There was a brief interruption of math lessons in a living room in
Passaic, N.J., one recent morning. Sitting on the floor, Rachel Anolick
was teaching Esther, 7, about addition and subtraction with linked
plastic blocks. Up the stairs bounded Tzvi, Rachel’s husband, from the
basement, where his office is located — where he had just received a
“Our daughter who was homeschooled got a $500 scholarship for the
spring semester,” he declared to his wife and a visitor.
The daughter in question is Chana, 19, now a sophomore at Rutgers
University in New Brunswick, N.J. Chana, who has a 3.8 grade point
average, studied at home, learning secular and religious subjects from
her parents, during her last three years of high school.
During the last five years, all four of the Anolicks’ school-age
children — their youngest, Tehila, is 22 months old — have received
some or all of their education at home.
With liberalized state laws across the country, a growing number of
Jewish families, including many in urban centers like New York City,
have turned in the last decade to homeschooling, a movement usually
associated with rural, fundamentalist Christians.
“It’s a real false stereotype,” says Janie Levine Hellyer, who
started homeschooling her children in Olympia, Wash., 25 years ago and
published a national Jewish homeschooling newsletter. “The
fundamentalist Christians are well organized and get a lot of press.
“The first modern homeschoolers,” she says, “were probably
hippies,” dropping out of mainstream American life a generation ago.
No official statistics on the number of Jewish homeschoolers are
available, but the figure is surely in the “thousands,” including a
many religiously observant families — young Lubavitch couples serving
as emissaries in isolated areas were homeschool pioneers — and a
rising percentage of non-Orthodox households, Hellyer says. “It has
grown across the board. I get calls from families who homeschool Jewish
Jewish parents teaching their children is a longstanding Jewish
tradition, with biblical roots, Hellyer points out. “Especially for
girls” — who for centuries received a minimal Jewish education —
“it’s probably more traditional than anything we do today” in some
parts of the Jewish community.
Although many Jewish families who live far away from established Jewish
schools and trained Jewish teachers turn to homeschooling or hire
private tutors, the practice is also common in New York and its suburbs.
“It’s there. It’s a reality,” says Jonathan Woocher, executive
vice president of the Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA).
The reasons for switching from mainstream schools to homeschools varies
from family to family, observers say. They include less academic
pressure on children, more individualized attention, and general
concerns of safety, sociability and finances, which tend to be far less
than in day schools.
“For me it was philosophical,” says Rachel Anolick, a native of
Cincinnati and psychology graduate of Stern College for Women. “I
didn’t like the pressure on them. I didn’t like the hours they were
She and her husband, a computer programming consultant who has rabbinic
ordination from Yeshiva University, decided to homeschool their children
in 1995 — Meir was in third grade, Betzalel in sixth. Chana, then in
ninth grade in a day school, started homeschooling the next year.
The Anolicks teach a wide range of subjects: math, science, history and
other age-appropriate secular topics, Hebrew, Torah, tefilah and related
Jewish studies. Tzvi handles the bar/bat mitzwah lessons.
The parents scour bookstores and catalogs and on-line listings for texts
and curricula, discuss mutual problems with homeschooling neighbors and
chat-room peers. “You don’t need ‘teaching skills’ to be able to
teach,” Rachel says. Around her are brimming bookcases and cases of
educational toys. As she speaks, Esther brings over some artwork she’s
been coloring at the dining room table, and Meir is upstairs reviewing
Hours are flexible; schooldays start with morning prayers and usually go
past dinnertime. In a family environment, every meal, every
conversation, even television shows, can be a learning experience.
“We’re more ‘unschooling,’ ” a branch of the movement that
emphasizes students’ individual motivation, says Rachel.
“The kids can learn at their own pace,” says Janie Levine Hellyer,
whose family lives 65 miles from the nearest day school. Her three grown
children, she boasts, are endorsements of homeschooling’s success:
“All of them went to college.” Standardized tests, essay and
personal interview make up for report cards. “All of them are
Officials in mainstream Jewish educational organizations have praise,
albeit limited, for homeschooling.
“I personally applaud all parents who involve themselves” in their
children’s Jewish education, says Chaim Lauer, executive vice
president of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York.
“Parents can do certain things better than anyone else. They are the
models for spiritual and religious values.”
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The Anolick children go for art and swimming and karate classes at local
schools. The family, active in their synagogue, visits other shul
members for Shabbat meals.
“I’m not stepping away from the community,” Rachel says.
Is homeschooling for everyone?
“Obviously not,” she says. “Everyone is different. It’s not for
someone who doesn’t want to have their kids around all day.
“My parents,” Rachel says, “thought we were nuts when we started.
Now they are very supportive.”
For Rachel, homeschooling offers the opportunity to see a child struggle
with and learn some concept, whether in math or Torah. “The best part
is seeing the growth and development of your child daily.”