Aren’t All Jewish Day Schools “Community” Schools?

paper-chain-in-the-dark-1215912-mAren’t all Jewish Day Schools “Community” Schools?

Extended preamble…

Some blog posts evolve into academic mini-treatises with ample hyperlinking both for proper crediting and to stimulate further learning.

Some blog posts are born from a passionate feeling and sometimes read like opinion pieces.

Other blog posts are confessional and lead to catharsis (for me) or humanizing (of me).

The blog posts that are the hardest to write – as we are about to discover – are the ones that are born from a genuine question and a desire to solicit a crowdsourced response.  Not to drive traffic to my blog or raise my social media profile.  But because I am sincerely interested in learning from my colleagues, stakeholders, readers and friends.  I am grappling with a difficult question and I am interested in serious, thoughtful, diverse and challenging answers to help me develop an authentic answer (for me).

The reason these posts are the hardest to write is that within the world of education, and the Jewish educational world even more so, the blogosphere is still largely populated by lurkers.  You are out there and you are reading blogs (which is great), but you do not (yet) feel comfortable contributing to the talmudic chain of commentary that makes blogging so wonderfully Jewish and potentially valuable. I learn some through the process of writing, to be sure, but I learn a ton through the process of collaborating with you through the commentary.

Let’s make a game of it and let’s aim big.  The 20th comment received will receive a prize from me.  That means you have to encourage others to comment as well so you can position yourself as number 20.  Let’s go for it!

End of extended preamble…

 

What is a “Community Day School”?

[NOTE: I am PURPOSELY NOT looking up and sharing definitions nor visiting RAVSAK (the Community Day School Network) for answers.  Not because I don’t think their answers are the correct ones.  They probably are.  But because how people – not just people, Heads of School, Board Chairs, Foundations, Donors, – understand what those words mean is at the crux of what I have been thinking about.]

Stuff I Think I Believe:

  • “Community” and “Pluralism” are not necessarily the same thing but they are sometimes used interchangeably.
  • Every Jewish day school thinks of itself in terms of creating community, being a community for its students and parents, being a healthy part of the larger Jewish community it lives in, and has an increasingly religiously diverse student population for whom it tries to craft an inclusive nonjudgmental religious community.
  • To say that a PARDES, Schechter, YU or Orthodox day school is “ideological” and a RAVSAK or Community Day School is “non-ideological” feels like a false dichotomy.

That’s probably controversial enough for now.

I know more about Schechter than anything else and I have firsthand experience heading a Schechter in a Jewish community where it served and serves as the non-Orthodox Jewish day school.  It has a diverse student population with levels of Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, unaffiliated, secular Israeli, etc., that are commensurate to many other Schechter schools and, to my understanding, many Community Day Schools.

In terms of Jewish ritual and practice, it looks and feels very much in the “center”.  This, too, is similar to many “community day schools” where the “center” is the natural compromise between the various religious communities who make up its population.

Yes, in some cases the driver for Schechter’s center approach is a commitment to Conservative Jewish practice.  Yes, in some cases the driver for a Community Day School’s center approach is a commitment to compromise or accommodation.  But there are also cases where the reverse is true in both settings and lines remain ever-blurry.

More Stuff I Think I Believe:

  • There are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform day schools who are explicitly NOT Community Day Schools.  They typically thrive in communities with large enough Jewish populations to sustain multiple schools with more targeted religious purposefulness.
  • There are Orthodox day schools who are Community Day Schools (either by self-defnition or RAVSAK affiliation or both).
  • There are Reform day schools who are Community Day Schools (ditto).
  • If Orthodox and Reform day schools can be ideologically-identified and still labeled “Community”…why not Schechter?  [Fact: There are Schechter schools who define themselves as both.  There are already Schechter day schools who are Community Day Schools.]
  • There are also Community Day Schools who live and breathe a mission-driven pluralism that is clearly nondenominational or post-denominational or trans-denominational.  Whether you want to call “pluralism” an ideology in its own right is a fair question, but the point here is to acknowledge that there are absolutely Community Day Schools whose approach to Jewish living and learning is mission-driven and clearly not Reform, Conservative or Orthodox.  It wouldn’t be fair to leave that out.

