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Reflections of a Day School Alumnus

A portrait of the blogger (on right) as a young man

A portrait of the blogger (on right) as a young boy

I dreamt a couple weeks ago that I had no memory of my childhood, and upon awakening, determined that I would compile my memories. Just in case. (It’s been a strange but entirely worthwhile process—I recommend it.) What strikes me most about this project is that events that seemed inconsequential at the time, in hindsight clearly led to something else; how much the more so with the consequential events of my life!

Fortuitously enough for my blogging deadline, I’m now up to the mid-1990s, which were my years as a student at Valley Beth Shalom Day School in Encino, CA—a decidedly consequential period of my life. It was there that the foundation of what makes me “me” was laid—my intellectual, Jewish, and moral foundations. A few key events come to mind:

  • At VBS I discovered ancient history and mythology (I ended up majoring in Classical Studies).
  • At VBS I realized the meaning behind our holidays and traditions (not eating bread for a week was incomprehensible before that point).
  • At VBS I learned that rifling through the teacher’s papers with a group of other students to find out our assigned Jewish Hero isn’t such a good idea (I still remember how much the room spun after we were caught).

All this talk of the impact of day school on my own life leads me to (wait for it…) The Impact of Day School: A Comparative Analysis of Jewish College Students, or as we call it around the office, “the alumni study.” It was conducted while I was in college myself, so I feel an odd affinity to the report. I’m going to address briefly three findings of the report, and how they align with my experiences.

Academic Confidence in College: One of the findings of the study is that “students from non-Orthodox backgrounds who attended day schools for six or more years,” like myself, have more academic self-confidence than other Jewish students. I can’t qualify this in the broad sense, but I do see my day school education having a role in my academic confidence. Studying Hebrew from an early age improved my language skills to the point where learning Latin and Ancient Greek was not intimidating. Trust me, that’s a compliment.

Jewish Life: According to the study, Orthodox students are more likely to participate in Jewish communal life than non-Orthodox day school alumni, who are in turn more involved than public and private school alumni. This actually gives me pause, as I wasn’t as active as I thought I would have been. I suppose I didn’t click with the organized Jewish community at school. Still, I did go to Shabbat services semi-regularly for a few semesters, and after that I hosted the occasional Shabbat and holiday dinner at my house.

“Values-Added” Education: The study found that non-Orthodox day school alumni are more likely to express their intention to become involved in community volunteerism and advocacy, and also that day school education in general is more likely to influence alumni to pursue Jewish communal careers. Considering the blog you’re reading this on, I think it’s clear how day school affected me in this regard.

I’ve been out of day school for 12 years. In thinking back over my life since then, it’s now clear to me how the three underpinnings I mentioned earlier—intellectual, Jewish, and moral—developed at VBS, propelled me, with stops along the way, to where I am now and where I hope to go.

–Matt Brown