The Derekh Eretz Committee

Shouldn’t Jewish day school students be responding “to a higher authority,” as the Hebrew National advertisement used to say?

“Now raise your hand if you have ever looked at another classmate’s test for an answer.”

“Now raise your hand if you’ve ever gone online and cut and pasted information into a paper without citing the source.”

“Last question: raise your hand if you’ve ever felt entitled to cut in the lunch line in front of a younger student, and keep your hand raised if you actually did cut in line.”

Not surprisingly, a high proportion of hands go up when these questions are asked in the relatively informal and intimate setting of an advisory group of ten students.

If we had asked the question differently, however, using such negative phrasings as “How many of you have ever plagiarized?” or “How many of you have ever cheated?” or “How many of you have ever bullied someone else?”, then fewer hands are likely to have gone up because nobody wants to think of themselves as a cheater or a bully.

At Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy (formerly known as Akiba Hebrew Academy) in the Philadelphia area, the Derekh Eretz Committee was established in the 2008-2009 school year as a multigenerational group of students and teachers to discuss ways of raising the level of derekh eretz in the school. The committee came to understand derekh eretz as a combination of courtesy, academic honesty, and respect.

In its first year, this committee decided to focus on academic honesty by administering and analyzing a survey about dishonest practices on homework, on tests and in other areas of school life. The committee then created a video in which a number of students were interviewed about how they interpret plagiarism, cheating and academic honesty.

This video was aired at an all-school assembly, creating quite a stir among teachers and students. In particular, many faculty members were shocked when some students in the video looked straight into the camera and declared that copying homework is not a violation of a teacher’s trust and that letting someone copy their work is an important affirmation of a friendship.

In subsequent discussions of the video in advisory groups, many students agreed that it might be better to do the work by themselves than to copy from someone else, but in a pinch, they felt that if the assignment seemed dull or repetitive, then it didn’t seem particularly dishonest to copy.

On the one hand, we shouldn’t be surprised to hear about cheating among our students in light of national statistics described in James Davison Hunter’s book The Death of Character and in more popular newspaper articles. The research suggests that students at our Jewish day schools are not immune from dishonest behavior or from the trends in society beyond our walls, so perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised by the seemingly nonchalant student attitudes.

On the other hand, shouldn’t Jewish day school students be responding “to a higher authority,” as the Hebrew National advertisement used to say? Those of us on our school’s Derekh Eretz Committee became convinced of the importance of our mission to promote derekh eretz in as many forms as possible.

The student government leadership from the Class of 2010 became convinced that the student body needed more formalized education and training so that they could understand why copying homework represents an act of academic dishonesty. They passed along this mantle of concern along to the four incoming Class of 2011 leaders who asked the Derekh Eretz Committee to go beyond cheating to explore other areas of derekh eretz from sportsmanship to modesty, truth-telling, self-reflection, bullying and faculty-student relations.

As the committee head was nearing retirement, he encouraged the committee to bring these discussions to a new level and develop a code of derekh eretz for the school, not unlike an honor code that one might find at independent and public schools.

When I became the committee head, I worked with the new Class of 2011 leaders, bringing my own research on moral education and character education. We studied honor code texts from a variety of schools—single-sex, faith-based, non-sectarian independent and public and established a timeline for the completion of a code of derekh eretz with the aid of resources from the Council for Spiritual and Ethical Education (CSEE), a national organization that serves both non-sectarian and faith-based independent schools. The CSEE Handbook for Developing and Sustaining Honor Systems by David B. L. Gould and John J. Roberts was especially helpful.

These are the steps that the committee undertook to prepare for the launch of a new schoolwide derekh eretz code:

Involvement of student government leaders. The committee worked with student leaders from the Classes of 2011 and 2012 to identify areas that should be covered by a code of derekh eretz, to agree upon the meaning of the concept of derekh eretz and to begin to draft the code.

