Shared Purpose and Mutual Responsibility in a Diverse Community
A few years ago, I attended a conference at a local non-Jewish independent school. On the walls of each classroom, I noticed large posted signs that included language about student’s rights and privileges on the wall. The type of language I observed was, “Everyone has the right to a safe learning environment,” “Everyone has the right to speak” or “Everyone has the right to have their disabilities accommodated.” Of course, you would be hard-pressed to find an educator, parent or student who disagrees with these statements. However, it occurred to me that the presentation of similar content in a Jewish day school classroom looks radically different.
In my current school and in other Jewish day schools I have taught at and observed, you often find the same language structured in the context of a classroom brit, a covenant. In that context, you might observe language that says, “It is our shared obligation to ensure that every student has a safe environment to learn in,” or, “Our classroom community is collectively responsible in ensuring that every student has a voice and an opportunity to speak.”
Indeed, one of the most powerful value propositions of a Jewish day school in 21st century America is the shared purpose that students experience in a community educational environment. This shared purpose often can be contrasted to a secular educational environment, which privileges the individual journey of uncovering and discovering every teacher and student’s relationships to certain identity markers, biases, groups, heritages and privileges that all serve as a springboard for uncovering the full potential of the individual student in a democratic manner. In this context, every student, regardless of their background, is deserving of the right to speak, to be understood, to be seen, to be recognized and most importantly to be educated in a manner that suits their learning sides. While these are essential understandings, Jewish day schools understand that rights and privileges without a coupling of meaning, purpose and responsibility are incomplete.
A Diverse Classroom in Morocco, a Century Ago
This isn’t a new phenomenon in Jewish education. A responsum from nearly a century ago in Morocco highlights this tension in a Jewish classroom. In a collection of letters written by Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Danan in the early 20th century, a question can be found that describes a heterogeneous learning environment in the Jewish community of Sefrou, a short distance from Fez. The letter records a query from a parent who wanted to withhold payment toward a Jewish educator.
One student came home to his father around lunchtime, and the father asked his son, “My son, what did you learn today?” His son answered, “Since the morning until now, we barely learned anything except for a little bit of Gemara. Since there was a new student in class and we had to go slowly until he understood it, due to him, our learning was delayed.” When the father heard this, he quickly grew angry and refused to send his son back to the same teacher. Thus the parents and teachers sought my guidance to understand whether the parent owed the teacher a salary for his work, whether he should be fined or whether he was exempt from paying… The parent also added, “Since this teacher got to this place and delayed and took away learning from the group for the sake of the individual, I do not believe that he will be swift and careful to give my son the education he deserves... and we pay a great deal for our children’s education.”
In Rabbi Ibn Danan’s response, he notes that Torah learning has always happened in a heterogeneous learning environment. Even when Oral Torah was first taught to Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s sons and the Elders, every person heard teachings repeated four times for the sake of others. Indeed, the new student in the classroom in Sefrou created an opportunity for others to learn material again and to appreciate the value of being obligated to one another. Rabbi Ibn Danan goes on to say that in every classroom environment, students occasionally feel that their learning has been wasted, but the truly wise student rises above that emotion and realizes that true learning occurs when collective understandings have been reached by the class.
Community in Diversity
The parent who wrote Rabbi Ibn Danan expressed a common feeling that many parents experience in classroom settings. Why should my students’ learning be impeded by the diversity of learners or behaviors in a class? Why should my student have to sacrifice an inch of their right to learn because of others in their class? The classroom communities that exist with Jewish day schools offer an alternative to this question. Through a mutual obligation to uphold one another’s rights, students discover a shared purpose in a Jewish day school classroom community.
In Abraham Joshua Heschel’s essay “The Insecurity of Freedom,” he writes:
Man’s true fulfillment cannot be reached by the isolated individual, and his true good depends on communion with, and participation in, that which transcends him. Each challenge from beyond the person is unique, and each response must be new and creative… The glory of a free society lies not only in the consciousness of my right to be free, and my capacity to be free, but also in the realization of my fellow man’s right to be free, and his capacity to be free.
At our school, I see a shared purpose cultivated on a daily basis. On our sports teams, I notice that when students put on a jersey, they know that younger students are watching them play for our school. They understand that they are temporary custodians of the jersey, and when they graduate, the legacy of how they behaved on the field, how they performed and how they improved will be what they leave to the community. A shared purpose is cultivated through a responsibility to other students in the learning community that they feel connected to. When our students gather for tefillah and younger students sit with older students, they recognize that a shared purpose is cultivated through a responsibility involving transmission of culture, customs, rituals and traditions through different age groups.
Families who choose to send their students to a Jewish day school have the opportunity to engage in a truly countercultural experience. The individual right to learn is honored through a shared purpose and a covenantal classroom community. In this context, students learn that in order for their voice to be heard, they must actively work to create an environment for others to be listened to who are different from them, including students with learning differences, students from diverse socioeconomic, racial and political backgrounds. Other schools may have diverse classroom environments, but the unique shared purpose that is cultivated through collective responsibility at a Jewish day school harnesses that diversity to enable students who are prepared to lead, build bridges and understand differences once they leave their Jewish day school communities.