Here’s why it matters to me.

It is no secret that in recent years there have been a number of Schechter schools who have explored changing their official affiliation status from “Schechter” to “Community”. In a few cases this has genuinely been about a purposeful, mission-driven decision to change the way Judaism lives and breathes and/or to change dramatically the rigor and commitment to Jewish Studies for whatever reason. In many cases, however, the exploration is born from a feeling or hope that by changing their external status it will somehow cause a spike in enrollment or fundraising because it is signaling that the school is now of and for the community in a way that it wasn’t or couldn’t be as a “Schechter”.

This perception remains despite the data proving that the former is not true and the fact that Schechter schools can be and often are as “of and for the community” as any other kind of school.

Changing one’s affiliation status without any corresponding change to mission does a disservice to affiliation by rendering it a business equation. It reduces “Schechter” to a caricature and “Community” to a strategy. It denies both the full meaning of their philosophies and confuses the marketplace.

 

It is also the case (see Jewish Montessori) that schools that don’t see themselves as “Schechter” by its narrowest definition are beginning to explore how they may fit in with “Schechter” by a more expansive understanding of what it means and has to say about Jewish education. And so the lines between schools and networks blur even more…

What does it all mean?  For our schools and for the field?  Aren’t all Jewish day schools “community” schools? And why does it matter anyway?

Don’t just talk amongst yourselves!  Talk to me and to each other.

COMMENT.  (Remember…20th comment gets a prize.  Spam doesn’t count!)

Author: Jon Mitzmacher

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher is the Head of the Ottawa Jewish Community School. Jon has recently begun his rabbinical school journey at the Academy for Jewish Religion and is thrilled to have joined the faculty of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) as a mentor for Cohort 12. He was most recently the VP of Innovation for Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.  He is the former Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network.  He is also the former head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, a K-8 Solomon Schechter, located in Jacksonville, FL, and part of the Jacksonville Jewish Center.  He was the founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas.  Jon has worked in all aspects of Jewish Education from camping to congregations and everything in between.

12 thoughts on “Aren’t All Jewish Day Schools “Community” Schools?”

  1. I like the idea of opening Jewish Day schools to “everyone”. If parents read the full curriculum and are excited for their children to learn it, it seems like a step forward for diversity. I’m not sure how you handle it as kids approach Bar Mitzvah age or other specifically Jewish rites of passage.
    Basically, I don’t know, but I felt shamed out of lurking… 😉
    Looking forward to reading other comments!

    1. No shame in lurking! But I appreciate you dipping your toes into the comment-o-sphere! I can count on Emily and Seth Carpenter…I think you have commented more on my blog than I have on Seth’s! 🙂

  2. I think living in a small community, with one school (and one mikvah, one JCC, one Jewish home), but where there are FIVE synagogues, can help shed light on this interesting question. Our school, which was founded 70 years ago and has existed for most of that time as an orthodox, Torah u’Mesorah day school. Throughout the school’s history, it always served a diverse population–particularly in the days when it was not so comfortable for Jews to attend other area private and public schools. But, in 2009, after nearly spending down its entire endowment to keep tuition artificially low, our school nearly closed its doors. In partnership with the local Federation, leaders from every synagogue began a process to revision the school for today’s population. With help from across the community, we became a Community Day School in 2010. Becoming a community school meant that Rabbis from every congregation were welcome to teach in our school; certain religious practices became “optional”; the dress code became more flexible. For us, being a community school means that our school truly reflects and embraces the diversity of our community. No one is made to feel “less Jewish” because they are matrilineally Jewish, or because they do not observe kashrut at home. Yes, our orthodox families and teachers have had to adjust, and there are sometimes conflicts. But ours is the only school in town! Our flourishing means that our community is still a desirable place for young families across the spectrum of observance. So, we are a community school in that we both serve the community, and we are an anchor that secures the community’s future. Pluralism is definitely our ideology, but I’m not sure there is any other choice?

    1. Without getting myself into any more trouble…I would argue that there are probably ideologically affiliated schools who would share some of your claims…I think that is what stimulated the blog. Can you (or can Schechter) serve the needs of a religiously diverse community? There are examples playing out where they are…

      How and where we draw the lines are growing every-more blurry…especially because each of the “networks” that exist to serve the needs of Jewish day schools offer programs for the field as a whole.

