From the Editor
When working in a school, no matter what kind of year you might be having, you know that it will end, and that there will be a new beginning in the fall. The fact that the Jewish calendar parallels the school calendar has always been a special plus for me. Unlike the secular calendar, which places the new year in the dead of winter, the Jewish calendar sees fall not as autumnal but as a beginning, the head of the year, almost like a second spring.
These thoughts arose as I, like you, prepare to reopen my school to our wonderful students, their families and their teachers. My inspiration comes also from reviewing the articles in the present issue of HaYidion. This issue represents something of a departure for us from our normal examination of the basics of Jewish education—the structures, challenges and curricular issues with which we all must deal. Instead, it presents us with a philosophical framework for our work, an examination of the day school movement in the context of the state of Judaism in the 21st century in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in the Jewish communities of Canada, Europe, and around the globe.
Our format is somewhat atypical also, in that many of our contributors are responding to our lead article, Dr. Michael Berger’s fascinating essay on our theme, “religious purposefulness.” The authors whose responses are included, as well as other articles on the topic, will undoubtedly give you much to ponder and discuss at the start of the new year. For my own part, I intend to order extra copies of this RAVSAK journal to distribute to my faculty, board, and members of our community, to foster greater understanding of the critical and central role of the community day school movement in creating a Jewish future.
I am sure you will also find much food for thought in this issue, and I invite you to enjoy the feast. May the year 5769 bring our RAVSAK schools only good things, recognition of the profound importance of the work we do, and joy and success in all our undertakings. L’shana tova!. ♦
From the Desk of Susan Weintrob, RAVSAK President
I would like to welcome Dorit Zmiri as our new Judaic Studies position to the RAVSAK Executive Board. This position will help support our Hebrew Language and Judaic Studies professionals and strengthen the network among these colleagues. Dorit is an experienced and talented educator. She is Boston Jewish Community Day School’s Middle School Director and Coordinator of Jewish Studies. Dorit has taught and supervised K-12 in both Hebrew and Judaic Studies. Her enthusiasm and leadership makes her a wonderful mentor and I know that she will add a tremendous amount to RAVSAK in this new position. Dorit has a BA from Tel Aviv University and a degree in Jewish Studies from Hebrew College in Brookline, MA.
RAVSAK has been fortunate to receive grants from a number of foundations who support the very important work we do in the field of Jewish education. Project Rope: Roots of Philanthropy Education, with a grant from the Jewish Teen Funders Network, provide opportunities to teach teens about the tzedakah’s value and importance in Jewish tradition. As educators, we know the importance of learning experientially; this project gives our high schoolers the hands-on learning experience of running a fundraising campaign for a cause in their local communities and in Israel.
Through a generous grant, the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation is supporting professional development of our heads of school by establishing the Small School Professional Development Scholarship. The scholarship program will provide up to 20 heads of small schools full scholarships to the 2009 RAVSAK Annual Leadership Conference in San Francisco. Applications will be available in September on our website. Because of this opportunity, our conference planners are planning new sessions specifically for those from small schools and small Jewish communities.
We have also received a wonderful grant from the Jewish Funds for Justice. Supporting our Middle School teachers, this grant will involve a training seminar in social justice education this fall, particularly relevant for this age group’s intense interest in fairness and peer group. For all of these programs, look for longer descriptions and contact information to register your schools throughout the pages of this issue.
You’ll notice as well that the RAVSAK staff is growing by leaps and bounds. The Executive Committee welcomes three new colleagues to the RAVSAK offices: Shaya Klechevsky, Assistant to the Executive Director, Rachel Bergstein, High School Coordinator, and Rafi Cohen, Davidson Intern.
The strength of RAVSAK is in our networking—I know its membership and professionals have supported all aspects of my school’s programs and leadership. RAVSAK is leading the way in Jewish education. We can all take pride in the work of our executive director, Dr. Marc Kramer, our professional staff, and our generous supporters.
As a new resident of the Bay Area, I look forward to seeing you at the San Francisco Conference this January.
Religious Purposefulness in Jewish Day Schools
“Natural” and “Intentional” Judaic Communities
... to have other Jews accept their view of the ideal Jewish life, adopt their values and perhaps some of their practices, and designate members of the intentional community as their leaders.
“Natural communities” consist of people who share social, ethnic or national bonds, have common customs and practices, and recognize a set of basic symbols and beliefs as distinctly their own. Boundaries with others are usually porous, and there is generally tolerance for a wide range of practice and belief.
For instance, in the Second Temple period, most Jews believed in a single, invisible God, circumcised their sons, and kept the Sabbath as a day of rest and kashrut in some way. Jews tended to live near each other and worship or read Torah together, though many non-Jews, known as “God-fearers,” were loosely connected to Jewish communities. The traditional Jewish societies among Christians and Muslims, where individuals imitated their parents’ way of life (or simply knew of no other), were “natural communities.”
“Intentional communities,” on the other hand, are made up of like-minded people who self-consciously choose to live a life that they view as superior to others. The community’s sense of purpose can be based on many things: the belief in an imminent end of days, a utopian vision of society, or strict adherence to a set of rules. In contrast to natural communities, this community’s boundaries are clear, its observances are precisely defined and its discipline is much stricter.
Examples of this sort abound in Judaism (as in every religious tradition). The Dead Sea Scroll community was made up of messianic Jews preparing for a major battle between the Sons of Light and Sons of Darkness; 16th century Kabbalists in Safed believed daily practice, if done with the right intention, had supernatural, even cosmic effects; and the early Labor Zionists had a clear vision of the “new Jew” who would create a utopian classless society based on agriculture. In all cases, life was lived “deliberately” in the sense that individuals infused their daily behaviors with significance.
Understandably, intentional communities held an allure for only a minority of the Jewish population. Average Jews tended to inhabit natural communities, where they wore their identity more effortlessly, behaved less self-consciously, and perpetuated themselves simply by having families in which children imitated adults. Natural communities, however, tended to thrive when the surroundings set the Jew apart legally, socially or economically. Once those boundaries were lowered, natural communities historically found it hard to maintain their distinctiveness, and within a few generations declined.
The Relationship of Intentional and Natural Communities
Of course, throughout Jewish history these two types of communities interacted to varying degrees and in different ways. Some intentional communities, like the Essenes, moved far away from everyone else to build separate societies with minimal contact with other Jews; others, like the medieval pietists or kabbalists, created enclaves within the natural community, living among other Jews but maintaining separate institutions, like synagogues or study circles, and dedicating themselves fully to their vision of the ideal life.
Some intentional communities, however, were more integrated within the larger Jewish society. What enabled them to do this—maintain their distinctiveness yet be a part of the wider community—was their ability to become the “core” of the natural community: to have other Jews accept their view of the ideal Jewish life, adopt their values and perhaps some of their practices, and designate members of the intentional community as their leaders. Medieval Jewish society, particularly the smaller Ashkenazic communities of Europe, came to revere the rabbinic scholarly elite as their “core,” and Hasidic communities had the zaddik or “rebbe” and his circle at their center. In both cases, we can see the natural community arrayed in concentric peripheral circles around an intentional core, with mutual interactions across the boundaries. Thus, the core may share its intentionality with the natural community and thus strengthen or intensify the latter’s distinctiveness (think of a yeshiva’s or rabbi’s public classes or a Hasidic rebbe’s tisch, farbrengen or talks), while the natural community supplies human and material resources to help maintain the core. The relationship can be symbiotic and mutually fulfilling, though on occasion it can lead to elitist abuse and popular resentment.
Indeed, the intentional core need not be its own independent community. Particularly in our individualistic society, where membership in communities is elastic and ever-changing and most people feel part of multiple communities, establishing a vibrant yet stable core is a challenge. In a growing number of religious communities, a constellation of trained and talented individuals—not all with formal training—serve as an intentional core to a wider social circle. We see this in successful American churches and synagogues—inspiring, charismatic people who serve in multiple capacities within their community. They are its deliberate, thoughtful center.
By “intentionality,” I mean leading a Jewishly purposeful life in a self-conscious way: having the ability to explain one’s practice in Jewishly meaningful terms, to ground one’s decision-making in Judaism’s rich tradition, and lend “Jewish significance” to one’s daily or regular activities. What are the features of this intentionality?
A central, if not primary, component of intentionality is having a vision of an ideal Jewish life and being able to explain why working towards that goal is meaningful. At first glance, those with faith in the supernatural, such as revelation, divine reward and punishment, or mysticism would have an easier time articulating a vision. However, the history of Zionism and Mordecai Kaplan’s Reconstructionism both show that one can generate a deep vision of the ideal Jewish life without resort to supernatural or metaphysical claims.
Secondly, because I take intentionality to mean leading a deliberate life with Jewishly meaningful choices, it entails finding that source of meaning not within oneself or one’s needs, but in Judaism. In a word, the touchstone of one’s choices (broadly speaking) is Judaism, not the self. One rich mine for meaning is Judaism’s millennia-long textual tradition. The Bible, Mishnah and Talmud, midrashic compilations, biblical commentaries, the Zohar and other mystical texts, and medieval and more recent codes are rich sources of Jewish meaning. For those who observe Halakhah and see in Judaism a legal code, the purposefulness is embedded in obedience to that set of laws, though we should be quick to add that even among Orthodox Jews, rote performance without awareness of the reasons or significance of one’s behaviors would be a feature of a ‘natural’ Judaic community as existed widely in pre-war Eastern Europe.
Non-halakhic Jews can also frame their view of the tradition in normative terms by deliberately engaging with the Jewish textual tradition. One’s decision-making must be reflective and thoughtful, not haphazard or convenient, and grounded in Jewish sources without necessarily being ipso facto subservient to them. Early Reform’s emphasis on the prophetic tradition is an example of an ‘intentional’ Jewish life, where textual sources of Judaism were the touchstone of one’s religious choices, even if Reform’s interpretive framework allowed them to reach conclusions quite different from those of Jewish tradition to that point. Jewish history can also be incorporated into this thought process, as the founders of Conservative Judaism and Reconstructionism sought to do, though I believe bringing in Jewish history as a “source” of Judaism is based on notions of Jewish peoplehood that in today’s environment of religious individualism cannot be assumed but must be articulated and defended.
A third feature of Jewish purposefulness is regularity and commitment—in other words, a life with ritual. Implicit in the notion of an intentional religious life is the assertion that religion makes claims upon us to which we must respond, that Judaism is not merely a resource for us when and if we want or need it. Like all great traditions, Judaism is able to teach us, challenge us, inspire us and elevate us—not just to affirm us. Admittedly, this may be at odds with our contemporary therapeutic American culture, where relevance to one’s own needs and aspirations is often the basis for significance. But as we saw, an intentional community is defined by some notion of behavioral standards and disciplined performance with the promise of a higher, richer, more meaningful life. A tradition is able to perform its instructive and elevating role precisely because it includes regular, consistent engagement and ritualistic behavior by practitioners for whom the only question is how, not whether, to engage. In an intentional community, members strive to retain the spiritual vitality of its rituals, but they never abandon them when not in the mood.
Living a Jewish calendar is thus an essential ingredient in the religiously purposeful life. Annual or more regular celebrations provide significance in embodied, even sensual ways and become occasions to dig into Judaism’s deep reservoir of sources and history for meaning. Jewish holidays that are essentially family reunions, or which lack ritual and reflection, may be enjoyable, but they are features of natural, not intentional, communities. As I noted above, purposefulness implies giving the tradition its voice(s), an activity that involves a degree of honesty and seriousness, acknowledging the presence of many voices and values within the tradition even if only one resonates with us.
Vision, engagement with Jewish sources, reflective performance of regular ritual—these are what I take to be the elements of a purposeful Jewish community.
The Day School as an Intentional Community: Ensuring the Core
We live in a time and place where Jewish ethnic and social bonds that 50 years ago seemed so self-evident and sustainable are proving to be thin and unstable. The individualistic, highly mobile and multicultural environment of North America, coupled with the abandonment of traditional Jewish social markers such endogamy (in-marriage), Shabbat and kashrut by the majority of Jews, has brought about the decline of the “natural” Judaic community. Put another way, the conditions that ensured the persistence of a large natural Judaic community for centuries—legal, religious or cultural exclusion from the wider society and thorough ritual distinctiveness—are gone, and a residual ethnic or even nostalgic identity is hard to sustain and will, according to most sociologists, be only partially successful.
With few alternatives, I submit that the Jewish community as a whole must look to ensuring a more vibrant intentional community that can accomplish two things: serve as the current ‘core’ for the wider Jewish population, and help cultivate “intentional Jews” who will make up the core of their own communities when they are adults. I believe that Jewish day schools across the denominational spectrum can fill that vital role—but only if they are Jewishly purposeful themselves, and empower and encourage their graduates to be the same.
I hope I have already successfully sketched out the critical ingredients for a purposeful Judaic community. As applied to day schools, it means first and foremost the articulation of a vision—stated clearly and unabashedly —how leading an intentional Jewish life adds meaning and richness to one’s existence, both as a Jew and as a human being. As in all mission-driven schools, these need to be the polestars for every decision within the school, and if necessary, taught to the wider school community through parent and board education.
If the Jewish tradition is to be, in some form, the touchstone of one’s decision-making, then students must achieve familiarity with it. The Judaics curriculum must aim at a reasonable level of literacy, by which I mean knowledge of the rich and lengthy textual tradition of Judaism and the history of the Jewish people as well. Judaic courses must both teach and model reflective practice, noting the basis for school practice and cultivating in students the capacity to make those intentional choices themselves.
To achieve this level of literacy, I think day schools cannot shy away from the goal of Hebrew fluency in their students. Only knowledge of Hebrew will enable day school alumni to engage the manifold Jewish sources in the original. If our graduates are to be able to hear Judaism speak in its own voices, they must understand the language—otherwise, they are handicapped and dependent on others to tell them what the tradition says and even means (translations are helpful, but only up to a point, as they necessarily miss the nuances of the original and impose the translator’s interpretations on the reader). The importance of Hebrew can be underscored in school communications, in speeches at graduation, and of course the curriculum itself. Serious engagement with Jewish sources depends on language study driven by standards rather than sentimentality.
Moreover, the day school calendar must be rich in regular, consistent Jewish observances, including holidays, commemorations and other events. To be clear: I am not insisting that these practices all assume Orthodox or halakhic character, but they do need to be purposeful: based on knowledgeable engagement with the tradition, reflecting commitment, and based on an underlying belief in the value of a Jewish life. I believe that in pluralistic, non-Orthodox settings, a reflective, transparent process whereby communities develop their rituals, understand their bases and meaning and stick to them with some consistency has the capacity to produce an intentional Judaic community.
This type of work does not have to wait until students can grapple with texts; teachers can present stories and concepts to younger children that allow them to begin this intentional activity earlier. However, the curriculum must ultimately evolve developmentally and bring the students to knowledge of, and engagement with, the sources of Judaism and model an increasingly sophisticated, nuanced encounter with the tradition that characterizes an intentional Jewish community. Shabbatons or other experiential activities are additional opportunities to develop this capacity in children.
As Alex Pomson and Randal Schnoor recently showed, this type of Judaic experience also has an impact on adults, both parents and others. Their book illustrates how a day school, a mini-intentional community, helps bring older, more “natural” Jews to greater purposefulness about their Jewishness, without having an explicit outreach agenda. As I noted, natural communities are in search of identity markers, and in the case study presented in the book, the day school became the “intentional core” for the concentric circles around it. Similar anecdotes abound.
Of course, day schools can choose to be “natural communities,” extensions of Jewish communities where ethnic identity is strong and a sense of Jewish distinctiveness assumed. Their curriculum will understandably be very different, as there will be no need to cultivate a deliberately Jewish life in the way I described. The ritual life of the school will likely be unreflective, seamlessly connected with that of the home or community—simply based on “this is what we do.” There is certainly a place in the American landscape for such schools. I believe, however, that America’s current climate of religious choice, personal journeys and multiculturalism will mean the decline of natural Judaic communities, and the day schools on this model will leave most alumni unprepared to affirm or embrace a Jewishly purposeful life in adulthood.
Day Schools as Incubators of Intentional Jewish Adults
Aside from being an intentional community itself, the day school also has the capacity to “incubate” intentional Jewish adults.
Day school alumni—and likely a minority of them—have the potential to serve as the “core” of their future communities, the axes around which people and institutions of a more ‘natural’ Judaic character can gather or rally. Their knowledge of sources and Jewish tradition, their ability to elevate practice by articulating its meaning and giving it depth, their skills at leading services, reading Torah, conducting ceremonies and giving divrei Torah—in a word, living a committed Jewish life—is unique among their peers, and can be the ‘intentional core’ around which more natural communities coalesce.
Of course, this means that the day school experience must ensure that these intentional young Jews not merely stick to themselves after graduation, as the medieval mystics did, or move out to their own communities, as the Qumran community went out to the Dead Sea. Instead, the day school must do its best to instill a sense of arevut (responsibility) to the broader Jewish community, which it can do by encouraging leading services in their synagogues or at elder residences, helping out mourners during their grieving period (possibly by teaching or leading services), taking a lead in designing Jewish community events, serving as youth movement directors, camp counselors, etc. These youngsters, often with better Judaic training than their parents (especially in non-Orthodox schools), should be incentivized to undertake these responsibilities with respect to their fellow Jews (e.g., reduction in day school tuition if they serve as youth movement leaders or camp counselors). With limited resources, Jewish philanthropists can choose to pursue each and every Jew wherever s/he happens to be on the periphery—a costly and high risk approach—or they can wisely invest in strengthening those who can serve as the intentional core of the future Jewish community—provided the schools cultivate and reinforce Judaic intentionality.
To be frank, in light of what we know about the developmental, social and psychological aspects of identity formation, with more enduring life choices in most cases occurring only after college or marriage, I am unsure what we can realistically expect of the K-8 day school framework, which ceases when children are 13 or 14. Given the nature of adolescent development, I think a Jewish high school is even more vital in ensuring an “intentional” Jewish adult, though even here the story continues to be written into college and beyond. After all, Birthright’s success is at least partially attributable to its focus on 18-26 year olds, not adolescents. But I leave that for another discussion.
I hope I have provided a strong argument for the formation and support of Jewishly purposeful day schools that help cultivate intentional Jewish adults. I admit this runs counter to the notion of an inclusive Jewish school that reflects the diversity of the community by welcoming all those who identify as Jews and wish to practice it at their own levels whatever those may be. That, in essence, is a legitimate brief for the day school as an extension of a “natural” Judaic community, as the “public school” of the Jewish community.
However, I believe the success of Jewish education ought to be measured not by those who seek personal affirmation in their religious education, but by what RAVSAK indeed calls “its client”: the Jewish future. A day school model that merely reflects the extant community will, by definition, share in the latter’s fortunes, which for most of contemporary American Jewry means demographic decline, growing alienation, and a struggle to recruit the young.
The current realities, as I see them, call for reversing those trends by forming and supporting intentional Judaic communities that can serve as the “core” for concentric circles of Jews and actually help produce a population of purposeful Jewish adults to lead the wider Jewish community in and into the future. Day schools, like few other institutions, can meet that challenge, but they must pursue a robust Jewish purposefulness in everything they do to guarantee their students emerge as intentional Jewish adults with a sense of responsibility for other Jews. Our client—the Jewish future—deserves no less. ♦
 I first encountered this helpful distinction in Martin S. Jaffee, Early Judaism: Religious Worlds of the First Judaic Millenium (Prentice Hall, 1997), pp. 134f.
