From the CEO: The Miracle of Jewish Day Schools

Paul Bernstein, CEO

This issue of HaYidiyon is being published between our two “miracle” holidays—Hanukkah and Purim. We insert the Al Hanissim (“on the miracles”) prayer into our liturgy on these two holidays, saying that we thank Hashem “for the miracles, the redemption, and the triumphant victories, and liberation which You have wrought for our fathers in days of old, at this season.” The ending phrase, bayamim ha-hem, bazman ha-zeh, literally “in those days, at this time,” makes me think that when we acknowledge the miracles of Hanukkah and Purim, we are also acknowledging the miracles that are with us here and now, at this time. I concede that this is not necessarily the most literal understanding of the idea, but allow me to be expansive in my belief in the miraculous.

Our shared endeavor—Jewish day schools—are places where miracles do take place every day. Perhaps not at the scale of the Maccabees or Mordechai and Esther, but there is no doubt that every day, in every day school throughout North America, the Jewish future is secured, child by child. What we need to overcome may have changed from those Hellenizing forces or threats of destruction. All day schools share a passion to bring Jewish miracles into their students’ lives. How our school leaders address any number of contemporary challenges, some of which are addressed in this issue, is just as critical to a vibrant and stable Jewish community for the next generation.

As our strategic plan for Jewish day schools highlights, Prizmah exists to support schools and communities to tackle the challenges on their path to success. We are here for the important conversations: enabling leaders and educators to engage with crucial challenges and share ideas; leveraging formal and informal networks so we may learn, grow and create together; helping our schools thrive.

The world that today’s kindergartners will face when they reach adulthood will be different in ways we can’t yet see. Our world is changing fast. Issues that appear to come out of the blue and seem existential today were likely not even imagined even a decade ago.

I recently read Middle Britain by Jonathan Coe, a contemporary novel charting the path to Brexit and its impact on British communities. The story not only reflects current political realities; it focuses in on the responses of individuals. We discover longstanding, deep divisions that surface even within families and among friends. After radical and rapid changes, in jobs, economies, demographics, relationships, beliefs and norms, suppressed differences not only cause conflict between different communities but literally rip families apart. The protagonists’ inability to communicate, to handle their differences, and to grapple with those changes leads to a bleak picture for their communities and even their closest relationships.

Our Jewish day school community is diverse, our differences not particularly obscure. We may not even agree on what the most relevant challenges are; we certainly will interpret them differently and may reach contrasting conclusions. However, we can succeed in facing those issues if we are able to reflect on our past—bayamim ha-hem—and interrogate our current realities—bazman ha-zeh—with the benefit of what our history and texts teach us and an awareness of the miracles at stake in our common endeavor.

The greatest advances in Jewish life have historically come from rich debates, addressing diverse opinions, interpretations and worldviews. We are blessed with a talmudic tradition that sets up the Jewish people to discuss, disagree, and resolve the trickiest issues. In the face of the challenges within and beyond the Jewish community today, we will be stronger and better able to respond to all we face if we engage actively in the discussions that matter to each of us as Jews and as educators, and can do so in a spirit of kavod, respect. We will not resolve all of the structural and religious differences that inform our opinions, neither may we necessarily even agree on which issues to tackle, the language we use, and sometimes the principles that guide us. Which discussion we each choose to participate in, with what beliefs, and the conclusions we reach will be guided by each hashkafah, the outlook that determines who we are and what guides our individual schools.

What I hope is special about discussions in Prizmah is that we can provide the space for important conversations that matter to us as Jewish educators and to the long-term success of our schools. We can talk and learn more thanks to our interactions with our close peers and those from other kinds of schools. We can each do so grounded in our beliefs, particular circumstances and practices. Our environment is one where we respect each other, and our differences. Not every subject or the approach to every subject is relevant to us individually, yet we are, I hope, able to join those difficult conversations that are important for us. When we do so, we gain from our peers, without pressure to compromise our differing beliefs. Our discourse will not be monolithic or imposed, much as our North American community is not homogeneous.

Like the rabbis of the Talmud whom our students study and strive to emulate, there are undoubtedly manifold opinions and interpretations. What matters is that we continue the important conversations.

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HaYidion In These Times Winter 2019
In These Times
Winter 2019