As many HaYidion readers know, The AVI CHAI Foundation is a private foundation which has, over the years, made tremendous investments in Jewish day schools and overnight summer camps. We invest in schools and camps because we believe that a vibrant Jewish future depends on a commitment to Jewish living, learning and Jewish peoplehood, and we subscribe to a research-based belief that the best hope for attaining this vision of the future is through a focused investment in educational experiences for Jewish youth which are Jewishly meaningful and full of joy. So programs and organizations that support schools and camps are the objects of our grant-making.
HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
The Educated Jew
The authors here are engaged in an argument leshem Shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, over the question of what should a Jewish day school produce. Some emphasize cultural knowledge: Hebrew fluency, tefillah mastery, literacy of core texts in the Jewish library. Others view middot as central: ethics, commitment, curiosity, caring; while yet others choose social action as the goal.
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The title of this article—should Jewish schools aspire to create educated Jews?—is obviously intended to be provocative. In one sense, the answer to the question is surely yes. When we set up systems and institutions for educating people, our goal is to educate those people. Jewish day schools educate Jews. So it seems as if we are asking, “Do we want to achieve our goals?” Why else would we do whatever we decide to do, if not to achieve whatever we aspire to achieve?
The Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project, funded by AVI CHAI and run under the auspices of the Melton Research Center for Jewish Education of the Jewish Theological Seminary, has worked with more than thirty-five schools since its establishment in 2003. The Project is rooted in two core beliefs about vision. The first core belief is that vision is critical and the second, vision alone is insufficient.
Recent discussions about the importance of educational leadership and the way to strengthen it in order to improve American education have left me both pleased and very troubled. I am pleased because I strongly identify with the idea that success in education depends on high quality leadership, but troubled because the directions emphasized in the materials I have come across exhibit an understanding of leadership that is superficial in some fundamental ways. I would like to offer, not an alternative set of ideas, but a complementary perspective on the challenges of leadership and the cultivation of leaders for education. Though my concern encompasses the challenges of general education, my more immediate worry is that the outlook I will investigate might come to dominate the Jewish community as it seeks to cultivate leaders for our educating institutions. I hope that our field will engage seriously with the complementary set of ideas that I am proposing.
For too long, the two polar extremes of Jewish education—“formal” and “informal”—were destined to never meet. “Formal” modes of day school and supplemental education were reserved for instruction and stereotyped as “boring” and only content-driven, while “informal” experiences such as camp, youth group and Israel experiences were reserved for Jewish socialization and pigeonholed as emotional “fluff.” Thankfully, these simplistic distinctions have been questioned and the field has evolved so that “schools no longer limit their educational work to formal instruction and contexts such as camps and Israel experiences employ many different methods to accomplish their educational goals.”
In many of our high schools, students are accustomed to a schedule that separates the day into English, History, Math, Science, Hebrew, and Judaic subjects. Segmenting the day into distinct subjects helps students develop skills and in-depth knowledge of specific content areas. This structure accommodates teachers, textbooks, and parents. Teachers are typically trained as subject specialists and they utilize textbooks that support their subjects (especially in general studies). Moreover, parents are accustomed to this structure, as it was dominant in their own school experiences. The problem with learning exclusively in this way is that when students envision subjects as discrete “islands” they lose the opportunity to see how different subjects are connected and to ask common questions. If high school programs facilitated more cross-curricular connections, students could find deeper meaning in their studies by seeing recurring themes and patterns that cut across disparate subject areas. Students would realize that some of the same questions are posed in science and Judaic studies or in humanities and the arts. These cross-curricular connections could facilitate learning that is more interesting and leads to a richer and deeper understanding of material.
For centuries, the picture of an educated Jew was clear and unchanging. He (it was a given that the educated Jew was male) had mastered a certain body of knowledge, including biblical, rabbinic, halakhic, and liturgical texts, as well as the languages in which these texts were written (Hebrew and Aramaic).
The “Goldberg Jewish Community Day School” prides itself on involving students and faculty in social justice. Faculty and administrators point to the twice-a-year service days in which students serve meals at soup kitchens, sing at a nearby retirement community, and clean up the park across the street. They boast that the annual eighth grade bake sale raised more than $3000 for disaster relief, and that the Tikkun Olam Club collected 300 cans for the local food pantry.
Kavannah can mean intention, attention, purpose, devotion, meaning, significance. Kavannah is often the subject of intensive discussion in the context of prayer, specifically, formal worship. There is a tension between the value of praying with kavannah and the value of Keva. Keva refers to that which is fixed and in the context of prayer, it would include all of the elements that are mandated by Halakhah (Jewish law) or Minhag (local custom). The Jewish service is, in many ways predictable. On Shabbat morning in the synagogue, one can expect to hear the weekly Torah portion as well as a reading from the Prophets. The Shema and the Amidah will be included in the service as well. Adults can appreciate revisiting the familiar and the comfortable, particularly if their lives are constantly bombarded by change and challenge. Young people are more likely to be emotionally moved by that which is new and unexpected.
Pre-modern Jews had at their disposal a fairly self-evident response to the question: What does it mean to be an educated Jew? Most basically, the “organic” Jewish community recognized only one source of knowledge and values: the Torah and the rabbinic tradition of its interpretation. As such, one was educated if he had a familiarity with the canon, some ability to study it on his own, an abiding dedication to Torah study as a value, and a knowledge of the beliefs and practices that bound one to the community and linked one generation to the next.
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