 Haym Soloveitchik characterizes the natural community as “mimetic” and the intentional community as a “text tradition.” See his “Rupture and Reconstructions: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy,” Tradition 28:4 (1994): 64-130. While I find his distinction helpful for a description of Orthodoxy, I feel the distinction of “natural” and “intentional” communities cuts across all denominations, and is thus more helpful for the purposes of this essay.
 I believe Jewishly purposeful summer camps do succeed in creating intentional communities, but their limited nature (four or eight weeks) limits their ability to produce a lasting intentional community or enduring intentional Jews, unless these young people come back each summer for several years or continue their engagement with Judaism in other ways.
 Seymour Fox z”l insisted on the centrality of vision in day school education. The volume he co-edited Visions of Jewish Education (New York: Cambridge U P, 2003) includes the effort of several educators from across the Jewish spectrum to articulate realizable Jewish visions in day schools.
Back to School: Jewish Day Schools in the Lives of Adults (Wayne State University Press, 2008).
Response to Berger by Rabbi Jay Goldmintz
In truth, based on his descriptions, I am not quite sure to which community I belong. On the one hand, there are many schools where adherence to Halakhah is a core value and at the same time “where ethnic identity is strong and a sense of Jewish distinctiveness assumed.” Yet I would not say that that there is “no need to cultivate a deliberately Jewish life” nor would I describe “the ritual life of the school as unreflective.” Perhaps this is true in the most insular and haredi of communities, although I would suspect in a smaller number than we would imagine, given the dire warnings that one hears from that community about the evils of the Internet. What we are speaking about here is the challenge of modernity, and the tensions that exist in living in a society that is so open and so often at odds with our own values, a society with which our students may be far more familiar and by which they are more enticed. The challenge of a purposeful education, then, is one which faces almost all of us.
Berger calls for schools to be mission-driven and to have an articulated vision that informs the school’s own decisions and which should be shared “if necessary” to the wider school community. Absent from the list of constituents are the students themselves. Our vision needs first and foremost to be shared outright with our students on a regular basis, at every opportunity that we can find, for we can no longer rely upon the fact that they will get it by osmosis from either home or school. Precisely because our students are so immersed in the secular world, it behooves us more than ever to articulate for them exactly what our purpose is, regardless of how we define it. We can have a vision, Jewish choices, ritual, language, texts and the like and yet still have students who do not “get it.”
In my own community there was a time when it was suggested that there was no need to define or articulate what integration of Torah and the modern world was about. Teach them the best of American and Jewish tradition and the integration will take place within the student himself, people said. For a variety of reasons, I believe this approach is no longer tenable, if indeed it ever was. In a recent study of thousands of teens across the country and across faiths, interviewers were astounded by how inarticulate students were about their own faith. Citing philosopher Charles Taylor, who suggested that inarticulacy undermines the possibilities of reality, the study claims that “religious faith, practice, and commitment can be no more than vaguely real when people cannot talk much about them. Articulacy fosters reality.” The purposefulness, then, must not only be incorporated into the construct of the school’s implicit or hidden curriculum; it must be explained overtly to the students themselves so that instruction in these most precious of educational values becomes explicit.
If intentionality means making choices, then now more than ever before our students need to be able not only to make the right choices (however we may define them) but to give voice to why these choices are so purposeful. Only then can we hope that they will be able to create a core whose intentions radiate to the community at large.
Rabbi Jay Goldmintz, Headmaster of Ramaz Upper School in New York City and Doctoral Student Fellow at Azrieli Graduate School, Yeshiva University, has written a number of articles related to adolescent religious development and education.
Christian Smith. The Religious and Spiritual Life of American Teenagers. New York: Oxford UP, 2005, pp. 267-268.
Response to Berger by Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D.
While I certainly applaud Berger’s idea of establishing learned communities of Jews of every stripe, I also wonder about the very concept of a “core.” In the postmodern context, we live in a world that has come to be defined more by loosely attached networks than tight concentric circles around a core. These networks are precisely a response to the problems with a core: cores can be monolithic, exclusive, their participants somewhat uniform. Cores suffer from the particularly daunting challenge of maintaining a strong relationship with their peripheries and having strained relationships with outsiders. As Berger also notes, while cores evince strength on the inside, without constant communal support and ongoing validation of their priority, even the strongest core can decay over time.
I would suggest that we consider expanding Berger’s idea from the core/periphery model to that of a newer paradigm: the “distributed network.” Networks are redundant, pluriform and widely communicative—they link various disparate nodes that each serve different functions, and build linkages that harness individual, localized abilities and knowledge into global chains whose power and abilities far exceed those of the individuals they unite. If one node of a network fails or weakens, the other nodes can step in to hold the network together, providing greater resilience. And even if nodes of a network disagree, they can still continue to communicate and work together through a mediated relationship.
Consider, for example, the power of a wiki, a search engine, or JDate, and how these now play into Jewish life. Rather than seeking a rabbi (a “core” strategy) to answer a difficult, embarrassing, or overly simple question, many Jews now turn far more to Google, Wikipedia, blogs, or other such sources (a “network” strategy) to find multiple potential answers they can evaluate, select, and utilize. While the information in these sources is often unmediated and even sometimes wrong, the collective wisdom of the entire community can find expression through the give-and-take in these conversations, and a mediated truth eventually emerges.
On the JDate front, rather than seeking a partner at Jewish singles events or through a traditional shadchan, more and more our friends find mates and dates through online networks where they consider and select individuals they feel are appropriate. And the younger the generation, the more pronounced this tendency. If knowledge (or a wonderful Jewish spouse) is available from such resources, young Jews will be seeking, leading, and interacting with these resources. And as they change these resources, the resources change them and the way they behave as well. Such is the power of the network in our contemporary scene.
From this perspective, then, I would submit that the task of Jewish day schools in creating graduates who live purposeful Jewish lives is just as important, but slightly different from Berger’s conception. In essence, day schools must move beyond seeing themselves as creators of a privileged core elite of intentional Jews from whom Judaism will emanate to the natural community around it. Instead, day schools should seek to create as many radically different Jewish “nodes” as possible: talented, thoughtful, self-reflective Jews who can express extremely diverse viewpoints, respect and debate with opposing opinions, and work to mediate differences to create a coherent yet flexible, open-source “network Judaism” that will meet the needs of generations to come. These “nodes” can add to the “nodes” created by Jewish camping and seminaries, by religious schools and Israel trips, by adult learning and familial practice, to form and re-form a Judaism that can stay in touch with the times even as it honors our inherited legacy of sacred texts and traditions. This is, to me, the way that Judaism will continue the unending cycle of evolution that has kept it fresh, responsive, and creative for nearly three millennia. This is the sort of approach that will sustain the generations to come as they search for their own modes of commitment, conversation, and community to build and extend the Jewish tradition in new and exciting ways.
Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D. teaches Rabbinic Literature and serves as Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Response to Berger by Sylvia F. Abrams
In my view, Berger does not give sufficient weight to the role of parents in the formation of Jewish identity and is placing too much credence in the ability of formal educating institutions to create deep ties. In particular, Berger posits three elements to intentionality: “Vision, engagement with Jewish sources, reflective performance of regular ritual.”
Berger indicates that the holder of vision is both the individual and the school. I would agree that all Jewish schools, whether communal or other types, need to articulate a vision of possibility about the place of Judaism in the future adult life of the student. What troubles me is how much hold this ideal can have if the school ends in grade 8. It is the most unusual child who will have the autonomy in high school to realize and continue any vision offered by the school without additional communal structures in which the vision may be practiced, i.e. the synagogue, youth group, summer camp, or Israel experience. It is very rare for American Jewish children who primarily live in suburbia to have the agency to continue any vision without some type of structure.
Berger suggests two criteria for engagement with Jewish texts: reflective practice and Hebrew fluency. I would suggest a third: the cultivation of the tools for independent further learning. Today’s students are familiar with all the technological tools of the Internet. Even in schools that cannot find authentic Hebrew speakers to teach the language, students can hear correct speech and communicate with Israelis through such technological tools as YouTube and Skype. The greatest limiter to obtaining true Hebrew fluency is the lack of qualified personnel, not the ability of the students. Berger does not address how to include the faculty in creating an intentional community.
The most intriguing element in Berger’s list to create an intentional community is the idea of “reflective performance of regular ritual.” It does not appear that Berger is suggesting the creation of innovative ritual, but rather is advocating for the creation of habits in a conscious manner; however, habit implies a natural occurring community since it is the most unusual student who can resist the tide of social acceptance and engage in ritual without the support of a community. And this continuing support after leaving the comfort of the Jewish day school is what Berger does not adequately address. If the Jewish community provides day high school education, then Berger’s hypothesis has an excellent chance for success. If day school education is only until grade 8, there are too may social contingencies in the crucial years of adolescence that can undo elementary Jewish education. This is the conundrum of all elementary level Jewish day schools: Can the creation of intentional communities until age 13 or 14 have a sufficient impact on adulthood?
Sylvia F. Abrams is professor emeritus of Jewish Education and former dean at Siegal College of Judaic Studies; she currently directs Project 20-20, a partnership between the Central District of the Israel Ministry of Education and Siegal College to explore cross-cultural differences in identity formation with Israeli educators.
Response to Berger by Barry W. Holtz
I would, however, like to suggest a few modifications to his analysis that may be helpful. To begin with, I would be careful about the dichotomous portrait that Berger presents. He divides the world into two quite distinct camps: intentional day schools and natural day schools, mirroring Martin Jaffee’s distinction of two historical modalities of Jewish communities. But while it may be one thing to distinguish the Essenes from their contemporaneous co-religionists or the Lurianic Kabbalists in Safed from the ordinary “Jew in the street” (circa 1570), categorizing 21st century day schools as either “intentional” or “natural” may underestimate the range and complexity of the day school scene in our time.
