Beyond Continuity, Identity and Literacy: Making a Compelling Case for Jewish Day Schools to 21st Century American Jews

Daniel L. Lehmann

Twenty-five years ago as I took my first full-time job as a high school teacher of Jewish studies in a new Jewish day high school in Baltimore, the Commission on Jewish Education in North America was launching its multiyear study that culminated in the 1990 report entitled “A Time to Act.” During that same year, the 1990 Jewish Population Survey took place, and the findings from both of these studies about the rising percentage of intermarriages and the need for a more sophisticated Jewish educational infrastructure generated a surge of energy for Jewish education and day schools in particular, especially community and liberal schools. In that decade, new Jewish day high schools began to spring up all over the country as more and more communities saw day schools as a compelling need.

Nearly 25 years later, we stand on the verge of a new era in Jewish life in North America with a new set of questions for Jewish education. The recent Pew survey of Jewish Americans has created a stir, not unlike that of the 1990 survey.

Much of the thought and language that animates contemporary Jewish day schools does not sufficiently capture the imagination of 21st century North American Jews. Jewish day school enrollment among liberal Jews has at best plateaued, and we are educating only a relatively small percentage of Jewish children. “In-marriage,” “Jewish literacy,” the “continuity of the Jewish people,” “Jewish identity” are terms and concepts that no longer resonate with a significant percentage American Jews who identify as Jews. If we learn anything from the Pew study, it is that we need to recognize that many of our Jewish institutions, including day schools, must rethink how we construct and communicate our core missions.

We must think more boldly in response to the needs and aspirations of this generation of Jews. I would like to suggest a number of conceptual categories and terms that may help Jewish day schools connect to and engage a broader spectrum of the Jewish community. I will focus on creativity in community, hybridity, transformative spirituality, textured particularity, and ethical audacity.

Creativity in Community

Jewish day schools need to make the case that creativity is a core educational value with deep roots in our theological and cultural tradition. Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, in his book The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion wrote that

Jewish mysticism caught the true spirit of the kind of religion man needs. The keynote is the truth that man shares with God the power to create.

Just seven years later, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the philosophic and halakhic leader of Modern Orthodoxy, in his seminal essay “Halakhic Man” makes a radical claim about the goal of Jewish life. In the section “His Creativity” he writes that “the peak of religious ethical perfection to which Judaism aspires is man as creator,” and “the most fundamental principle of all is that man must create himself.”

If you stopped a Jewish day school student in the hall or a parent driving carpool to their Jewish day school and asked what core goals and values animate the educational experience, I am fairly confident that creativity would not be included on their list. This has to change. The message must be that commitment to creativity in our schools is crucial, both to enrich the individual’s human capacity and to contribute to the dynamism of Jewish communal life. And to accomplish that dual purpose, the creativity emerging from our day schools must be nurtured in a rich soil of Jewish knowledge that is deeply rooted in our interpretative tradition.

Torah should not just be an intellectual pastime…Torah should be an emotional experience as well; one should feel a tremor when engaged in it. The Torah should be seen not just as a book, but as a living personality, like the Sabbath Queen, with whom one can establish an I-Thou relationship…When you apprehend the Torah as a personality, not just a book, it infiltrates your emotional as well as your intellectual life. (Soloveitchik, “On the Love of Torah”)

Soloveitchik claims that the emotional connection to Torah study, indeed the personification of Torah as a friend, is what generates the creativity that can emerge from the study of Jewish texts. Day schools need to foster that emotional tie to Torah, the joy of learning. We must demonstrate the genuine Jewish creativity that is unleashed when our schools nurture an intimate dialogue and feeling of friendship between our students and Torah in its broadest sense. Our schools can be places where Torah becomes a friend and source of creativity, joy and delight.

But our emphasis on creativity has to move expansively from Torah to human development more generally. For Kaplan and Soloveitchik, and I think for our contemporary constituencies, creativity as a foundational human aspiration that imbues all of life with divine energy is a compelling way to conceive of our common religious and moral quest.

