Jewish Day School Education - Now As Much As Ever
Original version published on ejewishphilanthropy.com on May 4, 2020.
We are living through times that call on all of us to think of the grand sweep of history.
Even as we grapple with day-to-day details – like where will I find a roll of toilet paper? – and, of course, with pressing, immediate worries about the health of those close to us – and of everyone – we also recognize that our world has been shaken and that the “normal” that will ultimately return will not be the same as the “normal” we once knew. In this context, Jewish day schools are uniquely poised to play a decisive role for the good.
All of us have a sense of generations whose characters were shaped by the events of their formative years – like those reared during the Great Depression or those called to establish the State of Israel, even as ashes hung over Europe. Our children, and the lives they will lead – the world they will lead – are being forged now, in the context of the COVID-19 global pandemic that brought the entire planet to its knees in a matter of weeks. The meanings they will take from all of this, the questions they will ask, the values they will carry forward, and the purposes that will drive them will determine what form the world’s recovery will take. Herein lie the great opportunities and great imperatives for our Jewish day schools.
First, we must acknowledge that human progress has not altered our human condition as much as we might have wished. Those of us less versed in epidemiology and not fully heeding the cautions of public health experts over the last few decades may have blithely assumed that a pandemic on the global scale we now confront was the stuff only of bygone days or of science fiction movies. Yet here we are: facing an ancient scourge – a plague – in the 21st century. All of humanity’s accumulated knowledge and technological achievements will ultimately defeat our microscopic enemy. In the meantime, however, we are as vulnerable as our ancestors were. And our capacities for moving thoughts, materials, and people around the globe – well beyond anything they could have imagined – may provide us solace in our shelters-in-place, but they also complicate our circumstances and the difficulties before us.
We face timeless challenges, and we can find guidance in timeless wisdom.
One piece of that wisdom comes very early in the Torah, when God observes the divine creation and notes, “lo tov heyot adam l’vado” – “it is not good for humankind to be alone” (Genesis 2:19). Jewish day schools, at their core, pursue missions focused on sustaining bonds of community, across time and space. The depth and centrality of this commitment has carried powerful, fitting applications as our schools have confronted the practical challenges of immediate circumstances. At my former school, for example, we heard the cautions that synchronous learning – bringing teachers and students together in real time – would prove unsustainable. We set them aside, precisely because “bringing together” has itself always stood at the heart of our mission.
Even before we needed to take to our shelters, administrators and teachers at that school focused on making sure that the education we would deliver remotely would still be a Jewish Community Day School education, and that meant that it would include communal gatherings, celebrations, and commemorations – as best we could manage them – and that it would also include regular opportunities for personal connections. The positive feedback we have received from our community has paid tribute to the extraordinary efforts of my colleagues, to be sure. It has also affirmed how notably well the defining, mission-driven characteristics of Jewish day schools meet the needs of the moment. Now as much as ever.
Distinctly fitting qualities of Jewish day schools go well beyond long-standing commitments to prizing community. In recent years, educational researchers and practitioners have written much excellent work on the important roles that resilience, grit, and growth mindsets play in learning. The full breadth of what “perseverance” can entail assumes a far broader scope in the context of Jewish history, thought, culture, and intellectual tradition. This too lies at the heart of what Jewish day schools have to offer in the time of COVID-19. Perseverance, after all, forms the heart of our extraordinary story as a people: Am Yisrael Chai – The people of Israel endures. Considerations of how we endure, why we endure, and what we can give to the world by enduring have guided the enterprise of Jewish learning and living across millennia. These considerations thrive in today’s Jewish day schools, where they can give shape to the values that motivate today’s students and to the understandings they carry of their place in the world and in the course of history. Now as much as ever.
The Jewish intellectual tradition has also always rested at least as much on questions as on answers, and this too offers an approach that meets the moment especially well. A transfer to my former school noted to his parents that his new school differed from his previous one because his teachers now ask a lot of questions that they do not know the answers to themselves. Prizing this kind of discourse guides us naturally to confront uncertainty by honing our abilities to ask good questions and then to ask good questions about these good questions. We recognize, too, that for this discourse to be most effective, it must proceed with an appreciation for the inherent value of the back-and-forth itself. At a time when civility around disputation and appreciation for its productive value has fallen into distressingly short supply, Jewish day schools proudly offer the alternative notion of “machloket l’shem shamayim” – “disagreement in the name of heaven.” Guiding our students to Internalize the profound value of disputation deeply rooted in the Jewish intellectual tradition can prepare them to pursue wisdom and understanding beyond mere knowledge. Now as much as ever.
In confronting the vexing challenges of our current circumstances, Jewish day schools have reconnected to great powers of our missions that have been there all along. These include awareness that human beings are but one part of a vast creation in the image of God, commitment to sustaining bonds of community as core to our enterprise, broad vision of what it means to persevere, and appreciation for the inestimable value of disputation in the name of all things good and true. As we meet the challenges that will come next, we will bring all these values to educating our students, with humble understanding – and faith – that how we help them process the transformative events of their young lives will shape how they, in turn, will work to repair our world. We need them and they need us. Now as much as ever.