HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Creating a New School

by Dan Mendelsohn Aviv Issue: Educational Innovation ADRABA, Toronto

Tell us your personal journey that led you to create your school.

I was educated in a very traditional, Orthodox setting from kindergarten until I graduated high school. (Despite what my friends and kids assert, at no point in my schooling did I attend cheder.) I was exposed to traditional texts, values and thought, as well as traditional teaching practices. I did well in school, but as the years went by, I grew increasingly ill at ease. I eventually managed to articulate what it was that bothered me in a question. (How very talmudic!) If Jewish tradition was as rich and profound as my rabbis claimed it was, why was my experience of it so flat, trite and superficial?

I wouldn’t say I went on to become a Jewish educator out of spite, but, if we’re being honest, I probably did. Ever since I began teaching and learning in Jewish settings, it has been my mission and goal to create opportunities for Jews to experience their history, texts, values and ideas in a more open, direct and transparent way. You cannot hide behind blanket statements like “Judaism says…” or “The Talmud says…”. You have to bring receipts.

I taught in supplementary schools in synagogue basements. I ran classes at Ramah when kids were thinking about anything but Hebrew as a language. I taught preteens and teens in day schools, and led them on summer trips across Europe and Israel. I learned alongside adults as they explored questions of history and memory. I lectured online in university seminars. Somewhere in there, I honed my own thinking about our tradition, professionalized and earned degrees. I also spent a lot time in Jewish kitchens trying to answer the question: What can Jewish educators learn about teaching from cooks and chefs? I wrote books. I started a podcast.

In 2011, Frank Samuels and Sholom Eisenstat invited me to join a conversation about how Jewish education could be better. It was not a formal symposium, just three educators talking over coffee and pistachios. We marveled at what technology could do today that it couldn’t do five years earlier, and why Jewish classrooms were falling behind. We soon realized that talk is good, but like Rabbi Tarfon and the elders stated, it is a necessary precursor to action (Kiddushin 40b).

And, so, after much thinking and talking, we launched ADRABA in September 2018.

Describe the new school.

ADRABA is a blended-learning high school, designed from the ground up to leverage technology to enhance learning in every subject—especially Jewish learning. Blended learning, defined simply, involves teachers using technology to personalize the student’s learning experience.

With blended learning, learning can happen anytime, anyplace and anywhere. Thus, we can structure the day differently. No more bells. No more cemetery seating. No more paper-and-pencil assessments.

ADRABA is Jewish high school, reimagined.

Talk about the school’s innovative features.

Almost every aspect of ADRABA is innovative! When we started the process of designing the school, we took nothing as a given when it came to the learner and meeting her needs. We wanted the learning experience at ADRABA to mirror how a person learns in the world. We gleaned lessons from our own experience as teachers. We talked to teens about how they learn best and how they use technology. All this anecdotal and research data influenced how we designed curriculum, learning goals and how we structure our face-to-face interactions. And as we, too, are human, we take pride in the fact that we, as a school, are learning, too. We will be assessing our practices, policies and processes along with the members of our kehillah. We will try new things. We will surely fail. And, most importantly, we will learn from our mistakes.

What model(s) inspired the design of your school?

Whereas my inspiration comes from theory, Sholom was inspired by experience in the classroom, specifically his years as a teacher in the CyberArts program (cyberarts.ca). One project in particular stands out, even decades later. Some of his students attended the Youth Summit during the 1998 meeting of the G8. While everyone helped to prepare the position papers, the kids who remained in Toronto formed research teams to support their peers in London. He remembers going to student’s house in the middle of the night to watch the sessions.

A question came up on the floor, and a request for information was passed from the kids in the room to the kids in Toronto. The Toronto research team quickly pulled together the research and sent it back to London. Everyone then watched as the note from the Toronto team was passed to the members at the conference table in real time. The kids were interviewed by the CBC, and one was asked about what she learned. She replied, “I learned that there are no limits.” Sholom recounts that his lesson was the same. There are no limits to what competent and well-supported teachers can do with motivated and engaged high school kids and the right tools.

How did you determine that there was a need for your school within your community?