Our students and parents should feel our schools empower them through education to leave distinct and constructive marks on the world. The impulse and desire for creativity is more robust and generative than the concern for Jewish continuity among our parents and students. If we can make the case that our schools view creativity as fundamental to our educational goals, and place creativity, Jewish and general, interpetative, artistic, scientific and cultural creativity at the center of our educational missions, we will have a powerful platform, a seductive stage upon which we can capture the imaginations of 21st century Jews.

In fact, we should develop a virtual stage for showcasing the creativity of our day school students. There should be a collaborative Jewish day school website with the best of our students’ chiddushei Torah, artistic expressions, scientific and technological inventions. We need to push our students’ creative content out into the global arena as a concrete demonstration of the value we place on the creative gesture.

As Jews, we are a part of a multimillennial community engaged in the creative process of interpretation of our texts and traditions, not solely as individuals but as a collective entity that stretches across the generations. This combination of creativity and community, the consciousness that our creativity is part of an unfolding communal process, and the value that creative interpretation and expression has within our community of learners should be compelling to the current generation for whom creativity is increasingly understood to be a group process.

The Google generation experiences creativity in the intentional interaction among individuals who are brought together in an environment conducive to creative output. From what I have heard from people who work at Apple and Google, and places like them that thrive on creativity, the aesthetically pleasing communal spaces, designed to promote teamwork, and the opportunities for playfulness that are built into the schedule are important ingredients for constructing communities devoted to creativity. We need to highlight the centrality of community to the creative process and the significance of expressing creativity in a communal context.

David Hartman, who founded day schools in Montreal and in Israel and served as an important mentor and teacher to me and many of us in the day school world, wrote in an essay on Jewish education (in A Heart of Many Rooms):

The first principle of Jewish education is that when you learn Torah you become part of an interpretive community. The interpretive community is not an independent notion added on to the core idea of Jewish religiosity but is constitutive of what we mean by Torah ... It always awaits the creative input of serious and committed students to add their voices to the unending discussion.

Torah, in a community that values creativity and develops a strong sense of student adequacy, that encourages learners to take the risk of being creative, will appeal to our generation.

Underlying much of the Pew study findings is a deeply rooted sense of inadequacy in relationship to Judaism, and day schools need to engender an experience of adequacy that comes from being a part of a community which trusts the creativity drawn from collective knowledge and experience. Our students can take creative risks as Jews because the Judaism at the center of our day school communities is strong enough, old enough and flexible enough to hold, support and celebrate their creativity.


The communities and families that comprise our day schools are complex and multiple, not monolithic. They reflect the fluidity of identities that define our era.

In this context I would like to focus on hybridity, a concept that is gaining increasing influence in our culture. Jewish day schools, in my view, are hybrid institutions, bringing together contemporary Jewish education and the American independent school tradition. We need to leverage that hybridity and explain the ways that our schools, as hybrid institutions, can prepare students for the hybrid realities they will engage in the world in which we live.

I now drive a hybrid car, made by an American car company, by the way, that operates with two engines, one gas and one electric. It has a plug-in capacity that allows it to run purely on electricity for up to 21 miles. For my short, local commute I can drive using just the electric engine; for longer trips, the gas engine kicks in. In addition to using a combination of electricity and gas, it can also run using just the gas engine if I want to save the electric power for later. The metaphor of these two engines working sometimes in tandem and sometimes separately may be instructive for how we think of the hybridity of Jewish day schools.

The Jewish and general curricula of our schools, no matter what type of integrative approach we take, have different, sometimes dissonant, but often complementary orientations and purposes. It is the interaction of these Jewish and general educational elements that generates a very potent hybridity. Judaism and Jewish learning have a particular power and persuasiveness in the presence of the general learning that occurs in our schools. Jewish day schools are one of the few Jewish institutions in our North American context in which the value of general human knowledge, growth and development is very closely linked with Jewish learning and doing.

