HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Dear Cooki

by Cooki Levi Issue: Tefillah

I am the HOS in a community school that serves all elements in the Jewish community. As a result, I, the board chair and various committee leaders are approached regularly by parents representing left, right and center ideologies, who feel they are not fully served by our school’s religious approach.

What can I do to help meet the needs of all (or almost all) of the community?

First, I assume that your mission statement and other public information clearly indicate that your school serves all elements of the community within a diverse religious environment, and that your curriculum reflects this as well. A school that defines itself as Orthodox but accepts all denominations of Jewish families has a very different obligation.

As community Jewish day schools—usually pluralistic in nature—our mandates include teaching all our students how to live meaningful Jewish lives. Defining what is a meaningful and appropriate Jewish lifestyle is difficult and personal. Our task must be to provide the concrete knowledge, the motivation, the understanding, the language and the skills, that will enable students and families to make informed choices and to live the Jewish lives to which they aspire. All Jews share a common heritage, a common language, numerous sacred texts and a history that bind us together. Start with that, focusing if it meets your needs on an intellectual rather than an ideological approach to the material.

On the other hand, do not apologize for the religious experiences that you offer. All Jewish movements are open to prayer, tzedakah, holiday observances, Shabbat, and the like. Find the common elements accepted by most parents and leave the more divisive practices or beliefs for home, or synagogue, or another time. Your Shabbat programs may need to meet some local policy or standard, but the Shabbat part should be spiritually elevating, educational and fun. Students should be able to benefit from the full tapestry that Judaism has to offer, understanding that your goal is to avoid creating any kind of conflict between school and home yet exposing students to the myriad practices within Judaism.

Use the synagogues and their clergy as your partners. Invite guest rabbis of all denominations to engage with the students, to teach about holidays and their observances, to share perspectives with one another and the students and to identify the values and practices we share. Have students visit all the synagogues for a variety of events and programs; the school should be the vehicle for bringing members of the community together. Start with those observances and celebrations where Jews come together most easily—Yom Ha’Atzmaut, for example.

Try not to get stuck in the minutiae of “dos and don’ts.” Plan programs that will only include and not exclude, that will heighten awareness of the variety of Jewish expressions, that will engage the participants in a meaningful way, and, when possible, will bring joy.

Parents can be a vital resource. Create opportunities to share with them what their children are learning, provide times for parents and children to celebrate together to create links between families of differing religious orientations.

We know that in this, as with so many other areas in the Jewish day school world, we will never please all of our constituents. Tension among denominations will continue, I fear, and the day schools will not eliminate them. However, we can teach greater understanding, model greater tolerance, and practice community cooperation, especially when the HOS is committed to a true community institution.

Cooki Levy is the director of RAVSAK’s Head of School Mentoring Project. Previously, she served as the longtime head of the Akiva School in Westmount, Quebec. Dear Cooki accepts questions from all school stakeholders. To submit a question, write to hayidion@ravsak.org, with “Dear Cooki” in the subject line.

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Most day schools are committed to cultivating Jewish prayer, tefillah, as a spiritual practice. In practice, they often find the obstacles formidable: lack of curriculum, knowledgeable and passionate prayer leaders, student interest, awareness of goals, to name a few. Articles here aim to help schools clarify their approach and strengthen the educational bases of school tefillah.

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