As Jewish educators, we often talk about community. We establish community day schools, partner with community organizations, and reach out to members of our local Jewish community for leadership and support. We may join communities of practice to improve our skills, plan programs to enrich the communities of learners that we are educating, and work to build school-community partnerships. We are certainly concerned about the future of the American Jewish community and our work is likely driven by an interest in its continuity.
HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
What do we mean when we call our schools a “community”? How does the Jewish diversity that typifies community day schools coalesce into its own community? What happens when the various communities that exist both outside and within the school come into conflict? Discover ways of understanding and strengthening the community of your school and its position within the larger surrounding communities.
Schools that are strong, educational communities are associated with excellence. Their teachers, students, administrators, staff, and families are united by a shared set of values and aspirations; participants share a common history and sense of destiny. Pluralistic schools face a special challenge in terms of being communities. They must simultaneously support forces that help the different subgroups thrive while also ensuring that the subgroups unite around this sense of history and destiny. This means being part on a macro level of the Jewish people, while on a micro level, of the school community. To return to the ornithological metaphor: what does it mean to share a culture and be in community when people sing different songs? Can participants be faithful to their own melodies while respecting others’, and will they work together for their common benefit?
When I was in charge of the day school teacher preparation program at the Davidson School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, I often steered our pre-service and newly hired teachers away from the teachers’ lounges in certain schools. Over the years I found them to be petri dishes of discontent and divisiveness, where teachers badmouthed administrators and disparaged those who didn’t share their content or linguistic expertise.
This article is designed to provide a roadmap for school leaders in Jewish community day schools who are contemplating new parental roles meshing with the realities of family lives, and who are interested in establishing a new set of engaged community partners in the larger quest for academic excellence and organizational effectiveness. Following a brief overview of three models of school-community relations (co-optation, management, and engagement), a fourth model—coalition—is explored in greater detail because it represents the most robust and potentially rewarding set of relationships between families and schools.
New school, new faculty, opening meeting. One of those first impression opportunities. “How many of you have ever been bitten by an elephant?” I ask. A quick check around the room—no one raises a hand. “How many of you have ever been bitten by a mosquito?” No checking necessary—all hands are up. How do I convey to these “been there-done that” veteran teachers that I care about their professional lives in the building? That I will try to clear away the obstacles so that they can do their best work? And that I will listen to the challenges they face to meet the needs of their students in the “hurry up and learn” environment of a Jewish day school?
All schools dream of having a tight-knit parent community. Jewish day schools tend to be places where parents play a far greater role in decision-making than other parochial and independent schools, a situation that brings opportunities but also must be managed carefully. How might Jewish day schools incorporate input from the parents in a way that builds community?
When I recently tried to enroll my daughter for gan in Jerusalem, the computer registration system replied, “Did Not Compute.” I had to enter at least two options, and my top two choices were from two separate tracks, one religious and the other secular. The system literally would not accept such an entry. In our district, as in most of Israel, when choosing a school you must identify yourself and your child as a member of either the religious community or the secular community. This has direct implications on the education your child will receive. Only recently has a third alternative emerged, one that acknowledges a more complex Jewish identity. I have the privilege of working in one of these forward-thinking communities.
Three years ago, I piloted a two-week program that brought Jewish teens to do intensive service projects on the Navajo reservation in the Arizona desert. This experience took participants far outside their comfort zone in a number of ways: they had to sleep in tents and cook their own meals, they were doing rigorous physical labor in the Arizona heat, and they were serving alongside Navajo teens, who not only had different economic and religious backgrounds, but communication styles that were different from those of the Jewish teens.
Few people would have the chutzpah to speak of ethical ambivalence when it comes to the Jewish tradition. We are, after all, a people Isaiah called “a light unto the nations.” Even Hebrew National told us that we answer to a Higher Authority. And yet, the recent spate of Jews involved in high-profile crimes ranging from agri-processing to money laundering and Ponzi scheming has challenged our integrity as a community. For the first time in the history of our people, a former prime minister and a former president of Israel have been indicted on criminal charges. This troubling state of affairs has made educators, among others, pause and ask if we are doing enough to teach ethics.
After seven years (and more to the point, seven winters) in Northeast Ohio, I’ve finally stopped kvetching about frozen pipes and ice-skidding (walking, driving). Like every other city and region, Cleveland has its share of peaks and valleys and everything in between, and I’ve learned to adapt and live with—if not entirely embrace—those forces of nature that once made me long for the pretend winters of the West Coast.
The notion of “community” is among the most important but least well grounded ideas that many Jewish day schools invoke. While we often suggest that the “community” character of a school implies inclusivity or pluralism, this notion is murky as well. Over the last few years, researchers and school leaders like Susan Shevitz and Michael Kay have helped us move towards a clearer understanding of what we mean by pluralism (see HaYidion Winter 2009). For Jewish day schools both within and beyond the RAVSAK network to be most successful, we will need a similar update to our understanding of “community.”
With his Melton colleague Howard Deitcher, Alex Pomson is the editor of the recent volume Jewish Schools, Jewish Communities: A Reconsideration. We asked him to reflect upon the anthology’s formation and significance.
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