Back to School

Posted on Sep 29, 2016

Three weeks after the election, Jews, like other Americans, can think of little else than the changes in store for our country and the world. Fundamental Jewish values and concerns hang in the balance; indeed, the Jewish communal agenda seems to pale in importance compared to anxiety about the policies and pronouncements of the new administration now forming. I believe, however, that our communal agenda is more important than ever. We need clarity about where our tradition stands on issues of the day. And we need to make sure that we are transmitting that tradition and those values effectively to the next generation of American Jews. Day schools have an essential role to play in that effort. I visited my neighborhood Jewish day school recently to see how well it is performing that task and came away with the sense that a lot we need to know about strengthening the Jewish community in North America can be learned from watching K–8 Jewish classrooms.

For one thing—to me, the main thing—the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan spends great effort teaching its students that their fulfillment as individual Jewish human beings is best served by participation in a larger community. The sense of community starts with the four-desk clusters common in many classrooms these days. No child sits alone, or works alone, or faces the day’s challenges alone. Learning in groups day after day teaches more than math skills or the nature of Greek city-states. It demonstrates that personal growth comes through cooperation, conversation, and shared responsibility. It helps too that class size is small; everybody seems to know everyone’s name. The buzz in the classrooms and halls was happy. Many American Jewish adults—perhaps most—have never experienced such buzz, perhaps because they have never participated in face-to-face Jewish community of this or any sort. Convinced that individual autonomy is threatened by strong communal involvement, they may not want to get involved—or, sadder still, they may have walked through Jewish doors seeking Meaning and Community and left sorely disappointed. 

I toured Schechter with Benjamin Mann, head of school, who I’m proud to say holds a master’s degree from JTS, is an alumnus of the Davidson School’s Day School Leadership Training Institute, and is currently a student in Davidson’s executive doctoral program. Mann told me that the school’s philosophy had always been to nurture independent learners who know how to solve problems and to tackle challenges—together. As he told me this, I flashed back on my wonderment, upon arriving in Oxford for graduate study, that only several hours a week would be spent in lectures, seminars, or tutorials. The rest of the time I would either be alone, reading and writing, or—from early morning until late into the night—talking with my fellow students in pubs, coffee houses, or common rooms. It took me a while to figure out the educational assumption behind this regimen: gather smart and highly motivated students, put them in conversation with one another, and they will naturally share what they are learning. The problems they are working on will find new and creative solutions. I wish our adult communities did more of this. We have a lot to offer one another that does not get communicated when we sit silently in synagogues or classrooms or board meetings.

The Manhattan Schechter School does something else that I admire: it aims, as I would put it, to nurture young Jewish human beings rather than to teach kids Judaism. All Jews I know, whatever their age, wrestle with the hyphen that enriches and bedevils Jewish identity in North America today. We are either American-Jews or Jewish-Americans (or similarly hyphenated Canadians). For better and for worse (and I believe it is both), we have to work hard at synthesizing these and other parts of our selves. Wholeness generally eludes us. Tensions abound. Books and classes about Judaism also abound—but how many guide us in putting all the parts together? Many Jews, young and not so young, flee Jewish community because they fear it demands exclusive allegiance, leaving no room for participation in other communities. They are wary of Jewish tradition because they think it requires them to give up other sources of wisdom, other parts of themselves—as if the twin tasks of growing into Judaism, and growing into personhood, were a zero sum game.   

Day schools (and overnight camp, as well) have a major built-in advantage where the search for wholeness is concerned. Unlike synagogues that most Jews visit weekly at best, or congregational schools that meet after the real work of the day for kids is done, or on weekends set aside for leisure, day schools bear the message that Judaism is the main business of life, integral to all the rest. Math and science, Shakespeare and soccer, take place in Jewish spaces. SSSM underlines the aim of wholeness by hiring bilingual teachers for grades K–5 who can model the integration of Jewish studies and general studies that they seek to foster in their students. The school, like the Torah, has no one philosophy on what these syntheses should look like but it is committed to the effort wholeheartedly. Students and teachers testify by being there how much Judaism matters to them. The virtual printer on the window ledge of the classroom is evidence that Judaism is perfectly at home in our 21st century world—and that this world has found a home in Judaism. When the students leave the school to feed the hungry or visit the sick, they bring their Judaism with them, along with everything else they are. Would that more Jewish adults did the same.

I asked to spend part of my SSSM visit observing and joining in tefillah. It has been my experience that prayer is the single hardest request made of contemporary Jewish adults outside the Orthodox world, and perhaps for many inside that world.  (The English word itself is a problem, constricting the range of the Hebrew to one sort of tefillah: petition to God). So much in the patterns and assumptions of our lives is at odds with the demand to sit quietly, pay attention, burrow inside words hallowed by tradition, allow emotion to show and be felt in public, express thanksgiving and obligation, confess inadequacy, and stand in the presence of the Highest. For kids, prayer can be a much simpler matter—their sense of wonder has not yet been dulled by the need to put up armor and be cool.

SSSM students do not receive a printed siddur until fifth grade. Until then, they use a binder of loose-leaf sheets on which they have written or drawn associations with lines from key prayers typed in bold at the top of the page. When they come to pray that particular line, they have before them not only the words of the prayer they will sing together, but the meaning they have found in it and for it—a meaning that, the sheets being loose leaf, can change over time. I’ve described this experience for adults as coming to shul wearing stereo headphones: in one ear you hear the words on the page, read or chanted, and in the other, the meaning it has accumulated for you.  Spend extended time on a single word or phrase, go deep into what it says to you, and the next time you reach that page, those words will stand out for you, perhaps over time even greet you as a friend. Music intensifies this experience of welcome.

I saw associations with the words of the siddur being born for a group of kindergartners as a teacher sat with them in a circle and asked why they thought we sometimes bow our heads in prayer. “To get a blessing,” said one. “To thank God for making the world,” said another. “Asking God for love,” said a third. “To save God.” Something profound had just happened in that room. I found myself wishing that my own minyan would spend time discussing what we think we are doing when we bow and sing, stand or sit, listen to Torah or say Kaddish.

This sort of education is quite expensive, more so even than other Jewish institutions.  This is not the place to debate the question of how much communal and foundation money should flow to day schools as opposed to congregational schools, camps, or training grounds for leaders such as JTS. We are a small community, struggling to persuade Jews that their people and tradition need them, and that Jewish life can supply Meaning and Community available nowhere else—but the price, unfortunately, is one that many individuals cannot afford or are unwilling to pay. Our survival and continued flourishing as Jews in this land of opportunity will not come without great resources and great effort. If we as a community really care about raising committed Jews in North America today, we will dig deeper and find the resources needed.

The investment in day schools like Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan is clearly worthwhile. For what I saw over and over again that morning was not only great teaching and learning, but kids and teachers at home in their school and in their skins.  That tremendous sense of belonging is bound to carry over to the way they feel about their community, their tradition, their society, and the world. Judaism, in this case Conservative Judaism, ceases to be philosophy at a school like this one. It becomes lived experience—what Judaism was always meant to be.