Let’s Follow this Kind of GPS for a Strong Jewish Future

Teaching and Learning

Have you ever thought you knew where you were going, but ultimately ended up driving in circles? Now we are accustomed to depend on GPS because it recalculates mistakes and redirects us. A wrong turn here or there, and we are lost; then the GPS seems to navigate us magically back on course.

Imagine if we had such a directional system for our Jewish day schools—a GPS that guides a school by mission and vision, mapping the way forward most effectively. This GPS would provide continuous evaluation of a school’s actions so when a miscalculation or misguidance occurs, the school would be redirected. When a school is not heading in a direction consistent with its values, it could recalibrate and readjust its route to maintain maximum alignment of its espoused and applied values. This kind of GPS is a dream, but not a fantasy. This kind of GPS is a “God-Powered School.”

What is a God-Powered School (GPS)?

אִם־ה' לֹא־יִבְנֶ֬ה בַ֗יִת שָׁ֤וְא עָמְל֣וּ בוֹנָ֣יו בּ֑וֹ
Unless God builds the house, those who build toil in vain. Tehillim 127:1

A GPS is one that is guided by the sum of our holy texts, time-tested over thousands of years. A GPS is informed by the teachings of eternal Jewish wisdom and embodies Jewish values. A GPS steers students to develop a relationship with the Divine—whatever their concepts of God might be—and a strong Jewish identity. A GPS emphasizes Jewish values and relevance as much as text study and skills. It also demands that all systems throughout a school—from policies to content to pedagogy—support students’ journeys of Jewish discovery.

This journey of Jewish discovery extends far beyond the obvious, beyond the usual Judaic studies content and tefillah-related skills we typically assign as the periods for Jewish learning. A GPS’s educators and staff prompt students to consider God and tap into their individual curiosity about the Divine in all aspects of their school experience. From classrooms to the cafeteria to STEM labs to ballfields, a GPS’s holistic approach ensures a strong Jewish future. A GPS guides our students toward a destination that prioritizes fulfillment of each one’s unique strengths and talents—all inspired by Jewish wisdom, beliefs, and values.

The result of so many schools navigating decision-making without a God-inspired road map is that they don’t even realize they are not always headed in the right direction. Too many day school and yeshiva graduates get the “what” of Jewish knowledge but are missing the “how” and the “why.” They are missing the relevance of material for living our best lives and avoid addressing the core struggles with God they should embrace. To accomplish its mission, a GPS must be clear about the end destination for our students. That means developing a whole human being comprised of potential that includes academic success, social-emotional well-being, and spiritual evolvement.

What fuels a God-Powered School?

אַהֲבָה רַבָּה אֲהַבְתָּנוּ...וְהָאֵר עֵינֵינוּ בְּתורָתֶךָ. וְדַבֵּק לִבֵּנוּ בְּמִצְותֶיךָ
With a great love, God has loved us...and open our eyes to Your Torah and cause our hearts to cling to Your mitzvot. Shacharit/morning service: Blessings before Shema

My collaborative work with school leaders, influencers, and educators through the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge points to these specific approaches a GPS would use to steer students toward their development of a positive Jewish identity and self-esteem.

1. Ensure all roads of student life lead to a personal exploration of faith and a struggle with God. Students access a higher purpose through an explicit awareness of God in all school pursuits―in and out of the classroom―because a divine purpose maximizes human potential. Students deserve prompting that gives them permission to grapple with God in all aspects of their lives and in all coursework they take. This will help them develop a stronger relationship with the Divine, feel they can be guided by God-inspired values, and own their partnership with God in repairing our world. Yes, this means educators of all disciplines need training to be comfortable with open, honest and continuous God-talk with students so that they have the capacity to guide students in their search for and meaning of God. While I’m not suggesting all God-talk will be perfect, I am suggesting that students should have the benefit of a real-life presence and presentation of God woven into their whole school experience.

2. Scaffold prayer experiences with individual spiritual development as the ultimate goal. Students should be free to develop their own concepts about and connections to God through accessible paths of tefillah. Since kavannah/intention cannot be mandated, teachers could be asking students more God-infused questions, prompting their personal reflection, or encouraging them to think about the role God plays in their lives and the world around them. School communities should strive to become an environment where students can feel secure about sharing their concepts of God. Going through some version of personal exploration to create a strong and lifelong bond with our Creator should be framed as a normative experience.

3. Tap into intrinsic motivation as the primary driver of student learning―particularly with Judaic studies. The research is compelling about the power of intrinsic motivation in boosting student learning―especially in school settings. The research on positive psychology is clear. Increased autonomy, feelings of being significant to the learning setting, relatedness to teachers and classmates and a sense of making progress can increase students’ positive experiences with Jewish learning, positioning our timeless tradition as a guide in their lives―now and in the future. Educators may need to employ new instructional strategies, projects, or curricula to help students find personal relevance and connection to Jewish wisdom and values. I recognize that may be a heavy lift. However, the outcomes of deeper student investment in and passion for Jewish learning far outweigh any of the challenges associated with shifting away from the conventional school-related reward and punishment systems we currently rely on. Imagine the possibilities when students see their achievement is measured by their efforts and growth.

4. Create a holistic school culture anchored by God-inspired decision-making. When you take a deep dive into school policies, you often surface some sobering realities about their misalignment with school values and―even worse―Jewish values. Running a school with God-infused policies, procedures, and planning requires a collaborative leadership approach (bottom-up and top-down) to ensure the messages we send to students and their families―both explicit and implicit―are consistent with the Jewish values and traditions we set out to teach. From the custodian to the classroom teacher to the front desk assistant to the principal, there should be an overarching ethic to speak, act, and engage in ways that reflect the Divine’s attributes we aspire to mirror through our being betzelem Elokim/in God’s image.

5. Keep Judaic studies distinct and holy. Judaism should not be compartmentalized as a subject area that students decide they either like or don’t like, are good at or not good at. To that end, Judaic studies should be treated differently from other subjects, positioning the learning and coursework as sacred and eternally valuable. It deserves better than the customary classroom conventions typically found in today’s school culture. We risk long-term damage to Jewish self-esteem by imposing academically focused, extrinsic motivators on the identity formation of young Jews, warranting a reconsideration of traditional evaluations, assessments, and grading practices.

6. Discipline with love, reflecting God’s care for the Jewish people. It is quite intentional that Moshe learned God’s 13 attributes―including being compassionate, slow to anger, and forgiving―when God expressed the everpresent possibility of repentance after the incident of the Golden Calf. In our tefillot/prayers, we illustrate in our hearts, minds, and souls God as a caring, nurturing, and loving parent, shepherd, redeemer, etc. This imagery points directly to the characteristics and traits we should be channeling as adults serving as role models and guides for children. Schools can help students learn the outcomes of their choices through positive, personal improvement instead of the common, punitive consequences we typically associate with school.

7. Support risk-taking in practical and theoretical terms. Perfection is not reflective of human beings or life in general. So why do we use practices that encourage students to strive for that instead of striving for their next level of growth and personal improvement? Students should be encouraged to reach beyond their comfort zones because failure, when it happens, is necessary for growth and preparation for life. Teachers equally should be encouraged to take risks by developing the courage to address head-on the unpredictable nature of student explorations around their evolving God concepts. People need permission to struggle and acknowledging growing pains helps people recognize them as signs of maturation and improvement.

8. Prioritize students’ individual Jewish identity development. Students’ inquisitiveness is a gift of youth that we all should nurture. Questioning and even skepticism are both normative and essential in exploring faith and belief. Schools should rely on talented educators to coach colleagues on how to encourage students to explore their uncertainties as part of their robust reflections about God―both in and out of the classroom. We also should strive to develop each student’s unique potential so their strengths and weaknesses are nurtured rather than fall into the trappings of conformity perpetuated by cookie-cutter educational approaches.

How do we create a God-Powered School?

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃
They will make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them. -- Shemot 25:8

The how is equally as important and the what and why.  A God-Powered School is possible if day school stakeholders—educators, funders, influencers and parents—demand a process of self-reflection and growth. It is an essential part of staying focused on where we are headed to prevent distractions that, frankly, don’t matter and veer us off course on our journey to our most meaningful destination.

We must make an honest assessment of how our schools measure up to their stated values and mission of developing a whole person. Yes, academic achievement is important. Yes, schools should look at grades, scores, and rankings and the colleges, seminaries and yeshivot their graduates get into. But that addresses only part of the human being, and those are not the ultimate destination for our students—literally and figuratively!

We all have seen which Jewish educators are most successful with igniting a love of learning and sense of accomplishment in their students. They are the ones who make text relevant and meaningful and who view themselves not as teachers, but as developers of human beings. These are the ones who guide our students most effectively on their Jewish journeys.

I had the honor of exploring these topics with 100 Jewish day school provocateurs at the 2019 Jewish Education Innovation Challenge’s 7th Annual Innovators Retreat. Under the theme of “Values Illuminating Actions,” we dove into conversations around schools valuing both the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. We imagined schools where individual potential is realized and celebrated, where Jewish self-esteem is built and not destroyed. We shared what it takes to ensure that all of our students can reach the destination of a lifelong love of Jewish wisdom, values and beliefs.

I invite you to take a ride with us. Imagine a God-Powered School where values and actions align in policy, in practice, and in spirit. Imagine a school where our connections to the Divine help us stay on course and navigate the beautiful, yet sometimes challenging landscape. Imagine a school where our students are developing relationships with God to support a solid and enduring Jewish identity. Imagine with us how a God-Powered School would enhance young Jewish lives today and build a thriving and enduring Jewish future.

Manette Mayberg is a trustee of the Mayberg Foundation, which supports Jewish education and engagement initiatives, including the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge, which aspires to reignite students’ passion for Jewish learning and improve the way Jewish values, literacy, practice and belief are transferred to the next generation.