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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Interview with a Jewish Homeschooler: Rachel

This is Part 2 in an occasional series.  Please see Part 1, where I interview the indomitable Yael Aldrich, over here.

imageI’m so happy to introduce Rachel!  She is that rare bird, an “IRL homeschooly friend.”  She is also a rarity in that she is a second-generation homeschooler – an unschooled high-school grad, accomplished birth doula, and all-round great (but humble) person. 

I had the very good luck of meeting Rachel when she and her husband, a rabbi and teacher, arrived here from Vancouver a couple of years ago.  Before that, they were living in Israel, where their daughter Nechama was born.  They now have two children, Nechama, 4, and Shlomit, hmm… she’s a very sweet baby of some very cute baby age.  (don’t tell her I forgot!)

I have been looking forward to sharing some of Rachel’s wisdom with the rest of the world because I think that she offers a long-range perspective on education that would be very valuable to those of us at the beginning or in the middle of our homeschool journey.

What was best for you about growing up as a homeschooler?

The best part about growing up as a homeschooler was my ability to live a full life all the time. I noticed this as an adult as my school-in-a-building friends only seemed to have had life experiences in the year before college or as they call it, “gap year.” A good friend told me to live my life with no regrets. I was able to attend births when I was 11, go to midwifery school at 16, write books, travel the world (by myself at 18) and attend real live court cases to learn! My favourite quote, which really holds true, is by Albert Einstein, “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”

Were there things you missed (or thought you missed) about going to school?

To be a homeschooler you have to let go of fear. If you ask me what I felt I missed out on because of my education, my answer would be nothing.

People seem so afraid that someone is going to “miss out” on a life experience because they do this or that, but when I was homeschooling (more like unschool – more on this later!), I didn't miss anything that I wanted to be a part of.

There are two reasons why. First, schools seemed like a form of prison to me. I actually went to school in a building until second grade when my family took me out. I also went back for one month, count it, ONE (that’s how long I could stand it!) in high school.

Secondly, that fear of “getting it all in,” “covering all subjects,” etc., only make sense if one believes that learning is from kindergarten to high school, then some university and that’s it – it’s all over. This is not normal to me. Learning begins when you are born and ends (in a sense) when you die.

Once my mother was able to let go of this box of time in which everyone considers it crucial to learn “everything,” cramming it all in over 12 years, she was able to truly educate us. The best thing that my mother taught me was how to find out information for myself.

Here’s an analogy that you may have heard before, but I’ll use it in a different way. “You give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach him to fish, he eats for life.” This is the approach that I believe homeschool brings.

How did homeschooling affect your Jewish life?

My education had a huge impact on my Jewish identity and my life. Again, one can force someone to be religious and stuff it down their throat. I remember from my school days the principal coming into our classes and using fear tactics with us. He used to threaten that we would go to Gehinnom [hell] if we were chutzpadik [mouthy or rude]. Coercion and “frummer [more religious]- than-thou” behaviour was everywhere where I grew up.

My father imparted to me, by example, honesty and doing what is right – even if it is hard. He converted to Judaism because he believed in Hashem [God] and he kept the commandments because Hashem gave them. Simple. My mother taught me about relationships, communication and the value of life. These were taught to me by example. I had rebbes that I learned Chumash (Torah), Navi (Prophets), etc, with, but my Jewish identity I got from watching my parents.

Do you or your parents have any big regrets about the way you were educated?

My biggest regret?  Well, I don't really believe in living life with regret. For my parents? As I mentioned, my mother had to work through her fear of me not learning “everything.” You see, parents need to unschool themselves to be able to educate their kids.

The only other regret that comes to mind was pleading my case to my father (he was, shall we say, the principal) when I was really sure I was right. I should have realized that if Mom told me to call my father and explain it, I had already lost!

Do you plan to homeschool your children?

Well, I will take it year by year the same way my parents did. They let us pick if we wanted to go to school in a building or not. Of my three siblings, my eldest brother went to yeshiva and university, I went to midwifery school and trained to be a doula, my little brother was homeschooled all his life, and now he is in the Israeli Army.

Each of us were involved in our own education. I find that one of the big issues for kids is they are given no choice or responsibility for their own leaning. This leads to non-interest and indifference. Because I had an active role in my learning (how, what, when...) I own it.

[MamaLand Editor’s note – I couldn’t resist jumping in here; I love the present tense here; as parents, we have to set an example by continuing to take an active role in our own learning!]

You've mentioned that you were unschooled - do you plan to continue this tradition, or adopt more structure with your own kids?

The nice part about child-led learning is you can adapt to each kid, just like the Torah says, “teach each child in his way.”

I am always watching my kids just as I parent them and adapt as the child responds, grows and changes. This is also my approach to learning. For an example, Nechama likes to ask “why?” all day and all night. I use this developmental phase to learn with her. When she wants to know why (not every single time or it would get annoying for both of us!), I take that opportunity to show her how to find the answer appropriate to her level. 

How is your Jewish life with your kids the same and/or different from the way you were raised?

The difference is my kids are growing up FFB [frum/religious from birth]; I did not. Please G-d, my kids will grow up in Israel. 

What is the secret of homeschooling limudei kodesh?  (is there a secret???)

The secret....are you ready for it!? I believe there is no Limudei Kodesh vs Chol [Jewish vs Secular Studies]. Everything in life has a G-d component. I teach from that perspective only. I live from that perspective and I parent from there.

When we walk by a homeless person on the street I teach about Tzedaka and gratefulness to Hashem, when we watch Barney I talk about chesed and manners when we have guests for Shabbat we learn about sharing what you have. My approach to Torah is holistic.

Your husband is a rabbi in a fairly traditional teaching role - do you feel any pressure from the community to adapt / conform to expectations of a rebbetzin and her family?

Yes, 100 percent, I feel pressure to do things. Rabbi Nivin says that every person needs a “tripod of objectivity.” Imagine the tripod: one foot is a person further along in their life cycle than you (a Rav), the second foot of the tripod is a person who is “behind” you (eg, if you are seasoned mom of a few kids, this might be someone who is just starting to have children), and the third foot/base is a student.

These three grounding people keep you Kosher, growing and on your toes. I am very, very aware that people consider me their Rebbenson and because of this I have to try harder and keep working on myself.

What's the most important thing Jewish parents should know if they're thinking about or just getting started in homeschooling?

The most important things that I think Jewish parents who are just joining the homeschooling world should know:

  • Let go of fear.
  • Sit down and actually look at your child. Who is he/she? Children have a personality from the get-go.
  • Respect your child and involve them in their own education.
  • Know for certain that no one way of schooling is the answer for everything.
  • Life is complex, complicated and ever-changing. Teach your children how to adapt to the waves of life.
  • Teach your children to be empathetic, good and moral people.
  • Never sacrifice your relationship with them.
  • Enjoy the ride!

My last piece of advice is if you are not enjoying the ride, neither are they. 

Hope you found that as fantastically helpful as I did!  Happy Victoria Day to those of us here in Canada!!!

4 comments:

Shira said...

Lovely interview Rachel and Jennifer!

Shira said...

Lovely interview Rachel and Jennifer!

Chana Beila said...

I could just picture Rachel talking as I read it. I agree about the fear issue, and unschooling yourself as a parent first. Great interview :)

stillforest said...

love the idea of the "tripod of objectivity", so necessary to both mentor and be mentored in our mothering/parenting journeys. appreciated the insights into parenting and homeschooling. thanks.
Janine