Educating for Character and Leadership in an Israeli Religious High School

Jeremy Stavisky

There are two unique characteristics to our school. Firstly, Himmelfarb is an integrated institution, both socio-economically and academically. As a public school, we are a melting pot that plays host to a mélange of the brightest students and their relatively weaker counterparts (albeit in distinct tracks). We are committed to creating a mirror image of Israeli society, for both ideological and pedagogical reasons. This mission is fully consistent with our philosophy that assumes responsibility for the broader society and compels us to provide a quality education for students of all backgrounds.

From a religious standpoint, we are similarly bound to show sensitivity to the needs of all members of society. Religious education which is “elitist” stands in contradiction to the fundamental Jewish value of chesed. While we must strive to offer venues for academic excellence that challenge gifted and talented youth, we must not abandon other students not so identified. Indeed, it is striking how many of those deemed “less fortunate” during their junior high school years later emerge as model citizens and dynamic members of their community. There is nothing more rewarding than bestowing an advanced education on children whose parents have been denied one.

Additionally, we strongly believe that encounters with those unlike ourselves are essential to the goal of fostering character. In so doing, our youth become acquainted with a fuller range of humanity and its diverse struggles, learn to appreciate varied perspectives and ultimately develop the tools required for them to address the complexities of their own personal lives. It might be simpler to shepherd a monolithic student body, but this would deprive our children of the richness which such diversity affords. The eclectic mix of Ashkenazi and Sephardic melodies for selichot filling the corridors of our school before the Yamim Nora’im is supremely uplifting.

It is thus a privilege for Himmelfarb to serve a population that is not only half-Sephardic and half-Ashkenazi, but also 5 percent of which is of Ethiopian origin. Some of our students come from families on welfare, while others come from affluent Jerusalem households. Years ago, a group of North American principals visiting our school were simply astounded by the extent of the diversity that we have proudly cultivated.

The second characteristic of our school is its identity as both Orthodox and modern. As difficult as it is for these two attributes to co-exist in United States, achieving their comfortable synthesis is that much harder in Jerusalem. Subjected to the powerful influence of fundamentalism, educators might almost be forgiven for advocating the less complex course of “one truth” and disparaging the merit of modern Western culture. But we must have the capacity to acknowledge the inherent blessings of liberalism while, at the same time, continuing to uphold our values and principles as Orthodox Jews—particularly when the two come into conflict. Thus, we try to illustrate how the democratic tradition derives directly from the Jewish notion of tikkun olam. Our curriculum engages our students to debate the limits of artistic freedom and fuse evolutionary biology together with the Genesis narrative of Creation.

Being both Orthodox and modern, it also behooves us to create space for our secular brothers and sisters, and even for other communities of faith. Again, this is no small challenge in Israel, where people have a tendency to perceive themselves under threat. At Himmelfarb, sophomores are formally “introduced” to Islam and Christianity, and often have occasion to meet with their representatives. I vividly recall the tension in the room when a prominent Israeli Arab addressed our students on the complexity of living as both an Arab and an Israeli.

When I became principal at Himmelfarb, I was forced to prioritize. Principals are tasked to achieve an exhaustive array of objectives, but ultimately, each of us has to decide what are genuinely the most important among them. For me, this was a policy of “zero tolerance” for violence, physical or emotional, between students or for insolence (aka chutzpah) of students toward teachers. Although such conduct is regrettably prevalent in the Israeli school system, I determined that any acceptance of such behavior would effectively undermine our school’s moral justification. To my mind, if students and/or faculty are either frightened or abused, our ability to educate is utterly destroyed. For that reason, Himmelfarb policy obligates all teachers to report any such incidents to the administration, which generally results in a two-day suspension for the offending party. It has been gratifying to see that students, teachers and parents all appreciate the seriousness of the matter and have united to make our school a virtual non-violence zone.

I also resolved to define the core function of our religious curriculum, which, I deeply believe, has to concentrate on making us better people. If a day school education does not produce a more moral person, it is of no value, even if our students remain observant. I could not have been happier than when our senior class raised $2,500 to cover the medical expenses of our non-Jewish custodian. In fact, it falls to us, as educators, to lead by example in teaching our students to show respect for those lower down on the proverbial totem pole. Only then can I expect my students to exercise moral authority as soldiers and officers in the IDF.

Almost 1 percent of IDF infantry officers are Himmelfarb graduates. While I am cautious never to tell my students how or where to serve—after all, this a complex, personal decision—many volunteer as combat soldiers, giving expression to their profound belief that the existence of a Jewish state is nothing short of a Providential gift. And as such, we are honor-bound to sustain the Zionist enterprise and accentuate its moral character. Our graduates understand that officers must not only prepare soldiers for battle, but must also attend to their emotional and physical wellbeing. Sometimes, this even means providing food for their poverty-stricken families.

Intellectual accomplishments are important. Undoubtedly, those with an informed understanding of both Jewish tradition and contemporary Western culture are better equipped than those who lack such familiarity. Accordingly, our students study the lessons of human history and evaluate its implications for the Jewish people. But education cannot just be about knowledge; it must also build character. We endeavor to give our students the practical capability to survive the challenges that await them, including a coherent belief system that will guide them through the complexities of the modern world. We expect them, as believing Jews, to contribute to their communities and actively participate in tikkun olam throughout their lives. Above all, we insist that the world should be a better place because they were here. ♦

Rabbi Jeremy Stavisky is Principal of Himmelfarb High School in Jerusalem. He can be reached at [email protected].

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HaYidion The Educated Jew Summer 2010
The Educated Jew
Summer 2010