Partnerships for a Robust Jewish Identity
Day schools sit at the center of a thriving ecosystem of valuable Jewish organizations, with the latter—Jewish summer camps, the home, youth groups, campus Hillels, UJA and Israel—surrounding and enveloping the school. “Spokes” of influence connect the day school hub to each organization, in a bidirectional symbiotic relationship (and as the graphic shows, each institution on the periphery impacts one another as well). To magnify and maximize the effectiveness of day schools, day school leaders would be wise to collaborate with organizations that share their Jewish mission.
Here are three examples of the potential that Jewish organizations possess to reinforce and complement a day school education and build a more robust Jewish identity for our children.
Jewish Overnight Summer Camps
Children learn things in a Jewish day school that they will not learn any place else. Yet, it is generally at Jewish overnight camp—typically not at school—where kids learn Israeli dancing, Israeli folk and modern songs, and Shabbat zemirot. In camp, children learn Hebrew so naturally that they may not know the direct translation of certain Hebrew terms, but they certainly know that they should go to the chadar ochel or mirpa’ah or tsrif when they are hungry, sick or tired.
Camps also make Jewish living plausible by providing a community where Jews are living Jewishly. The self-contained structure organized entirely by Jewish considerations enables each camper to feel comfortable immersing him- or herself in an intensive Jewish experience. At camp, children experience Shabbat in a rarified way that is free from the distractions of shopping malls, technology and dance recitals. For some campers, the summer may be the only time they observe Shabbat for 25 hours. It may be the only time they experience the rituals and restrictions of Shabbat creating a novel sacred space that connects them to God and Jewish tradition and deepens their bonds with their friends. The more students we can encourage to go to Jewish summer camp, the more our schools will be enriched. Imagine how much more ruach there would be on school-sponsored shabbatonim if more of our students were to attend Jewish summer camp. Imagine how content-rich camps would be if more of our students were to attend Jewish summer camping instead of other summer camps.
In Toronto, the UJA has established the Ontario Council for Jewish camping. The directors of all the Jewish camps sit on that committee. Once a year, they hold one of their monthly meetings at TanenbaumCHAT. We use it as an opportunity to brainstorm ways camps can recruit more day school students and ways day school representatives can pitch Jewish day school education to campers. In an ideal world, camp offices would be housed in the school so that parents in both domains—camp and school—could be enticed to send their children to Jewish day school during the year and Jewish overnight camp in the summer.
Nearly every day school holds some type of tefillah, and it is there that students learn the weekday service. It is there that they take on leadership roles in a community of friends. However, it is in the synagogue where children connect not just to peers their own age but also to children and adults of all ages. They experience the religious elements of our tradition as part of the Jewish community in its totality.
In school, students may learn parashat hashavu’a; only in the synagogue do they experience the weekly Torah reading. In school, they may learn about the High Holiday service and memorize the names of the sections of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf service: Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot. It is in the synagogue that they hear the shofar blown. In school, students may learn the Jewish lifecycle and the Jewish calendar; but in the synagogue, they can experience how a community authentically lives these events and holidays. Finally, children graduate day school; hopefully, they do not outgrow their synagogue and will maintain a relationship with their rabbi as they mature, marry, celebrate and mourn.
Much of what students are being educated towards happens in a synagogue. The question is, how do we strengthen the partnership between school and shul particularly when many day school students feel that they “do Jewish enough” during the week? At TanenbaumCHAT we have been modestly successful. Some synagogues have designated one Shabbat a year as TanenbaumCHAT Shabbat when our students participate in the service. We have tried to heighten the presence of congregational rabbis in the school by hosting an annual Board of Rabbis meeting, by inviting congregational rabbis to give divrei Torah on Fridays, and by leading monthly or quarterly lunch-and-learns. In another Jewish day high school, students have not only a community service requirement but also a commensurate synagogue service requirement. Ideally, students see their congregational rabbis regularly in school and rabbis see their day school students regularly in shul. Synagogue life is indispensable to a robust Jewish identity.
Day schools teach texts, rituals, the lifecycle, chaggim, Jewish history, Ivrit and more. Day schools hold the responsibility of teaching Jewish “material.” Parents teach that the material matters...or does not matter.
The 20th century British philosopher Bertrand Russell makes the distinction between “knowledge by description” and “knowledge by acquaintance.” A day school education primarily falls into the former category. In the classroom, we teach about Passover and other chaggim, about Shabbat and all its accompanying rituals. We teach about kashrut. Students learn how and why to perform and celebrate these practices.
However, it is in the home where the seder takes place. It is in the home where Kiddush is recited. It is in the kitchen where the fundamentals of kashrut are lived and conscious eating decisions are made with regularity. When parents have a Pesach seder, it takes whatever the students learned in school about Pesach and makes it relevant. When parents have Shabbat dinner and recite Kiddush, they convey that the skills and lessons taught at school about Shabbat are real. They have practical authentic value. Building a bridge between school and home is vital.
In elementary day schools, it is fairly easy to bring parents into the educational orbit of the school. Parents want to see their children grow, develop and demonstrate what they have learned; and for children, the feeling is mutual. In a high school, it is much more difficult to involve parents. Teens do not want to see their parents in school. Parents enjoy sending off their teenager in the morning and sharing the burden of raising an adolescent with someone else. All this is reinforced by the fact that many administrators prefer that parents simply stay out of the way and leave education to the professionals. However, unless we figure out a way to co-opt parents or partner with them, it is not clear how much “stickiness,” to use authors Chip and Dan Heath’s term, there will be to all that we try to teach. Unless we move from knowledge by description, which is acquired in the school, to knowledge by acquaintance, which is acquired in the home, it is uncertain how much students will retain after the test.
TanenbaumCHAT is piloting a program to involve parents in their teenage child’s Jewish education. Ninth grade families who are new to the school (who do not have an older sibling already enrolled) are offered a $5,000 discount on their tenth grade tuition if the parents agree to spend a year studying with our Jewish studies teachers. Parents commit to attending 24 90-minute weekly evening sessions where they study Tanakh, rabbinics, ethics and Jewish history. In addition, they are required to bring their child to two Sunday yemei iyyun (study days), one prior to Chanukkah and one prior to Pesach. By teaching the parents portions of their child’s Jewish studies curriculum, we hope to increase the number and quality of Jewish conversations that take place in the home by bridging the classroom and the dinner table.
Above are three examples of the many types of partnerships that will help schools advance their Jewish mission. The more we immerse our children in Jewish learning and Jewish living and encourage their participation in other Jewish institutions, the greater the chances we will see positive Jewish outcomes. Our children will be stronger Jews and the Jewish people will have a more secure future.