HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Dear Cooki

by Cooki Levy Issue: Mission & Vision

My board chair, supported by a small but very vocal group of parents, is insisting that the school reduce the number of hours per week that Jewish Studies are taught in order to allow more time for secular academic electives, fine art, and physical education. This flies in the face of the school’s mission, which espouses commitment to serious study of Jewish texts, Jewish practice and Jewish history and a balanced curriculum of general and Jewish studies.

How can I respond to the demands of these parents without risking having them leave the school?

This is the ongoing dilemma of the community day school: how can we “do everything,” do it well, and satisfy all stakeholders, even as we allow for individual differences among students’ abilities and family needs? The short answer is, we cannot. What we can do is communicate clearly, build understanding, listen well, find compromises and offer alternatives.

Your first task must be to engage your board chair in a respectful conversation on this issue. Listen for what s/he is really asking for: is it less Jewish studies or more of something else? Often, this parental demand is not because they don’t want Jewish studies, but because they perceive it as taking the place of other important opportunities for their children. On the other hand, if you both conclude that regardless of other solutions, s/he just wants the students to learn less Hebrew, Tanakh, tefillah etc., then a careful review of the school’s mission and of the role as the school’s lay leader must be explored. Most often, that is not the case. They want Jewish learning and… So let’s see how this might be possible.

Continue listening to the parental concerns; what do they want? Often you will hear things like, “The students need more time to learn critical thinking”; or, “They need more time to improve their literacy skills”; or, “In the 21st century classroom, students must learn to communicate, collaborate and be creative; we need more time for that.” Or, finally, “Kids must be comfortable with technology. They need more time for IT practice and exposure.”

There are numerous ways that the above concerns can be met using Jewish studies as the vehicle for learning. Your challenge is to educate the parents so that they see the ways in which using Judaic materials and subjects achieves the same basic educational goals as other disciplines, while grounding the student in his Jewish identity and his connection to his people. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Few disciplines anywhere model critical thinking and provide a myriad of opportunities to practice it than the study of Talmud. Demonstrate that this is the case, and make sure it is happening in your classrooms.
  • The study of Chumash and tefillah can be a learning laboratory for reading comprehension, text analysis and contextual understanding, all essential 21st century skills. The skilled teacher will utilize technology to compare texts (Find the differences in the same story recounted twice in a Biblical text; or, Compare the differences between the Amidah of weekdays and Shabbat.)
  • What better resource is there to teach conflict resolution and other leadership skills than by studying the lives and experiences of the great heroes of the Jewish people, from biblical times to the present day?
  • The vast tapestry of Jewish tradition provides almost unlimited opportunities for artistic renderings, in a broad variety of media, of concrete events and of abstract concepts. There is also a treasure trove of classic art: paintings of biblical stories and characters, handmade religious artifacts in materials ranging from clay to gold, and much more. No shortage of opportunities to provide arts education.
  • Learning Hebrew not only strengthens overall literacy skills, it helps to build a bridge to 3000 years of the Jewish tradition, with Israel, and with the entire fiber of Jewish spiritual and intellectual existence.
  • Graduates across North America agree that the self-discipline and time-management skills needed to succeed in a challenging dual curriculum prepares them for the challenges of post-secondary study in even the most competitive universities.

In addition to teaching parents about the educational value of teaching Jewish studies (beyond the religious/cultural reasons), and its role in fulfilling the mission, i.e., the raison d’etre, of your school, try to find creative ways to meet some of their stated needs and desires. For example:

  • Show them that you agree that exposure to a broad range of subjects is good and that the desire for additional physical activity is important to you, too.
  • Involve parents in the search for solutions by forming a small committee to explore options such as lunch-hour clubs and activities and increased extracurricular programming.
  • Investigate communitywide resources. See if there are sports leagues that can accommodate your students, book clubs or IT activities at the local library, clubs and activities at the Jewish community center or similar institution. Form a partnership with them that will benefit them as well as your students.

These are some ways in which you are validating their concerns, acting to address them, yet preserving the core value of serious Jewish study.

We know that you will never convince every parent, and, especially in schools where retaining enrollment is a key issue, pressure to meet parental demands is intense. But a greater danger lies in overlooking, even abrogating, your school’s mission to meet demands of a current group, whose composition and outlook will surely change from year to year. Most often, parental concerns will be abated from the joint approach of listening well and trying to provide solutions, and educating parents about the far-reaching benefits of Jewish studies.¿

Cooki Levy is the director of RAVSAK’s Head of School Professional Excellence Project (PEP). 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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Mission & Vision

The key to a school's success is the articulation of a strong mission and vision statement and an administration and board that stick to these ideals. Mission and vision differentiate a school from its peers and proclaims the unique value proposition that the school offers. Reconsider the purpose and mission of Jewish day school education from a variety of perspectives. Then, gain advice for composing a mission statement and discover the range of uses that such a statement can serve.

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