They had researched the practice known as “homeschooling,” but there were still a number of unanswered questions. After all, both parents had themselves been educated in standard classrooms in everyday schools.
“We didn’t have any other model,” says Shoshana, a stay-at-home mom who considers being her kids’ primary teacher a fulltime career.
“We had to de-school ourselves to some degree. We wondered, what is homeschooling going to look like?”
At first, when they began instructing their oldest son, Avraham, they opted for a method that more or less simulated an ordinary school routine.
“We even had a phase where I’d stand in the kitchen, he’d put on his little backpack by the front door and he’d say ‘Bye Mommy.’
“You don’t know what to do. You want it to be official. You don’t want your kids to feel like they’re missing anything.
“A lot of people start out that way and then loosen up. You move into a much more organic mode.”
That is certainly evident in the Zohari home today, a Southeast Denver condo whose living room is dominated by a large, classroom-style flat table, surrounded by shelves adorned with textbooks and a colorful array of school supplies.
Shoshana spreads her arms wide and smiles.
“We live in a small house,” she says. “This table is school.”
Avraham, the Zoharis’ eldest child, is now 14 and will be entering the ninth grade when the familial school starts up again in a few weeks. His classmates are his siblings — Sheliya, 11, Shalom, 9, and Baila, 6. None of them has ever attended class at a regular school. And all of them agree that they don’t miss that experience at all.
“I’ve heard a lot of stories from my friends who go to school that they don’t really like school,” says Sheliya.
“And I like being at home. You can get your schoolwork done much snappier and then you have the entire art room and all these toys to play with, and can spend the rest of the day doing fun things, instead of staying in school all day.”
Avraham agrees. His friends tell him about the demands of homework — and the perils of bullying — at school.
“It doesn’t sound very fun,” he says.
Shalom says he likes to build things, and at home he is given sufficient time to develop and execute his ideas. He doesn’t think that would happen in a traditional school.
Baila, at six years old, is just embarking on her home educational experience and doesn’t have the track record of her elder siblings. She likes the idea of homeschooling for a straightforward, if not entirely accurate, reason: “I like to play every day, all day, and every night,” she says.
To all appearances, the Zohari kids are intellectually bright and socially adept. They display little shyness and have no trouble expressing themselves.
They also have long-term goals. Avraham is interested in [architecture] and computer graphics. Sheliya aspires to be a fashion designer. Shalom has a wide range of eventual possibilities — “a chef, a magician, a mechanic, or an industrial designer.”
Even Baila has professional goals: “I want to become an animal trainer or a horse trainer or an entomologist.” (The six-year-old pronounces the word perfectly, by the way. It means, for the uninitiated, the study of insects.)
The attainment of these goals, the children know, will almost surely require college degrees, something they all expect to earn. They plan to utilize the education available to them in the family home to prepare for it. They all agree that homeschooling will prepare them well.
When asked whether their mother — who handles most of their day-to-day instruction — is a good teacher, the question is met with a chorus of enthusiastic “yes!” replies.
Shoshana has a BA in Middle East Studies from the University of Utah. Nachshon, an experienced social worker, was recently appointed to Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s Office of Drug Strategy. Shoshana, who went to Rodef Shalom in her youth, and Nachshon met in Salt Lake City where both were studying. They have affiliated with the Chabad movement for some 15 years and are members of Bais Menachem.
“We didn’t really decide about homeschooling until our oldest, Avraham, was ready to go into preschool,” Shoshana says.
The educational decision was less influenced by ideology than financial considerations.
“We considered our options, what the cost of day school is. We were a growing family and it was really important for us that I stay home with the kids. A big reason was that we couldn’t afford it. I would have to go to work to make enough.”
As Orthodox Jews, public schools weren’t a viable option, she adds.
“We didn’t feel that that would match what we were doing. I would be less reluctant to send a high school age kid to public school than a younger child, which many people would think sounds backwards. But I think an older child has a much better chance of maintaining their integrity and belief system in high school than a younger child does [in elementary].”
Going to a Jewish day school would have been preferable, Shoshana says, but although they probably would have been able to afford tuition at first, “we were looking at more of a future mindset, that if we had three or four kids, how would we keep up?”
“Our priority was in having a pretty solid home life with one parent at home. So when we thought down the road about the prospect of starting one child in school but not being able to afford the other kids, it seemed like that wasn’t going to work.”
Some homeschool parents, especially conservative Christians, who make up a significant portion of the [local and national] homeschool community, don’t want to expose their children to the secular values, or lack of values, and other social ills that can be found in public, and even many private, schools.
The Zoharis say their motivations were more positive.
“Once we made that decision we felt very confident — with our own creative backgrounds, with the way we think about the world, how we interact with the world — that we had more than enough to offer our kids and to help them interact with the world and be creative and do their studies.”
And to be raised as committed Jews, she is quick to add.
The Zoharis are pointedly Jewish in the way that they homeschool.
“Jewish homeschooling means that part of your day, part of your month and year, is dedicated toward Jewish study. And you don’t have to be Orthodox to be doing that.
