Monday, November 28, 2011

Reflections on a Schechter Education

The SSDS of Greater Boston celebrated the 50th anniversary of the school's founding. Eight hundred plus people came to remember, see old classmates, teachers, colleagues, friends. The community should take pride in what it built and what it accomplished: creating an alternative vision of what a day school could be, vis a vis the Maimonides School. I think of some of the virtues that Schechter the man embodied upon which the school founded itself: a love for Judaism, for tradition, for intellectual breadth and depth, a strong engagement with peoplehood, the Hebrew language, Zionism, and the modern State of Israel.

Those commitments still animate today's school. Sad to say there weren't much in evidence at the "party." There was one devar Torah, but it was given by Barry Shrage, not by one of the school leaders, professional or lay. And it was not delivered at a time when the entire gathering could hear it. There were no substantive remarks: the heads of school talked more about the 8th grade plays than they demonstrated what the school cared about on the deepest level. It's disappointing because many of us want a serious egalitarian Judaism; this sort of messaging subtlely and overtly perpetuates the distinction between Torah-centered Orthodoxy and liberal Jews who are centered on what exactly? At least the Reform Rashi school talks and acts re. social justice as a "Jewish value." What does SSDS talk incessantly about?

Education has to be about teaching students how to think. It has to orient them to contribute to the larger world. And it has to be about relationships inside and outside the classroom, modeling what it means to take seriously the blessing of life, the blessing of freedom, the blessing of being able to receive, to transmit, and to create. At its best SSDS creates that sort of environment. But it needs to push itself to do that as a truly, deeply, Jewish school. That is the hard part.


  1. David - isn't this inherently the problem with Conservative Judaism on the larger scale? Ben and I have certainly encountered it here in Israel and find it to be truly frustrating and disappointing - what a missed opportunity.

  2. David,

    I read with interests your comments about Schechter's 50th celebration. Not only, because you are a former Trustee of the institution, former parent, rabbinic leader at my synagogue, but also because you have participated in discussions on how, as part of Schechter's next strategic plan, we continue to push ourselves on the very topic of ensuring that our children's education, and Schechters's community, is rooted in all elements of our rituals, our culture, our history, our language, our "values".  We attempt to do this all the while ensuring both our secular and our Judaics instruction benefit from the perspective of our modern world: its the Blending of tradition  with innovation (SSDS's tag line for this 50th year) --truly delivering the best of both worlds. Because isn't that what Solomon Schechter was really all about? 

    But let's turn to this one event and really examine it: Saturday evening's community wide celebration of 50 years of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston. We can talk of many Jewish values built into the daily teachings at our shared school.  The one that was most prominently highlighted throughout Saturday evening was community. One of the most important lessons I have learned through my 24 years as a Conservative Jew is the importance, the critical need, the "value" of community. It's one I spoke about on Rosh Hashana at our shared synagogue, Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline. (cont.)

  3. Jewish life simply does not exist as an "I".  How do we celebrate, mourn and mark the passing of time? Can you have a Passover seder for one? As Jews, our daily, weekly, monthly, annual and life milestones require a minyan of fellow Jews.  Jews educated not only in the ritual but also, in meaning.  SSDS is a proud institution that has produced a community of 1600 knowledgeable Jewish alumni.  A knowledgeable community, one that has surely impacted more than just the students who have walked through its halls. Rather, certainly Boston Jewry, if not American Jewry, has been strengthened because of the very existence of SSDS of Greater Boston. And hence, who knows better then Barry Shrage, President of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the impact on a rich and vibrant Jewish Boston, our school and its alumni have had.  and yet, the evening also sought to highlight many other dimensions of community in the Schechter of today - and of 50 years ago. But not only are our alumni connected to one another and having influence on Jewish life, they are also deeply connected to the community of Jews around the world.  On Saturday night, we reflected on the milestone events that connect us to the State of Israel, to our history and our culture. The roll calls on the all-hebrew 8th grade plays, the trips to Israel and The beautiful video of our youngest learners immersed in modern Hebrew, showcase how our graduates have the ability and skills to sustain a deep and meaningful connection to a community of fellow Jews around the world and to the State of Israel. The reflections on t'fillot and reading torah connect us to our most universal common thread.  Finally, the reflections from our School's founders juxtaposed against the reflections of our alumni, current students and current parents, shared throughout the program on Saturday night, demonstrated the potential for influence and continuing impact SSDS of Greater Boston has on its 500 students, their families and the greater Jewish community. Because if we don't have a highly educated and robust Jewish community, reading Torah, davening prayers with understanding, engaging with Israel and with one another, what is Jewish Boston? What is Judaism in the diaspora? 

