Parents in the Jewish community have many choices when determining which school will provide the best foundation for their child. Many have turned to private schools due to the academic and extracurricular programs they offer, and some Jewish families choose schools that include a religious component, even if it is not Jewish.
“Learning should be exciting, it should be stimulating. I believe all education should be taught like this.”
— Ben Shifrin, head of school, the Jemicy School
Herb Burgunder has three children who attend Friends School of Baltimore, the city’s only Quaker school. Burgunder said many of the school’s values match up with the Jewish education he had growing up.
“There’s something called the Quaker Testimonies, and the acronym is SPICES, which stands for simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and stewardship,” he said. “To me, it’s the perfect combination of excellent academics and character education.”
Burgunder’s two sons, Ben, 16, and Sam, 13, started their education at Friends, and his daughter, Maisie, 10, began in first grade. He said the school has been very accepting of all interests. “My oldest loves nature and the outdoors; he is into science and math and things like that,” Burgunder said.
Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation also has two children at Friends and said the experience so far has been “wonderful.”
“We found it to be a very welcoming community,” she said.
Sachs-Kohen added that the school holds up several principle Jewish values.
“In many ways the guiding principle for the Friends School philosophy is the divine in every person,” she said. “I think in Judaism we would say that’s B’tzelem Elohim, that we’re all created in God’s image.”
Her son Manny, a rising seventh-grader, has been involved in sports and piano and will be on the student leadership council in the upcoming year. Her daughter Noa, who starts fourth grade, was in the school’s rock band last year and does gymnastics outside of school.
A number of Jewish families also have students at Garrison Forest School, an all-girls K-12 school that offers both day and boarding-school programs. Helen Shafer’s 14-year old daughter, Serena, has been a day student since she was 3 and said the campus “feels like home to her.” This is a similar feeling that Helen Shafer experienced when she was a student at Garrison more than 20 years ago.
“It immediately felt like home,” she said. “Everybody was so kind and nurturing.”
Shafer, like her daughter, was a tennis player at Garrison Forest and also was photography editor on the yearbook staff her senior year. She said the diversity of academic offerings and students has been key to making both her and Serena’s experience there memorable.
“I felt like I didn’t have to be one thing or another,” she said. “I didn’t have to be an A student or an athlete.”
Shafer is in a somewhat unique position of having a child at Garrison Forest and being an alum, but she has ties to another private school too. In 2004, her son, Hayden, then 2, was diagnosed with autism, and that started “a whole new journey” for their family.
“It was incredibly difficult and painful, because no parent wants their kid to suffer,” she said. “Your whole entire perspective on life and your plans come to a screeching halt. It changes life not just for your child, but for your entire family.”
The next year she was sitting in her kitchen, talking to her husband about Hayden’s Individualized Education Plan meeting, when it occurred to her that her son would need a large amount of support services.
“We weren’t that excited about some of the options in the community,” she said.
In 2006, Shafer opened the Shafer Center for Early Intervention, which offers programs for children between the ages of 18 months and 13 years. There are now 63 kids there.
“For me the thing that’s really important is that all kids on the spectrum have the opportunity to be included in their community,” she said.
While the Shafer Center focuses on one area of specialized education, nearby Jemicy School specializes in another. The school, founded in 1973, offers programs for students with language-based learning disabilities such as dyslexia.
“These are bright kids who understand the world,” Head of School Ben Shifrin said. “They have the thoughts but can’t get the words down on paper.”
Shifrin said Jemicy uses a multisensory approach to learning, teaching concepts in visual, spoken and written form.
“When we teach a concept, we teach with all of the methods that a student can learn from,” he said.
Shifrin said a simple example of a typical lesson at Jemicy is that students who are learning about grammar will learn that a sentence has “a person, a thing or an action,” as opposed to learning technical terms such as “adjective.”
Shifrin previously ran a school in Los Angeles and is starting his 14th year at Jemicy. He said his passion for education came from his own upbringing as a dyslexic child, where many of his teachers were ineffective and simply thought he was “lazy.”
“It was such a humiliating experience,” he said.
Shifrin said ever since then, his mission has been to make sure no child ever has to go through a similar type of experience.
“Learning should be exciting, it should be stimulating,” he said. “I believe all education should be taught like this.”