HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Bursting the Jewish Bubble

by Rebecca Voorwinde Issue: Bold Ideas
TOPICS : Students

As a director of the prestigious Bronfman fellowships, Voorwinde believes that some of the most powerful learning happens when day school teens encounter their Jewish peers from other schools—for their mutual growth.

“Maybe I’m missing something, but how is leaving the lights on for twenty-five hours and wasting electricity, which is bad for the environment, in the spirit of Shabbat?” Ben’s question cut to the heart of a two-hour debate. As one of twenty-six high school juniors selected as a Bronfman fellow, Ben’s Jewish educational background was the most limited in the group. Unlike others sitting in the circle that first Friday afternoon in Jerusalem, he had never attended Jewish day school, a Jewish summer camp, or any kind of supplementary school.

The discussion about celebrating Shabbat as a group took a familiar course before Ben spoke. Observant fellows talked about the laws of Shabbat and restrictions that needed to be enforced. Day school fellows, whether shomer Shabbat themselves or not, explicated in great detail the reasoning behind Sabbath laws. Fellows raised in the Reform movement talked about summers at camp playing guitar on the lawn and singing zemirot. But Ben raised a unique voice. This conversation was his first hearing from people who kept Shabbat. It was his first time discussing the ideas he had just read about in Heschel’s The Sabbath, a required reading assignment for all fellows before arriving in Israel. And so, he had a different take that pushed the group into a deeper exploration about meaning and purpose.

Studying Jewish text and discussing Jewish ritual in mixed groups of Jewish day school students and Jewish students with limited Jewish educational experiences, enriches students’ understanding. I have witnessed this phenomenon as codirector of the Bronfman fellowships, a pluralistic Jewish leadership program for high school juniors with an alumni community of 1000 across Israel and North America. There is an untapped potential in the day school world to bring these groups into contact educationally for the benefit of developing future Jewish leaders who can see the world through a lens greater than their own.

The Power of the Naïve Reader

Day schools shape the way students approach Judaism. This is mostly a wonderful thing. Students learn the context and history behind the texts, commentaries and laws they encounter. They also learn a method for textual interpretation and discussion. However, theoretical exposure, at times, leads even the brightest day school students to fall into the trap of censoring their own voice.

Early on our educational staff wondered if our day school educated fellows would benefit from text study on our program if they already study text throughout the school year. Remarkably, after 27 years in the field, we’ve consistently found that our text study is most enhanced by the interplay between students who have worked with Jewish texts before and those who have not.

Something magical happens when a Jewish student who has never attended a Jewish day school brings to a text study discussion their own questions and interpretations. Because they have never encountered these Jewish ideas in depth before, they come to the text unhindered and free to give a fresh reading. In certain academic circles this concept is called the “naïve reader,” who approaches a text without any historical, theoretical or cultural criticism to influence his or her interpretation. Naïve readers remain free to read and respond using their own sensibilities. The non-day school students inspire creativity in the discussion because of their “naiveté,” and, in so doing, the deeper layers of a text emerge and the discussion picks up momentum.

For their part, day school students energize their peers with less Jewish education by offering interpretations they have encountered in the classroom—whether a Rashi commentary or a drash from one of their teachers. Non-day school students are often amazed by the wealth of exposition that our tradition provides. This depth serves as a foundation for day school students to then move to offering their own insights.

Redefining the Jewish Bubble

I often speak with fellows who talk about the social isolation that comes from attending a day school. As a day school graduate, I know what they mean when they refer to “living in a Jewish bubble.” They lament that the names in their Facebook friends list looks more like an Israeli phone directory than that of an American teen. They share fears of walking onto a college campus and only then for the first time encountering non-Jewish students. These fellows are aware of a certain social segregation that comes with intensive Jewish education. Many Jewish schools attempt to remedy this separation by partnering with Christian and sometimes Muslim day schools for exchanges and programs. Parents often send their children to town sports, summer camps, or extracurricular activities to compensate for this separation from non-Jewish peers.

But the “Jewish bubble” that enwraps Jewish day school students applies also to their relationship with other American Jews. Day school students are often out of touch with a wider range of Jewish mindsets and identities. Despite the best efforts to diversify day school enrollment, families that send their children to day schools are those who have, somewhere along the way, made the choice that day school, a strong, immersive Jewish education, is an important value. This self-selection and prioritization of Jewish learning has made the greatest impact, indelibly and perhaps subconsciously, on the mindset of students.

This “Jewish bubble” is even smaller when you take into account estimates compiled by the Jim Joseph Foundation using recent censuses of classroom-based Jewish education for school-age children that around 45% of Jewish youth between grades 1-12 attend either day school or supplementary school (“Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging Jewish Teens,” p.3). Though the rise in enrollment in Jewish summer camps has helped to bridge socially between day school attendees and other Jewish students, an attitudinal shift is needed when it comes to the educational divide.

Jewish camps are an excellent place for informal Jewish education and identity formation, but they sometimes inadvertently reinforce or bring into focus the knowledge gap between differently educated young Jews. For many of my camp friends who attended Hebrew school at their synagogue, they were never more intimidated by their “lack” of Jewish education as when they sat beside a day school student during tefillot at camp.

Perhaps this imbalance comes from the way we convey to students that only those at the top end of a “Jewish knowledge hierarchy” can properly undertake “serious” text study. Day school programs that bring students together could contribute to righting this potentially divisive attitude. On the Bronfman fellowships, we’ve seen that study sessions that generate the most unique insights are those where everyone in a diverse Jewish group are regarded as equals to the learning process. Day school graduates, if exposed to this diversity, could help generate more shared learning experiences when they enter the “adult” Jewish community.

What Can Day Schools Do to Widen Their Students’ Lenses?

Here are a few ways Jewish day schools might contribute to bridging the divide between their students and other Jewish peers.

Tap into natural peer networks. For Jewish high schools, check whether there’s a Jewish Student Connection group in your local public school or contact the Bureau of Jewish education about other public or private secular school relationships that may already exist. A day school could host a joint learning or discussion session or find another way to collaborate. Similarly, student leaders could identify Jewish friends and invite them to join an event, class, or activity hosted by their day school.

Virtual chevruta. A few years ago, two Bronfman alumni paired their friends for regular skype and phone chevruta study. Half of each chevruta was a public school student from Berkeley, CA and half attended a day school in the Boston area. Day schools could spearhead an effort like this and could ‘find’ non-day school students through camps or youth groups.

Host community learning. Many day schools already open their building to programming for the local Jewish community. Consider targeted programming that attracts non-day school students to participate.

Joint after-care programming. Day schools might host or promote a Jewish after-care option for children attending day schools and those who do not. In Chicago, Rabbi Rebecca Milder, a Bronfman alumna, has set up an inspiring model that brings together day school students and other Jewish students at the Jewish Enrichment Center for learning and fun after-school. (See her article in this issue.) More programs like this are needed.

The reciprocal benefit of bringing day school and non-day school students together is clear. The relationship between day school students and other Jews will influence the building blocks of tomorrow’s Jewish community. We have the opportunity to ensure both types of students are enthusiastic about building a Jewish future in partnership with all Jews and with a true appreciation of the varied lenses every Jew can bring to the discussion.♦

Rebecca Voorwinde is the co-director of the Bronfman fellowships, a pluralistic Jewish leadership program for high school juniors with an alumni community of 1000 across Israel & North America. She can be reached at becky@byfi.org.

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Bold Ideas

Dream big! Sample a mix of current programs and blueprints for new initiatives, all dreamed up to be “game-changers” that can reconfigure day school education and possibly exponentially increase the impact of day schools on students and the Jewish community.

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