Making the Case for Jewish Day Schools Now
Sometimes what is so obvious to us needs to be restated: Jewish day schools are places of excellence, in ways that the word “education” only begins to cover. Their excellence has never been more apparent than now, during the pandemic of COVID-19. At a time when schools everywhere are struggling to teach, to engage students, and to attend to the stress and mental health challenges of prolonged isolation and confinement, Jewish schools are rising to the fore for their ability to adapt, to persevere, to provide care and support to their students and families.
With all of the uncertainty in the world, it’s therefore a good time to revisit some of the arguments for Jewish schooling, with a special appeal to parents feeling a sense of heightened instability, uncertainty, and anxiety.
1. Jewish day schools show the values, commitment, and practices of Jewish life in action better than any other institution. They model the kinds of communities we hope to foster and develop in the future, ones where Judaism and secular culture, Zionism and patriotism go hand in hand. Communities where we model respect and love for Torah, for others, and for one another. In Jewish schools, stakeholders live our values in action, instead of having “real life” for part of our days and “Jewish life” in others.
2. Jewish day schools are excellent centers of learning that have continued to be excellent under these most trying conditions. Day schools know that education is at the heart of what they offer. While schedules have had to be adjusted and shortened, clubs and sports have shrunk or vanished for now, schools have kept a focus on delivering education in a way that preserves the essence of the program—critical skills, valuable conversations, important knowledge. Whether online or in-person, synchronously or asynchronously, day schools are experts at fostering student reflection and growth, at developing student abilities in ways that spiral and expand year after year.
3. Jewish day schools are communities expert at creating community. Our schools train students to consider themselves as part of a community, starting with the people within the school, and extending to communities far beyond. They inculcate habits of mind and dispositions for action on behalf of others: classmates, teachers, parents; the elderly, the poor, a wide variety of people in need; people who are oppressed and suffering. During this time, they have worked to create new forms of rituals and activities to replace the in-person community-building events that are the neshamah of our schools.
4. Jewish day schools care deeply about each and every student in their midst. They pride themselves that no student “falls between the cracks,” whether a student needs extra support or opportunities for advanced study. They find new forms of assessment and pedagogy to assure that they understand each student’s strengths and challenges.
5. Jewish day schools see their students in their entirety. Teachers, principals, deans, therapists, psychologists, learning specialists—everyone who has meaningful contact with students is part of a team that brings together all the knowledge available, from inside and outside of the classroom, to help inform the school’s plan for a student’s learning and growth. They attend to the intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual needs of students, and celebrate each student for who he or she uniquely is.
6. Jewish day schools are nimble and flexible. We saw this trait in extraordinary fashion through the rapid transition that all Jewish schools made to online learning. But that transition was built upon our schools’ foundations, their philosophies and practices. Jewish schools believe that teaching is a noble profession that requires investment for training and growth; schools and teachers cannot stay in place, deliver the same education, and expect the same results. The willingness to learn, grow, and improve has enabled Jewish schools to stay focused on their mission even during these times of unprecedented upheaval.
7. Jewish day schools plan for the future. While some might draw the lesson now that “The best laid plans…,” it is more accurate to say that the ability of our schools to make plans and to act strategically are what give them their advantage. Through all of the challenges under COVID-19, teams of teachers have collaborated on strategies for effective teaching and learning online; administrators have planned for revisions to school schedules and creative new school rituals, have created structures for professional development this summer and are envisioning multiple scenarios for the fall; boards have drawn scenarios for financial planning and school governance, development directors have found new ways to cultivate funders, admissions directors have created virtual tours and Zoom meetings with prospective families, all while technology directors have worked tirelessly with everyone to ensure that online school is as familiar and smooth as possible.
8. Jewish day schools care for their teachers so that the teachers can care for the students. This has been a time of extraordinary stress for teachers. Some have had to gain comfort and familiarity with online programs for the first time. They have dealt with having to recreate the personal engagement from a distance that was so natural in person. The line between their personal and professional lives, which they cherished and tried to hold firm, is bending and breaking: children and families in the background, extra work and pressure off hours. Schools have done their best to show their teachers appreciation and to give them support they need and deserve. These include everything from gestures of thanks to varieties of support and professional development.
9. Jewish day schools partner with families. Parents have been under burdens most have never seen: overseeing their children’s online studies while working from home—if they have managed to keep their jobs. Parents with younger children are under even greater strain. Schools have worked with families in numerous ways, and financially in particular: increasing their financial aid budget substantially, providing significant refunds for early childhood education, preparing for discounts in the year ahead for days when the school building needs to be closed.
10. Jewish day schools go many extra miles for their students. Perhaps this has been most evident in the remarkable graduation and moving-up ceremonies seen everywhere: caravans of cars with teachers and administrators stopping in front of each student’s house, floats rented with heads of schools delivering a speech via microphone, parking lot ceremonies, graduation-in-a-box deliveries, taped Pomp-and-Circumstance marches down hallways and driveways—all via Zoom, enabling people near and far the opportunity to celebrate and witness the creativity of day school students and faculty.
Through the strength of their values and commitments, their flexibility, their devotion to the people who teach and learn together, and the remarkable people who work there, Jewish day schools have demonstrated their worth as an invaluable treasure of the Jewish community—now more than ever.
Elliott Rabin is Prizmah's director of thought leadership. He works to promote thought leadership in the field of Jewish day schools, in particular as editor of Prizmah’s magazine, HaYidion. He has taught classes in Jewish studies, Hebrew language and literature, and world literature in universities, JCCs, and synagogues. Elliott holds a PhD in comparative literature, with a specialty in Hebrew, from Indiana University. He is the author of Understanding the Hebrew Bible: A Reader’s Guide and The Biblical Hero: Portraits in Nobility and Fallibility.