In the Issue: Jewish Inspiration

I lift up my eyes unto the mountains—from whence cometh my help? Psalm 121:1

The ancient Roman poets divided into two camps over the question of the proper method for writing poetry. A first group of poets, who called themselves water drinkers, claimed that good poems come from poets who work soberly to refine their craft and master poetic form, one word and verse at a time. Hard work is the only path to excellence. A second group, the self-proclaimed wine drinkers, rejected this method as hack work of plebeian scribblers. They thought that memorable poetry requires extraordinary inspiration, a bolt from beyond. Our ordinary habits and senses are incapable of achieving this level of greatness; some sort of altered, heightened state of consciousness is required. Inspiration cannot be planned for or accessed during work hours. Among the most highly regarded Roman poets, the wine drinkers prevailed: “No poems live long or please many people that are written by water drinkers” (Horace).

Contemporary Jewish day schools are places that try to combine the water and wine (or, given the age group, perhaps we should say “nectar”) of Jewish inspiration. Day schools engage students in the hard work of learning a dual curriculum: tefillah, Chumash, Navi, Mishnah and Gemara; Hebrew, modern and ancient, along with talmudic Aramaic; and a full menu of secular studies that do not receive short shrift. Through the patient devotion to years of study, schools hope, students will develop the skills and knowledge needed to live a rich Jewish life, pursue a career of their choosing, and participate in the important issues of their country and the world. Inspiration will come of itself, when the student is ready and the teacher and material resonate with the right alloy of thoughts and emotions.

But a growing number of educators have come to believe that different pedagogical strategies are necessary if we want our students to be not just knowledgeable but also inspired by their learning. The field of experiential education posits that students become inspired when they are actively engaged in their learning, not just absorbing information from books or lectures. Project-based learning, Inquiry learning and related initiatives adapt the principles of experiential learning to the classroom setting, in the belief that students are inspired when they are empowered to grab the reins of their own learning. Trends toward individualization serve the same goal of enabling students to grow at the rate of their abilities and in the direction of their interests. Increasingly, the water of day-to-day progression up a spiral curriculum is paired with the wine of hands-on projects specially designed to elicit students’ curiosity, imagination, collaboration skills and critical thinking.

These new developments are especially relevant to the Jewish life and learning in day schools, because so much rides upon them. For at some level, the mission of all day schools is Jewish inspiration. Day schools seek to turn students on to Judaism, to ensure they find Judaism meaningful, for them to turn to Jewish teachings for guidance and solace. They hope that their students continue to belong to Jewish communities, to participate actively, to take leadership roles; to pray, eat, study, think, breathe Jewishly. Day schools aim to endow students with a kind of Jewish inspiration so powerful that it will last a lifetime, and even beyond.

We thought it worthwhile to devote an issue of HaYidion to understand this concept of inspiration, to address it from multiple perspectives and to articulate some of the questions and challenges surrounding it. What is inspiration? Can it be transmitted, and if so, how? What methods best align with the goal of inspiring students? Where do day schools succeed, and where do they struggle? How do teachers, curricula, school activities accomplish it?

In the first section, authors seek to explain inspiration and offer guidance for success. Heller Stern enters the gates of the Pixar studios to draw lessons on how creative organizations help creative people stay creative and increase their creativity. Ben David turns to the thought of Rav Kook to connect Jewish inspiration to Jewish aspiration. Alter argues that Jewish inspiration should not be an excuse for superficiality; the water of Torah can only be drunk through diligent study and reflection.

The next group of authors looks at various Jewish day school stakeholders and what inspires them. Bloom presents research on day school alumni, Pell proposes a method for inspiring parents and donors, and Cabag and Lahr tease out what day school employees of other faiths find inspiring about working in this setting. Inspirational author Carroll shares insights into the critical importance of play and sports in cultivating passionate engagement in all areas.

In this issue’s school spread, six alumni of different schools reflect upon a teacher who inspired them and continues to exert a lasting influence on their Jewish outlook and identity. The issue’s second section explores ways that teachers deliver Jewish inspiration to their students. Perl and Horn describe a program of spiritual mentorship that brings the teacher-student relationship to bear upon the delicate, personal issues of spiritual development. Cannon and Kotler bring their experience of helping schools develop capacity in using game-based learning and STEAM for Jewish education. Maayan describes ways that social justice education can inspire middle schoolers to live out the Jewish principles they’ve studied. Kislowicz proposes expanding the scope and relevance of Hebrew in day schools, while Avidar challenges day schools to inspire students in Israel education through the conflict, not despite it. Chanales shares his efforts and struggles with the notion of “relevance” in Talmud study. Gereboff and Kligman find that intergrade programming lays the groundwork for students to inspire each other.

We hope that you find ideas in this issue that inspire you to create new forms of inspiration for your students, teachers and the whole school community, and that you take the time to share your own inspiring stories and initiatives with the field, whether through HaYidion, Prizmah’s Reshet groups or elsewhere. For those of you who were able to join us in Chicago at the Prizmah Jewish Day School Conference, we at Prizmah hope that you returned to your schools inspired by new ideas, initiatives and colleagues. Over the months ahead, we look forward to building and renewing relationships that will inspire us all to move our schools, and Jewish education, from strength to strength.

Elliott Rabin, Editor
Jewish Inspiration