True, there are day schools that one might better term “private schools for Jews” as opposed to “Jewish private schools.” That is, these are schools with minimal standards for Jewish content and practices. Their main purpose is to allow a place for Jewish children to go to school together in the way that a Jewish country club may be a place that allows Jews to socialize with people like themselves. These are good examples of Berger’s “natural communities.”
But aside from institutions of this sort, are the distinctions between intentional and natural day schools all that clear? My sense is that we can better see schools as located on a continuum between the two concepts rather than falling neatly into one or the other camp. Not only that but schools themselves may move around on that continuum depending on the particular leadership, parent population, teachers or other factors, present at any given time.
Moreover, even within any particular school there is likely to be a wide range—between classrooms in which students are encouraged to, as Berger has it, “explain one’s practice in Jewishly meaningful terms” to those where such concepts are never addressed. One classroom seems “intentional” and the other not, but what does that say about defining the school as a whole? Where does it fit?
My other hesitation about Berger’s presentation is his notion that leading a deliberate life…entails finding that source of meaning not within oneself or one’s needs, but in Judaism. In a word, the touchstone of one’s choices...is Judaism, not the self.
To me this notion of the way identity is formed and operates may not accurately reflect the process by which human beings conduct their lives. Once again a bipolar opposition has been proposed here, in this case a split between “the self” and “Judaism.” But the self is not an independent contractor working disconnected from powerful plausibility structures such as “Judaism.” In day-to-day life Judaism is integrated within the self, is part of the self and helps create the self. To say that “the touchstone of one’s choices is Judaism, not the self” is to suggest a kind of model of linear personal decision-making that doesn’t correspond to the familiar life experiences that all of us have. Our choices are probably made in a more circuitous fashion. Our Judaism and our selves are bound up with one another in ways that are messier and subtler than the dichotomy of “self” and “Judaism” might suggest.
These emendations do not, I believe, undercut the important challenge that Berger puts before the day school community: Developing schools dedicated both to content and commitment is our best hope for affecting the lives of children and building a Jewish future. It is towards that end that we must dedicate our efforts.
Barry W. Holtz is dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary where he is also the Seminary’s Theodore and Florence Baumritter Professor of Jewish Education.
Response by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer
I do think the conception of intentional community has a place in the day school setting, however. Intentional communities and the members that populate them can serve as models for day school students, providing a concrete path for them to grow beyond their day school education.
Berger notes, “To be frank, in light of what we know about the developmental, social and psychological aspects of identity formation, with more enduring life choices in most cases occurring only after college or marriage, I am unsure what we can realistically expect of the K-8 day school framework.” Indeed, many of the intentional communities in Jewish history were populated by Jews in their 20s and 30s. It is this age group that is full of energy, actively forming identity while unfettered by the time limitations of children.
Berger describes medieval Jewish society in which one such intentional community—that of a yeshiva and its scholars—are integrated within a wider “natural community” framework. I think it is worth exploring an integrated day school framework in which K-12 students have meaningful, ongoing relationships with intentional communities populated by Jews in their 20s and 30s. While such intentional Jewish communities are starting to emerge—Moishe House and Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, for instance, as well as Yeshivat Hadar, an intensive egalitarian yeshiva in New York—they currently have no relationship with day school students.
Imagine a program in which day school students enter these intentional communities on a regular basis, connecting to the members of these communities and learning from their activities. For instance, a day school program that sends motivated students to learn in the beit midrash of a yeshiva could have multiple benefits: K-12 students would have a live picture of what it means to voluntarily engage in Jewish text study, and live out a passionate Jewish identity. Intentional community members could see themselves as an integrated part of a larger Jewish community, and actively build relationships with the next generation of engaged Jews.
Berger asserts that day schools have the potential to “‘incubate’ intentional Jewish adults.” What better way to motivate day school students to continue their engagement with the Jewish community than building frameworks in which students and current members of intentional communities interact on a substantive basis. In a world where individual choice is paramount, a day school education is no guarantee of an engaged Jewish life. But providing concrete models of passionate engagement in Jewish community—the kind best demonstrated by intentional communities—can influence today’s day school students to become tomorrow’s intentional Jewish adults.
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is the executive director of Mechon Hadar (www.mechonhadar.org). In May he received the Avi Chai Fellowship, intended to help fund Yeshivat Hadar, the first year-round egalitarian yeshiva in the United States.
School as Shul: Day Schools in the Religious Lives of Parents
There are aspects of school-life that operate at an existential pitch absent from most other Jewish institutions frequented by parents.
Of course, this is isn’t what the last one hundred years of educational or Jewish history led one to expect of schools. As John Dewey put it, schools were intended to be locations where society placed all it had accomplished at the disposal of its future members. They were not expected to perform significant roles in the lives of adults. Likewise, for much of the twentieth century, Jewish day schools appealed most to families whose lives were already rich with Judaism and who feared a future erosion in the intensity of their children’s Jewish lives if they attended public schools. Today’s day school parents are different. Many rely on their children’s Jewish schools to provide the Jewish knowledge, inspiration and community they do not possess at home. Some parents even seek that knowledge, inspiration and community for themselves, having missed out when they were younger.
A great unexplored frontier for day school education may well be their potential to bring Jewish purpose to the lives of parents. The argument, derived from a study of parents at seven different Jewish elementary schools in the United States and Canada, is more fully elaborated in a recently published co-authored book, Back to School: Jewish Day School in the Lives of Adult Jews. The title of one of the book’s key chapters is self-explanatory: “The School as Shul: Jewish Day Schools as Places of Worship, Study and Assembly, for Parents.”
Historically, the synagogue has been identified as performing three primary sociological functions: (1) as beit keneset—a site for social fellowship, indicated by the etymological root of the Greek word synagogue, meaning “place of assembly”; (2) as beit midrash—an educational institution, symbolized by the vernacular Yiddish term shul, meaning “school”; and (3) as beit tefillah—a place of religious worship, the synagogue’s original function in the ancient world.
Today, there is evidence that day schools play all three of these roles, frequently to great effect, but often unknowingly. Most obviously, schools enable parents—through their involvement in their children’s education—to develop new social networks. A parent interviewee once stated as fact to one of our research team, “You always become friends with the parents of your children’s friends.” Actually, we found that this was by no means so for all those we interviewed, but it was often the case for families on the edge of the mainstream Jewish community such as converts to Judaism, gay couples, interfaith couples, and those who had recently relocated to town. As a result of parking-lot conversations, play-date arrangements, shared involvement as school volunteers, and plain old-fashioned gossip about teachers and administration, families with limited Jewish social networks built webs of connections that became deepened and extended outside school to the extent that parents marked life-cycle occasions in the company of other school families and celebrated Shabbat and festivals with them.
Less expected, there is evidence that day schools provide parents with many opportunities for learning and intellectual growth. This learning is rarely of the programmed variety; that’s why attendance at adult education programs was usually quite poor in the schools we studied. Parents—unlike older adult Jewish learners—learn while doing, or in order to do (while sitting on a committee or in order to be able to help in the classroom). They do not generally get involved in order to learn. They learn most from their peers rather than from an instructor, and, it turns out, many learn a great deal about Jewish life and practice from what their children bring home from school. Some parents have indicated to us that while their (immigrant) grandparents once served as sources of knowledge and inspiration for Jewish family life—on Friday night, for example, or at the family seder—today, it is their day school children who play this role for the extended family.
Least expected, parents report that they find in schools the kinds of “unimaginable moments of beauty” that seem lacking in synagogues where, as one parent put it, “The program is so scripted.” To put it in more sociological language, there are aspects of school-life that operate at an existential pitch absent from most other Jewish institutions frequented by parents. When the events at school are conducted with authenticity and spontaneity, they enable parents to confront questions of rare personal importance. Parents gain in schools what sociologists of religion call “intimations of the ultimate” of the kind that people tend to experience in hospital delivery rooms and cemeteries.
If it seems shocking to compare schools with cemeteries and hospitals, it’s worth considering for a moment what schools promise parents: the possibility of touching a different future for their children and themselves. When schools successfully embody a sense that the world is somehow different inside their walls, they invite an encounter with the ultimate questions of life, encouraging parents to wonder what their child might become. For Jews, vividly described by Simon Rawidowicz as an ever-dying people, a minority doubtful of its own survival, such ultimate questions can feel even more acute when one visits a Jewish elementary school. Parents can find themselves wondering whether things will be different for this group of Jewish children, whether they will find it less complicated to be Jewish, less difficult to juggle integration and survival.
If these are some of the emotions and responses that parents experience at their children’s schools, what are school leaders supposed to do? Should they seek to cultivate such reactions? Should they be involved in the nurture of families’ private Jewish lives? Ultimately, every school must determine how they answer these questions for themselves. From my perspective, there is both an opportunity and a challenge here. There is an opportunity to extend the mission of day schools to socialize children into lives of Jewish purpose, since children will find what they learn at school to be more meaningful when they see that it also engages their parents. The challenge for schools is that if they embrace this opportunity it will, first, require opening their doors more widely to parents, and I have found few schools that are not ambivalent about taking such a step. Second, schools need to determine who in the faculty has the skills to connect with parents in respectful and effective fashion. Most school professionals took up their work because they enjoy working with children. Some are uncomfortable when it comes to working with adults, as is often evident on parent-teacher nights when the most competent teachers can suddenly seem horribly awkward. Schools, then, must figure out who in their faculty will service parents’ needs for connection, learning and inspiration, and how they will go about doing so in ways that are not patronizing or prescriptive.
These are not comfortable or everyday kinds of questions to consider. In fact, they are the kinds of questions that call for great clarity concerning a school’s Jewish purpose in relation to children and their families. One might say that they constitute what is truly the bottom-line of day school education. ♦
An Approach to G-d-Talk
Interestingly, very few people doubt His existence. Whereas in the 1970s and 1980s you could barely pass for an educated person if you admitted to a belief in G-d, over the last decade G-d has definitely made a “comeback.” As someone said: Although He is not the head of the department of philosophy, He is certainly regarded as a well-respected member of the faculty.
