The Jewish school system has an inherently self-contradictory aspiration: it wants to combine every desirable feature of the most elite and well funded private schools with the “as of right” accessibility of the public school. We want to give every child a Jewish education—but many cannot afford the tuition fees that we must perforce charge.
HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Jewish law and practice mandate a society based on strict ethical standards and principles, tempered with great sensitivity to the complexity of real-life situations. This creation of the mentsch that emerges from these ethical practices resonates with many day school families. Jewish ethics offers day school leaders and students tools and approaches to confront daily challenges and dilemmas and guide decision making.
Click here to download the PDF and printer friendly version of this issue of HaYidion
For those of us who spend our professional and often personal lives living and learning among high school students, we understand that hormones are far more powerful than Halakhah. Thus, teaching ethics to high school students is far more about culture and context than about pedagogy or curriculum. Jewish tradition suggests that in order to learn to become a great scholar, one should “sit at the feet of those scholars” and soak up their every thought and every action. So too with high school students: they must attend a school where the ethical examples of their teachers, administrators, parents, and friends create a seamless context and culture for ethical thinking and behavior. Lawrence Kohlberg refers to this as the “just community”; Abraham Joshua Heschel explains that we need fewer textbooks and more “textpeople.” Ethics and moral behavior are learned within the powerful forces of context and culture.
Bullying of students by schoolmates, a deeply troubling phenomenon, has arisen and, as some available evidence appears to suggest, may be growing in many schools and countries around the world. In addition to abuse of schoolchildren by their peers, schools are also visited, some less, and others, sadly, more frequently, by abusive exercise of authority on the part of teachers and administrators, different from bullying only in the fact that the bully is an adult.
Should we teach ethically troubling rabbinic texts to students whose commitment to Jewish tradition is limited or shaky? If yes, how should we teach them, especially when those texts plausibly represent the mainstream of our tradition?
The focus of this issue led to me to re-read a 2006 column written for Sh’ma by Dr. Bruce Powell, one of RAVSAK’s board members and head of school at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, California (see page 22 in this issue). Bruce talks about the importance of “culture and context” vs. “pedagogy and curriculum.” The work of the RAVSAK board operates in the realm of culture and context. As I hope is true for the boards of our schools, we work in three realms: fiduciary, strategic, and generative. But there is another element that cuts across these realms—that is, how we operate as a role model; how we walk the walk and talk the talk.
All societies have a moral or ethical code, and schools have long been given the responsibility to transmit it to the young. Since the word “moral” comes from the Latin mos, meaning the code or customs of a people, it is clear that Jewish education is moral education, education for life, and more specifically, for a Jewish life.
Day schools today face tremendous financial uncertainty, especially in today’s struggling economic climate. Since the majority of a day school’s budget comes from tuition dollars, heads of schools feel pressure to attract new students in addition to maintaining the ones already enrolled. For school administrators, one tempting method for preserving and boosting enrollment is to make sure the school gives the parents what they want.
My parents were both Zionists and I spent ten years in Israel as a child. My bar mitzvah was at the Wailing Wall. This tradition has nourished me. It is who I am. It inspires me.
Betselem Elokim—“in the image of G-d”—has been the watchword for beginning discussions about ethical behavior in the Jewish school classroom. The idea of being made “in the image” is introduced early in the education of students through the Genesis narrative, along with a d’rash on how being made in the image doesn’t mean we see G-d, but that we see the image of G-d in each other. The popular camp song by Dan Nichols tells us, “When I reach out to you and you to me, / We become betzelem Elo[k]im.” The phrase, however, should be juxtaposed with the Hebrew word demut, “likeness.” Arthur Green (Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow) writes that tselem “refers to our hardwiring…[our] soul of a spark of divinity that is absolutely real and uncompromising. …But demut is all about potential. …We are the tselem of G-d; we can choose to become G-d’s demut as we work to live and fashion our lives in G-d’s image.”
During Morning Meeting, Janna rolls her eyes and snickers as Hector shares details of his weekend visit with his cousins.
Our students live in a culture where the ethics of everyday speech and behavior are being compromised. They see images of professional athletes screaming, coaches having tantrums, and celebrities flaunting rude behavior. To make matters worse, those same public figures are the ones getting press coverage on nightly gossip shows, being hounded by paparazzi and parading shamelessly in front of the big screen TV in nightly portrayals of the next “extreme act” of the day. They make the headlines that shout to be noticed.
In every generation, religious educators face new obstacles in transmitting their belief and value system to their students. External influences serve to shape adolescents’ scope of interests as well as impact their personal moral code, adding to the challenges that religious instructors may encounter. Contemporary students are undoubtedly adversely influenced by the prevailing morality that they are exposed to in the media and on the Internet. Using Lawrence Kohlberg’s famous theory of moral development in the classroom can help educators instill Jewish morality and values in teenage students while simultaneously helping students connect to the texts.
My least favorite experience as a conference presentation attendee was the time I heard a school administrator describe his school’s ethics initiative. Why? Because the “initiative” appeared to be a single, mandatory, one-semester course. This was not the only time I’ve heard such a statement, but this one was just so blatant. And it was a school with a great reputation. The implication was—is—that first, it is important for schools to prepare students for ethical lives (this school had decided to do so) and second, that the preparation of an ethical person can be covered in a semester. Fifty minutes a day, five days a week, sixteen weeks. And voilà!
Anyone raised in the Jewish tradition has been taught that every human being is an image of G-d. Great philosophers and teachers throughout history have echoed how vital it is that we honor this. The great principle of the Golden Rule—treat others as you wish to be treated—has appeared in cultures throughout history, across all of the world’s great religions. Some say that it is the only value that is universal in the world’s great religions.
- 1 of 2
- next ›