Toronto has a historically robust Jewish ecosystem. Day schools affiliated with all major denominations as well as specific sectors of the Jewish community crisscross the landscape. More than 50 synagogues in the city and its environs provide afternoon and weekend Jewish programming for affiliated children. And yet, when it comes to Jewish high schooling, unaffiliated, Conservative and Reform Jews have only one option. Yet, for many families, that option is either geographically, financially or ideologically “too far.”

Our local Federation tells us that 2 in 3 Jewish Grade 8 students do not continue with Jewish learning in Grade 9. Couple that with the usual drop in synagogue affiliation post-bat and bar mitzvah, and you have what is arguably a crisis in Jewish communal viability.

One would think that, under these circumstances, the last thing Toronto needs is another school… but many parents have told us that if there had been another option when they were high-school age, they might have chosen differently. ADRABA, by its very design, is the alternative. And we are committed to galvanizing cohorts of literate Jews into action.

Imagine where we would be as a society if a vast majority of our citizens stopped learning math, science or civics at age 14. Who would make the next breakthrough in medicine or robotics? Who would design the next, better processor? Who would represent us capably and properly in city council or parliament? If not us, then who?

How then can we expect our community to continue in the 22nd century if there are no literate, engaged Jews to assume the mantle of leadership and involvement? Can we do it with only a 14-year-old’s understanding of our centuries’ old tradition?

We can do better.

Whom are you looking to bring on as teachers? Have you been successful so far?

Because of our unconventional and flexible schedule, as well as being located in Canada’s biggest Jewish community, we have access to a bullpen of educators that are both erudite and engaging. We are regularly approached in line at the coffee shop and via email by teachers from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds curious about ADRABA. We have secured staff for 2019, and will surely expand the roster in 2020.

How do you recruit for a school that exists only on paper?

We are a school built on an idea: “Blended Jewish.” Our challenge has been finding learners (and their parents) who are as captivated by the idea as we are.

Speaking with hundreds of parents and peers over coffee, we acknowledged our newness, our untestedness, but also our cutting-edgeness and over 80 years of experience in the Jewish classroom, multiple degrees and awards, etc. I also was reminded of one of the more pressing lessons I learned from my research: As much as people love to try new things, they are as terrified (if not more) by newness.

ADRABA is new. But, as Rabbi Nachman of Breslav reminded us, the essence is not to be afraid.

Explain how you’ve gone about finding board members for your new venture.

ADRABA was designed not only to be a 21st century school, but a school that looks and thinks like its kehillah. As such, the founders made a concerted effort to recruit a board that reflects the diversity of Toronto’s Jewish community. When the founders and the board gather to discuss ADRABA matters, we have an equal number of men and women around the table. We have practitioners of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, men who wear kippot and men who do not. We have Ashkenazim, Mizrahim and Jews of color. We have Israeli expats and rooted Canadians. We speak from a variety of perspectives, but we all share the same goal: creating opportunities for Jewish teens to become literate and engaged in the kehillah.

What has most surprised you during this adventure of building a new school?

I was surprised by how, from a bureaucratic perspective, it takes so little to open a school in the province of Ontario.

I used to think of schools as edifices built by great men in stovetop hats that would withstand the passage of centuries—or, alternatively, as massive warehouses that churn out workers for the factories.

Schools, I realized, are neither. They are a site of learning built by people, where kids and teachers come together to ask questions and explore answers. Or at least, that’s what they should be.

What advice would you offer to someone else contemplating starting a school?

As much as I’ve gone on at length in response to earlier questions, I will be brief here because I hate to give advice. So, if I must, I will repurpose a shoe company slogan, and say: Just do it.

We need as many literate Jews as possible, and as good as Sefaria, My Jewish Learning and Wikipedia are, googling Jewish stuff does not a literate Jew make. And, sadly, legacy institutions are either too expensive or too slow to change. We need more Jewish learning places, not less. We need more passionate, literate Jewish educators to help make more literate Jews. We cannot cut corners or rest on laurels or hope inertia keeps moving us forward. If we’re to survive and thrive into the 22nd century, we need schools with bold visions to help us along. And everyone needs to pitch in.

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