“We teach them the prayers and davening. We teach them Hebrew. We teach them all the laws about
the holidays. We usually have a massive [Jewish] art display. We do lots of hands-on stuff.”
Shoshana’s way of teaching is more experiential than theoretical, and this approach also governs the way the children are exposed to Judaism. They prepare for Shabbos every week, help clean out the chometz at Passover and even lead the family seder.
“Instead of reading a book about how nice it is to give tzedakah, we give tzedakah,” Shoshana says.
“We do projects. This year, my daughter and husband have been shoppers for Tomchei Shabbos once a month.
“So we could read a book about helping people on Shabbos — and that’s a great thing — but now that she’s old enough she can do something.
The children’s more classical Jewish learning is supplemented at the shul, where Rabbi Yisroel Engel has been supportive of the family’s educational approach.
“If we have questions about Halachah or different topics, we talk to Rabbi Engel.”
Shoshana acknowledges that some members of the Jewish community, especially day school advocates, are not big supporters of the homeschool community. She feels this attitude is based on misunderstanding.
“They feel that our choice is actually [reactionary], but it’s not. I don’t view people who use school as terrible. But if you’re the minority, people inherently feel that you are rejecting what they’re doing.
“It is a false and unfortunate assumption that Jewish homeschoolers are viewed as being somehow against their local schools or lack sufficient respect for Torah authority, knowledge and Jewish religiosity,” she says.
“I deeply respect the teachers who spend countless hours preparing for their students and then more time and significant energy and resources in the classroom. I can hardly imagine what it takes to teach, mentor, and lead 20-30 children on a daily basis.
“As a homeschooling family, we do not see ourselves as superior to or sitting in judgment of the traditional Jewish education system.
“In the end, no matter how any of us chooses to educate our children, we have the same goals. That is, to engender a love of Jewish beliefs, traditions, laws, scholarship, history, language and artistry that has been the precious heritage of our people for over 3000 years.”
Homeschooling, at least in the Zoharis’ “classroom,” is far less structured than the traditional school environment.
“We don’t have set hours, per se,” Shoshana says. “We don’t sit down at nine and work until one, but I would be hard pressed to find a day where we don’t spend at least four hours a day doing our work. Shalom and Sheliya finish their book work in two hours. But we do so much that’s not book work.”
To be “legal,” the family is registered with Denver Public Schools and fastidiously follows the district’s homeschooling guidelines which set down minimum standards. Largely because of the large Christian homeschooling community in Colorado Springs, Shoshana says, Colorado is known as a pro-homeschool state and the guidelines are fairly mild.
“The paper we signed with the school district requires that we have a minimum of four contact hours per day and a minimum of 172 school days. You need to keep attendance. You need to be able to show what you’re using and show your attendance at any time. It’s important to do that and it’s important to be legal.”
The district sets down minimum learning requirements in math, science, language arts, and American and Colorado history and government and other topics.
“It’s the basics,” Shoshana says.
“They do not tell you how to do it. They don’t say you must follow a textbook or clock this many hours per topic or report XYZ.”
Over time, her instruction has evolved from the “very structured” system she began with into an “organic, flowing process” featuring looser hours than regular school, experiential learning and individualized study.
With four children ranging fairly widely in age,Shoshana’s job somewhat tresembles the duties of the old-fashioned one room schoolhouse teacher.
“Everybody pretty much does their own thing at their own level,” she says.
“We do work really hard to make them self-sufficient, to read directions, to try their best, take it slowly, don’t worry about getting the right answer. Just learn it, and if you’re struggling with it we’ll help you, we’ll get to the right place.”
Textbooks are definitely part of the children’s learning, but here too, Shoshana prefers to follow her own path. She selects many textbooks on her own, and has developed or customized her own curricula.
“There are package curriculums where you can buy science, English, math. I’m not discounting them at all. I think it works very well for people, but most of them are Christian curriculums. Two of those are very well thought of and it’s very easy to substitute out the readers that you don’t want to do and insert Jewish things.”
She does not subject her children/students to tests. The yardstick she uses to measure their progress is her own observation skills.
“Everyday I can see what they’re doing. I can see if they’re struggling with it or if they’re not.
“It’s not a question of repeating specific information. We really focus on internalizing it — what are you going to do with it? And do you love it? Are you excited about doing this? And if you’re not, maybe it’s okay to put it aside for awhile and come back to it.”
Although both Shoshana and Nachshon — an extremely hands on father who contributes significantly to the collective education effort — have degrees, neither is trained as an educator. Shoshana says that’s really not a problem, since she doesn’t have to master every subject that she teaches.
“I do a lot of research,” she says.
“I’m constantly on top of what’s coming out — best methods, what other homeschoolers are doing. I’ve tried many curriculums that were a disaster and just started again.
“But one of the biggest myths that frightens people about homeschooling is that you have to know everything in order to teach it to your kids. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although my husband and I are both college graduates, there are certainly many topics that we cannot teach.