A derekh eretz sourcebook. Teachers on the committee developed and distributed a sourcebook of traditional and contemporary texts for discussion in Jewish studies classes. The sourcebook included the well known phrase from Vayikra Rabba, “Derekh eretz kadma la-Torah,” “Derekh eretz is a prerequisite for the study of Torah”; a responsum from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein that relates leshon hara (evil speech), intellectual theft and deceit; and a passage from Abraham Joshua Heschel about the urgency of educating for integrity.

Case studies for advisory groups. The guidance counselor and students on the committee developed and distributed two case studies about peer pressure and derekh eretz for advisory group discussions.

Faculty discussion. The committee introduced the faculty to the derekh eretz sourcebook and case studies and to the general idea of a code of derekh eretz that applies to every individual in the school from the students to the adults. These discussions will continue while the final drafts of the code are being prepared.

Drafting committee. Three students and four adults developed a working draft of a derekh eretz code for the school. The student members of the drafting committee included the seventh grade president of the Middle School Council, a ninth grade class representative to the upper school student government and a tenth grader who also was a member of the gay-straight alliance. The Student Association president was informed of the discussions. Faculty members on the committee included myself, the school guidance counselor, a Jewish studies teacher with a background in philosophy and a Hebrew teacher who had been a committee member since its inception because of his abiding interest in the moral welfare of our students.

Jewish tradition informed our conversations in unexpected ways. One day over lunch our students all agreed that they did not want to see our honor code require that students report another student’s violations to a teacher. Upon looking for support from Jewish tradition, they learned that reporting on another student is objectionable because it could become a form of leshon hara.

As this article goes to press, the code is in a draft state, ready to go to the student government leaders for further discussion in the fall. Here are some anticipated challenges:

Forming a student judiciary committee. Interestingly, our school’s Student Association constitution provides for a judiciary committee to consider disciplinary issues at the request of a student who is charged with a significant disciplinary violation, but most students do not know about the committee, as it receives little publicity from the Student Association. Thus, it has been dormant for several years. As a result, each time a case of bullying or plagiarism has come before the school administration during my time at the school, adults have handled the case privately. This could be for the best because it preserves a student’s desire for confidentiality; on the other hand, a process that involves a student and faculty committee would create public precedents so that students would see the same predictable consequences meted out each time a case arises.

Creating the right conditions for academic honesty to flourish. With an honor code in place, teachers will need to continue to be mindful about helping students understand what is and what isn’t permitted when they prepare assignments and assessments. Students will need to learn the limits of collaboration so that they can avoid copying, plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty. The Derekh Eretz Committee and each of the academic departments will need to educate students about the mechanics of citation and also about the larger principles involved in respecting intellectual property.

Responding to objections. Some teachers might object to a code of derekh eretz in spite of the discussions we had last year about holding everyone in the community accountable. They might feel that it is demeaning to sign onto a pledge that is meant for students and not for the adult members of the community.

Some students may object because the code may seem like a judgment against them. One student asked if the teachers were more suspicious of the students these days, inferring that things must be bad if we are creating an honor code. Another student indicated that he and his friends might sign the code and then ignore it if it is not enforced.

I remain an optimist and I anticipate that most students will be happy to sign onto the code and to affirm their own integrity as members of the school community. I anticipate that students who tend to do their assignments in a timely fashion will feel empowered to decline to help their classmates who ask to see their homework. The committee’s work has been inclusive and it has engaged every Jewish studies class and every advisory group this year. The drafting process will have received constructive input from dozens of students and teachers whose voices have contributed to each draft.

We all want to see our students prepared for college. A code of derekh eretz can help to prepare our students for the life dilemmas that they are likely to encounter in college and beyond on exams and in dissertations; in preparing briefs and presentations; in working on production teams or creative teams; in developing software and new products; in holding positions of leadership in the community, when raising their own families, and even when they are around the dinner table, deciding whether or not to make an off-color remark. A code of derekh eretz is one way in which we can fulfill our school's mission of preparing our students for moral responsibility and for moral leadership long into their adult lives.♦

Rabbi Judd Kruger Levingston, PhD, the Director of Jewish Studies at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, teaches at the middle school and high school levels and is the author of Sowing the Seeds of Character. He can be reached at [email protected].

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