Commentary: “Values-Driven” Jewish Schools
Plenty of public and private schools (maybe most) can claim to be values-driven institutions. And yet those values are often eclipsed by the responsibility to ensure that by the time students graduate, they are on the way to being employable and law-abiding citizens. Surely, though, schooling is about more than the task of preparing young people for the functions they’re expected to perform in society. Values-oriented schools strive for something larger. Schools can help young people become both the best possible versions of themselves and also producers of culture, not only consumers of it.
Alex Pomson and Jack Wertheimer, Inside Jewish Day Schools
Rabbi Jonathan Knapp
Head of School, Yavneh Academy, Paramus, New Jersey
How do we evaluate success? In life? For our students? Admittedly this is among the most difficult, and important, questions we ponder. As Jewish learning institutions, our definition of success must be defined by our students’ engagement with our religion at its core values. When we consider the life our students will ultimately build for themselves, the cornerstone must be strong and meaningful engagement with our timeless Jewish principles.
When that engagement becomes the life compass for our graduates, then we can begin to discuss the remaining goals of success in other arenas. However, fulfillment in the other aspects of life without the core foundational underpinnings of life rooted in our deep values is lacking.
Rabbi Deborah Bock Schuldenfrei
Head of School, Valley Beth Shalom Harold M. Schulweis Day School, Encino, California
What if John Dewey and Rav Kook met up at Tel Aviv bakery for a cafe hafukh? Their conversation might sound a little like Pomson and Wertheimer. Dewey understands the essence: School prepares good democratic citizens and practical social people who know how to interact in the world. Guided by Jewish values, Jewish schools are learning communities, teachers are lifelong learners and students grow into lifelong lovers of Torah and education.
I imagine that Kook would respond to Dewey with the Zionist folk expression “to build and to be built,” Livnot ulhebanot. As Zionists, we build Israel and we perform this holy work to be built ourselves. Schools too are a place for us to build and to be built. Livnot ulehibanot is both an inspiration and a culture code. When mission and vision aligns, every day at school can be a day to build and be built. In social-emotional learning, we support others and work on the self. In innovation labs, we build with our hands, tools and devices, and we use the design-thinking process to empathize and heal the brokenness in our world. In Ivrit, we build our vocabulary while building a future for the Jewish people rooted in what Bialik described as “the golden key to Jewish education.” Together, we are builders of the Jewish future; whether teacher or student, parent or supporter, we all can be built through what we build.
Head of School, Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island, Providence
As a Jewish community day school, we believe that we have an obligation to teach our students to fight for justice and equity, and to oppose oppression in all of its forms (echoing the clarion call in the Torah: “Justice, justice shall you pursue”). And, as an elementary school that embraces progressive education, we claim John Dewey’s assertion that “democracy has to be born anew every generation and education is its midwife.” As such, we understand that authentic “success” depends not on students’ grades or standardized test scores, but on their capacity to nurture themselves, sustain healthy relationships and meaningfully serve their communities.
We strive toward tikkun, repair, by responding to the world as it is with a vision of what it might become. As part of this process, our students learn to honor themselves and to acknowledge the sacred in others; our parents and caregivers discover that they are not alone in caring for their children, but that they are surrounded by devoted and wise partners; our supporters and friends are afforded the opportunity to engage in teaching, and learning from, the next generation of leaders and builders. Our task at JCDSRI is to help create a world for our children in which tzedek umishpat, righteousness and justice, and chesed verachamim, kindness and compassion, reign.