Friday, December 2, 2011

Defensive? Moi?

We invest so much in our kids, and therefore rational thought often/usually eludes us when it comes to the JEWISH IDENTITY conundrum. We can't figure out exactly what we want to be, much less what we want our kids to be, much less how to get there, much less how to apportion responsibility among us, our kids, their schools, teachers, social settings, synagogue, etc. So my explicit/implicit critique of Schechter in no way ignores the much fuzzier reality that is much larger than the school and what it can and should be doing. Having said that, what should these schools be doing and why?

1. Clarify the nomenclature: what are they exactly? Independent schools, parochial schools, movement schools? That's just another way of figuring out what the worldview is...

2. Think more like summer camp. Camp's organic, removed, fun. None of those apply to school, at least not all the time. But try to have the Jewish equivalent of Phil Spectre's "Wall of Sound" where everything reinforces everything else: teachers talking Jewish "have a good shabbos" to kids on Fridays, music on the intercom, dancing, art, the works.

3. Try to work more closely with synagogues and rabbis again to reinforce messages/content. Lots of wasted energy that falls through the cracks.

4. WHAT ARE THE STANDARDS FOR JEWISH STUDIES? Hebrew? Bible? Rabbinics? Halakha? Israel? What do we want these kids to know and why? Is there a logical sequence to the curriculum?


The last one is the rub for me: I can't help feeling that we try so hard to be inclusive and non-judgmental that we end up shortchanging families in terms of taking them seriously re. saying "you're here...we want you to be here + 35% when you're done at SSDS." If you're not willing to push, to critique, to make claims about what constitutes Jewish excellence, which yes does include making our best claims and value judgements, then how is growth possible? We do that for math, science, english, are we doing that for growing the Jewish person?

I once heard a rabbi say to students: "why would you do any of this stuff if you didn't believe that it was true?" We need to have the courage to ask that of ourselves? what is our truth? What are we willing to do for it? To teach it to others?


  1. David,
    I too want to commend you for starting a great conversation – and I, too, would love to continue the conversation some Shabbat soon.
    I think many of your insights and recommendations are good, but that said… I’d love to add my two cents to the issues… the problem lies with the larger movement/liberal camp, and not with Schechter specifically.
    Your criticism in 5 isn’t really for Schechter to answer, necessarily, but for the liberal camp/movement as a whole to answer. I wouldn’t look to elementary schools necessarily to answer these questions, especially when the larger movement/leadership has rarely answered them over the past 50 years (if it’s a ratio of x amount of learning/x amount of peoplehood experiences/x amount of social justice, for instance). The sorts of answers you are looking for would ideally be answered by the movement’s great Rabbis, and then adopted/adapted by the schools.
    I think it’s important to remember that, even without set standards, on a daily basis, for the most number of days a year, Schechter schools throughout the country are where the greatest numbers of liberal Jews pray on a regular basis, and where the greatest numbers of liberal Jews study or are engaged in Jewish learning on a regular basis.
    In the 50 years since Schechter was started, the advent of these schools is probably the most positive thing to have come out of the movement as a whole. The synergies or lack of synergies that you allude to in #3 stem from the state of the movement, not just the schools – the relationships are a two way street. From my experience, I can’t recall the synagogues in the movement too often really wanting to secure/promote relationships with Schechter schools. Synagogues over the 50 years have not been harping on the importance of Schechter educations, and it’s not clear to me that the schools have been promoted to the movement as the important vehicles that they clearly could be.
    There are clearly imperfections within the day school world, and I agree with that many of your suggestions are good for the schools to consider. There is something not quite right really that, even today, more rabbis are coming out of the camp world and less so the day school world. But, I still think the larger liberal movements could be doing much more to actually engage the day school world, to make those places more central to what the community is built around than they currently are, and that, given that it has already been 50 years, it begs asking why exactly the liberal movements aren’t.
    See you at KI…
    Shabbat Shalom,

  2. Noah:
    I agree with you. This problem extends far beyond and really stems from larger forces. The Conservative movement has its own set of problems around this. Orthodoxy is coherent philosophically, at least in the basic sense of its meta-claims around the authority of Sinai/halakha; and the true liberal/Reform position that "liberates" the individual to use one's freedom to receive/create/transmit Judaism as they see it. Tradition and change? Much more descriptive than prescriptive in terms of an approach to Judaism in time rather than a philosophy. Andria's post nicely showed its strengths re. the range of commitments, so there's some consolation in that. But that Truth question nags at us still....

