A Compelling, Yet More Demanding, Vision for 21st Century Day Schools

I presumed from its title that Rabbi Daniel Lehmann’s essay would offer new and persuasive ways to frame (market?) day school education to a wider Jewish audience—to the population we may call “Pew’s Jews.” But as I read—and reread—this thoughtful and thought-provoking essay, I quickly saw that it was less an advocacy brief for what most day schools currently offer than a clarion call for our day schools to radically reimagine what they do and offer students and families, in the hope of connecting to “the needs and aspirations of this generation of Jews.” But as with any re-visioning, we have the responsibility to inspect its arguments and weigh its costs vs. its benefits in order to appreciate what this bold reshaping involves.

Given his aim of creating the kind of educational program that would “connect to and engage a broader spectrum of the Jewish community,” Rabbi Lehmann obviously looks to his target audience—Gen X and millennial parents—to identify what they would find attractive and compelling in a school they would choose for their children. As the Pew study confirmed, the old categories of “identity,” “continuity” and “literacy” no longer resonate with a majority of young Jews (did they ever?), and so an educational model based on them is doomed to reach only a small, and evidently shrinking, minority of Jewish families. Instead, Lehmann boldly articulates five values and concepts with which he believes this population relates, creativity in community, hybridity, transformative spirituality, textured particularity, and ethical audacity, and then highlights the deep Jewish dimensions of each, artfully weaving quotes by modern Jewish thinkers and educators who have reflected on these values and identified them as core to Judaism and/or Jewish education.

Lehmann’s piece is the kind of generative essay that warrants methodical discussion by each school community of the many points it raises, both large and small. I have no doubt that school leaders, both lay and professional, along with practitioners in the trenches, would benefit from hashing out the assumptions and implications of these five values. However, my main critique is that Lehmann under-appreciates the need for foundations to accomplish most of what he wants to see our day schools provide its students and families.

Let’s look at creativity. Whether we’re talking about creativity in science, the humanities or the arts, creativity in every field is undergirded by deep and detailed foundational knowledge. Thorough understanding of problems or situations, as well as of past approaches taken to address them, are preconditions to productive innovation. Take, for example, the Jewish thinkers Lehmann cited in this context: Soloveitchik, Kaplan and Hartman.

It is true that Joseph Soloveitchik prized the creative gesture within “Halachic Man,” but only after the latter was steeped in the traditional curriculum—and as an Orthodox thinker, Soloveitchik also expected such a person to be normatively bound to Jewish law—the “given categories” Halachic Man uses to interpret the world around him.

Mordechai Kaplan as well, operating within a liberal Jewish framework, nevertheless insisted that the creativity he called for in individual Jewish congregations be drawn from the deep reservoir of Jewish sources in all their diverse historical expressions—and in interaction with the cultures around them (witness The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s thorough, chronological curriculum that has rabbinical students learn the various phases of Jewish civilization). Indeed, Kaplan wanted his students to be fluent in two cultures, two civilizations, not one.

And in the same vein, David Hartman, whose insight about Jewish learning is that one “become[s] part of an interpretive community,” would no doubt demand deep familiarity with that community’s historical conversation in order to legitimately participate in it and take it a step further.

In reality, I don’t think this is any different from secular academic subjects. In history, we welcome a new explanation of an historical event or fact, but it must make sense of all the relevant facts and artifacts we currently have, and show the weaknesses of prior accounts. In literature, we train our students to develop new and interesting interpretations, but we expect such analyses to “fit” the work’s vocabulary, language, literary conventions, cultural context and possibly the author’s life. Even in more artistic endeavors, we recognize the difference between a budding artist with natural talent given a pencil or paint, and one who also has training in art theory, composition, and technique, as well as familiarity with prior artistic styles.

As Rabbi Lehmann knows well, creativity takes place not ex nihilo, from nothing, but within a particular context, against a specific backdrop, as a link in a particular conversation. The fact that he labels this value “creativity in community” shows that he does acknowledge and appreciate this need for foundations; after all, he calls for day schools to be communities that “develop a strong sense of student adequacy.” However, I know of no shortcuts to this “sense of adequacy,” which consists of a thorough knowledge of Hebrew, of classic and contemporary Jewish texts and of Jewish history. If highlighting or emphasizing literacy’s telos will bring more people in the day school door, I am in total agreement. But literacy must remain the precursor and the springboard of creativity. Without due preparation, “creativity” can easily become a justification for casual study, loose thinking or self-validating expression, none of which will strengthen the future of Judaism in America.

