Kvod Habriyot: How Multiculturalism can Transform Jewish Day Schools
A quest for new models that address the evolving needs and priorities among Jews, especially millennials, is a challenge for established institutions like day schools. The Lippman School, a K-8 Jewish day school in Akron, Ohio, offers a compelling approach that addresses education and recruitment. Called Kvod Habriyot, respect for all people as God’s creation, the model has enabled the school to admit students from a variety of religious, ethnic, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.
The Lippman School has succeeded in increasing its enrollment, allowing the school to thrive financially, socially and educationally for the students and their families. This multicultural approach has led a school embedded within a declining Jewish population to a 70% growth in enrollment, from fewer than 70 students to 110, and a 100% increase in annual tuition income over a nine-year period.
The Lippman Kanfer Family Foundation selected us as consultants to conduct an extensive evaluation of Jewish educational outcomes, the school’s overall effectiveness and stakeholder satisfaction. Based on our work with the school, the Jewish and Hebrew content has taken on a better defined, more comprehensively Jewish content-rich approach. We have also supported the school in integrating Jewish content into all areas of the academic program.
Students choose a modern language, either Hebrew or Spanish. All third- through eighth-grade students participate in a class called Core Values, which presents universal values through a Jewish framework, incorporating Jewish texts. For kindergarten through second grade, the values are integrated into the class curriculum, sometimes with a lesson led by the Jewish wisdom educator, a new hire for the 2019/20 school year. Core Values is where students formally study the holidays. The week concludes with TGIS, Thank God It’s Shabbat, a celebration of Shabbat and other holidays. In addition, all grades or subjects identify key opportunities for integrating Jewish content alongside of general studies subjects, with support from the Jewish wisdom educator.
For sure, the school is still addressing challenges that its model raises, especially in Jewish life and learning. Currently, the school does not teach tefillah, which is relegated to the congregational schools that most Jewish students attend, nor does it hold prayer services. Other challenges include the need for professional development, as both Jewish and non-Jewish faculty have limited background to be able to teach about Judaism and Jewish culture.
We wish to share what we have learned, as it has broad practical and philosophical implications and the potential to transform the field of Jewish day school education. We will present our methodology, describe the foundational principles of the school’s educational approach, present results of our evaluation work, and share some implications for the field of Jewish day school education.
Our assessment followed a three-step process. First, in consulation with multiple stakeholders, we identified desired goals and outcomes, composing an assessment tool for measuring the current curriculum and school environment, identifying gaps, and making recommendations to strengthen Jewish content in the future. Second, we collected data about the school and curriculum, using a variety of methods: classroom observation, document review, interviews and focus groups, and surveys of parents, students, teachers and alumni. Third, we presented recommendations to the two boards, teachers and staff. The core of the recommendations were a set of “Indicators” (see Appendix A), benchmarks for identifying student achievement according to the educational goals.
Principles of Practice
At the heart of the The Lippman School is a multicultural philosophy of education with a deeply Jewish focus. The examination and experience of multiculturalism is personal, relational, traditional and universal.
“Different learning strategies than other schools. They do stuff like Friday we have TGIS—the whole school gets together to celebrate Shabbat with our buddies. They really care about their students. If someone is not doing well, they help them improve their grade.” Student
The multicultural approach supports students gaining a greater sense of self, identity and the other. Multiculturalism is not merely a subject or course; the subject is the person, and the exploration of the person, of humanity, is through a multicultural or global lens. Students get to explore their own background and that of other students as well as cultures completely different from own. The school’s multicultural approach supports the students’ viewing Judaism’s intrinsic integrity and deepening their understanding of Judaism through a comparison to other cultures.
Race, religion, culture, gender, heritage and values are all explored, shared and spoken about on a personal as well as academic level. For the Jewish students as well as all the other students, this means there are opportunities to examine their tradition and heritage in relation to other lived cultures. For those students being raised in other religious or cultural traditions, they develop an understanding of Judaism and an appreciation of Jews and the Jewish people overall. Students regularly have opportunities to make explicit their feelings, views and ideas about Judaism, and relate them to their personal background, whatever it may be. Each student’s cultural and religious heritage is explored, along with other cultures, and the school culture gives voice to each individual.
Relational and Traditional
“I have almost never had a bad experience with other kids here, and how most everyone is kind and accepting.” Student
“[Students] learn about other people, about themselves as they compare themselves to other people. They learn vocabulary to talk about themselves to other people. Given the chance when Cheyenne and Chinese [come], they have lots of opportunities to share about who they are…. They have a way to talk about being Jewish. They know how to talk about other people and with other people.” Faculty member
At the core of the exploration of multiculturalism at The Lippman School is the reality of students simultaneously learning to live in a traditional culture and a modern society. Students come to understand and appreciate one another for who they are and what is important to them. At The Lippman School, the experience of the other is characterized by an I-Thou relationship, a turning toward a person, listening to their views, hearing their story, probing their background and heritage, and understanding and appreciating what is important to them.
Students experience the Cheyenne Nation on their annual visit to the school, or when the Chinese teachers come to share their culture, and many of the students go to visit these places. The experience of the Cheyenne building a tepee on the school grounds is compared to and contrasted with the building of a sukkah.