So, with the above in mind, how do you talk about G-d in a Jewish community day school? This problem is most acute during the Open House. The audience is filled with prospective parents who want to know what sort of a Jewish education the school offers. Some are afraid that it will be too religious, for others it is not religious enough, and everyone wants to know how the school will handle the differences of belief between Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and non-affiliated children in a classroom.
Interestingly, whatever the student background, elementary students display none of the inhibitions described above when talking about G-d or a host of other topics that older students might find embarrassing. G-d is the person we address in our tefillah, He is the One who looks after our daily needs, He is the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and He performed many miracles for the Israelites in Egypt and in the desert.
Upon entering grade 7 students begin to question these beliefs, which until now seem to have been self-evident. It is the task of the Jewish educator to help students in this age group grapple with their questions, including their questions about G-d. But how can we create an environment in a pluralistic day school where students feel safe to discuss what they really think about G-d?
Instead of being cause for confusion, the pluralist character of our student population is a great asset for a rich Jewish learning experience. If you would define Judaism as engaging in the study of sacred texts through constructive dialogue, you may prefer study partners whose outlook is different from yours. We all know the famous line: “Two Jews, three opinions.” This can actually be a good thing. In fact, the Torah contains some important stories that deal with the issue of how to speak about G-d in a diverse environment in a very concrete manner.
When G-d spoke the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, there were hundreds of thousands of Israelites listening. With such a large number of witnesses, we would assume that there is just one, definitive version of the Ten Commandments. But that is not the case. There are two versions of the Ten Commandments, one in the Book of Exodus and one in the Book of Deuteronomy, and they differ slightly. Apparently, individual listeners can hear different things in the same oral message and record it differently, and this applies even to an event as significant as G-d’s revelation on Mount Sinai. Why? Because we experience things differently. The Torah records both versions. One is not more important than the other, but both need to be preserved. Of course, the different versions in Exodus and Deuteronomy are explained by many scholars as stemming from different sources that were amalgamated into one document, the Torah as we know it today, by an editor. However, I believe that this theory avoids reading and explaining the text itself.
An even more striking example of different versions of events is found in the Creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2. The first chapter records how G-d, majestically and in an orderly fashion, creates a perfect and harmonious world within six days. “And G-d saw that it was good,” as the text states at the conclusion of every day. G-d’s point of view is the perspective from which the course of events in chapter one is told.
The Creation story in the second chapter is told from a completely different perspective. The reader finds himself in a garden and is observing the course of events without the regular beat of the six days of Creation. “It is not good for man to be alone.” Man was alone? Had we not just read at the end of chapter one that G-d created man and woman together? How can it be that man is suddenly alone in chapter 2? How many books exist where chapter 2 seems to contradict what the reader has learned in chapter 1? Of course, these different accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 are likewise explained by many scholars as originating in different sources, but, again, that theory avoids reading the text itself.
By including both versions of Creations the author of the Torah teaches that there are different perspectives and that reality can look different depending where you are. There is G-d’s perspective on Creation, but Creation looks different from Adam’s viewpoint and this diversity is important enough to be noticed. Even stronger, the omnipotent Creator notices the unhappiness of his creature, Adam, and finds a solution for his loneliness. Reading Genesis 1 and 2 as consecutive and complementary, the Torah does not draw the portrait of an authoritarian G-d who speaks and expects human beings to be happy with what He has decided is best for them. Instead, the combined stories show G-d as the all-powerful Creator who takes a personal interest in the situation of His creatures and who acts on their concerns.
In a later story in Tanakh, it becomes even more clear that G-d is not merely concerned with man, but is looking for a partner with whom He can have a constructive dialogue. When He contemplates the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, He invites Abraham directly to give his opinion on His intended plan by saying, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? … For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right…” (18:17-19)
This is strange. If we suppose that G-d knows everything, why does He want to go on a personal fact-finding mission to Sodom and Gomorrah? He must be well aware that there no righteous people left in these cities. But if He knows that that is the case, why then does He ask Abraham for his opinion?
And if we compare Abraham’s response with G-d’s own words, we see that Abraham takes his cue from G-d, “doing what is just and right”: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” G-d not only invites Abraham to challenge Him, but He also gives him the words with which to do this. This dialogue between G-d and Abraham is followed in Tanakh by the often fierce conversations of Moses, Jeremiah and Job with G-d.
These stories from Tanakh teach us that G-d did not create us so that He could speak and we would blindly obey Him, but He intended us to be a constructive partner in our dialogue with Him. In His conversation with Abraham, G-d wants him to respond and give his opinion on G-d’s intentions. The two versions of the creation story show that there is not just one “correct” perspective, namely G-d’s, but man’s perspective is also legitimate and is included into the sacred narrative. And finally, the two slightly different versions of the Ten Commandments teach us that a single group of people can listen to the same voice and still hear the words differently.
In our school, we use these stories as a starting point and a model on how to talk about G-d. When we study Torah, in the broad sense of the word, we enter into a conversation with our sacred texts, with each other and, ultimately, with G-d. It is our task to educate our children to find their voice as informed partners in this dialogue. ♦
Jewish Identities in Process: Religious Purposefulness in a Pluralistic Day School
What does it mean to strengthen Jewish identities in a world where it might no longer be possible to define (or to prescribe) what a Jewish identity should look like?
The cultivation of communal and individual religious purposefulness in a pluralistic school does not rely on the building of rigid intellectual, theological, and social boundaries that so often explicitly or implicitly characterize a particularistic Jewish school or community’s education of its youth. Instead, the awareness of and interactions with the Jewish “Other” contribute in essential ways to students’ religious identity development.
If pluralism as an organizing principle of Jewish community offers a new model for Klal Yisrael, pluralism as an educational philosophy responds in unique ways to what sociologists have identified as shifting notions of American Jewish identity. This context helps to illuminate the unique approach to religious purposefulness in a pluralistic school.
In 2000, against the backdrop of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000) and Wade Clark Roof’s Spiritual Marketplace (1999), Steven M. Cohen and Arnold Eisen’s The Jew Within paints a new picture of American Jewish identity that raises serious questions for Jewish education. In an attempt to capture the changing ways in which “moderately affiliated” Jewish Americans conceive of their own Judaism, Cohen and Eisen suggest that the “profound individualism” of American Jews is a serious concern for Jewish institutions and for Jewish educators striving to emphasize community and commitment to Jewish tradition and values. What does it mean to strengthen Jewish identities in a world where it might no longer be possible to define (or to prescribe) what a Jewish identity should look like? Whereas a traditional Jewish education can maintain clearly defined conceptions of “classical Jewish knowledge” and will continue to educate with a view toward traditional behavioral norms, most American Jews, Cohen and Eisen suggest, will not respond positively to an education that imposes such expectations from without.
Jewish education today must compete in the marketplace of ideas and identities for our students’ minds, hearts and souls.
The Jew Within, however, also raises the optimistic possibility that, if exposed to a range of options, American Jews on a quest to fashion their own identities will embrace that which Jewish institutions have to offer. Cohen and Eisen write, “[Jewish institutions] must have a range of options available to every individual at every moment, so that when he or she is ready to seize hold of Jewishness or Judaism, the right option is there to be had.” It is possible, they seem to suggest, that if Jewish educational institutions can reinvent themselves, placing Jewish traditions, practices, and values into the context of their own “spiritual marketplaces,” then they will speak directly and meaningfully to the “sovereign selves” of their student populations.
Jewish education today must compete in the marketplace of ideas and identities for our students’ minds, hearts and souls (let alone their attention!). A pluralistic Jewish school is in a unique position to promote religious purposefulness by engaging students (and often families too) in the creative process of personal identity construction while empowering students to develop into mature and confident self-defined Jews who will be able to find their way, even in a world of normative Jewish commitments.
A school should be explicit about its core pillars of Jewish identity—the non-negotiables, so to speak, with which it expects students to engage.
While a pluralistic educational mission plays out in various ways in educational practice, I want to suggest two ways—corresponding broadly to curriculum and instruction—that a pluralistic Jewish high school can promote and educate toward the value of religious purposefulness.
A Pluralistic Curriculum—Core Pillars of Jewish Identity
Contrary to popular misconception, pluralism does not mean that “anything goes.” A school should be explicit about its core pillars of Jewish identity—the non-negotiables, so to speak, with which it expects students to engage. These core pillars are broadly defined norms of practice and belief, within which there is room for a widely differentiated range of expressed commitment. A school needs to name these pillars and, for each pillar, to provide students with compelling and substantive learning experiences.
Two examples of these pillars might include sacred time (zman kodesh) and sacred text (Talmud Torah). A pluralist school can expect students’ lives to beat to a Jewish rhythm and to be punctuated by, for example, an awareness and celebration of Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Similarly, a pluralistic school can expect that students’ Jewish identities involve a commitment to ongoing learning (albeit defined by a broad range of historical, cultural, and religious texts and ideas). Both of these pillars—sacred time and sacred text—create potential pathways toward meaningful Jewish living, invite students to take part in Judaism’s ongoing interpretive tradition, and are critical entryways to skills and knowledge that empower our students to be literate, self-confident participants in the Jewish community. Other core pillars of Jewish identity might include Kehillah and Klal Yisrael (community and peoplehood), Eretz Yisrael uMedinat Yisrael (Zionism and the Land of Israel), Mussar uMitzvot (Jewish Values, Ethics and Commandments), Ruchaniut (Jewish spirituality).
The idea of core pillars of Jewish identity implies that while educational success in a pluralistic school will include a wide range of student choices regarding how certain communal norms will play out in their lives, whether these norms should play a role in their lives is not up for debate. Non-engagement with this “subject matter” is not an option that is consistent with the religious or Jewish educational mission of the school.
