The “Jewish” in Jewish Day Schools: Aspirations for Our Graduates

Susan Kardos

[This article is based on the author’s response to Lee Shulman’s keynote address, “Where Novelty and Routine Collide: From the Formation of Understanding to the Formation of Identity in the Process of Education,” delivered at the North American Jewish Day School Leadership Conference, January 18, 2010.]

We believe that all of these aspirations ought to be pursued in Jewish educational contexts that include, quite explicitly, joyful participation, physical enactment, positive socialization, and leadership development.

As many HaYidion readers know, The AVI CHAI Foundation is a private foundation which has, over the years, made tremendous investments in Jewish day schools and overnight summer camps. We invest in schools and camps because we believe that a vibrant Jewish future depends on a commitment to Jewish living, learning and Jewish peoplehood, and we subscribe to a research-based belief that the best hope for attaining this vision of the future is through a focused investment in educational experiences for Jewish youth which are Jewishly meaningful and full of joy. So programs and organizations that support schools and camps are the objects of our grant-making.

As we enter our final decade as a grant-making foundation, we are seizing the opportunity to clearly articulate our aspirations for Jewish day school students in North America and our dreams for the Jewish People in the 21st century. We articulate these aspirations in celebration of school leaders and teachers who share this vision and who do the hard work, every day, to realize this vision for their students and their parents. We express these ideas in celebration of great leaders and great teachers who clearly and unapologetically articulate their hopes and dreams for their students, even if they can’t all be reached. We write in celebration of those who lead their schools and teach their students toward the realization of those dreams of a Jewish future.

In his book Growing Minds: On Becoming a Teacher, Herbert Kohl tells a powerful story. He is tutoring a student, a black high school basketball player, who is struggling to learn to read. The boy tries. He stumbles. He is frustrated. He is ashamed. He is angry. He slams his book shut, and with a sweep of his long arm, he swats at Kohl’s latest manuscript. Pages fly everywhere, like a small tornado in the office. Kohl is furious, and he starts to shout. The boy is shaken by Kohl’s response, and moves to collect the papers. Kohl forbids him to touch the pages, telling him that he no longer trusts the boy. Kohl tells him that, next to his family, nothing means more to him than words on a page. Kohl writes of this incident, “Next to the people that I love, my manuscripts are the most important things in my life...Books and writing are not small school things for me but central to life and understanding. I told the boy that it was no joke not to be able to read. That it was a form of poverty. And that he didn’t have a right to not read.”

Yes, Kohl meant that reading is an essential skill. But he meant more than that: he said reading is central to life and understanding and that learning to read was the boy’s obligation. He was bound to do so. It was a moral imperative. He would simply have to learn to read if he expected anything of meaning or consequence to follow. Illiteracy is poverty, and the boy did not have the right to pass that on.

This is an extraordinarily powerful story about an educator’s aspirations for his student and about teachers’ and learners’ obligations to the world. We asked ourselves: What is the analog in Jewish education?

We submit, and we assume that readers agree, that our students need a Jewish education that enables them to think about themselves, their people, and their G-d in a way that is uniquely and beautifully Jewish. They need an education that enables them to live the simple rhythms of their day and their year in a way that is, again, inimitably and magnificently Jewish. They need a Jewish education that is substantive and relevant to their modern lives in the Digital Age. They need an education that relies on the wisdom and grandeur of the texts that have guided our people through centuries, and they need to be able to see these ancient texts as guides for their own lives. They need an education that illuminates the glorious and difficult Jewish past as a way to light the way in our present and for our future. They need an education that secures the continuity of our people so that we may continue to create our story and tell it to the world, and so that we can enrich the world through our participation. They need an education aimed at promoting the notion of klal Yisrael, where Jews around the world are connected to and care for each other across geographical, generational, class, race, and ideological differences.

But the hard question is, what does this really look like in schools? What does it look like when time, attention, and resources are being allocated to the many, many worthy activities that our schools sponsor? What does it take to place a stake in the ground regarding Jewish literacy, religious engagement, and Jewish Peoplehood, and the connection to the modern state of Israel?

Can school leaders, board chairs, and teachers declare their aspirations loudly, or must they remain secrets kept locked like precious jewels in our hearts?

Can school leaders, board chairs, and teachers declare their aspirations loudly, or must they remain secrets kept locked like precious jewels in our hearts?

We’d like to suggest the following specific and unapologetic aspirations for Jewish day schools and the graduates they produce. Much of this will sound quite familiar to many of you, because, in fact, it is what you aspire to everyday. School contexts and cultures are different, so, in different schools, embracing these aspirations has varying implications for school structures, schedules, teaching practice, curriculum development, and leadership. And what does it look like to meet each of these aspirations? That, too, will have to be defined, on site, by educators and their students.

The aspirations to consider are the following:

  • That Jewish day school graduates are knowledgeable about ancient and modern Jewish history and conversant in modern Hebrew.
  • That graduates appreciate the significance of the State of Israel and her centrality for Jews everywhere.
  • That graduates feel themselves part of a distinctive People who share a common heritage, history, culture, religion, language and homeland. That these connections will create for them a unique bond to and inspire a sense of responsibility for Jews around the world.
  • That Jewish day school graduates continue a tradition of independent study of biblical and rabbinic texts, ideally in Hebrew.
  • That they appreciate the sacredness of those texts and the texts’ role in our People’s timeless grappling with theological, spiritual, existential and practical questions.
  • That graduates are guided by Jewish values and mitzvot that are integrated into all aspects of their 21st century lives, and that they become adults committed to lifelong Jewish intellectual and spiritual growth.
  • That they take responsibility for transmitting their Jewish heritage to future generations, engaging in or leading the Jewish community.
  • That they bring a Jewish voice and Jewish values into the discourse of humankind.

We believe that all of these aspirations ought to be pursued in Jewish educational contexts that include, quite explicitly, joyful participation, physical enactment, positive socialization, and leadership development. If the task is too great to accomplish in the space of a school day or school year, students ought to be encouraged to participate in other programs such as summer camp, youth group, Israel trips, or synagogue life that will help them reach these aspirations.

We stress that these intensive and immersive educational experiences are aspirations for Jewish students of all types and ideologies—for community schools and schools of all denominational affiliations—so that a literate and committed core can exist within all Jewish denominations and trans-denominationally.

Since schools are unique organizations with particular missions, cultures, and structures, and since schools are comprised of unique students, teachers, leaders, and parents, it is both useful and fascinating to formally explore your school’s specific and unapologetic aspirations for your graduates. Are these aspirations, as Kohl said of reading, “not small school things, but central to life and understanding”? What does a serious commitment to these aspirations mean for leadership, teaching, and curriculum?

We invite you to join us in sharpening our focus on the articulation and enactment of these aspirations and to journey with us into our glorious Jewish future. ♦

Dr. Susan M. Kardos is the Director of Strategy and Education Planning at The AVI CHAI Foundation. She can be reached at [email protected].

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HaYidion The Educated Jew Summer 2010
The Educated Jew
Summer 2010