These authentic cultural experiences of different peoples from traditional cultures allow for engaging in dialogue of customs, symbols, rituals, values and worldview. The exchange is two-way. The student must both be able to probe and question as well as share and explain their own culture. Teachers build empathy for the stories of others as the students gain a respect for one another. The way students talk with one another and act towards one another is indicative of the relationships they build. Students speak about how there is no bullying in the school. The head of school is proud that birthday celebrations and playdates occur across the socioeconomic and racial spectrum of students. The school culture is such that students feel included, and include each other, without regard to individual backgrounds.
The outcome of this approach is the bursting of the “day school bubble.” At The Lippman School, as at other Jewish day schools, the Jewish students are given the opportunity to understand their heritage. What is different about Lippman is that the Jewish students also see how others appreciate and embrace their heritages. This builds Jewish pride and a confidence that Judaism should be respected by those from the larger population. Alumni, Jewish and non-Jewish, expressed a comfort with and enthusiasm for explaining Judaism to the larger population they confront in high school, university and at work.
“Lippman really likes to express the value everyone is different, but we are also the same. People who look or speak differently are the same as you, and you can be friends with them.” Student
“It’s a school that fosters community regardless of race or religion, instills values and both students and parents feel well known.” Parent
Values are a key component of the curriculum, not just in the Core Values class but throughout the school. Like all other aspects of the school, values are explored through a Jewish lens and through the lenses of other cultures. Yet a name, nuance or understanding can lead students to a different appreciation, interpretation, framework or worldview—for example, the difference between charity as “benevolence to the poor” and tzedakah, righteous act combined with justice.
The larger understanding is that values are universal, no one religion/culture holds exclusive claims over kindness, caring for the earth, awe and wonder, and so forth. This approach makes families of diverse backgrounds feel included and their lives enriched, while for those who are Jewish, it deepens their knowledge and identity.
At The Lippman School, the diversity of the student population is a common attractor for parents raising Jewish children and those from other backgrounds. For families raising Jewish children, it allows parents to be both “tribal” and “global.” For those from other backgrounds, exposure to Judaism is a multicultural experience for their children and themselves. This diversity is especially appealing to millennials, who now predominate the parent body of school-age children. Millennials are often referred to as “global citizens” who value diversity.
This is a compelling model that can be adapted in other pluralistic Jewish day schools, regardless of size, demography and location. Many parents find it attractive, and it has potential to significantly strengthen Jewish educational outcomes. Clearly, appealing to a larger audience has enrollment and financial implications for struggling schools. More importantly, we believe this model offers an approach to learning that offers a deeper, more relevant way of presenting and integrating Jewish content into the life and learning of day schools. Rather than the Jewish day school serving as a self-contained Jewish “bubble,” the Lippman School model is a microcosm of the real world, where diversity is explored in an intentional fashion, where students talk openly with others about their backgrounds.
This multicultural approach empowers learners to express what Judaism means to them and to explain it to others. It leads to strengthening of Jewish identity and the understanding that others appreciate Judaism. Students come away with the ability to inquire into the cultural background of others from a point of appreciation and acceptance. This prepares them well for entry into high school, the workforce and life.
We strongly believe that this multicultural approach will help to rejuvenate day schools, meet the needs of Jewish families, and help redefine the future of Judaism in North America.
A Multicultural Approach to Jewish Education
Giving students the tools to thrive and have productive, meaningful and fulfilling lives
Providing students with the skills and values to understand, embrace, and further an authentic multi-cultural, diverse and inclusive community at school, locally and globally
Developing a personal connection to and broad understanding of Judaism and the Jewish people
Supporting students and families in their own personal, cultural and spiritual journeys
1.1 Students draw on Jewish sensibilities, ideas, sources and Hebrew terms, integrated throughout the curriculum
1.2 Students reflect on learning, relating content and experiences to what they know, do and feel
1.3 Students use a variety of modern technological tools in all subject areas to explore content, ideas, issues and problems
2.1 Students explore universal values from Jewish and other cultural perspectives throughout the program
2.2 Students understand and speak a second language, including Hebrew, taught in an immersive fashion, as a gateway to understanding their own and other cultures
2.3 Students model in daily encounters the core values of a multi-cultural community, including respect, dialogue and affirmation of others
3.1 Students are active participants in opportunities to experience and celebrate Shabbat, Jewish holidays and Jewish life cycle events, in a variety of school settings
3.2 Students connect key events, figures and communities in Jewish history and today to society and their lives
3.3 Students create personal connections to Israel through encounters with Israeli peers and adults, Israeli culture and Israeli efforts to better the world throughout the year locally, through online platforms and in Israel
4.1 Students apply Jewish wisdom, stories and texts in confronting issues affecting them personally and impacting the community locally and globally
4.2 Students and parents share customs, symbols and family history from their own culture and other cultures
4.3 Students engage in activities designed to help them explore their personal spirituality and the spiritual traditions of others
(Developed and accepted by the board of The Lippman School and the board of Lippman Kanfer Family Foundation, February 2019.)