    Conservative Judaism is not one dimensional. It's not simply social justice or torah study. I think Saturday night attempted to encapsulate all of the facets of Jewish life at Schechter over the past 50 years - through the lens of our very community based culture and religion. In the next 50 years, it is my greatest hope that our educators, our alumni, our community leaders continue to wrestle with how to make it tangible. I know it is certainly one that we think about daily at Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston every single day. At this point, honoring our founders, our 1600 alumni, and their parents is the best way I could think of to do just that. 

    Andria Weil
    President, Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston

  4. Andria:
    Hi. Thank you for your smart and thoughtful response. Schechter is very lucky to have you as its Chairperson. Truly. I agree with pretty much everything you said, in terms of values, skill-building, purposes. I too liked the movie and thought it was effective. To be brutally candid--and this is probably what aroused my criticism--I just recoil from what I feel in my gut are talks that aren't particularly substantive and just recycle words that sound like marketing slogans. I want the head(s) of school to do better than that. I also think and I'm guessing you all considered this but ultimately opted not to do this--that some more interactive and or performative pieces might have been nice--a learning piece, art or music or dance, whatever. I guess I'm talking here about "showing" rather "telling" the story of the school. You are a good leader because you get what the school aims to be, and you can articulate that. I am less certain that that message is understood and internalized by the larger parent and student body. That is our burden and our opportunity. I'm happy to talk with you any time about this and happy to help in any way I can.

  5. Looking forward to continuing the dialogue.


  6. I actually want to clarify something important. I'm a fan of SSDS: I support their mission. And I think the school has worked harder and achieved positive results in recent years, particularly in the areas of management and in Hebrew language. To me the greatest challenge will continue to be in the area of developing and delivering strong Judaic studies, both on the skills and formation level. Particularly the latter, because that will involve working more closely with parents and families to help students grow as Jews, outside and inside school.

  7. I attended the 50th and was impressed by the turnout and the enthusiasm. The presentations were a bit too self-congratulatory, but that is to be expected.

    I would have loved to see a havdalah done, an opportunity to sing together in community. Imagine the power of a thousand voices led by one of our own alums or staff. I also missed the opportunity to study a text in havrutah with my neighbor in the tent.
    I know it seems far out- but this is a true celebration of the gift of Torah and SSDS's role in transmitting Torah.

    My greatest concern as I watch my own 3 SSDS graduates is their not taking Jewish observance seriously. They may be right that SSDS instilled a great sense of klal yisrael- but it is a concern that my kids and their friends, at least for now, see traditional observance as something you do with your Mom and Dad when they visit- but not necessarily as a part of their personal lives.
    Things might change when they will start their own families.

  8. Let me spend a moment on extolling and praising the wonders of Schechter that shouldn't be forgotten.
    The atmosphere of SSDS is one of love and acceptance. Life-long friends are made and retained.Thee is also the strength of connection to the community that will also, with the help of God,last forever.
    Last week's celebration of the 50th anniversary
    exhibited all of these positive aspects.
    I hope that the opportunities for celebration will continue. My hat is off to all those who worked so hard to bring us together and to their fervor or SSDS. It was infectious.