      For Schechter, we know there are many reasons why schools choose us as their primary (or secondary or tertiary) affiliation – just as there are many reasons why parents choose a particular school. Writing this blog post and reading the comments is really helpful to me as I try to step into my new role and contribute what I can to our school and all schools. Thank you for the thoughtful comment!

  3. I accept and appreciate the constant process of evolution of any quality learning institution as absolutely necessary. I also agree that simply changing the label with little or no actual alteration of the mission or means of delivery is suspect, and disappointing at the least.

    If this evolution is linked to the very survival of the school – meaning that change MUST occur, the question is: Where is the line drawn? I truly value the talmudic tradition of constant reinterpretation. In fact, I think the line must be regularly re-drawn. If we don’t seek an avenue for open two-way communication, how is the school linked with whatever community it serves. The connections between school, student/family population, and community must remain current in some way or the school will be constantly squeezed (choked) out of its own niche.

    Harry Belafonte once said “If you leave the masses behind, …when they catch up to you, they’ll trample you to death…” Or something like that.

    Community day schools grow best with roots among the community… It matters less where the vines climb.

  4. Jon, you raise some great ideas and honestly ones I’ve been thinking about for awhile and haven’t shared (at least too publicly). Thank you for starting the conversation.
    I think there is something to be said for the difference between Community and community. To illustrate, I want to draw on the institution of “Community Kollels” which are often a product of an orthodox milieu and subscribe themselves as such. They are committed to a brand of halakhic observance that the leaders feel is normative and “right” but does not need to be embraced by everyone as they walk in the door, or at least before they walk in the door. They believe they are “for the community” and I would argue that they are not “of the community” as they may not embrace a religious pluralism and plurality. That being said, what would a Conservative Community Kollel look like? Is it possible to demonstrate a Halakhically Conservative Observant Community and maintain it? I believe in the fabric of Conservative Judaism is the notion of plurality (honestly, the Tshuvot demonstrate it) and for some, the ‘grey area’ is very hard to digest, but my thoughts are that it makes living Jewishly more exciting and richer.

    All of our day schools seek to form a cohesive community among the students, families, teachers and stakeholders; sometimes all together but more often as subgroups. I think one of the challenges we face is the location of our schools and the ‘competing communities’ of which we are members. Think for a moment of your day school; how close is it to your house, and how do you and your children travel there? How much time do we spend with the school community outside of the school day? Consider transportation, I understand that many students are driven to school and therefore very few children have a community school in the way public schools are located. What would our schools look like if most of our students biked, walked or scooted there? What would that say for the neighbourhood around the school? Would parents be more apt to see one another, would children find an excuse to just visit a park on their way home and PLAY?!? (I’ll write more on this, I’m sure.) Jon, I know some families in Vegas would bike to Schechter, but for me in my experiences few schools had the proximity which allowed and nurtured it (AHA an exception for sure).
    If we are becoming “Community School” because the label makes us feel better, I am not sure we are really looking at the whole picture. Branding may help, but in reality it’s about the commitment and integration of every stakeholder to build community. To this extent, I would be interested in learning more about the level of involvement from difference stakeholders in the various schools (not just by affiliation, but also by locale, environment, etc) and see what makes the schools tick from one to the other.
    I know, I’m exploring two ideas in this reply and I hope we continue the conversation in many ways. Jon I agree, let’s not be shy.

    1. Thank you for the very thoughtful and insightful post.

      I was actually thinking of Orthodox Community Day Schools as I was writing the post…whether the use of the word “community” is mutually understood our not, I was wondering why there couldn’t be Conservative Community Day Schools in (at least) the same way? And on the other side, are Schechter schools who may be seeking to be more purposefully “Community” with a capital “C”.

      Outside of the parve programming that we each offer to our schools and to the field, the question of what we each have to offer each other by way of our ideological expertise remains open. I want to learn more about how RAVSAK and YU coach their schools in areas of their particular ideology – whether that’s purposeful pluralism or modern Orthodoxy and I want to share what Schechter has to offer by way of expertise in Tefillah, Jewish Studies philosophy, etc., etc, because I think we all have much to gain.