One may not write off a rabbinic argument because “those guys” wrote it “back then”
Student Learning as Process —E2C2
Student learning in a pluralistic context can be explained as a process of Jewish identity development that cultivates four essential habits of mind and heart: Exposure, Engagement, Commitment, and Construction (E2C2).
A pluralist high school aims to expose students to a broad range of models of Jewish identity —different approaches to the core pillars, interpretations of Jewish texts and tradition, and perspectives on what it means to live a serious, committed Jewish life. A student studying a Biblical text, for example, might read the commentaries Rashi and Ramban, as well as modern, feminist readings. Guest speakers might include both the local Chabad rabbi as well as a leader of The Workman’s Circle (committed to secular-cultural Judaism). Exposure makes students aware of the diversity of expressions of Jewish living, practice, and belief that have always existed and continue to exist within the Jewish People. This serves the dual purpose of broadening students’ horizons by opening their minds and hearts to Others of which they might not be aware, as well as creating options (a “spiritual marketplace”) by expanding the possibilities for student engagement and possible entryways into Jewish learning and meaningful Jewish identity.
Once a student gains exposure, the student must take seriously the responsibility to engage, and the school must teach students how to do so. Engagement defines a process of interaction—a hermeneutic, if you will—with which a student approaches texts, people, opinions, ideas. Pluralism demands an interpersonal ethic of engaging the Other with critical openness. To engage implies a willingness to take seriously the claim that this Other might make on me; it means taking the Other seriously and taking responsibility for the encounter by critically and respectfully analyzing this claim, while being humble enough to challenge and question my own assumptions and beliefs. A student may not, for example, write off a rabbinic argument because “those guys” wrote it “back then”; the student must be open to the possibility that the text will teach him something, even if in the end he might disagree with it. Engagement demands respect for the dignity of the Other (whether text, person, idea), and requires practice, patience and humility—all traits that a pluralistic school considers religiously purposeful in and of themselves.
But religious purposefulness in pluralistic Jewish education cannot stop at exposure and engagement. While the school does not mandate one set of behavioral outcomes, it does expect students to commit—to make choices and to take stands about what they believe and how they want to live their Jewish lives. Before a Shabbaton, for example, students might be expected to discuss and decide how they will celebrate and observe Shabbat together in light of the diversity of experiences, backgrounds and practices regarding Shabbat. This gives students the opportunity to ask themselves how they feel, what they think and believe about Shabbat, as well as to voice their beliefs and their feelings to their peers. Creating opportunities for students not only to discuss and explore, but also to commit, makes clear the school’s expectation that learning is not merely an intellectual exercise; exploring and engaging translate into belief and practice, which shape personal Jewish identity.
The totality of a student’s exposure, engagement, and commitment results in a process of construction that captures the holistic nature of religious purposefulness and Jewish identity development in a pluralistic high school. Teachers should expect students to go beyond taking a stand on particular issues, practices, or beliefs; students also must reflect on how one choice or commitment fits into their overall Jewish identities. Response papers in Jewish Studies classes, for example, might ask students to reflect on how the ideas they are learning play might play out in their own lives. In an informal conversation on a Shabbaton, a teacher might ask a student who chooses not to observe Shabbat in a traditional way to reflect on what his choice indicates about the role that Halakhah or Jewish community plays in his life. The move from commitment to construction begins to shape the totality of a student’s Jewish identity, which in turn shapes the lens through which he continues to explore, engage, and commit, in high school and beyond.
In a school that presents one set of acceptable norms and beliefs, students have two options for their Jewish lives: acceptance or rejection. In a pluralistic high school, encounters with diverse experiences, ideas, and people, and the acceptance and rejection of norms and values from across the spectrum of Jewish life become regular parts of a student’s high school experience. Rather than a “take-it or leave-it” approach, this process of critical examination and conscious choice constitutes, for each individual student, the continual construction of his or her own personal Jewish identity.
Students in a pluralistic school are in a process of self-definition and redefinition in dialogue with Jewish texts, tradition, history, family, values, and thought. The nature of this dialogue may change, depending on many factors, including the age and maturity of the student, as well as the Jewish commitments of the student’s family and community. For some students, the voices of Jewish law and tradition may challenge the voices of self and sometimes family as well. For others, the voice of self might challenge the voices of tradition and community. What is most important is that students maintain a vibrant dialogue that seeks to respect, hear, and understand all of these voices as they learn and grow.
Yes, the process of identity construction and the inability to predict particular outcomes for any particular student can be scary, especially for those of us who hope deeply that our students will emerge with Jewish identities that we deem religiously purposeful. But those of us who believe in pluralistic Jewish education must have faith that the beauty of religious purposefulness is found, in fact, in the process itself. ♦
I use the term “intentional” in contrast with what one might call a “pragmatic” pluralism, which might tolerate serving a diverse population due to circumstance, such as limited communal resources or a limited number of families committed to Jewish education.
Many of the ideas in this article are based on a paper that I wrote together with my colleague M. Evan Wolkenstein: “A New Jewish Education: The Philosophy and the Methodology of the New Jewish High School of Greater Boston through the lens of Interviews with 13 Graduating Seniors.”
Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen, The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000) 205.
While I write broadly about pluralistic Jewish education (and am now a day school parent at a pluralistic elementary school), I am writing from the perspective of a Jewish high school educator. Given the developmental differences between elementary, middle, high school and post-high school students, it is important to distinguish which audience we are speaking about, especially when we focus on the development of Jewish identity. This article is based primarily on my experiences with high school-aged adolescents, formerly at The Weber School (Atlanta, GA) and now at Gann Academy (Waltham, MA).
Teaching Mitzvot: Challenges, Opportunities, and Questions
How can what we teach make an impact on those young lives today and in the future? How to bring the wisdom of our Torah and Sages into the 21st century?
How does your school teach about mitzvot to a student body with a high diversity of practices and perspectives on Judaism?
Generally we teach early sources first, particularly from Tanakh, making a distinction between law and custom. For the most part, our curriculum follows the calendar regarding the festivals, fasts and minor holidays. In the middle school we delve into later sources, from the Talmud to modern rabbis; we also teach Jewish perspectives on contemporary topics such as medical or business issues. At all times, whenever the text differs from modern practices (for Conservative, Reform, or Sephardic application of a particular law), we tell students to ask their rabbi how a mitzvah should be performed.
Does denominational pluralism factor into the way that mitzvot are discussed?
We do not make an attempt to cover all denominations when teaching. Importance is given for skill in decoding a text (Hebrew), understanding other possible readings, and staying close to the peshat (literal level). Elementary education gives too little room for critical or abstract thinking due to age, maturity, and brain development. At the middle school level, children understand more critically the nuances of Halakhah and mitzvot, and discussions occur more freely at that level.
To what degree does your school emphasize the performance of mitzvot as essential to Judaism?
Any learning to have relevance and meaning needs to be action oriented. The performance of mitzvot are taught as essential to the development of character (middot), development of Jewish identity (hashkafah) and Jewish living (Halakhah).
Certainly a person’s character needs constant reminders and daily application in order for traits such as sharing, respectful language, being thankful to Hashem and others, being aware of a classmate’s or other students’ needs (among many) to be absorbed and ingrained.
Tell us about some of the main challenges you’ve experienced in educating about mitzvot.
The challenges are those of meaning and relevance. How can what we teach make an impact on those young lives today and in the future? How to bring the wisdom of our Torah and Sages into the 21st century? These are constant questions we address, given the nature of our multifaceted families, the various affiliations, etc. What is the base level of mitzvot that, no matter the level of observance, we can teach to support the practice of Judaism among our families? That, I believe, is the biggest challenge we have.
What kinds of reactions have you received from parents regarding their children learning mitzvot?
There is somewhat of a dichotomy between what is taught at school and home life. This is true even for secular subjects such as physics and geometry. Parents may not have recall of those subjects, or they may have learned in a different way than we do today. The same applies for the learning of mitzvot.
The difference is that Judaics classes have the capacity to have a much greater impact on the lives of the students and their families. I think parents send their child to a Jewish day school precisely because we offer a unique approach to learning. This approach includes Jewish practices and norms of proper behavior. Research shows clearly that parents want their children learning ethical and moral behaviors. Parents who send their children to our schools believe that the Torah has an important message to us all. We see that while our generation is more affluent, with access to more possessions and more knowledge, human nature has not changed much, and that existential questions about the meaning of life are still very important. So while we may at times debate about the importance of learning certain mitzvot over others, one thing remains: Will my child have a sense of belonging, will he or she behave in an honorable manner and follow in the paths of Jewish wisdom?
What kind of role(s) has your board played in setting policy or responding to issues on this topic?
Our board does not set policy regarding curricular issues.
Discussions and guidelines may come at times to address issues of Jewish diversity at school, allowing many voices to be heard and practices to be observed. The main emphasis is to consider the need of the whole school versus individual needs: for example, how to make sure Orthodox children feel the same sense of belonging as children of different affiliations or with no affiliation. One example concerns school prayer: how can we have various forms of prayer and still respect divergences of practice? We opted for a boys-only and girls-only morning prayers. Each can then lead their own group without making either boys or girls uncomfortable.
How does your school build mitzvot into your curriculum?
We have adopted some existing curricula to make sure that as they get older, students study mitzvot at an increasing level of depth and complexity.
In what ways do activities outside of the classroom include the performance of mitzvot?
Our students visit the Home for the Aged next door to us, giving us ample opportunities for face-to-face encounter in acts of chesed. Our Student Council selects various Jewish and non-Jewish organizations for tzedakah and involves our students in fundraising for them. Children do have to demonstrate they practice certain mitzvot at home, and parents are involved as well.
From your observation of various community day schools, what changes would you like to see in this regard?
In discussion with some of my colleagues, we see how imperative it is to stay centered on what is common to us all as a learning community. We all face the same eternal questions in running Jewish schools:
Is it what students know that matters or how they know and live?