But our day schools need to recognize the complexity of this interaction and draw people into the capacity for creative combustibility. Michael Zeldin of Hebrew Union College (“An Ideology for the Liberal Jewish Day School: A Philosophical-Sociological Investigation”) argues that interaction rather than integration is a more accurate way to think about the Jewish day school experience. He quotes David Ellenson, former chancellor of HUC, who wrote, “By creating schools, and providing a model of Judaism that is not identical, but interacts, with the larger world of values and culture of which we are a part, Judaism may make its greatest contribution to individual Jews and our larger society.” We can leverage the fact that Jewish day schools are a model of hybridity that represents our best opportunity for a creative approach to Jewish life in North America.

Our commitment to Hebrew language and the opportunity it provides for creative interaction with Israelis and Israeli culture represents another form of hybridity. The North American–Israel partnership is evolving, and day schools can be on the forefront of new forms of collaboration, generating hybrid programs and institutions that draw from the unique charcteristics of both communities.

Hebrew College and The Shalom Hartman Institute, for example, just launched a new gap year program, Hevruta, which will model a true partnership by bringing together an equal number of Israelis and North Americans for a year of study, service and leadership development. Our day schools need to go beyond Israel trips and school twinnings and push to develop hybrid curricula, common websites and blogs, and collaborative communities of learning that more fully integrate our students and their Israeli peers.

The mutual impact of these different educational experiences—Jewish learning and general studies, North American Jews learning with Israelis—can enable students to experience the power of hybridity at work. There is something remarkable about these different engines of learning interacting with one another constantly that generates exhilirating acceleration and Jewish global consciousnesss.

This notion of hybridity also leads to the broader concept of pluralism that describes the intersection and interaction of ideas, practices and values within our schools, Jewish community and American society. There are real differences in the ways we come to know and see the world that make for complex understanding. Pluralism is about the intentional interaction of these variegated modalities, not merely tolerance of difference or co-existence with others. Hagigah 3b teaches us that the student of Torah must develop the capacity to think pluralistically.

And God spoke all these words. Therefore make your ear like a grain hopper and acquire a heart that can understand the words of the scholars who declare a thing unclean as well as those who declare it clean; the words of those who declare a thing forbidden and those who declare it permitted; the words of those who disqualify an object as well as those who declare it fit.

For this text, the bottom line, the harmonious resolution, the decision to adopt a particular perspective, is not the goal. Rather, our task is to help our students live with complexity, contradiction and ambiguity. I would go so far as to say that for a certain stream within Jewish thought, we emulate God as we expand our capacity for complexity. People living in our world in which fluidity and multiplicity are hallmarks of society need to know how to live with a complexity that does not resolve or reduce to some easily digestible or actionable conclusion.

Our democracy needs people who are invigorated by respectful debate and by the constructive opposition of ideas, cultures and values. Yes we need the capacity for compromise and decision-making, but we also need to celebrate the pluralistic thinking that our Jewish day schools uniquely nurture.

Abraham Joshua Heschel expressed something of the theological imperative of pluralism and hybridity in his book Israel: An Echo of Eternity.

A central concern in Jewish thinking is to overcome the tendency to see the world in one dimension, from one perspective. ... The marvelous and the mundane, the sacred and the secular, are not mutually exclusive, nor are the natural and the supernatural, the temporal and the eternal, kept apart.

Transformative Spirituality

This brings me to the concept of spirituality as an educational focus of our schools. I choose to discuss spiritual education as distinct from religious education because I am convinced that we need a broad and appealing concept of spiritual education, one that is capable of cultivating spiritual virtues and creating compelling spiritual experiences that draw from our Jewish and American traditions and speak to postmodern, postethnic, even postreligious culture. We need to foster a spirituality that appeals to and deepens the humanity of our students and their families. For many Jews in the Pew study who do not identify with Judaism as a religion, spirituality is still a source of blessing, enlightenment and curiosity.

