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.
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).