Given the benefits of a public school education over private day school education, such as $0 tuition and technology and extra curriculars which many schools do not have, why don't most orthodox American Jews send their kids to public school for their secular education and then hire tutors for Jewish studies? Is this an entirely socio-cultural phenomenon or are there halachic reasons as well?


4 Answers 4


I graduated from public school. My comments are not a result of the caliber of the education or even the environment - my school won national competitions in academic competitions, and was a very clean and safe environment. But I would never think of sending my child to the best public school.

1) - My school (which ended a bit earlier than the schools around it, except for senior early dismissal) ended at 2:30 in the afternoon. Elementary and middle school ended later. That means that you want to now add in the equivalent of a day-school Jewish education (I can't speak for every school, but in my town that means about 5 hours). So this child will be finishing school when most kids are in the middle of dinner. On top of that, a planned double-curriculum will be designed so that homework is balanced for both halves of the curriculum, and the Jewish part of the curriculum could be supplemented at home, whereas a public school will not be factoring in time for another curriculum, and if you want to add on additional study or work, it will be on top of a full curriculum not designed to accommodate such.

2) - The Rambam writes in Hilchos De'os 6:1:

דרך ברייתו של אדם--להיות נמשך בדעותיו ובמעשיו אחר ריעיו וחבריו, ונוהג במנהג אנשי מדינתו.

The nature of man is to be drawn after the ideas and actions of his peers and friends, and to act like the people of his surroundings.

My peers did not have the same values as me. These were people who were legitimately my friends (I was invited to some of their weddings years later), as you would expect to happen with people who are spending hours together every day, and they were having social interactions on Shabbos and Yom Tov, which involved things which were objectively forbidden by the Torah, and I had to just miss out on that part. I had to be in a position where I couldn't be completely "part of the gang" but I couldn't just pretend they weren't my social groups. (I happened to have very good friends who did not make me feel outcast, but that didn't mean I enjoyed missing the parties.)

3) - ולא תתורו אחרי לבבכם ואחרי עיניכם - There are certain things which a Jew is not allowed to see (e.g. a woman's thigh, breasts). The dress code at my school was that a young lady's shorts or skirt had to reach at least below her fingers when they hung at her side. This was made more lenient before my younger sister graduated. A shirt had to have straps, but cleavage and stomach below the belly button was allowed to be exposed. A strap could also go around the neck (i.e. a shirt with a very low or absent back, held up by straps from the front). So hormonal 14-18 year old boys are going to be expected to keep their eyes on their toes the whole day? Additionally, phys-ed is a required part of curriculum in virtually all public schools, and they aren't offering separate swimming hours any time soon. I had to play sports with the opposite gender, and go mixed swimming. I actually had an English teacher who occasionally wore mini-skirts, and it's hard to ignore the teacher.

4) - In the Yeshiva school in my town, the role models for the students are rabbis and qualified women who represent Torah values. The secular teachers are vetted by the school, and are not espousing viewpoints contrary to the Torah. A young mind is especially vulnerable to the opinions of adults perceived as authority figures, and mixed messages are at best confusing for them. My Art teacher was a Jew for Jesus and wanted to talk to me about it, since I was the only one around with a yarmulke. It's hard to tell your teacher (who determines your grade) that his beliefs are heretical and you aren't interested in discussing it.

5) - Public school follows a secular calendar. I had to make up all the work that I missed over a Thursday-Friday Holiday, which is made more difficult when often quizzes and tests are scheduled for Fridays. Tishrei has 7 days of Yom Tov, plus you have to go to school on Chol Hamoed to not exacerbate the issue. Shavuos was always a fun one, since Finals are right around that time. I actually missed the entire review period for AP Statistics because of Pesach. Jewish schools have calendars arranged around the Jewish calendar.

6) - Sticking out is not always easy. Sometimes, it was fun being the only guy with a lulav in his car. But I remember someone loudly declaring in the hallways (in protest of the no head-coverings allowed dress code) "how come he gets to wear one"? (I actually had to get special permission from the principal and show a note to my teachers stating I was allowed to wear my "skull cap.") Another day, there was a kid who followed me down the hall chanting "yamika yamika yamika." I never felt threatened, thank G-d, but I wasn't always so comfortable either.

