Seven Advantages of the Immersive Nature of Jewish Day Schools
One of the most compelling reasons for parents to send children to Jewish day schools and for funders to support them is the immersive nature of the day school experience. There is a great deal to be said for students being in a Jewish environment six to eight hours per day, five days per week, 40 weeks per year. Jewish sleepaway camp is also an immersive experience, but while the four- to eight-week camp experience is fun, informal and relationship-based, Jewish day schools present a different, deep model of immersion.
Outlined below are reasons that the immersive nature of Jewish day schools works to strengthen our Jewish children.
1. Research shows that immersion works to develop skills, capacity and habits of heart and mind. As Malcolm Gladwell explains in Outlier, “Mastery comes after someone practices one skill, like playing the violin, for 10,000 hours.” Analyses of second language acquisition have demonstrated that it is achieved more efficiently and effectively within an immersive environment. Why should we think that it is any different for acquisition of Jewish wisdom, knowledge and values, which are essentially the “language” of our people?
2. Not only are the students immersively exposed to Jewish wisdom, knowledge and values implicitly throughout the school day through mechanisms such as bulletin board posts, signs around the school and activities such as prayer and Birkat Hamazon, but connections to Jewish thought and feeling can be made explicitly throughout the day. For example, the theory of evolution and Ma’aseh Bereshit—the Creation story—can be taught side by side, having students analyze the relationship between science and faith. Or math and science could be utilized while teaching students what makes a Sukkah kosher, according to Masechet Sukkot.
3. Literature can be analyzed using Jewish values and figures of speech. For example, metaphors can be taught through such parshiyot as Shirat haYam—the Song of the Sea (Shmot 16). This approach of integration serves to minimize an essential issue in Jewish life of compartmentalizing one’s Jewishness, as in “I’m Jewish in shul, but being Jewish does not impact me in the slightest at work.”
4. Especially in the younger grades, where social-emotional learning is front and center, character education can be framed in Jewish terms. For example, rather than a teacher instructing the students during morning meeting to say good morning to each other, the lesson hevai makdim bishlom kol adam—be the first to greet everyone—could be the frame in which this is taught. For middle and high school years, makhloket leshem shamayim and makhloket she’einah leshem shamayim—loosely translated, disputes for higher moral reasons or disputes divorced from higher moral reasons—are a good framework to use for playground or classroom spats.
5. Topics that are especially meaningful and/or sensitive to Jewish youth can be more easily confronted and discussed within the safe walls of a Jewish day school: the place of Israel on the global stage, the rise of 21st century antisemitism, and the perceptions of safety and security for Jewish kids in the United States. If discussed at all in a secular public or private school, these topics will be uncomfortable at best and traumatizing at worst for our young people.
6. Further, students in their school setting throughout the day will see Jewish values in action, whether it is how adults speak with each other, how teachers treat students, or how areas such as a connection with God and social justice come to life. These will become internalized as children experience them on a routine basis, without a lot of “do as I say, not as I do” lecturing.
7. Only in Jewish day schools do students have the time and opportunity to dive deeply into our shared ancient Jewish texts, ideally in the original language. One of the few things that all Jews across the board share is a fealty to our shared heritage based on our holy texts, be it the Tanakh or the Talmud. Becoming involved in studying these texts and adding their own voices to the conversation will help our students deeply integrate Judaism into every fiber of their being. Given the time constraints of every other type of Jewish education, this can only be done to its optimum in a Jewish day school.
8. Finally, having Jewish children form close relationships with other Jewish children can only serve to strengthen the Jewish people and the Jewish community. This is not to deny that there are huge advantages to having our children exposed to contemporaries of different faiths, socioeconomic strata and worldviews; that can be done through a school partnering closely with a local public or parochial school of another faith community. However, there is strength in numbers, and that increases exponentially when our children have compatriots living within a similar ethos.
While this list is surely far from exhaustive, we need to disseminate this message of the enormous benefits of Jewish immersion to the parents and funders in our communities and develop their buy-in to the necessity of day school education for Jewish children.
