Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Jewish Day School Education: Why? by Susan Kardos

As we envision the full potential of Jewish Day Schools in North America, we must revisit a central question about the purpose of Jewish education.

The public discourse is replete with worried calls about Jewish continuity and a Jewish future. We are duty bound, of course, to heed these calls. However, we also must not let our concern for our future overshadow our critical Jewish present.

Jewish schools—and Jewish families—offer our children a way of being that has at its heart the core values of learning (Torah), caring (chesed), and justice (tzedek). Jewish schools offer our children a connection to a glorious Jewish past—stories of hope, faith, heroism, and redemption. Jewish schools offer our children sacred, living texts which guide, challenge, and inspire. Jewish schools fill our children’s ears with Hebrew, their mouths with joyous song, their souls with a love and longing for Zion, and their hands with parchment and silver and the hands of others. Jewish schools are the warmth and wisdom of our ancestors and our Jewish optimism about our destiny.

But Jewish schools do not exist only for the sake of the future; and our students are not only vessels of continuity through which Judaism will pass. Jewish schools must also exist for the sake of a compelling experience of contemporary Jewish life that inspires children and their families today. After all, it is this younger generation which will ultimately determine the shape of the Jewish future. It is up to school leaders, teachers, and community professionals to make curricular, pedagogic, programming, policy, and funding decisions based on a vision of a Jewish present that is rich and attractive, and yes, holy. Our children are clever enough to know if our daily plans for them grow out of fear rather than hope. A subtle yet deliberate shift in focus—a vision that embraces our past, our future, and our present—will ensure individual and community Jewish life that is irresistibly exciting, compassionate, and courageous. It will also ensure that the future our children create is inclusively and beautifully Jewish.

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Susan Kardos is Director of the Initiative for Day School Excellence at the Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston. She is author of over a dozen articles and book chapters about education policy, school culture, teacher induction, and school leadership. She is co-author of the book Finders and Keepers: Helping New Teachers Survive and Thrive in Our Schools (Jossey-Bass, 2004) and author of “Clandestine Schooling and Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto During the Holocaust,” (Harvard Educational Review, 2002).

What if by Norman Adler

What if? What if we recognize our youth moving into the next stage of Modern Orthodoxy by carrying Torah values onto the world stage?

We can help by encouraging our adolescent, Torah-observant youth to explore the world in broader ways than we have for the past few decades. We can move the classroom into the world. This would help them to broaden their education -- and help the Jewish community by training leaders who could represent our interests in world forums that need our best and brightest to defend our interests.

For young Jews who are just awakening to their heritage, projects like Birthright introduce them to Israel. Our students routinely visit Israel throughout their Day School years, during their Yeshiva experience in Shana Alef before College (at Yeshiva University or other American universities), and as post-graduate adults. They often visit Europe on March of the Living to recall and memorialize our recent history. They perform chesed projects all over the globe. I propose they engage in more formal, cultural experiences. One summer, let them explore more broadly.

We have a model of global learning. Yeshiva University's undergraduate Honors Programs has developed a series of Summer Experiences (some open to university students from other US colleges). Secular colleges often send students for summer or junior-year-abroad programs, which are not possible for observant students. The YU programs make it possible for students to study Jewish History in the context of the European historical experience in various European venues: English history and literature (including visits to the Globe Theater for performances of Shakespeare in the original Elizabethan costume and dialect), Italian culture and origins of modern science from Galileo through modernity, history of France through the Jewish experience and the Jew as "other" in French history. Students have even traveled to Guatemala and examined ancient and Modern Mayan civilization as "another" culture, like ours, with an ancient and modern representation. It is now possible to travel virtually anywhere in the world under kosher, "frum" auspices and view the world through Torah perspective. This model could be adopted for junior/seniors in high schools or through Hillels on other college campuses.

What I propose here is the "Hebraisation" of one of the pillars of a Western education - "The Grand Tour". This was the European travel itinerary that flourished during the 17th through 19th century. It was popular among the British upper-class who, after completing their formal education, would tour the European continent viewing the classic sites that Edgar Alan Poe described as, the "glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome".

Western civilization has been described as being built conceptually on two cities - Jerusalem and Athens. Hebraism and Hellenism are the two foci that have generated Western culture. We are the citizens of Jerusalem - who have continually interacted with Athens. Whether one subscribes specifically to the educational philosophy of John Dewey, we all recognize that educational best practices depend on first-hand experience. To experience world culture (Madda) in the context of a Torah education is now possible. What if we incorporated this into our curriculum?

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Prof. Norman Adler is University Professor of Psychology and Special Assistant for Curriculum Development and Research Initiatives at Yeshiva University. He is an international authority on the biological basis of behavior and has worked extensively on the intersection of biology and psychology in reproductive processes and biological rhythms. As one of the developers of the field of biological basis of behavior (sometimes called evolutionary psychology), he is now studying the biological psychology of religious experience.