  3. David,

    There is so very much to respond to but I guess I would like to start with number 4. I completely agree that we need standards and benchmarks for the education we chose for our children. We need Jewish curriculum that connects our traditions with our children. As such, let me direct you to how SSDS of Greater Boston has chosen to implement the Judaics elements of its curriculum.

    For Tanakh, we look to our own JTS.

    You will certainly have a more informed view then I as to specifics, but at our school we have fully adopted these standards and benchmark our students and teachers against them.

    As to Hebrew, we were sorely lacking in a comprehensive program and materials. As such, we worked with what was out there and then innovated on our own. See the following article featuring Rabbi Amy Bardack and the program she developed and implemented a comprehensive Hebrew literacy program K-8 at SSDS of Greater Boston.,HaYidion

    I find this article particularly enlightening for readers as it really articulates the process of review and curriculum integration we take with each area of study.

    Regarding T'fillot, we felt that the siddur available to our youngest students was not fully attainable and was presented in a manner that did not connect the beautiful images and music that support the beauty of prayer. As such, we worked with leaders in the local cantoral and rabbinic community to create a siddur tailored to our youngest learners. You can purchase it online:

    As for our how we are AFFECTING our students, and our students to the relevance of their studies to adult life, I point you to a shabbat program we run called Ani Ma'anim. This year, we are inviting in alumni of the school to share with current middle school students "This I believe." All of the videos can be found on youtube but I share the most recent one here:

    I encourage you - and any of your readers - to click through so you can see the SSDS of Greater Boston of today.

    I have so much to say on your other points. That is for another day. We welcome the collaboration with our community synagogues. We wish our community worked as true partners because we certainly have a stronger and richer school if we benefit from the collective talents of our community.

    Andria Weil

  4. Andria:
    Hi. Thanks for educating me about all of these initiatives. You are much more on top of this than I am, and I should and will try to govern my comments accordingly:)
    Here are some thoughts as I process what you're seeing at school:
    In general I think the Tanakh and the Hebrew initiatives sound great. I have seen the siddur and it looks nice.
    My only cautionary note--and it's not a criticism, just an observation--that materials are only as good as the folks handling them. Which gets us back to teachers, their mentoring and training, their worldview, etc. I think you know there's a long history in Schechter schools in general of struggling to find "Conservative" teachers. Some of that is supply and demand stuff, but some of that reflects deeper struggles that yes go back to what we've been talking about all along re. what we think Jewishness consists of--the place of Hebrew language, contemporary, halavah, classical text, etc. I think it's a good conversation to have, an important conversation to have, about who our teachers are, beyond the obvious "are they competent to teach skills?" What are the tradeoffs we make when we choose a fabulous teacher and human being to teach Jewish studies, someone who isn't shmirat mitzvoth? If that sounds narrow minded so be it, but I think without prejudging the outcome we should all consider those sorts of issues, because of the importance of modeling in religious education.
    My secondary point goes to the missing piece here--which I think indirectly goes back to Moshe's sigh of regret that his daughters aren't more into the life of observance. Rabbinic Judaism doesn't get mentioned a lot--something that tends in many Schechter's to get short shrift. We are rabbinic Jews more than biblical Jews, and the question is how do we teach kids to embrace that reality.

  5. PS: it also goes without saying that virtually everything I'm saying needs always to be placed in the larger context of thinking organically about our goals as people, families, community about our ideas and behaviors, and not dumping all of our messy agenda on to the schools...

  6. ha ha ha halavah in the first comment should read "halacha.":)