Counterpoint: Mission Impossible--The Limits of Vision

Elliot Spiegel

I like reading mission statements. I know that sounds strange, but as I visit schools around the country, I have found that one can learn much about individual schools from these brief statements. Before I enter a school’s hallways, I read its mission statement to become acquainted with how it defines itself. What are its overall priorities? What population does it seek to serve? What are its core values? What are its educational priorities, what is its vision of its students’ future? If one looks closely, all this can be inferred from a clear mission statement. And if one reads enough of them, one can gain insight into what is consistent and most vital to the beliefs of day schools as a system. One can learn both what makes each school unique and what is central to our schools as a whole.

A mission statement is in some ways an odd document. Created by the school, it then pivots and functions as the school’s ultimate authority. Significantly, these statements can be changed periodically by the very group that wrote it. In this way, a school remains responsive to changes in the world around it. But this notion leads to the question of whether there are constraints on how far a board can go to adopt a new mission and remain true to its identity as a Jewish day school. Can a board of trustees, in changing its mission, move so far away from its original intention that it ceases to be a Jewish day school and becomes something different altogether? I want to answer this question by looking at the themes in our mission statements and applying these themes to the issue of admission to our schools of non-Jewish students.

What is striking to me is how consistent mission statements are. Most of the mission statements I have read over the years speak to schools’ educational programs and religious orientation. Not surprisingly, there is great variation in how day schools define their educational and religious missions. They define themselves as progressive or traditional, as emphasizing subject matter or innovative process, as a balanced curriculum or an integrated one. They speak of their religious orientation and how it plays out through holiday celebrations, in daily rituals, the joy of learning mitzvot and the application of both universal and Jewish values. Most day schools include these two areas as part of their mission, though their emphasis and interpretation vary from school to school.

But what is particularly dramatic to me is the area in which all day school mission statements are the same. Fundamental to all our schools is our vision of the future of the Jewish people and our belief in the school’s role in preparing our children to be members of the Jewish community. While Jewish ritual practice, pedagogic methods and educational content vary, Jewish day schools are consistently dedicated to fostering the perpetuation of the Jewish people by instilling a commitment to our community and our history into their students. All the mission statements with which I am familiar describe as their purpose the creation of a new community of Jewish children and training their students to become serious and active participants in the future of the Jewish people. Part of this idea begins as a focus on the individual child, referring to the school as a “mensch factory,” a place in which menschlichkeit can be nurtured and acts of chesed can be performed. Thus, rather than intellectual goals, the ultimate mission of a Jewish day school is a deeply spiritual and affective one. It is to develop shared core values. And it is this vision of historic kinship that makes our schools essential as a movement.

One significance of the prominent place of peoplehood in our mission statements and kinship in our schools is that it places a constraint on school leadership on the issue of admitting non-Jewish children. To be sure, defining and balancing our Jewish identities as members of both an ethnic as well as a religious community is nothing new in Jewish history. My point is not that this is a great revelation, but rather to suggest how universal and central this theme is to understanding the reasons why our schools exist. The commonality in our mission statements of instilling a sense of peoplehood, Jewish community, love of Israel and support for the State of Israel, and of cultivating the sense that our personal identity is rooted in our common history, is fundamental and a powerful indication of how significant we view these outcomes. The universal heart of our mission statements is a kind of mystical vision of the next Jewish generation, the initiation of a child into the sanctity of belonging to something greater than oneself.

The question arises as to what happens to a day school’s mission when this core value of peoplehood is removed or compromised. Reading our schools’ mission statements indicates to me that the spiritual commitment to a shared future is inviolable. If a Jewish school opened its doors to students who were not Jewish, both of whose parents were not Jewish and who had no intention of converting, then I would feel that the mission of the school had lost sight of its essential spiritual and historic nature. Should a community organize its mission around the notion that admitting both non-Jews as well as Jews, I would be quite interested to see such a school in operation, to understand how it handles the issues confronted by an integrated curriculum and how it deals with the relationship between its intellectual and affective goals. But to me it would not be a Jewish day school; it would be something different, authentic and valid for its unique vision, but not a Jewish day school.

At the very least, would it not be disingenuous of a day school, with its natural commitment to preparing its students to help ensure a Jewish future, to admit non-Jews? I believe that a school has the right to a changed mission, either through the excitement of a dramatic new vision or in response to the challenges of declining enrollment. But if embraced, a school runs the risk of reaching for “a bridge too far,” a mission that no longer qualifies it as a Jewish day school.

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HaYidion School_Advocacy Summer 2018
School Advocacy
Summer 2018