A Vision for Day School Excellence

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October 1, 2000
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Joshua Elkin

Day Schools as Organizations of Jewish Learning

Michael Zeldin

The Jewish day schools of the 21st century will be unlike the day schools we have come to know in the last several decades. They will serve new kinds of students, face new challenges, and as a result provide new opportunities. But will day schools have the flexibility to adapt to the new realities and take advantage of the new possibilities? Or will they remain frozen, resting on their past successes? In other words, will Jewish day schools transform themselves into even more powerful institutions, or will their effectiveness fade because they are unable to adapt to changing times?

In the middle decades of the 20th century, when day schools first gained a foothold in North America, they had a certain homogeneity. Almost all day schools were Orthodox in affiliation and served largely Orthodox populations. Few students came from homes that were not observant and involved in Jewish life. Jewish day schools could do the job that schools were designed to do – namely, teach the knowledge and skills that children need to take their place in society. Jewish day schools did not have to worry about shaping students’ Jewish identities; most students came with strong identities. Day schools did not have to worry about motivating children or their families to become involved in the life of the Jewish community; they were almost always active participants in synagogue and communal life.

The latter third of the century saw the spread of Jewish day schools beyond the enclaves that first embraced them. Conservative and Reform day schools gained popularity to the point where by the century’s end, day schools were normative among strongly committed Conservative Jews and were no longer unthinkable for Reform Jews (as they were throughout most of the 20th century). Transideological “community” day schools multiplied in number, often as an alternative to Orthodox day schools in small to mid-size Jewish communities, but sometimes alongside Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform day schools in larger metropolitan areas.

The spread of day schools beyond the Orthodox community is no doubt the result of multiple forces at work simultaneously: the perceived decline in public education, the resurgence in Jewish ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s and religiosity in the 1980s and 1990s, the increasing affluence of the Jewish community that made day schools both economically feasible and socially acceptable, and the integration of Jews into American society that made the “common” experience of public education less necessary.

Today’s day school population is much more heterogeneous, and its children may not be as knowledgeable, as committed, or as involved in Jewish life and observance as their counterparts in the past. Today’s day school families may not be as involved in Jewish activities in the home, at the synagogue, or in the community. As a result, Jewish day schools may not be able to follow the old formulas that ensured their effectiveness in the past. Day schools will have to invent new strategies to serve a broader range of families who may not, initially, find Jewish life and Jewish learning to be compelling values in their lives. They will have to find ways to continue to offer intensive Jewish education while at the same time serving as “gateways” into Jewish life for these new groups of families.

In order to prepare for the new realities they will face, day schools must address three challenges. The first and most obvious challenge is how to create a welcoming environment for children and parents who come to the school out of a variety of motivations, not all of which may match the school’s portrait of an ideal day school family. To be effective gateways, day schools will have to find ways to meet families “where they are,” validate their life choices, and help them find a comfortable space within the Jewish community. Like synagogues, preschools, and Jewish community centers, day schools will have to examine how they reach out to families, how they integrate new families into the community, and how they help families connect to Judaism and the Jewish community.

A second challenge, which flows from the first, is for day schools to redefine their mission in light of the greater diversity of the population they serve. To be effective in the new environment, day schools will have to broaden their mission and take responsibility for educating children and adults, including parents, teachers, and board members. Day schools will have to become Jewish learning communities in which Jewish learning is a prized activity for children and adults wherever and whenever they gather. Only in this way can children see that Jewish learning is treasured in deed and not just in word.

Becoming a Jewish learning community means creating a supportive environment for families’ deepening Jewish involvement. Educators readily acknowledge that children cannot be expected to lead rich Jewish lives in families that do not provide a tapestry of Jewish moments, events, and activities. What is less widely understood is that families cannot be expected to create this tapestry in the absence of communities that provide multiple points of engagement in Jewish celebration, prayer, ritual, and study. The challenge for day schools in the 21st century will be to take responsibility for creating communities of meaning for families, while not intruding on the “turf” of other agencies in the Jewish community.

The third and final challenge day schools will have to meet is to remain true to their mission as Jewish day schools in the face of increasingly diverse populations. Addressing this challenge requires keeping the responses to the first two challenges suspended in dynamic equilibrium. It is easy to water down a school’s values in the attempt to accept families where they are; it is just as easy to maintain an inflexible commitment to values without regard to their effect on families. It is much harder to articulate core Jewish values unapologetically, translate them into action throughout the school, and yet maintain a stance of open acceptance toward the different ways in which families approach the school.

In order to successfully address this challenge, day schools will have to become Jewish learning organizations where issues are approached thoughtfully in the context of Jewish values, Jewish ideas, and Jewish study. They will have to learn how to fashion multiple understandings of the issues they face, reflect on alternative responses to challenges, and envision new and exciting possibilities and programs. As they become Jewish learning organizations, day schools will develop the capacity to balance their role as gateways to Jewish life with their core mission as Jewish day schools.

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Michael Zeldin is Professor of Jewish Education at the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. He is also Project Director of Jewish Day Schools for the 21st Century, which helps Jewish day schools transform themselves into Jewish learning communities and Jewish learning organizations. He can be contacted at mzeldin@huc.edu.

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