Evolution of a Lay Leader

Lesley Zafran

I grew up on both sides of the Atlantic—first in Miami, and then in London, in a family that fasted on Yom Kippur, forsook bread during Pesach, celebrated Chanukah and thought it important that I marry someone Jewish. I went to synagogue school, became bat mitzvah, was confirmed. I worked in publishing, taught, managed a company and eventually fulfilled the perfect fairy tale: I fell in love with a wonderful Jewish doctor and we settled in Florida. As my husband and I considered having a family, I wondered, “What should I do for my children to give them the right tools to live their lives?”

When our children went to a synagogue preschool I realized right away that I loved the way they made learning about Judaism fun. Yet when my son was ready to enroll in first grade, I thought there was only one goal to consider when choosing his next school: it should be the absolute best academically and—oh yes—the teachers should be wonderfully nurturing to him! As I went to interview every private school, I asked many questions and tried to sense the ethos around me. Then someone suggested I visit a Jewish community day school and my life changed forever.

When the admissions director explained that the school spent one-third of the day teaching Hebrew and Judaics, and that Jewish values and developing Jewish identity and connection to Israel would be a priority equal to that of all the secular studies, I was stupefied! I could send my children to a school where they would partner with me in teaching my children what it means to be Jewish, what it means to be a mensch!

I now preside over the board of Donna Klein Jewish Academy in Boca Raton, and have the additional distinction of serving on the RAVSAK Board. I am a passionate advocate for community day school education, having clearly seen the evidence for the past 15 years that our schools’ dual curriculum can permanently impact our students’ lives as Jewish citizens of the world in a way that goes far beyond (what I now call) just the academic.

The RAVSAK board often engages in discussions about the nature and future of Jewish education. A recent article in the Forward, which implied that community day schools are somehow an inferior brand, made all of us sit up and take notice. It was clear to us that the community day school is still a misunderstood phenomenon.

Community day schools have been struggling to explain themselves since they began. Are we Jewish enough? Too Jewish for some? Are we trying to be all things to all people? When we welcome all types of Jews, and sometimes even non-Jews, into our schools, are we weakening or strengthening the very mission we set out to accomplish? Perhaps that is the question: What do we set out to accomplish?

I believe that our schools offer a unique opportunity for families at all stages of their Jewish journey to become part of a Jewish learning community—from those who may simply seek to avoid Hebrew school, to those who have fond recollections of Pesach seders and hope to learn how to make a Jewish home, to committed secular Zionists, to Judaically learned families, and those active at their shuls. And if we do our job right, parents as well as students will leave our schools with the indelible treasure of Jewish values and identity no matter what thoughts and goals they originally walked in with.

My son is now a senior in college. He, and almost all of his DKJA friends, have kept their Jewish connection throughout college; my daughter and her friends are looking at universities keeping in mind their Jewish populations and culture. The way they are choosing to live their lives is evidence of the powerful, lasting impact of community day school education.

I think community day schools’ biggest problem may be our modesty. I say let’s publicize our achievements more, putting articles in the paper and on our websites when our alumni make us proud, and making sure that our Jewish communities understand the distinct added value of a community day school.

I say let’s start right now, as the new school year begins. Let’s have our heads of schools, administrators and faculty (parents and students if you can find them!) write a list of all the incredible value-added treasures that community day schools afford their families. And then, let’s send those lists to the Forward…as well as put them on our websites, in our local newspapers and on the agendas of our coffees and open houses.

Let’s make sure that everybody knows what we have learned: community day schools are “sick”—in the most healthy of ways.♦

Do you have a special story to tell about your experience in day schools? Share it with the field! Send an essay of 600 words to Haydion@ravsak.org. Submissions from all stakeholders welcome.

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HaYidion Networking Autumn 2012
Fall 2012