On top of all of this, for many the secular education is just not important. Your average "right-wing Orthodox" family is objectively more concerned about the par of the religious education, and the secular education is at best a second consideration. Look at many "right-wing Orthodox" Yeshiva high schools and you will see that they, and the parents in many cases, are just not bothered that their children won't be getting in to Ivy League schools. The value system expressed in the question is simply not the correct hierarchy in their eyes.

As a postscript, the challenge that public school poses to observance is not something that we look forward to or take lightly. The fact that it is a nisayon, a trial which tests your mettle, is not something we invite. It's nice to say that we would hope our children will be strong enough to withstand the questions and the tests, but we do not go looking to be tested. The Talmud (bava basra 57b) describes someone who chooses to go down a path on which he knows he will see women immodestly dressed, and describes him as an evil person even if he doesn't look, as Rashi writes:

רשע הוא - ואף על פי שעוצם עיניו שלא היה לו לקרב אלא להרחיק מן העבירה

He is an evil person even if he closes his eyes because he should have distanced himself from the opportunity of a sin. We do not put ourselves into trying situations and hope we do well. Avoiding the test is an objective value, and Jewish schools present that option.

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    As an aside, tuition is not $0. There was a $30 registration fee :-) Commented May 18, 2014 at 20:59
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    Very informative answer,I would just point out a common misconception that there is a separate issur of mixed swimming when in fact it is the same prohibition as seeing a woman dressed inappropriately.
    – sam
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 17:58
  • @sam Did I imply otherwise? Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 18:01
  • No,just a side note ,it reminded me of ppl who separate the two
    – sam
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 18:10
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    @user6591 The yamika was because I didn't know at the time that there was any possibility I shouldn't, so I never asked. The tzitzis hanging out was the Mi laHashem eilai :) Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 23:32

I write as an Orthodox Jew, a parent and a teacher. The answer is both simple and complex.

First, the money. Yes, public school is cheaper. Can't get around that.

Next however is the contention that Jewish schools lack "technology and extra curriculars" -- this is not true for a huge chunk of Jewish schools out there. From teams to clubs and from iPads and Smartboards to coding classes and Engineering programs and everything in between, many Jewish schools offer curricular and extra-curricular perks on par with non-sectarian prep schools. The education presented is very often top notch and the decision more often hinges on money and not a sense of "you get more at public school."

But beyond the courses and quality educators there is the question of environment. I believe that education incorporates an awareness of religion and spirituality across the board. The integration of a Jewish identity into a young person's identity is a constant and consistent process. It cannot be done in fixed hours on Sunday or in the afternoons without being undone during the class time. Judaism is a life and not just a basic set of rules. The public schools MAY NOT (by law) include the kind of sensitivity to and training in history and ritual that I want my children to have.

Mix in the concern over the potential for conflict (games on Shabbos, treif food at school events, no days off for Yom Tov) and the position you put impressionable children in either having defend/explain their own religious position or be influenced by what they see around them (peer pressure isn't always intentional or malicious), the decision to help nurture a rounded, religious child in a sheltered environment which make them stronger educationally is not an unusual one.

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    I don't know how big your community is, but as the communities get smaller (ie. roughly outside of New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Boston, Miami, LA) the quality of the education often is forced to suffer due to funding constraints and increased marginal costs for programming in a very small school.
    – Double AA
    Commented May 15, 2014 at 17:47
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    I disagree with basically every point you made and I think that the fact that we treat judaism as something so fragile that it can't possibly withstand the challenges of meeting people who are not like-minded to us sells it very short. But from your perspective I think this is a very good answer.
    – user5092
    Commented May 15, 2014 at 17:51
  • @DoubleAA I know of Jewish schools in Dallas, Memphis, Cleveland and Philadelphia which also offer great programs and extras. Are there places with large Orthodox populations which support schools for the Orthodox community which offer substantially less? And if so, does that account for "most" of the Jews as asked in the question?
    – rosends
    Commented May 15, 2014 at 17:54
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    @deja-jew Feel free to disagree. As someone who trained in the public schools and has taught for 20 years in the yeshiva system and has kids in the system I can only speak from my experience and knowledge base. If your perception of what Orthodox Jew who send their kids to Yeshiva think is different then I can't speak to that.
    – rosends
    Commented May 15, 2014 at 17:56
  • @Danno "account for 'most'" Good point.
    – Double AA
    Commented May 15, 2014 at 18:00

The child attending public school knows that his attendance is compulsory, because his parents and the government consider his education of the utmost importance. Together with this comes the recognition that what is really important and essential to his education is taken care of in the school. The child’s instinctive feeling and inference from this is that anything that is not included in the school curriculum is of secondary importance if, indeed, of any importance at all. Hence, if religion (prayer) is excluded from the school, the child would inevitably regard it in the same category as an extra foreign language, or dancing, or music lessons, which are not required by the school but are left to the parents’ free choice, and which the child, not illogically, considers a burden or even a nuisance. In other words, the present system of the public school education is such that it impresses upon the pupil the belief that everything connected with religion, such as knowledge of G‑d’s existence, etc., is of little consequence, or of no importance whatever.

Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, The Lubavitcher Rebbe

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    Does he have a source for this (studies of some sort) or is it just him guessing?
    – Double AA
    Commented May 15, 2014 at 20:59
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    Honestly, something your parent chooses to give you impresses upon you more how much they value it. The stuff they just do just because isn't as meaningful.
    – Double AA
    Commented May 15, 2014 at 20:59
  • @DoubleAA - While not the direct intent of "Asei Lecha Rav" from Pirkei Avot, your parents are your best "rav" or mentors, though you can't "make" them into a "rav" as you don't choose them. But, if they teach by proper example, it proves that their actions matter more than their speech.
    – DanF
    Commented May 15, 2014 at 21:14
  • @ShmuelB So your saying he's making up a reason to explain some results he saw. Did he do any studies/surveys to support his theories?
    – Double AA
    Commented May 15, 2014 at 21:44
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    @ShmuelBrin My wife taught in Reform Hebrew schools as well as day schools and she saw that this was correct. The children never learned the things that my grandchildren learned in kindergarten and first grade. We have seen throught he experience of my children and grandchildren that Hebrew school leads to disenchantment and longing for the day when they (the students) can throw it all away. Commented May 15, 2014 at 21:50

Although America is a much more religious country than other developed Western democracies, the typical social atmosphere among young Americans is extremely secular and often anti-religious. Most of American popular culture is devoid of religion and consistently promotes a social liberalism (indeed, often libertinism) that is at odds with the teachings of traditional religions such as Orthodox Judaism.

For these reasons, it would be very difficult for an Orthodox Jewish child, growing up in a public school with many secularized non-Orthodox friends immersed in American popular culture, to maintain a solid Orthodox hashkafa and remain observant into adulthood.

The available data shows that Jewish children who attend Jewish day schools have a far lower intermarriage rate than children who go to public schools:

"According to a National Jewish Population Survey conducted by the United Jewish Communities organization (2000-2001 survey), more intensive forms of Jewish education in childhood are associated with lower rates of intermarriage in adulthood. Those with Jewish day school/Yeshiva education had a 7% intermarriage rate, as opposed to those with part-time Jewish schooling—meeting more than once a week or once a week—who had 23% and 29% intermarriage rates, respectively."


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    Self-selection bias. Parents who choose to send their kids to Jewish school tend to already be more committed.
    – Shmuel
    Commented May 16, 2014 at 19:29
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    That doesn't mean there's no real effect. It could be that regardless of the parents' involvement, day school decreases intermarriage, because growing up mainly with observant Jewish friends exposes one to fewer non-Jewish marriage partners and to fewer negative influences that could cause the children to go OTD. There have been numerous studies on the effect of day school, and I'm sure the researchers have considered this issue. However, a systematic review of the day school effect literature is probably beyond the scope of a Mi Yodea answer.
    – Kordovero
    Commented May 16, 2014 at 19:56
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    Actually, public schools in the US sometimes are religiously-flavored -- just not ours. Christianity is treated as a given and it can be very hard for a younger student to say "I'm not doing that" in the face of peers and authority figures (teachers). Commented May 16, 2014 at 21:10
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    They're supposed to be secular, but Christian assumptions and norms creep in, especially in the "bible belt" (= evangelical Christians, mostly). In western PA, I see local news reports several times a year about some kerfuffle over technically-optional prayers in the classroom, "10 commandments" monuments (of course they mean their version, not ours), and religiously-flavored commencement speeches. They mostly stay on the right side of the law, but it creates an environment that can be hostile. Commented May 16, 2014 at 21:35
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    @MonicaCellio Also, most public schools follow a Christian schedule - they call it a secular schedule, but it just happens to be that "Bus Driver Holiday" falls out every year, by some strange coincidence, on Good Friday, and Teacher Records Day, somehow, is always on Easter! Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 18:14

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