Studying community: Parents confront choices regarding formal Jewish education
Exploring the numbers2017 Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study

Studying community: Parents confront choices regarding formal Jewish education

Parent portraits give light to 2017 Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study.

Rabbi Yisroel Altein tutoring Hallie, Samantha and Jack Cohen. Photo courtesy of Jed Cohen
Rabbi Yisroel Altein tutoring Hallie, Samantha and Jack Cohen. Photo courtesy of Jed Cohen

From morning until night, parents are tasked with making choices. Some decisions may seem relatively benign, such as whether to pack a tuna sandwich or pay the school for chef’s surprise, while others can require greater consideration, such as determining if formal Jewish education, and in what capacity, is right for a child. Numbers and charts, such as those found in the 2017 Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study, reveal Jewish education’s place of importance in Pittsburgh, but it’s the parents themselves who bring the findings to life.

Michelle Markowitz, of Mt. Lebanon, has two children: a 14-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter. Both attend public school, participate in sports and are students at JLine and Temple Emanuel Torah Center, part-time religious schools where they learn Hebrew, Judaics and Israeli history.

Torah Center tries to “mix it up for the kids,” said Markowitz, whose children also enjoy art, games and other programs there. “Sometimes they have fun there and sometimes it’s not quite as fun, but that’s life.” And her kids don’t complain about attending Torah Center. “I’m not sure if that’s the norm or not the norm, but my kids don’t mind going at all.”

During the 2016-’17 school year, roughly 37% of households in the South Hills with children in grades K-12 participated in part-time Jewish education, according to the report commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and conducted by researchers at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.

“I get that other people make different decisions,” Markowitz said of the choices she’s made regarding Jewish education. “But for our family, it’s the right choice.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy, though. Like most parents, Markowitz has to contend with competing demands on her children’s time, which can be logistically complicated. Her son attends J Line South Hills, a weekly Jewish learning opportunity for teens in grades 8-10. The program provides dinner then two one-hour learning slots separated by a 15-minute break. J Line’s schedule was a relative boon to Markowitz.

“I picked him up right from hockey practice, and took him so he could make the second hour of J Line. It wasn’t ideal but he got to do some of each,” she said. “He went to J Line after being exhausted from hockey, but it was the best we could work out for that period of time.”

Trying to find the sweet spot between competing interests is “a challenge for our family and probably every family when sports come into play,” Markowitz continued. “When you’re on a team your team expects you to be there and if they schedule a game on Sunday morning you have to make a decision, and that can be really challenging for our family. We make decisions trying to balance all the needs of both the team and live our Jewish values, and we explain that to our children.”

Jeff Margolis, left, and Jordan Margolis stand in Jerusalem. Jordan, like his younger siblings, spent years studying at Jewish day schools. Jordan now attends a yeshiva in Israel where he is able to build on his earlier Jewish studies. Photo courtesy of Jeff Margolis

Lydia Blank, of Highland Park, understands that struggle. She has three children, ages 14, 12 and 4. Her 12-year-old son is studying for his bar mitzvah, attends Joint Jewish Education Program, a multidenominational school for students grades K-7, and plays baseball.

Blank’s 14-year-old daughter attended J-JEP three time a week and studied conversational Hebrew prior to high school.

Her son will study Hebrew “up through his bar mitzvah and attend J-JEP once a week through the year,” but as for what comes next, it’s a different discussion, said Blank.
After aging out of J-JEP, students can attend J Line. In neighborhoods surrounding Squirrel Hill, such as Highland Park, it’s an option several families choose, as approximately 13% of households with children in grades K-12 participated in part-time Jewish education.

Similar to its South Hills counterpart, J Line’s program at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh meets once a week. Two Sunday morning slots are separated by a 20 minute break. J Line’s track-based model allows students to either learn about Israel, participate in social justice, explore Jewish culture or study modern Hebrew during the fall, winter and spring terms.

Despite its course offerings, J Line functions differently than traditional religious school, explained Blank, who attended School for Advanced Jewish Studies as a teenager and recalled reading Elie Wiesel, studying Torah and learning Hebrew with classmates.

“When I started college, I had a leg up and that was amazing, but that program doesn’t exist anymore. I wish it hadn’t failed,” said Blank. “I wish there was one place where these kids could get a comprehensive Jewish education that continues on through high school and is not piecemeal.” J Line’s partitioned tracks are “really important but there isn’t one place you can get it all.”

Elena and Rob Davis, of Squirrel Hill, can relate to trying to get those needs met. One of the main reasons they moved to Pittsburgh eight years ago was to have access to “a day school like Hillel (Academy) where all of our children could go through high school,” said Elena, whose kids are 15, 12, 10 and 8.

In Squirrel Hill, nearly 22% of households with children in grades K-12 participated in Jewish day schools.

“We just loved Hillel and the idea of having everyone there and having it be a community school for us,” she said. “When we started dealing with a child with learning disabilities, Hillel really tried, but their resources are limited.”

To address the student’s needs, educators routinely pulled the child out of class and into the resource room, but every time there was a removal, material was missed. It created a continuous cycle of being behind, explained Rob. The Davises eventually realized that they needed to make a change.

After Provident Charter School opened, the Davises moved their child there midyear to access a curriculum and certified instructors that specifically catered to language-based learning differences such as dyslexia.

“It was a really emotional decision for us,” said Elena.

Whereas their child had previously been immersed in a substantively Jewish setting — no school on Jewish holidays, kosher food, classmates who attended local synagogues — the new school presented an almost opposite set of circumstances.

