish communal services, first discovered homeschooling when she and her family moved to Japan. Her husband, Rabbi Dr. Daniel Aldrich, a political science professor at Purdue University, needed to move there for research purposes. The Aldriches were not thrilled with the school options in Japan for Gavriel Tzvi, their oldest son who was then a first grader. (No Jewish schools exist in Japan.) “Some Orthodox kids went to the Japanese international schools or public schools, while others were homeschooled,” Aldrich explains. The Aldriches decided to homeschool. After their year in Japan came to a close, the family moved to Indiana. Even though a community day school exists where they currently live, they decided to continue homeschooling.
Aldrich uses a rigorous curriculum based on The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer. She feels drawn toward classical education and chose this particular curriculum because of its focus on “language, literature and grammar.” Her older children study Latin.
Homeschoolers often find tutors or teachers to teach their children Judaic studies, science, art or other subjects. They also make extensive use of online resources. For example, Gavriel Tzvi spends time each day learning Gemara with the community rabbi, giving Aldrich time to work with her other children. Each child works independently while waiting for his or her turn with Aldrich. Aldrich appreciates the flexibility of homeschooling.
“We can always adjust our schedule according to the kids’ needs,” she says. And on nice days, the family will drop their lessons and take an outing. “Instead of snow days, we have sunny days.”
How do homeschoolers get their kids to actually sit down and learn? “My kids are not angels,” Aldrich admits. But she motivates them by reminding them that homeschooling is a “privilege.” Since her kids feel that their education is “superior,” and that they would rather be homeschooled, they are inspired to buckle down and get to work.
“Had we kept him in school, he would have been the kid [who is constantly] in the principal’s office. Instead of focusing on his schooling, we would be focused on trying to keep him out of the office.”
When Yeshivah’s Not a Fit
Some parents turn to homeschooling after experiencing problems in the yeshivah system. When Rivkah Harper, a forty-one-year-old mother of four boys who recently relocated to Dallas, Texas, sent her oldest son to preschool, she saw it was not a good fit. “He is very active,” explains Harper. “Had we kept him in school, he would have been the kid [who is constantly] in the principal’s office. Instead of focusing on his schooling, we would be focused on trying to keep him out of the office.” Harper, who holds a bachelor’s degree in music and was a stay-at-home mom, initially felt reluctant about homeschooling. After many months of research and her husband’s encouragement, she decided to take the plunge.
Leah Samuels, a forty-something-year-old mother of four in Baltimore, also never thought that she would homeschool. Her two sons are both dyslexic. Her nine-year-old is “bright and creative” but cannot recall material. Because he could grasp material when initially presented but could not recall it the following day, teachers believed this behavior was intentional, and called him lazy, Samuels explains. He began getting bullied by his classmates as well. After many attempts at resolving the issues, Samuels realized that she needed another option. Initially, the Samuelses looked into public school as well as a private school for children with severe learning disabilities. The public schools could not offer the appropriate services for the high level of remediation that her two boys required. Nor could the Samuelses afford the high tuition costs upward of $35,000 for the private school. They seemed to have only one option: homeschooling.
During the typical day at home, her sons’ schedules include sessions with a reading specialist and speech therapist, enabling Samuels to work with each kid individually. Her older son has a tutor for Judaic studies while her second son took a year off from Hebrew reading as per a psychologist’s recommendation. In the afternoons, the boys attend group co-op classes for physical education, art and music.
“My kids used to be afraid to speak up in group settings, but now they feel confident and do not fear being themselves,” she says. Samuels hopes to go back to school to pursue a degree in special education, both to better help her own children and other families.
Is Homeschooling Always the Answer?
Homeschooling does not work for everyone. Kate Friedman, a thirty-one-year-old stay-at-home mother of two girls in St. Louis, Missouri, initially felt drawn toward homeschooling for many of the same reasons others do. “I saw that family life can be hectic between school, homework and activities, leaving very little family time,” she says. However, she eventually realized that homeschooling is not necessarily “a perfect alternative.” She kept both her daughters home until age three, and initially anticipated keeping them home longer until she realized that in the frum community, all the other playmates for her older daughter, now age five, were in school. “Above age two and a half, a child needs so much social interaction, and it’s difficult when the child only depends on the parent,” she says.
