Living in Israel was never on the radar for Jennifer or Max Schrutt. In fact neither of them visited the country until they were adults. Jennifer was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish home on the East Coast, while Max grew up in a Conservative family in Denver, Colorado. Both Jen and Max attended Hebrew school, but had a completely negative experience. Despite their tenuous connection to Judaism, and the enormous expense of Jewish tuition, the couple not only decided to send their children to Jewish schools in Denver, but in 2015 made Aliyah to Rehovot, and their three children are educated in (Mamlachti Dati) Modern Orthodox schools. I spoke with Jen and found out why.
Describe your connection to Judaism as a child, teenager, and student.
As a child, I attended Hebrew school but hated it. I looked at my Bat Mitzvah as an opportunity to party rather than learn about Judaism. I was educated in public school and honestly didn’t imagine any different for my children. Neither Judaism nor Israel meant very much to me until I came to Israel for the first time after college. By coincidence, my mother had started working for the Central Agency for Jewish Education. Years later, thankfully, she encouraged me to go on an Israel hiking trip sponsored by the organization Livnot U’Lehibanot (To Build and Be Built), even though she’d never been to Israel herself.
It was in Israel that I met and fell in love with my husband, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel. The program planted a seed of what it meant to be a Jew. The message we internalized was: This is your land. This is your Judaism. In one class, our teacher asked a question which set the tone for the rest of our lives: Are you a Jewish American or an American Jew? Max and I returned to the US as secular Zionists.
You and Max were educated in public schools. What made you decide to send your own children to Jewish schools in Denver?
Both Max and I returned to the US after the Livnot U’Lehibanot program with a strong connection to, and love for, Israel. We became involved in AIPAC, JNF, and other Israel-related causes. When we got married and bought our home in Denver, we chose our neighborhood based on the excellent public school education available in the area. Our children attended the synagogue preschool in Denver and our plan was to send our kids to the local public school afterward. The synagogue preschool teacher, an Israeli, spoke to us frankly. How can you raise your children Jewish with a connection to Judaism and Israel without giving them a Jewish education?
This question weighed heavily on our minds. There was no way to instill a love of our people and country without giving our children the knowledge and understanding of our Jewish heritage. We decided to enroll our children in a non-denominational local Jewish community school. Like good Jews, we spent $13k per child per year on Jewish tuition and vacationed with our kids in Israel.
After making the leap to educating your children in a Jewish school, what made you take the next enormous step of switching them to a Modern Orthodox school?
We quickly found ourselves frustrated. We were spending close to $40,000 per year on our children’s Jewish education, yet we discovered that their Jewish education and Hebrew language instruction were limited in the community day school. Some of the blessings they learned were abridged, and they were not learning in a Hebrew immersion environment. Even though we did not yet self-identify as observant at that stage, we once again were faced with the question, “Why would we spend all that money and not go all the way with our kids’ education?” It was at that point that we transferred our children to a Modern Orthodox school in Denver and moved to be closer to the Modern Orthodox community.
What were your impressions of the modern Orthodox day school?
It was and is a wonderful school with an incredible Zionist education. We were extremely happy with our choice to send our children there, and truly felt like they were being given all the tools they needed to connect to their roots and build their lives as Zionist Jews.
At a certain point, though, we realized that we were yearning for something more. We felt like we could not connect to Zionism while living in the comfort of Denver. No matter how many pro-Israel rallies we marched in, we felt like we were living life in the bleachers, rather than playing on the field. How could we be teaching our children the value of supporting the IDF from afar while we ourselves were bystanders as fellow Jews sent their children to the frontline? Every year, as we recited on Passover, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” we felt like hypocrites.
It was then that we decided to make Aliyah during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, when we realized that with our oldest son turning 12, we could wait no longer to participate actively in the unfolding of modern Jewish history.
You have just celebrated your third Aliyah-versary, and all your children are in Modern Orthodox schools in Rehovot. Do you have any regrets that your children are no longer receiving an education in America?
To live our dream means to live in Israel – with all the sacrifices that entails. The hardest part of making Aliyah is leaving our family but we believe with all our hearts that this country is where our future generations belong. The key to our happiness and successful klita (integration) so far has been finding the right community, maintaining a sense of humor, and low expectations. We had heard from our friends about the oversized classrooms in Israel and the limited resources. But we knew that we were no longer paying a fortune for the privilege of giving our children a Jewish education. And I am not even talking about an education in a classroom setting. Your children go on tiyulim and walk in the very spot where their ancestors walked. When you make Aliyah, your children don’t LEARN about Israel, they LIVE Israel. The Jewish holidays are no longer celebrated just within your immediate community, but as part of a whole country. And we were surprised to discover that our children actually saw the larger classrooms as an advantage as it opened up their social lives with more children in the class to connect to. When you make Aliyah, the entire country becomes your classroom.