Students of the Joint Jewish Education Program — from Congregation Beth Shalom and Rodef Shalom Congregation — hold up an unrolled Torah scroll,Sunday, Oct. 7, in the main sanctuary of Rodef Shalom, to celebrate Simchat Torah, the holiday that marks the end of one Torah-reading cycle and the beginning of another. (Chronicle photo by Ohad Cadji)
Students of the Joint Jewish Education Program — from Congregation Beth Shalom and Rodef Shalom Congregation — hold up an unrolled Torah scroll,
in the main sanctuary of Rodef Shalom, to celebrate Simchat Torah, the holiday that marks the end of one Torah-reading cycle and the beginning of another. Photo by Ohad Cadji

“We love Hillel. It wasn’t that we were unhappy, it’s just that they weren’t able to support our kids’ learning in that environment,” Elena said. “It was very sad for us to have to take our kids out. We appreciate the efforts Hillel made to work with our kids for years.”

Now two of their children go to Hillel Academy and two attend Provident. Finding comparable immersive formal Jewish education for the two who aren’t enrolled in Jewish day school is difficult.

“It’s hard for us to know what to do,” said Elena. “We didn’t go to day school; we went to Hebrew school. It’s hard for us to teach on that level.”

Determining a child’s Jewish educational goals is difficult, Rob explained.

Jeff Margolis, of Squirrel Hill, could probably give the Davises some advice. He and his wife’s four children, 21, 18, 14 and 14, fluctuated between Jewish day schools, cyberschool and public school.

Given their limited resources, Jewish day schools aren’t always able to meet particular needs. In such situations, parents face tough choices. File photo

“Every child is different,” said Margolis, who attended Hillel Academy and Yeshiva Schools. “Each child as they start to mature and get a little older chooses a different path.”

Margolis said his oldest child was active in youth groups and now attends a yeshiva in Israel while his middle child “has almost absolutely nothing to do with almost anything Jewish right now.” The younger two, who are twins, attend Pittsburgh Allderdice High School, where one wears a yarmulke and the other doesn’t cover his head.

Margolis and his wife raise their children in a home where formal Jewish study is praised, but when their twins required greater educational attention, the parents decided public school was the best option available. “We didn’t pull them to public school because we said, ‘We don’t value the Jewish educational part.’ We put them in because they needed individual plans.”

Part of the value in choosing Jewish day school education for your children is that “there’s a very good chance that they wind up at some point, during or right after high school, in Israel, and everything they’ve learned they can now visualize, they can touch, they can see,” said Margolis.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The education received at Colfax Elementary & Middle School was significant, but so was the loss of communal identity, explained Margolis. “They feel different, and a lot of times they feel, ‘Why can’t I be like the rest of my friends? Why can’t I eat what I want?’ And so what you find out is all of a sudden their lunches are coming home completely untouched. So there are certain battles or certain values or certain things that you wind up just losing, and you try and correct. But again, at the end of the day, you want your child to be able to read and write.”

“We know that there are a lot of factors that go into parents’ choices when it comes to Jewish education,” said Raimy Rubin, Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s manager of impact measurement. During the two and a half years he was engrossed in the Community Study, Rubin collected and analyzed data with lay leaders, educators and researchers, a process that left him optimistic about the road ahead — especially with results like 33% of overall households with children in pre-K receive formal Jewish education. Considering costs, location, convenience and that not all age-eligible students attend early childhood, Rubin said, that number should inspire part-time schools and Jewish day schools seeking to grow. Education, Rubin said, is an “on-ramp — just as much for the family as it is the child.”

Kate Louik, of Mt. Lebanon, would agree. Louik didn’t grow up Jewish, but converted after marrying her husband. The couple has two daughters, 6 and 4, who both attend Temple Emanuel Torah Center.

Rabbi Yisroel Atein tutors the Cohen children. Photo courtesy of Jed Cohen.

“One of the things that was really wonderful about my daughter’s preschool experience at Torah Center was every week the teacher sent home a note that talked about the books we read here and the projects we worked on,” said Louik. Because of that, car rides became an opportunity to discuss what was learned that day. “It could have been content about a holiday or it could have been talking about a Jewish value. We were immediately able to turn those conversations from school into a conversation about our family life.”

Louik knows that her daughters are years away from their b’nai mitzvot, but she looks forward to inching closer to those events.

“I don’t know Hebrew so one of the things I’m excited about for myself and for my kids is that they’re going to be learning a lot of things, particularly when it comes to Hebrew, and my girls and I are going to, kind of, be learning right along with each other.”

Jed Cohen, of Squirrel Hill, appreciates the idea of gleaning from a child’s education. He and his wife’s three children, 15, 12 and 12, study biweekly for with Rabbi Yisroel Altein of Chabad of Pittsburgh after attending public school. Tutoring was a natural progression after having participated in numerous functions with the Alteins, explained Cohen, who met the couple nine years ago. When it came to Jewish education choices, “we chose to stick with Chabad mainly because we really like the rabbi. It’s just a comfort level with them.”

Cohen said that between his wife having participated in programs with Chani Altein, like the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, and his kids’ receiving regular instruction from the rabbi, the overall impact has been extremely beneficial. “It has added a sense of Jewish identity and spiritual value to our family,” said Cohen.

The Cohen’s experience represents the Community Study finding that more than 52% of Jewish children in grades K-12 participated in some form of Jewish education during the 2016-’17 school year. It’s an encouraging number, Rubin said, and demonstrates that educators just have to keep being creative.

“There is such a competition for our kids’ time and energy nowadays,” Rubin said, “and if we want them to have a strong Jewish education then we have to be innovative … so that they want to be there and want to get something out of it.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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