Similarly, this past year, the Aldriches realized that Gavriel Tzvi, who is turning fourteen, has few shomer Shabbat friends to hang out with in their community; the local school only goes through eighth grade. While the parents would have loved to educate their son at home longer, this fall, he will be attending a yeshivah high school in Boston, where the whole family will be relocating.
Gavriel Tzvi applied to three yeshivah high schools, all of which accepted him. Interestingly enough, the application process for him was almost identical to that of boys who attend day school or yeshivah. He submitted a parent-created transcript, as well as recommendation letters from his Gemara rebbe, bar mitzvah tutor, principal (Rabbi Dr. Aldrich) and teacher (Mrs. Aldrich). At each school, he was tested in Gemara as well as in math and English. “We were worried that our unusual situation would place him at a disadvantage, but due to hard work and siyata d’Shmaya, Gavriel Tzvi succeeded beyond our wildest dreams,” Aldrich says. “We feel even more confident that homeschooling can produce a quality human being and ben Torah.”
Most yeshivah educators and administrators strongly oppose homeschooling. Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark, dean of Bais Yaakov Bnos Raizel Seminary of Montreal, believes that homeschooling should only take place when “a child has a personality disorder or severe learning disability that cannot be helped with a resource room or other professional assistance,” he says.
“Even if the education in the school is inferior and you think that you can do better at home, it is not worth the exchange of knowledge for loss of social interaction that helps build the personality.”
Rabbi Mordechai Wecker, senior consultant at Toras Chaim, a day school in Portsmouth, Virginia, who has been in education for over thirty years, cites eminent social psychologist and philosopher David Emile Durkheim, who referred to the classroom as a “small society.” With the technological explosion, children have far less opportunities for interpersonal interactions, he says, a problem that is only exacerbated for the homeschooled child. Furthermore, he says, “Classroom facilitation by a competent teacher encourages cross-fertilization of ideas that promotes out-of-the-box thinking.”
Homeschoolers maintain that homeschooling families get together regularly for various outings such as bowling, art museums and other trips, and children get to socialize by attending shul and participating in youth groups such as NCSY.
Social issues aside, critics note that homeschooling parents lack teaching credentials and, if the families live in a small Jewish community, by homeschooling their children they are failing to support the local community school.
Still others claim that because kids are not tested or assessed in any formal way, it is difficult to gauge whether or not they are actually learning. Masinter is not against testing and grading in a school setting but feels that in a homeschooling situation, there’s no real need for grades or report cards. “As the educating parent, I am already familiar with what each child has and has not mastered at a given point,” she says. “I see no need to give an artificial label based on how others perceive growth.” She also believes it is “highly dangerous to assign a poor grade in limudei kodesh. It’s simply not true that a child can’t be good at Chumash, because it’s our inheritance and lifeblood. If a child is struggling with the material, I am not presenting it in a way that he needs to learn it.”
Many parents concur that if homeschooling were more accepted in the frum community, more families would be interested in pursuing it. “Usually community leaders request everyone’s enrollment [in the local school] to make the school [stronger], and they lack passion for homeschooling,” Friedman says. “Each family adds a new dimension to a school. But then, how do you balance what’s best for the kid and family versus what’s best for the community?”
Of course homeschooling requires that one parent stays home full time. This obviously does not work for many families, given the high cost of living a frum lifestyle. While homeschooling is growing, Aldrich predicts that it will always be a small movement within the Orthodox Jewish community.
Avigayil Perry lives in Norfolk, Virginia, with her family and writes for various Jewish publications.
Listen to Yael Aldrich discuss homeschooling at https://www.ou.org/life/education/savitsky-aldrich/.