      I know that strengthening our schools and our communities is the greater good. This conversation will help me (at least) think about how to do that more carefully and planfully.

  5. While we all can come up with many definitions of what “Community” means, the real issue is all about branding.

    A Community Jewish Day School tries to straddle that very difficult line of serving a wide variety of Jewish practice based on its particular constituents, or those they hope to serve.

    The Schechter network (or insert “Pardes” “YU” or any other brand here with corresponding movement halicha) has traditionally served the conservative congregations with their particular halicha. Whether they indeed follow this is another question. The issue then is what does affiliation with Schechter mean as a brand? Can you expect each Schechter in different communities to be similar in practice? What should the consumer expect from a Schechter school? If each Schechter school varies from conservitive halicha in its own way, then what does the brand stand for?

    There is nothing wrong with serving the community from any of these brands, but does the customer know what they are getting with each brand?

    Does a Community school look different in each location based on its constituency? Does that define the brand? Does a Pardes school need to be based on similar practice from location to location? When your brand is associated with a larger brand do you have a responsibility to closely mirror that parent brand?

    These are questions for the different stream or brands to struggle with as we all work through the challenges of providing this critical service to the Jewish community. Does the brand have identity and how do we serve the needs with limited funds to serve all who want to participate.

    1. I think part of the challenge and opportunity for Schechter as a brand is that, like Conservative Judaism, there is built-in a great deal of authentic diversity. Having lived and worked in Conservative settings on both coasts and in between, I know firsthand how much diversity already exists in the system. I see this as a strength, but quite the marketing challenge…

      A big part of what the “new” Schechter is about is thinking about a brand that is about much more than the Jewish content and character of our schools…we believe “Schechter” is about a broad philosophy of best practices of teaching and learning, school culture, etc., etc., and although it still has plenty to say about Jewish Studies, Jewish practice, the intersection of Jewish Studies and General Studies, etc., it is in the whole picture that we are interested in helping paint.

      Thank you for the thoughtful response…I have a lot to chew on.

  6. Jon, you’ve opened up a very important and thoughtful conversation. I write as someone who headed two community day schools that had a higher percentage of families affiliated with the Conservative movement than many Schechter schools, and as someone that has had the privilege of working with a variety of
    Schechter, Orthodox, and Reform affiliated schools. Every school must work on building community in a variety of ways and the comments offered to your blog suggest there are many facets to this effort, including ways of engaging families who might live some distance from a school. There are certainly many movement affiliated schools that clearly make efforts to welcome a broad cross-section of the Jewish community, with clarity that halachic guidelines will be those of the movement. And there are many families, for a variety of reasons (some personal, some reflecting the other options or lack thereof in their cities) who choose a movement based school even when their affiliation is different. Questions arise–and, as Matt suggests, many Community schools may offer a valued alternative for some families–when there are tensions between personal practice and a movement based school’s halachic guidelines. For example, will I feel less a part of a community if only my child’s father is Jewish in a school that halachically only honors matrilineal descent? Will my child feel criticized or less able to be her/himself? These questions weigh on parent minds and many will find a Community school whose mission celebrates diversity of family practice a more inviting choice in this type of situation. There are many right options. And there are ways both subtle and important in which a school’s affiliation does matter. But, I would also argue, changing affiliation without carefully reviewing mission and philosophy as well as what that change will look like in terms of practice through the school does not solve enrollment challenges.

  7. Hi Jon,

    We are actually having the conversation in reverse in some ways — as a Schechter school that serves a Judaically-diverse population, I am raising the question about whether we are doing enough to define who we are ideologically or if we are trying to function as a community school (lowercase c intentional). And do we make religious policies by the population or by the movement? I am curious to follow these comments and this entry.

    1. Such a great point and an important reminder that these questions manifest themselves so differently in different communities. We (Schechter) have schools who have historically occupied “community” space by virtue of their having been the only JDS or non-Orthodox JDS in their community and we have schools who were consciously created as Conservative Jewish day schools. They may look and feel very similar on the ground, but they get there through different paths. How we as a network can authentically serve them both while all feeling part of the same family of schools is a challenge and an opportunity.

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