I can never forget the day that I showed a group of prospective parents a short promotional video about our day school. In a very brief image, the children were seen washing their hands and saying a blessing before popping a crouton and heading to lunch. One father slapped his hands down hard on the table. “That’s it!” he cried. “My children will never go to that school!”
HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Too Jewish? Not Jewish Enough?
At some point, most day schools find themselves confronted with the question, Are we too Jewish? If we confine Jewish studies to fewer hours in the school day, will more students come? Authors here agree that the “Jewish” part of the school’s mission and identity should be proudly front and center in defining a day school’s raison d’etre.
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Editor’s Note: Renowned philanthropist Michael Steinhardt has recently challenged the Jewish community to consider building secular Jewish day schools. For many, “secular” and “Jewish” are at inextricable odds, while others wonder what aspects of this concept might well inform the work of community day schools. We invited Mr. Steinhardt to share his vision with HaYidion’s readers and are honored that he accepted.
I spent five years as an associate rabbi in a large congregation. Somewhere around my third year, the executive committee of the congregation decided that too many board members were disconnected from the congregation’s lifeblood despite being charged with fiduciary responsibility for it. They sent a letter to the board announcing that board members would henceforth be expected to demonstrate their leadership by, minimally, showing up to services on a regular basis.
We all know it when we see it: a school with a powerful culture. People just seem “to belong,” to know what is expected and to do it. There is consistency in the values expressed by the words and actions of all the people involved –from the children to the teachers, board, parents and administrators. Some school cultures support productive teaching and learning and clearly convey their Jewish and educational philosophies; others do not do this, at least not consistently.
Living for over two decades in Oklahoma and Indiana, I was asked many times, “Why are you so Jewish?” In those days, I was less observant, less educated and not a Jewish professional. Yet the question persisted.
Once again, RAVSAK places in your hands an issue that will have both immediate and long-term value. Day school culture is the subject of this Shavuot issue of HaYidion. All of us struggle with the issues of school culture – of being “too Jewish” or “not Jewish enough.” As one head of school humorously commented at our January conference, “I have people on the left mad at me and I have people on the right mad at me. I figure I must be doing something correctly.” Levity aside, the articles in this issue deal with the theme of how our schools “feel” to their constituent communities.
Editor’s Note: No discussion about the Jewish character of a community day school would be complete without exploring the role of Israel and Zionism education. In the printed version, this brief article is followed by a quick survey. We encourage you to download it here and use in your schools.
A central office administrator recently told me that one of his schools was becoming more like Iraq everyday. Relationships were ragged, achievement was on the decline, there were a number of tribes within the school who hated each other, and the leader was in hiding! He had correctly determined that the problems were not caused by a lack of curriculum development, poor teaching modalities, or “bad” teachers, students and parents. The problem was that the culture of the school was in disrepair.
When a Jewish family who identifies as “Reform” chooses to send their child to a day school, what are they hoping for, expecting, and needing from the school? What is their role in their home synagogue? How is the content of the curriculum coordinated between day school, synagogue, home, youth group, and summer camp? Are there potentially contradictory messages being sent? Where are the consistencies and inconsistencies? I think it is important for our formal and informal educational arms to focus on both questions and answers for all students, especially day school students.
Outside my window, it is raining cats and dogs. If you are a native English speaker, you know exactly what I mean. The rest of you may envision puppies and kittens falling from the heavens, or wonder how domestic pets got involved in a description of the weather, or even be asking yourselves just what it is I am trying to say.
In a certain sense, formulating this issue of HaYidion around the question of a school’s Jewishness is something of a red herring: Very few readers of this journal would claim to be in the business of reducing the religious and cultural tenor of a school, and to be sure, no one at RAVSAK wants to see Jewish commitments decline. Those of us committed in word, deed and purse to Jewish community day school education are in it for the Jewish bit – there are secular institutions of academic excellence for our children in both the private and public sectors, there are countless schools that dream of employing educators like us, and frankly, most non-profit organizations would give their eye teeth for lay leaders like ours. In our small corner of the universe, “too Jewish” reads as an oxymoron. The analogies are easy and there to be had by all: Too Jewish is like too pretty (di kale is schoin shein), too rich, too smart, and too good. All we want is for our schools to be a success.
During the Passover break, which I was spending with my family in London, I received an email from the RAVSAK head office requesting me to create an article on how my school has created its culture and how I grapple with the issue of how to make all involved with the school comfortable in the level of culture that has been created. If I were to give answers on one foot – a request that was made of Hillel – these would be my flippant replies: