Day Schools Provide the Best Preparation for Civic Engagement

“American education is too much about measuring, and not enough about meaning.”

—Shlomo Bardin, c. 1930


Most education today focuses upon test scores, college admissions, and measures. We know these are important, but not in isolation, as they have very little to do with what is important in life. While hard work and good grades are expected from our children, we, as Jewish educators, also understand that education in the Jewish community has always been a top priority and a key ingredient to leading a rich, meaningful life imbued with a duty to community and service. Our goal should be to pass down values, culture, meaning, purpose, and behaviors. Josiah Royce put it best: “Teach those skills which the civilization has found to be indispensable.” Nearly all Jewish high schools in North America are college preparatory institutions with extraordinarily high graduation and college enrollment rates. So what does a Jewish high school offer that goes beyond narrow views of educational purpose and is so important, so transformative, so unique, and so worth the journey?

First, Jewish day schools provide a vibrant, intellectual community where students understand that kindness must combine with academics, where powerful knowledge without goodness is a dangerous thing, and where goodness without deep knowledge is weak.

Second, Jewish day schools offer unique and superior academic learning environments where Jewish studies courses enhance the overall academic program. The study of Talmud or Bible, for example, demands continuous engagement with the higher order thinking skills of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. These thinking skills are core to great writing, literary vision, scientific inquiry, historical understanding, mathematical problem solving, and second or third language acquisition. The hevruta method of learning, for example, a method that teaches 21st-century skills of collaboration, deep questioning, and clear paths to action, is a mainstay of almost every Jewish high school in the nation. This method enables and enhances learning in all disciplines.

Third, Jewish high schools create unique cultures founded upon Jewish values and actions. For example, the Talmud asks six questions of human beings:

  •  Were you honest in business?
  •  Did you make a set time to study?
  •  Did you raise up community?
  •  Did you have hope?
  •  Did you act with wisdom?
  •  Did you understand a big thing from a small thing?

These questions drive students’ thinking in how they interact with their fellow human beings (honesty in business); the importance of lifelong learning; the importance of vibrant community building and an understanding of one’s obligations to that community; how to develop wisdom for life’s tough choices; and

how to gain perspective about what is truly important in life and students thereby develop a mature ability to distinguish what is not worth pursuing.

Fourth, Jewish high schools help students find their “prophetic voices,” using their deep knowledge and skills to determine what is ethical, what is moral, what is obligated, what must be said, and when to remain silent. The prophetic voice continues to power the single, most transformative revolution in human history—ethical monotheism—a revolution that continues to demand moral and ethical behavior and justice, and to envision peace and the unity of humankind.

Fifth, Jewish high schools enable students to discover who they are and what they stand for. Many parents have approached me over the past decades worried that our schools are “too Jewish.” They worry that their children will not be able to handle the multicultural life on American college campuses. They are concerned that the Jewish high school creates a bubble for our children and does not introduce them to the realities of modern life. The opposite is actually the case. Students from Jewish high schools are far better able to handle the social complexities of college campus life. They are secure in their identities. Instead of blending in and disappearing into the vast student populations on large campuses, they stand out. They are able to contribute their unique Jewish culture and values into the multicultural conversations.

Lastly, a Jewish high school is an inclusive community that takes seriously Jewish values such as visiting the sick, welcoming guests, not standing idly by the blood of one’s neighbor, being careful with speech, and embracing the “other.” Jewish values require that our schools include and embrace. Jewish high schools are community assets that welcome all with open hearts and hands.

In the midst of our chaotic world today—constant turmoil, ethical confusion, questionable truths, social insecurities, and lack of clarity regarding the human condition—Jewish high schools are no longer a luxury, but rather an existential necessity for the Jewish community of America. They instill strong Jewish values and learning so as to ensure Judaism’s contribution to America. Jewish high schools provide the content, values, and vision for that unique contribution. Indeed, the Jewish high school moves the vision for education from measuring to meaning.

Dr. Bruce Powell is founder and current head of school of the de Toledo High School (dTHS), formerly New Community Jewish High School, in West Hills, California. In addition to founding dTHS, he has helped to found, develop, and lead two other Jewish high schools in the Los Angeles area over the past 37 years including the Milken Community High School and Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High School. He is a founding DSLTI mentor and has also consulted on the development of 23 Jewish high schools in cities throughout the United States. Dr. Powell holds a PhD in Education from the University of Southern California and has won both the Milken Family Foundation Jewish Educator Award (2005) and the Covenant Award (2008) for his contributions to Jewish education.