An Orthodox Track: Meeting the Needs of the Whole Community

Avi Weinstein

For many, even most, Orthodox parents, a community day school is not an optimal choice for their child’s education. Even if they like the idea of their child mixing with a diverse group of peers, the particular needs of having an observant community for their child often takes precedence. They want the values and rituals practiced at home to be unapologetically reinforced at school. For many, the usual fare of Jewish studies offered at community day schools is insufficient at best, or potentially inappropriate when it comes to what is taught. It is also important that their children have a circle of friends that are likeminded when it comes to Shabbat observance and kashrut. Would it be possible to answer the particular needs of this community within the context of a community day school, and how would this be achieved?

Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy, a K-12 RAVSAK school, is the only Jewish day school in the metropolitan Kansas City area. There are an estimated fifteen to twenty thousand Jews in Kansas City. Mindful of its responsibility to the entire spectrum of Jewish practice, HBHA has been particularly challenged with regard to the needs of the Orthodox community. The experience here was that when Orthodox children became of school age, their families left town for communities with Orthodox schools. A separate Orthodox school was attempted and closed after several years.

Members of the community kollel (Orthodox institute for higher Torah learning) together with the rabbi of the main Orthodox synagogue, Beth Abraham Israel and Voliner (BIAV), approached the leadership of Hyman Brand to explore the possibility of having a separate Orthodox Jewish studies program for elementary grades. The BIAV community was willing to provide seed money to compensate for the extra budgetary expenses. As one of the major supporters of Orthodox life in Kansas City said, “I want my kids back in town—I want to see my grandchildren regularly.”

The resulting program, Matmidim (“striving scholars”), has grown a grade at a time and is now in its fifth year. It began with an incoming kindergarten class of six, and the present kindergarten class of 2012-13 has eleven students, expected to expand to fifteen students next year.

Several factors have been crucial to the program’s success. The financial support of the BIAV community covered its considerable added expenses. We have been able to attract acceptable teachers/role models for the program either locally or through Yeshiva University’s job fair. Having a head of Jewish studies who is Orthodox solidified the school’s reputation as a place that understands the needs of the whole spectrum of the Orthodox community.

There have been several challenges as well, some expected and others either underestimated or unexpected. The anticipated challenges concerned perceptions by the general community. Was one community favored over another? Would people see us as an Orthodox school? How would this work logistically? Do we have enough space? Would our current Jewish studies faculty embrace this change or would they see it as unnecessary at best, and threatening at worst?

Despite some misgivings from Jewish studies faculty, by and large they are accepting that the school benefits from the increase in enrollment. Because teachers have felt they have accommodated Orthodox students well—and they have—there is suspicion regarding why such a move was necessary. On a practical level, it has added to the workload of those involved in scheduling and general logistics. Each of these classes requires a separate room, which becomes more difficult as the program expands.

One unforeseen challenge is the amount of tuition assistance that a significant number of students need to attend the program. The new classes are small, and many of these students need significant support with school fees. The support from the Orthodox community covers only the added faculty, not general school expenses.

The greatest unanticipated challenge is that Orthodox concerns are not monolithic. The KC Orthodox Jewish community, although relatively small, has representatives from very modern Orthodox Jews to charedi and Chabad adherents. The disagreement among these different factions about the nature of the school’s hashkafah, its religious outlook, was not fully considered. For instance, even though we created a letter of understanding that outlined our worldview as a Zionist school where Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Hashoah are observed, teachers who came from a less-Zionist background were offended by the Israeli pronunciation of prayers. Parents also entered the fray. In response, the guidelines offered were that students would be taught in Israeli pronunciation, but would not be corrected if they chose to pronounce their prayers, or study Jewish texts, with an Ashkenazi pronunciation.

Because of the diverse community within the major Orthodox synagogue, there is a sense that whichever faction has the most students at the end of the day will ultimately be the one who will control all these issues. This has ramifications for how the school day looks for students who opt for this program. For instance, beginning in third grade, instead of going to specials—computer, music and art—Matmidim students had Chumash enrichment. For one parent, this change was enough reason to opt out of Chumash enrichment in favor of specials, thus truncating a small class even further. It is clear now that added Chumash enrichment will be nonnegotiable for some, but specials will be equally important for others. The one thing that was universally rejected was the proposed extension of the school day. Now that we are preparing for fourth grade, this issue is being revisited.

In one of the benefits of the program, parents from more liberal backgrounds, some of whom felt threatened by the overt Jewishness of the school, now feel that the general program is much less intimidating since there is a separate program for the Orthodox. This reaction has been gratifying and totally unanticipated.

The Matmidim program has helped stabilize enrollment and has already contributed to the growth of the Orthodox community. With proper preparation and open communication, a school can fit each community’s needs, as long as it understands that one size does not necessarily fit all.♦

Rabbi Avi Weinstein is the head of Jewish studies of Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy, of Overland Park, Kansas. He can be reached at [email protected].

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HaYidion Bold Ideas Summer 2013
Bold Ideas
Summer 2013