For too many of our schools, the educational goal is articulated in terms of knowledge of religious practice or understanding of religious concepts or texts. But Heschel, in his poignant and oft-quoted essay on Jewish education, writes about the spiritual dimension. In fact, his essay was originally published with the title “The Spirit of Jewish Education.” In it, he contends,

Our goal must be to enable the pupil to participate and share in the spiritual experience of Jewish living; to explain to him what it means to live like a likeness of God. For what is involved in being a Jew? Duties of the heart, not only external performance; the ability to experience the suffering of others, compassion and acts of kindness; sanctification of time, not the mere observance of customs and ceremonies; the joy of discipline, not the pleasures of conceit; sacrifice, not casual celebrations, contrition rather than national pride.

In many ways, Heschel is calling for a Jewish spiritual education that is countercultural, that challenges the learner to develop virtues that are not the values most esteemed by society, secular and even religious. In an age of reality TV in which all is exposed and there is virtually no modesty or privacy that is preserved, spiritual education seeks to shape an inner life that is rich and deep while igniting the desire to serve others and reach beyond the self.

In a provocative article on spritual education that appeared in the CCAR Journal Reform Jewish Quarterly, “Sacred Teaching and Spiritual Learning,” Rami Shapiro defines spiritual learning as the internalization of the tools necessary to achieve the shift from mochin dekatnut, a narrow mind, to mochin degadlut, a spacious mind. From his perspective, spiritual education must be transformative and must expand consciousness. He bemoans the fact that much of contemporary Jewish education rarely achieves the transformation.

Instead, Jewish education, day schools included, focus too much time and energy on what he terms transmission, leaving little room for the arduous work of transformation that is, in his view, the bedrock of spiritual learning. It would require no less than a revolution in Jewish day schools to become centers of spiritual learning in this sense, and it would need, as Shapiro states, to start with deepening the spiritual lives of our teachers and leaders.

The result of such an educational move from transmission to transformation could be a key factor in generating a new passion for Jewish day school education. People would more easily recognize the value proposition, since it would be clear that Jewish day schools provide not only a dual curriculum but an opportunity for a profoundly different education that speaks to the soul.

There is a great deal of talent and creativity devoted to spiritual growth in Jewish life. I see it every day in our rabbinical school and in cutting-edge synagogues, havurot and miyanim, in learning circles and on the web. Day schools should be laboratories of spiritual experimentation that can produce new approaches to combat our spiritual malaise and offer new hope for spiritual renewal.

The combination of intensive learning, regular prayer and opportunities for social responsibility make for an environment in which to create spiritual transformation. Using the insights, texts and practices from Chasidut, Mussar and other traditions, day schools should be leaders and agents of change. Perhaps we need a national spirituality summit for Jewish day schools in which we put our heads and hearts together to spark this revolution in Jewish education.

A focus on spirituality, while appealing to broad human aspirations, should not undermine the distinctive spiritual pathways offered by Judaism. It requires an acute awareness of both our Jewish uniqueness and our common spiritual bonds with our brothers and sisters in the broader society.

Hanan Alexander of the University of Haifa wrote an important book in which this very tension is explicated: Reclaiming Goodness: Education and the Spiritual Quest. In the chapter “Educating Spirituality,” he writes,

Becoming spiritually educated, then, involves learning about a tradition as an insider and an outsider. Initiation into and renewal of a vision of goodness entail acquiring the perspective of two communities, that of the community of primary identity, and that of the community of communities we have called open society that shares a common commitment to the conditions of ethical discourse.

The dual lens Alexander requires, the inside and outside perspective, what he labels the primary identity and the identity that derives from participation in the community of communities, is not simple to acquire. This is not like bifocals with a clear distinction between the two lenses. It is more like progressive lenses that blur one into the other.

And a major concern we confront in Jewish day schools is the gap between what we assume to be the primary identity and the actual identity of many of our students and parents, whose identification with the broader community is often stronger and more compelling.

Jewish schools induct students into a particular Jewish culture and set of values including a commitment to the Jewish people and the State of Israel. But the particularity of Jewish schools can also serve the common good and contribute to the public discourse within American democratic culture.