“Transformative spirituality” is another value that, if taken seriously, demands heavy investment in foundations. The history of religious spirituality, or even just Jewish spirituality, is too vast and diverse to be summed up in a few sentences. But what all historical approaches to spirituality have in common, from the pietists to the mystics to the leaders of Jewish Renewal, is that they require disciplined cultivation over many years to achieve even partial results, let alone the ultimate goal of genuine transformation. Individuals may have a momentary inspiration that is very uplifting and should not be belittled. But as our study of spirituality has taught us, lasting and profound change of this sort must be nurtured gradually, moving the trainee to ever deeper levels of self-understanding via diligent study, ongoing reflection and long-term mentorship.

Again, I believe Lehmann is sensitive to the demanding nature of spiritual development. When treating spirituality, he sees hope in the “combination of intensive learning, regular prayer, and opportunities for social responsibility” (emphasis added)—a “three stranded cord that will not be easily broken” (Eccl. 4:12) but which is also not easily constructed. He advocates use of “insights, texts and practices from Hassidut, mussar and other traditions,” as well as heeding Hanan Alexander’s call for the dual lens of insider and outsider perspectives, all of which are “not simple to acquire.” All in all, I believe Lehmann would agree that in contemporary America, only such sustained and serious engagement with spiritual matters and approaches will produce the kind of authentic and lasting results that have a chance of appealing to Pew’s Jews, and changing the face of 21st century American Judaism.

But will they come? I have two very practical reservations: one from the school’s side, the other from the client whom we all want to attract to our schools.

From the school’s perspective, to be practicable we need three things: teachers, time and partners.

Lehmann realizes that we literally need a new species of Judaics teachers, those steeped in learning and contemporary culture, spiritually sensitive, pedagogically well-trained and professionally supported. As the 2007 McKinsey report on the best school systems in the world noted, two of the three things that matter most for a quality school is being in a culture that “gets the right people to become teachers,” and “develops them into effective instructors.” Currently, such teachers are rare, and the support they receive rarer still.

Secondly, as educators we know that for Lehmann’s vision to succeed, Jewish day schools must significantly increase the time in school dedicated to Judaic pursuits, requiring either a longer day or making hard choices between other subjects or extracurriculars and these crucial Jewish topics. To execute Lehmann’s plan, the investment of time must be measured not in hours, or days, or months, but in years; parents will need to see Jewish day school as a 12-year commitment for it to achieve such lofty, yet time-consuming, goals. The same is true of teachers’ investment: to develop the kind of curriculum and instructional materials that will help students, in all their diversity, move from literacy to creativity and through transformational spirituality will take time, research and revision, for which they should be compensated, and time made in their schedule to do. For all concerned, the creed is the same: no shortcuts.

Finally, we speak often of our families partnering with our schools to offer the best education for our children. For the values Lehmann wants to see embodied in our day schools to take root, that partnership is even more vital. Thus, Jewish homes will need to not only tolerate but reinforce, if not model, levels of study and committed practice for creativity in community and transformational spirituality to take root in their children.

Which leads to my second pragmatic concern—the client, our families. As recently noted in an NPR presentation on a conference held this past March at Brandeis University on Re-thinking Jewish Identity and Jewish Education, “minimal observance, minimal education, maximal pride, is very much the de facto American Jewish identity today.” Will those Jews whom Lehmann wants to attract to day schools be able to commit to greater observance and maximal education as Lehmann’s vision implicitly demands? If “identity,” “continuity” and “literacy” are not compelling on their own, will the typical college-educated, career-oriented middle- to upper-middle-class young Jewish family significantly back the values Lehmann articulated with their time, money and children? Will the community do so, especially for those with limited incomes?

Of course, Lehmann is hopeful that the outcome of a renewed, vibrant Judaism that resonates with contemporary personal and social values will persuade more of Pew’s Jews to forego a thin pride and commit to a thick, powerful Judaism that can only be termed “countercultural.” I share his hope; in fact, I’m inspired by it. But in the end, I find Rabbi Lehmann’s five values to be additive to the traditional day school mission, requiring such a serious investment in foundations (particularly with respect to literacy) that it might render day schools attractive to even fewer families among 21st century Jews. And that is no one’s goal.

Rabbi Dr. Michael Berger is associate professor of religion at Emory University and a program officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation. michael.berger@emory.edu

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Author
Michael S. Berger
Issue
Mission & Vision
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning, Governance
Published: Fall 2014