“Instead we take the approach of learning together. If I don’t know a topic or subject area that needs to be covered, then I have the opportunity to learn it with the kids. We use the public library like crazy. It is an astonishing resource.
“This has not diminished their education in any way. In fact, my husband and I have enjoyed tackling new ideas — often with our kids leading the way.”
In sum, Shoshana regards her role as teacher not only as a maternal responsibility, but as a profession.
“It’s not a hobby or something you do on the side,” she says. “If you are homeschooling your kids, it’s your job.”
Homeschooling is not without its challenges. It isn’t free, for one thing.
Although the Zoharis are saving a great deal of money by avoiding tuition — Shoshana estimates their savings at $50,000-$60,000 per year — they still have to come up with at least $1,000 per child, per year, just for textbooks and materials. She would much prefer, Shoshana says, spending the “ideal” figure of $1,500 per child per year.
Then there’s the issue of socialization. Children have relied for centuries on the classroom environment as the primary source of friendship. The Zohari children use their synagogue and neighborhood recreation centers as their main avenues for making friends.
Sports are another way. At present, Sheliya plays on a softball team and Shalom plays baseball. Avraham spent years playing team baseball and basketball.
“We do not restrict ourselves to Jewish friends or Jewish environments,” Shoshana says.
“We make ample use of the Denver rec center system. We make ample use of the libraries and their programming.
“And I think something that’s not always on people’s radar that we focus on and emphasize is that you don’t have to be friends only with people your age and who are just like you. We work very hard to break out of that.
“You have to work at it because other people are very tied up in their traditional day. If your child is not in school, then they’re just not on the radar. It can be like: ‘If I don’t see you every day, you just don’t exist,’ so we work really hard to keep people connected.”
Another aspect of homeschooling that one might expect to be daunting — getting the children into college one day — is actually not scary at all, Shoshana says. Upon completion of their studies, homeschool students do not receive a DPS diploma or GED certificate.
“We are keeping a transcript for Avraham, starting in 9th grade, and we will issue him a private high school diploma,” Shoshana says, adding that the family uses a website that tracks students’ high school studies in terms of qualifying for college admission.
Today, most colleges and universities, she says, are just fine with homeschoolers, so long as the transcripts meet entry requirements and the student passes entrance exams.
“Many colleges and universities,” Shoshana says, “are snapping up homeschoolers. They can see the work [these kids]have done, they can see the extra-curriculars. The past 10 years have been a complete turnaround with colleges and universities.”
Despite what might seem to be its non-communal nature, homeschooling is not something that parents have to do on their own, Shoshana says.
She engages with hundreds of other homeschool parents, both actually and virtually, and runs a blog called Sustainable Jewish Schooling for both personal expression and as a conduit for other Jewish homeschool parents.
Sharing ideas, experiences and frustrations with like-minded parents is “vital,” Shoshana says.
“In the past five years, the Jewish homeschooling community has exploded. Tuition and bullying are the negative reasons, but a lot of people are feeling that they want to live their Jewish life with their family, instead of mom and dad working so hard for the money, the kids at school all day and rarely meeting in the middle. People are tired, people are stressed, people are feeling that pinch.
“There is a tremendous amount of online support. There is also a Jewish Home Education Conference. We just had our fifth year in Baltimore and I was on the planning committee. I went last year as a speaker. I spoke about homeschooling the middle years.”
Homeschool parents, especially if they’re Jewish, can suffer from a sense of isolation — a feeling that’s exacerbated if other community members express disapproval of the homeschool idea.
"Online contact is a must," Shoshana emphasizes.
“I know lots of people through Jewish email lists. They’re incredibly helpful, giving practical support and also emotional support, so that you know there are other people out there doing this. You really, really need that.”
Parents going through similar educational experiences with their children have a way of reinforcing each other by staying focused on the many positive results of their efforts. They share stories of how the homeschool environment allows for a high level of parent-child interaction and encourages children not only to cooperate but often to collaborate with their parents.
“A great deal of my day is spent in learning with the kids,” Shoshana says, “but we also cook together, get outside, enjoy art, do chesed projects, and interact with the weekday world.
“Our kids help select our groceries, watch the prices ring up, and contemplate the work that it took to have the money for our lives.”
The independence of homeschooling allows children to get more sleep than would be possible if they went to traditional school.
“The same is true of being able to eat when their appetites dictate. We always have fruits, veggies, and snacks available throughout the day so that blood sugar stays level and no one crashes and burns.”
On an emotional level, Shoshana adds, homeschooling does wonders for cementing the bond between parents and children.
“Our children are attached to us and see us both as loving, caring parents as well as authority figures,” she says.
“They respect us and trust us to do what is in their best interests. And we have the privilege of joining them in their educational journeys.”
Shoshana Zohari encourages Jewish parents who are considering homeschooling to contact her through her blog.
This article is copyright 2013 by The Intermountain Jewish News and was reprinted with permission.
This article is copyright 2013 by The Intermountain Jewish News and was reprinted with permission.