Textured Particularity

Jewish particularity should also be a catalyst for the development of universal ideals and global consciousness.

We need to make a more cogent case that the particular values and pathways of Judaism can enrich the life of the individual in relationship to the global community and that through that particular we bring blessings to the universal: Venivrchu becha kol mishpachot ha’adamah, And through you, all families of the earth will be blessed.

In her book Christian and Jews in Dialogue: Learning in the Presence of the Other co-authored with Mary Boys, my friend and teacher Sara Lee distinguished between a textured particularism and an insular or parochial particularism. In their formulation, “Textured particularism is passionate and implies a deep, even visceral connection with one’s religious tradition. It requires immersion in the community’s life—in those symbol-rich moments in which the divine Presence and power of faith community are experienced.” This form of textured particularism actually allows for an openness to others.

As Lee and Boys observe in their book, the requisite knowledge of one’s tradition contributes to a profound humility about the tradition. They quote Jonathan Sacks, who writes in his important book The Dignity of Difference that “the test of faith is whether I can make space for the other.”

Jewish day schools can teach toward textured particularism and test Heschel’s claim that “there is nothing in the universal that is not contained in the particular” (The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence). But I would go further and suggest that for our generation we have to demonstrate the capacity of textured particularism to contribute to an understanding and productive engagement with others in our society. This will involve a new commitment to interreligious learning for students and parents created by our day schools that will both deepen our understanding of our own spiritual tradition and provide an opportunity to listen, learn and lovingly critique the spiritual cultures of others.

When people can see the powerful ways the particular commitments to Judaism can interact constructively with other religious traditions and day schools become institutions educating toward interreligious leadership, the fear of parochialism that often accompanies a move toward the particular can be overcome. More Jews will come to realize what Heschel stated in that same essay about Jewish education:

The significance of Judaism, therefore, does not lie in its being conducive to the survival of this particular people but in its being a source of spiritual wealth, a source of meaning relevant to all peoples.

Ethical Audacity

In order to capture the imagination of 21st century Jews, our Jewish day schools must embody a particularism that connects to the concentric circles of people’s lives. We must have the conviction that our schools have a spiritually compelling message that can help build individuals and communities aspiring to a vision of ethical excellence. Hanan Alexander puts it this way:

There can be no common democratic community other than through particular learning communities. …This neutral society has clearly failed to foster a spiritually compelling conception of the good life in many of its constituents. This having been said, the very commitment to transmit a moral vision calls upon each community to embrace a transcendent vision of goodness consistent with moral agency and ethical discourse.

Our schools should be centers of moral responsibility and ethical audacity. Jewish day schools can cultivate young people who will take responsibility for themselves, their Jewish community, the Jewish people including the State of Israel, American society and the broader world. The Jewish and general ethical discourse in our schools and the opportunities to act on the deep concern for others should foster not just mentschlichkeit, but an ethical audacity that will propel them to become real change agents for the betterment of our world.

Ethics labs in which students can experiment with ethical ideas and problem solving, encounters with real social and economic challenges that demand from us a response, meeting real people who are models of moral courage can and should be an intergal part of the Jewish day school experience. We need not only text-people, as Heschel claimed; we need people who will live out the texts that call us to be responsible for redemption.

Heschel, in another essay, put it this way (The Insecurity of Freedom, “Confusion of Good and Evil”):

Man’s good deeds are single acts in the long drama of redemption, and every deed counts. One must live as if the redemption of all men depended upon the devotion of one’s own life.

Jewish day schools have an enormous opportunity and an enormous challenge. Can we envision our schools as communities of creativity, hubs of hybridity, centers of spirituality, places of particularism that open out to the universal and epicenters of ethical audacity? I think we can, I think we must, and I am confident that we can communicate the value proposition of these educational ideas in a compelling way. We need to deliberate and analyze these concepts and keep our focus on the big ideas and values that can capture the imagination of our community. ♦

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