HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

From the Co-Executive Directors: Measuring Jewish Day Schools

by Idana Goldberg Issue: Taking Measure

Once there was a gentile who came before Shammai, and said to him, “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary—go and learn it.” Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a

In this classic text, we often focus on Hillel’s universal message, understood colloquially as behave toward others as you want them to behave toward you, seemingly reducing the Torah to that basic etiquette lesson, applicable as much to a children’s playground tussle as it is to geopolitics. Yet, in thinking about this issue of HaYidion on measurement, I found myself drawn to a simple detail in the text: Shammai’s measuring stick (translated from the Talmudic Hebrew amat habinyan).

The Talmud generally doesn’t use language extraneously; Shammai’s use of a measuring stick to push away the seeker is significant. In the telling of this story Shammai is clearly the bad guy in opposition to Hillel, the good guy. But what makes Shammai so problematic? I’d suggest that his behavior offends us precisely because he chooses to use his own measuring stick as a means to judge the worthiness of another. Shammai establishes an exclusive set of standards and measures everyone else against those standards.

Hillel, in contrast, is able to see the person standing before him and respond accordingly. Perhaps his message is less a message to the seeker, and more a rebuke to Shammai: “Would you wish to be measured against another’s standards? For surely you might not measure up either.” Thus, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow.” This undergirds the whole Torah, because when we measure others with standards that are not reflective of who they are or what they want to be, we prevent them from engaging in the most meaningful ways with Torah. Other famous rabbinic statements claim that the Torah has “seventy faces” and speaks in “seventy languages”; the face and language that one person encounters, even someone as respected as Shammai, cannot be imposed on others.

The use of data and measurement has become standard operating procedure across all sectors of society—business, nonprofit, social services and education alike. Yet data collected and measurements assessed can only be valuable in relationship to what an organization is trying to accomplish. As simple as this seems, it’s not always the practice to ask “What are we trying to accomplish?” before we ask “What we should measure?”

I’ve often been struck by conversations over how we should measure the “Jewishness” of a day school, with the implication that the value or success of that school is then calculated by a set of predetermined Jewish data points. The definition of a Jewish day school then hinges on certain measurable criteria: how much tefillah takes place in the school and what sort; the number of hours devoted to Jewish studies subjects; the strictness of a kashrut policy or admission decisions; how a school celebrates Yom Ha’atzma’ut; what the dress codes are, or who teaches there. The motivation in these debates is by no means insidious; with the best of intentions, researchers and practitioners seek to identify success stories in Jewish education in order to replicate them and engender further success stories. The challenge becomes when we expect all schools to be able to be successful in the same ways.

When we define Jewish day schools using standard measuring sticks, we run the risk of becoming Shammais. We ignore the diversity of the day school field and eschew a deeper understanding that the goals of a Jewish day school and its function will differ according to its own community. Form should thus better follow function than vice versa.

By no means do I intend to suggest that there should be no standards or that schools should not strive to be passionately, profoundly Jewish places. Capitalizing the J in Jewish day schools and supporting the lay and professional leaders of schools to live deeply within their Jewish missions has been at the core of the work that RAVSAK has done with our schools for more than two decades. But I am suggesting that we as a field need to be more intentional about what we mean when we talk about Jewish schools and how we help schools first and foremost articulate what they are trying to accomplish. Only then can we understand what kind of Jewish schools they need to be in order to simultaneously serve and elevate their communities. Only then can we turn to schools and together define standards and benchmarks that ask schools to measure themselves against their own goals and their own community values.

Hillel doesn’t say, do to others as you would do to yourself (the Golden Rule), because that is precisely what Shammai has suggested: that his standards should be others’ standards. Rather, he says, don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you (the Silver Rule). The same goes for Jewish day schools. Let’s collect data, set standards and find ways to measure schools. Let’s just do so with the full awareness that engaging each institution in its own place may be what Hillel deemed to be kol hatorah kulah (the whole Torah).

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Taking Measure

Assessment is a critical function at all levels of day schools. From the classroom to the boardroom, the faculty to the head, every stakeholder and every aspect of school operations stand to benefit from evaluation. Nonetheless, thinking about assessment, and the vehicles for achieving it, are changing in many ways parallel to other aspects of school design. This issue offers reflections about assessment, various and novel ways of achieving it, and discussion of outcomes that can result from successful measurement.

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