I suggest that Jewish day schools can take lessons from the best and look to successful corporations to see what strategies they use to get their message out there. One company whose marketing strategies are well analyzed is The Walt Disney Company. Let’s look at four of its strategies and how we might transpose them for promoting Jewish day school education. These strategies have been adapted from an article about Disney by mageplaza.
First Strategy: Telling Stories that Resonate and Inspire
A number of years ago, an article in eJewishPhilanthropy suggested that Jewish day schools compile portfolios with financial data and other statistics, offering funders a glimpse at the expected ROI, similar to for-profit companies. At that time, I thought to myself that this approach was too cold and dispassionate for anyone to understand the value of Jewish day schools. What we should do is put together a “Portfolio of Inspiration,” in which we share success stories, whether that means the number of professionals and lay leaders who are products of day schools, stories of individual students whose lives have been informed by their day school experience, or recollections from families whose life journeys have been shaped by one or more of their children attending Jewish day school.
We are a storytelling species; day schools need to become better at telling our stories in compelling ways through a variety of media, and disseminating them widely through marketing and communication firms, websites, social media and the like. If folks don’t even see our stories, they cannot be inspired. And if our stories don’t stir their hearts, even if they do see them, there will be no change.
Second Strategy: Building Spaces as Sacred Destinations
Sometimes, just getting someone into the physical space of a day school might be the tipping point for them to enroll their children or opt to become a donor. Perhaps we can think of our buildings not as schools but as sacred Jewish communal havens. We could create spaces within our buildings attractive enough to host Jewish organizational events that would bring currently non-affiliated folks into our space.
We could create community batei midrash within the walls of our schools. We could open our doors on Shabbat to a congregation that needs a place for prayer and camaraderie or on Sunday to a Jewish scout troop. When people feel the kedushah of the day school building space and inculcate it within themselves, they may be more likely to enroll their children so that the kids, too, can experience the kedushah, or they may become more likely to donate to a holy establishment such as the day school communal space.
Third Strategy: Employing the Feeling of Nostalgia to Reinforce Customer Loyalty
We should not underestimate the power of nostalgia. In certain ways, it is all the rage. People love The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel in part for the nostalgic feelings it evokes. Retro fashion is always in style, although the decade defined as “retro” changes with time. We even look fondly upon a pre-Covid world, forgetting that it was not all sweetness and light.
If we can leverage “nostalgia” for a long history of the Jewish people and how we have survived each outside assault by our sworn antisemitic enemies, each internal onslaught of assimilation and attacks on Jewish continuity, every event that tried to eliminate the Jewish people, our co-religionists might begin to understand the way that only Jewish day schools can give the armor and ammunition to the next generation to fend off any and all attacks on our legacy. Adult Jewish education inside our own walls, involving teaching different eras of history, different paths of Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi development, and the formation of our culture based on a millennium of Jewish arts, culture and intellectual writings might evoke in them sufficient remembrance, recollection and even sentimentality to want their children to gain the upper hand of an immersive Jewish education.
Fourth Strategy: Always Sticking to your Theme
Anyone reading this article ostensibly is a proponent of Jewish day school education. We need to create a value proposition and stay the course with it, not turning to the left or right, to quote the Torah. Our messaging needs to be clear, consistent and constant. Getting students into our schools and cultivating donors is an ongoing, never-ending process. It cannot be one and done.
Schools need to decide on their own value proposition, be it immersion or something else, and get that message out there repeatedly as widely and broadly as possible. Just as with school initiatives, unfortunately, too many schools change their branding too often, such that the core message is watered down. Create your theme, create your value proposition. Stick with it and repeat it, repeat it, repeat it.
Jewish day schools have a huge amount to offer. My perspective is that the immersion aspect is key to the success of day school education. Let’s build on all facets of that immersion, and let’s also utilize time-tested strategies to incorporate new families and individuals into our day school world, building their passion even as we continue to build our own.