HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
It’s All in the Packaging – Can a Jewish Community Day School Really be Too Jewish?
During the Passover break, which I was spending with my family in London, I received an email from the RAVSAK head office requesting me to create an article on how my school has created its culture and how I grapple with the issue of how to make all involved with the school comfortable in the level of culture that has been created. If I were to give answers on one foot – a request that was made of Hillel – these would be my flippant replies:
- The culture is still evolving after 54 years.
- It is virtually impossible to satisfy all the constituents - even some of the time.
Like many of my fellow administrators and educators, throughout North America in Jewish community day schools, I find that there is a tension not only between the denominations but also concerning the so called Jewishness of the school. After receiving the request I prepared a survey for the parent body focusing on my school’s “Jewishness.” Many stated that they send their children to a Jewish community day school for a Jewish education and to strengthen their Jewish identity, yet complain that we are too Jewish. Other parents believe we are providing a strong foundation in actual “yiddishkeit in a diverse environment” while complaining that we do not focus enough on community.
I have often felt that our parents are oblivious to what is going on in their children’s school. Many want their children to be in a school for Jews but are unaware that a Jewish community day is more than a mere catering service that churns out the next generation of Jewish entrepreneurs, who have only a basic Jewish background. For this they could save their thousands of hard-earned dollars and send their children to synagogue afternoon schools where they may learn a smorgasbord of Jewish topics and experience a few Jewish festive occasions. Therefore, this begs the following questions: What really is a Jewish community daysSchool, and to what extent should Judaism permeate the different facets and disciplines of school life?
My school, proudly, claims to be a Jewish community day school. Jewish spirituality – known as ruach – is smelt, felt, seen, touched, heard and eaten throughout the school, and within each part of the curriculum. From the time one enters the building (perhaps Beit Mikdash –temple - may be a more appropriate name) the walls and the sounds that are heard should awaken one’s senses to the reality that we are in a place where Jews not only learn together but also absorb and experience Jewish living as a community. We do not need to be on the defensive or be in the same position as Ya’acov was in Genesis 28:16 -Achen yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh va’anochi lo yadati – Surely the L-rd is present in this place and I did not know. We must make sure that our students are constantly aware that they are in a Jewish environment.
From the above it is probably quite apparent that I find it hard to accept that a Jewish community day school can be accused of being “too Jewish.” I am of the opinion that we are only accused of being “too Jewish” when we preach, consequently forgetting that we are here to teach. When we indoctrinate and forget that our role is to educate, then being “too Jewish” is a derogatory term which places our school in a negative light. But if we are creating a learning environment, which is both compassionate and welcoming, then this “too Jewish” claim can easily be refuted because this “Jewishness” is part of who we are, which also includes a deep love for the communal setting.
So, how have I tried to create such an environment in my Jewish community day school? First of all, cultural change does not happen overnight. It takes time and patience and is ongoing. The following are a few of the cultural changes have been introduced into our daily school life over the last few years:
- When the students and teachers enter the school in the morning, Hebrew songs are heard in the background.
- The morning announcements are both in Hebrew and English, and there are a few short tefillot and of course the Pledge of Allegiance and HaTikva.
- Every Friday afternoon the whole school assemble for an Oneg Shabbat – which includes hadlakat nerot, Kiddush, singing, a short d’var Torah, grade presentations and a Powerpoint presentation - which contains what has gone on at the school during that week.
- Each student has been assigned a shevet (tribe) based on the shivtei yisrael (the tribes – children of – Israel), and earn shevet points for “being caught doing mitzvot.”
- Each middle school grade has an in-school Shabbaton with themes based on our connection and responsibility to both Israel and our local Jewish community.
- Each grade, from Kindergarten to 8th grade, has a family educational program based around the chagim – the Jewish festivals. Not only is this for the family but it has been a wonderful social experience for many of the parents.
Yet our work is not, nor will it ever be, complete. Over the next few years we must bring our parents into our unique special setting. Not only will they learn about what their children are studying and experiencing but they, themselves, will hopefully feel that their children’s Jewish education is just as important and meaningful as their general studies. We need to be more transparent – parents need to be told about what is happening in the school. Communication must be open and consistent. If a decision affecting Judaics or Jewish life is made then it must be fully explained.
So how do we rid ourselves of being “too Jewish”? There is still much to done at my school. But if the stakeholders see that what we are doing is for the benefit of their children and the community then there will be buy-in. By bringing parents into the school and allowing them to feel this ruach, whether it is at the oneg or at a family educational program, we are taking away the feeling that we are “too Jewish.” Exposure to our Jewish community day school is the key element to making our school a Jewish one, and not a school for Jews. Inviting parents into the school and allowing them to participate in a Jewish program or experience, without feeling pressured, allows us to break down these “too Jewish” barriers, which are impediments not only for the parents but also for students. Attitudes towards Jewish ritual and practice are often just the children mirroring their parents apathy towards traditional Jewish values and customs.
Finally, I firmly believe that if we are not affecting our students in a Jewish way then why pretend to be a Jewish community day school. Instead, we should be known as Greenfield Hebrew Academy - a Community Day School for Jews. Yet we are Greenfield Hebrew Academy - a Jewish Community Day School. As my dear wife correctly says to me, “it’s all in the packaging and presentation.” She is right, for we have a great package, that is over three thousand years old, to sell.
At some point, most day schools find themselves confronted with the question, Are we too Jewish? If we confine Jewish studies to fewer hours in the school day, will more students come? Authors here agree that the “Jewish” part of the school’s mission and identity should be proudly front and center in defining a day school’s raison d’etre.
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