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.
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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?
It has never been more important to use the word “like” with caution. Clicking a button bearing this word on a social media page can often lead to perceived indiscretions, whether intentional or not. Ethically, it’s mandatory to think twice before every click of the mouse is executed. This applies to students, teachers, administrators, parents, and the community-at-large.
"Everybody put your heads down with your eyes closed. Raise your hand now if you have ever copied a homework assignment from a classmate.”
Independent school conferences and publications wisely stress the importance of drawing clear boundaries. But the interaction of stakeholders in a day school is rarely cut and dried. In real life, these lines frequently appear blurry, and heads of school are required to negotiate boundaries as they shift and are contested.
Why do we do things that we know are wrong? This question has plagued every ben Adam and bat Sarah, i.e., every human being, since our creation. “G-d now said, Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness; and let them hold sway over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky, over the beasts, over all the earth, over all that creeps upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26). Everything else except for a human being could be created by divine fiat, e.g., “Let there be light, and there was light” (1:4).
In the best of worlds, no teacher would ever need to be let go. He or she would have undergone a rigorous vetting when hired and received high quality mentoring to become more effective. But sometimes neither of these strategies succeeds, and an administrator encounters perhaps the most unpleasant task in his or her portfolio. Because we work so diligently to make our schools “caring communities,” removing someone from it creates a difficult rupture in the system. Yet if we fail to remove some people, we are subjecting students to poor teaching and we place our schools in serious jeopardy. This article explores the ethical dimensions of this issue and some steps we should consider in minimizing the damage to our school and to the integrity of the teacher whose contract has not been renewed.
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