How can we teach mitzvot in such a way that brings to mind, heart, and soul the sanctity of life?
What sets of behavior will make our next generation more compassionate and equipped with good basic skills for conflict resolution? What role does the Torah, the study of mitzvot play in this regard?
What advice do you have specifically for school heads?
In good Jewish fashion, I would challenge them with a question:
In making a decision, ask yourselves if this is the right thing to do, or the wise thing to do?
You may make a decision that you believe is right, but may not be wise, creating dissension in your school.
On crucial policies regarding mitzvot in your school, whether concerning wearing kippot, conducting tefillot, erecting a mechitzah, or preparing a Judaics curriculum, you may need to consult with people in your school and community in order to find consensus and achieve maximal buy-in. It is essential for you to show strong leadership and to consult with others wisely and strategically for the community to support the values and direction of the school.
Chazak ve-ematz—Be strong and of good courage! ♦
Remember to Light a Fire
I was taught that standing tall with the Torah’s teachings, even when I would feel like I was an anomaly, was the only way to educate.
I always knew that when one taught what one believed to be truth, with complete sincerity, understanding, and sensitivity, the message would be well received. I was taught that standing tall with the Torah’s teachings, even when I would feel like I was an anomaly, was the only way to educate. Eventually my experience validated my theory.
But I still heard people say: “I’m afraid your school is too Jewish.” “How could you teach ‘that’ in your school?” “Aren’t you going to lose your students who attend the Reform synagogue?” “We need to adjust our curriculum so that we don’t offend the student who is not observant.”
Hmmm. Some of what they say makes sense. If we teach a strong belief in G-d, we might offend those that would rather see Jewish teachings as a suggestion. If we ask the boys to wear kippot and do not demand that the girls wear them, too, do we meet the needs of those with an egalitarian preference? If we teach the children that the Torah demands that Jewish people be buried and not cremated, will we hurt the feelings of families who do not choose to observe this commandment?
We all deal with this dilemma. Every day.
So what do I do? Since the prime mission for our school is to teach Judaism, which consists of the Torah and its mitzvot, and, since our goal is to provide a sense of history and heritage for our students, I looked to the Torah for guidance on this issue.
This is what I found: There are three places where our Sages have pointed out how the Torah mandates the responsibility of the educator. This is in addition to the overarching commandment to teach our children Torah, as written in Deuteronomy and recited daily in the Shema. The first is in Leviticus 17, where we are prohibited from eating blood; the second is in Leviticus 22, where we are forbidden to eat insects; and the third is in Leviticus 21, where we are introduced to the importance of ritual purity among the priests. From the written text of these three commandments our Sages learned that “the elders are instructed to teach the youngsters” regarding their laws and application.
It seems to me, and probably to you, that out of all the mitzvot and narratives found in the Torah, the above three commandments do not appear to be relevant to educating our children.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, claims otherwise. He proposes that the message is that even when we believe that we couldn’t possibly succeed, that others would never go for it, or that we might even lose our jobs because of these beliefs, we should still go forward and teach what we know to be the “truth,” even if it is not the popular truth or the “in” truth, or what others want to hear.
How does he come to this conclusion? Because these three laws represent three mitzvot that one might believe would be futile to teach. Why are these mitzvot futile? Well, believe it or not, in biblical times, blood was considered a delicacy. Forbidding the consumption of blood at that time would be like forbidding a hamburger or hot dog in our days. Eating insects, one would think, is disgusting and repulsive. If one were already eating insects and were not repulsed by them, then you can assume that it would have been futile to convince him otherwise. Finally, the laws of ritual impurity are not considered rational laws, and choosing this mitzvah to transmit to children denies us the opportunity to also give them an explanation of the law. The laws of purity are classified as chukim—a category of statutes that go beyond conventional logic and cannot be explained. There is no reason given in the Torah for chukim. We simply observe them because G-d said so. The mitzvah of purity deifies logic. To transmit and teach such a mitzvah seems futile, because we do not have the tools with which to convince, persuade, or influence our students.
Yet it is only in these three mitzvot that our Sages learn, “The elders are instructed to teach the youngsters.”
So what can we learn from the fact that the Torah chose these three mitzvot to instruct us on how to educate our students?
The Rebbe explains that the Torah tells us that Jewish education does not work only because we are good instructors. Nor does it work just because we are teaching what happens to appeal to the culture, society, or fad of the day. Our teaching is effective because we are telling the truth. Children are the best barometer for sincerity, straightforwardness, and truth. A truth is true, regardless of where society stands and regardless of where you and I stand.
In order for all the wonderful experiences, studies, and lessons to actually touch our students in such a way that they will be inspired to go on to represent the Jewish people, the Jewish family, and the Jewish past, with determination, strength, and confidence, we must convey the soul, the light, and the truth contained in our Jewish instruction. If we choose to leave out the truth and soul of the Torah they will be confused by this omission and will wonder why we are allowing political correctness to deny them the “meat” of Judaism.
In the early years of our school, I was challenged by this very topic. I was teaching the mitzvah of kashrut enthusiastically, describing the different signs of animals, fish, etc. that were needed in order to render the food we were eating as kosher. I looked up and saw an eight-year-old boy raising his hand. “Mariashi, do you have to keep kosher?” Oh, no, I was in trouble. What was I going to say? I could say, “Yes, you do have to keep kosher. The Torah says so.” But I would get in “political” trouble if I said that. Or, I could say, “No, you don’t have to. Judaism is a choice and you can decide if you want to or not.” But I couldn’t do that, because I didn’t believe that to be true. I first tried an evasive answer and said, “It’s a very big mitzvah to keep kosher.” He wasn’t satisfied and continued, “I didn’t ask that. I asked if you have to keep kosher.” “Benjamin,” I said. “Have you ever looked in your pantry and noticed products with a kosher symbol on them?” Of course, he had some items such as ketchup, Cheerios, etc. With a relieved smile, he said, “Yeah, we do. I guess I’m doing the mitzvah after all!”
I would like to conclude with a parable. There was a young man who wanted to become a blacksmith. He spent several weeks training with a master blacksmith, watching everything and taking notes. When the young man felt that he was fully trained and ready to go out on his own, he returned to his hometown to start his own business. But try as he might, he could not produce a single item. All of his banging was in vain.
It was only when he went back to his master that he realized that there was one important step he left out because he did not see it happen, and it was so basic that the blacksmith never mentioned it. He forgot to light the fire to heat the irons to bend the metal.
I leave you with a mandate and a reminder: Don’t forget to light the fire. ♦
Serving the Reluctantly Jewish Student
“Because,” I answered, “I care more about you than you do. I know that this feels like a meaningless burden now, but you never know when knowing how to pray will be important to you. I don’t know, God forbid, you lose someone close to you, and you decide to go to shul, but no one bothered to show you how to navigate the siddur, and then you would blame me for not teaching you something so basic.” One can argue that it is our job to provide perspective and leadership to those who have difficulty seeing beyond tomorrow. Even though this little speech mollified her for the moment, I would be deluded to think that the rest of her high school career would see her davening with fervor, or even behaving appropriately in minyan. My response may have been clever, but ultimately, not wise.
For this student and many like her, being Jewish is perceived as being abnormal, something that is abhorrent to adolescent identity. It is the challenge of a Jewish day school to transform that feeling of being abnormal to being special. This was not going to be achieved for her through morning prayers, but it is our responsibility to find gateways for identity which are not only quintessentially Jewish, but are resonant with a sense of being part of a special community.
More often these days we have students who are not synagogue affiliated, and even if they are, their families do not see the synagogue as their primary affiliation. Once, at a meeting, I was asked how many of my students are unaffiliated. I answered, “Zero, but we do have many students for whom their primary affiliation is our school.” These include families for whom Medinat Yisrael is important, grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, families from Israel, and self-described cultural Jews who may not fall neatly into any of these categories. I don’t believe that the vast majority of our students identify strongly with a particular denomination, or that this will ever be important to them. More parents are sending their children to day school who do not belong to a synagogue for large portions of their lives.
They may belong to AIPAC or the JCRC, or take classes of Jewish interest, or participate in informal minyanim in their neighborhood, or practice certain Jewish rituals at home. As I’m writing, new gateways of affiliation are being created for those who feel strong Jewish connections, but connect through a very specific passion that is not answered through membership in a particular organization. For them, a day school provides the means for circumventing the synagogue route and being independent while still being connected. Often, the students who mark the second generation of anti-daveners have the greatest need for realizing their Jewish potential in ways that do not contradict their upbringing.
It is no accident that the easiest celebrations for a community day school are Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom Hashoah. Hitler didn’t distinguish between Jews, and virtually all the Jews we serve have a stake in Medinat Yisrael. It is also no accident that what was once called social action but now has been given the inaccurate moniker Tikkun Olam also affords many of our students a positive pathway toward feeling part of something larger that is quite wonderful and exemplary. These events offer moments where students celebrate being part of a particular community and feel kinship with a world that is specifically theirs but well beyond their individual concerns. The success of these events is instructive. The provision of opportunities like these have to be part of daily life at school, and davening alone cannot be relied upon to provide them.
It is up to the school to introduce Jewish ideas, Jewish rituals and practices that inform, resonate, challenge and provoke, not offend, but provoke our students. If we say “We care about the world too!” or “We’re environmentalists too!” we’re irrelevant and we are not needed. We have to demonstrate the “whats” and “whys” of our tradition through the same unique rigor that makes our tradition so special. Giving something a Jewish label does not make it Jewish, but giving an idea unique Jewish understanding does. To learn that the word “shalom” is a name of God and therefore one cannot say Mah shlomcha (How is your shalom, a common greeting in ancient and modern Hebrew) in a polluted place teaches that the earth has to be untainted in order for God to dwell in it, for the holy is part of mundane personal encounters and the environment must be prepared for it. We don’t believe necessarily in the intrinsic holiness of the earth, but we certainly believe the earth must be unpolluted in order for holiness to dwell there. Such a lesson requires looking up the verse that demonstrates that shalom is a name of God and seeing how that is ascertained. Then one must see the connection between greeting and the name of God and then extrapolate that the earth only has this potential if it has been cared for properly. This brings the point home for those who need to know that these concerns are not only modern ones, but deeply and particularly Jewish ones.
When students returning from Birthright Israel were interviewed, the vast majority of them were self-defined as cultural Jews, but the first Jewish event they went to upon their return was Friday night services at Hillel. They had connected to Israel, but back here they went to the only Jewish place they knew. Even though enthusiasm for the synagogue may be on the wane, we cannot rely on davening in the school as the primary gateway for meaning for the vast majority of our students. The classroom, along with special celebrations, will be the environment where we connect our diverse traditions of learning with the passions of the individual student. Once that connection is made, we must articulate the necessity for respecting everyone’s unique, deep connection, for ultimately we share the goal of peoplehood. They will be taught not tolerance, but reverence for all aspects of Jewish life, including davening. They may not be inspired by it, but they will see its value and be respectful because they have found their place within and not without the community.
I should have answered my recalcitrant student that our school provides many gateways of meaning, so that you can find the path most meaningful to you. It may not be davening now, but it may be later. Your job is to know what we have so that you can connect deeply and profoundly to a tradition and a community that offers more opportunities than you can begin to know. For we know that as much as you may like a good time, it’s the meaningful moments that are most memorable. We provide not only what we think you need to know, but we are here to help you discover how this thing called being Jewish will make you feel truly special. ♦
Ben David, Aryeh. The Godfile: 10 Approaches to Personalizing Prayer. Englewood, New Jersey: Devora Publishing, 2007.
Cohen, Steven M. and Eisen, Arnold M. The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America. Bloomington, IN: Indiana U P, 2000.
Coles, Robert. The Spiritual Life of Children. New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
Fox, Seymour; Schleffer, Israel; and Marom, Daniel, eds. Visions of Jewish Education. New York: Cambridge U P, 2003.
Kessler, Rachael. The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion, and Character at School. Alexandria: ASCD, 2000.
Pomson, Alex, and Schnoor, Randall. Back to School: Jewish Day Schools in the Lives of Adults. Wayne State University Press, 2008.
Roehlkepartain, Eugene; Benson, Peter; King, Pamela; and Wagener, Linda, eds. Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005.
Smith, Christian. The Religious and Spiritual Life of American Teenagers. New York: Oxford UP, 2005.
Steinsaltz, Adin. A Guide to Jewish Prayer. New York: Schocken, 2002.
Weinberg, Walter. For Goodness Sake: Religious Schools and Education for Democratic Citizenry. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Goldmintz, Jay. “Religious Development in Adolescence: A Work in Progress.” Tradition 37:4, 2003.
Jewish Educational Leadership 5:2 (Winter 2007)—issue devoted to “The Search for Spirituality in Jewish Education.”
Measuring and Promoting Religious Purposefulness in Jewish Day Schools
RUACH (Religious Understanding in Adolescent Children), a project of the Institute for University-School Partnership at the Azrieli Graduate School, is addressing these issues in a unique collaboration between school and university. This initiative is bringing together eight teams of high school administrators and teachers over the course of two years to learn about the latest research related to religious purposefulness, to implement practical strategies to increase it amongst students, and to gather data on student and school-wide changes so others can learn from these experiences. As senior fellows of the Institute for University-School Partnership, we are leading this project, which has been generously funded by the AVI CHAI Foundation.
In particular, we seek to improve the capacity of Jewish high schools to promote religious purposefulness amongst their students, and to enhance the capacity of educators to work with their students in a manner that promotes spiritual growth in the areas of relationship with G-d, religious beliefs, and religious actions, including their contribution to the Jewish community. In addition to affecting eight high schools, we expect to affect our own graduate school by increasing Azrieli's knowledge base about what interventions work in promoting these goals in order to improve the training we provide in these areas. Further, through the creation and dissemination of written materials based on the learning related to this project, it is our hope that other training programs will benefit as well.
RUACH leverages the theoretical and practical expertise of specialists in religious development at Yeshiva University with the practical experience and knowledge of practitioners in schools. Accordingly, this project reflects a partnership with high schools involving mutual sharing of knowledge and experience in this area, collaborating to develop models to pilot in participating schools, and evaluating the effectiveness of these models to enhance religious purposefulness. Each participating school has two representatives who attend RUACH meetings and training workshops, and who facilitate project implementation in their respective school. Participating schools act as laboratories for testing strategies and models that promote religious purposefulness, which in turn provides a feedback loop to the entire group of participating schools and increases the knowledge base informing the project.
Students in participating schools are expected to achieve measurable growth in religious actions and beliefs over the course of the two-year project. The JewBALE (pronounced Jubilee), the Jewish Beliefs, Actions, and Living Evaluation Scale, an empirical measure of religiosity developed by the first author, will be administered to systematically evaluate religious change for students in all of the participating schools. This study includes several subscales of beliefs and actions. In addition, the extent to which each school's mission, vision, and formal curricula include expressions of religious purposefulness will be evaluated. The ability of students to articulate religious beliefs, religious actions, and an awareness of the transcendent, in class, in social settings, and during activities outside of class, will also be assessed. In particular, the presence or absence of an encounter with the Divine through textual study will be evaluated.
Based upon initial conversations with participating schools, and given that this field of study is in a nascent stage, the project begins with an initial induction period wherein the school representatives can become familiar with the concepts of spirituality and purposefulness. During this time, a common language will be developed to focus the project on particular domains of religious purposefulness.
Given the unique values and goals of participating schools, each school will select an area upon which to focus their learning. This area will consist of a single domain (e.g. tefillah, guidance, parent-school partnerships, informal education, school culture) or will involve a single group of students (a grade, an advisory group, a minyan or the like) across multiple domains. Different strategies and assessment tools may be used by each school, depending on its unique values and culture. For year two of this project, the representatives of each school will again be charged with implementing specific strategies in their school. However, in year two, these strategies will form a more comprehensive model of school-wide implementation.
At each stage, the university-school partnership model guides the project. In order to build on the knowledge base and experience of the field, an initial accounting of current school practices was conducted. At the same time, a limited annotated bibliography on the subject of spirituality in schools was sent to school representatives to begin the process of sharing a common language for moving forward.
We will meet with the representatives of the participating schools several times during each year of the project. Consultants with expertise in adolescent religious and psychological development, informal education, positive psychology, religious education, and/or other related fields will also attend. At meetings, we will share recent research on the psychology of adolescent religious development and intervention strategies for enhancing religious purposefulness in the context of the unique psychological developmental needs of adolescents, as well as models for assessing individual student and school-wide religiosity and spirituality. The following are examples of this growing field of knowledge:
Parents are the single most important social influence on the religious and spiritual lives of adolescents.
Educators and parents are often uncomfortable sharing religious beliefs and personal inspiration. Religious practice, faith, and commitment remain vague concepts when people cannot talk about them.
The need to account for individual learning styles applies to spiritual learning.
Adolescents should be given responsibility for their own prayer and religious growth, but should be guided by adults around them.
Strategies employed by the fields of positive psychology and "mindfulness" play an important role in guiding religious purposefulness.
At these meetings representatives of the schools will share their expertise gained in the trenches, informed by the uniqueness of their setting and teaching experiences.
Although the group of participating schools will generate additional strategies, the following are examples of strategies that have been and will continue to be discussed:
Implementing joint parent-child learning and chesed/social action programs.
Exposing students to religious role models in the community - not only professionals.
Creating the role of religious mentors in a school to build relationships with students grounded in the religious values of the school.
Offering choice in prayer services (e.g., explanatory service, musical service, meditation, etc.)
Proactively teaching and practicing the trait of gratitude, utilizing findings from the new field of positive psychology.
Preparing for prayer utilizing "mindfulness" strategies to enhance concentration and proper intentions.
Implementing discussion-based classes based on traditional and contemporary sources into the curriculum.
In addition to face-to-face meetings several times during the year, monthly conference calls will bring the group of participating schools together regularly to share implementation experiences and ideas for revision of the developing strategies and models. When needed, consultants with expertise in adolescent religious and psychological development, informal education, positive psychology, religious education, and other related fields will be asked to join these conference calls.
We will visit participating schools to gain a first-hand understanding of each school's particular culture, to enable us to provide guidance on a more individual basis, and to better assess school progress in implementing strategies. A sample of students will be interviewed at this time in order to inform later analysis. Formal observations of classrooms, non-classroom settings (e.g., hallways), programs, and other student and faculty activities will also be conducted on these site visits.
At the end of year one of the project, there will be a colloquium during which initial results of the project will be shared with graduate school faculty and school administrators. At the end year two of the project, training colloquia, informed by the learning of this project, will be designed for teachers and administrators in schools. In addition to these training sessions, the field of Jewish education will have opportunities to learn about the experiences and outcomes of this project through publication of a guide to best practices on religious purposefulness. This guide will include guidelines for parents, teachers and administrators, and assessment methods to measure efficacy of school implementation and student change.
Jewish schools must not only enhance the academic experience for students, but must also promote student social, emotional, and behavioral development. Religious purposefulness cuts across all of these domains. Indeed, success for students in Jewish schools must be informed by our religious past, present, and future. RUACH will help develop the story of our unique heritage and help to transmit and sustain the spirit of Judaism in our students and schools.
Scott J. Goldberg, PhD, is the Director of the Institute for University-School Partnership, Azrieli Graduate School, Yeshiva University. David Pelcovitz, PhD, is the Gwendolyn & Joseph Straus Chair in Jewish Education at the Azrieli Graduate School, Yeshiva University.