So here we are again. Sooner than anyone could have expected, but with great excitement about what is yet to come, it time again for me to pause, prepare and repurpose this blog for the next chapter of my journey.
Two years and nearly sixty blog posts later, my time at the Schechter Day School Network – and the existence of the Network itself – draws to a close.
Almost two years to the day, I wrote my last blog post as the head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School in which I reflected on what had been and looked forward to what was going to be…a task made easier by my knowing with greater clarity “what was going to be”. To be transparent, that is not a luxury I yet have, at least in terms of my personal professional situation, but it diminishes not one bit my enthusiasm for Schechter’s future.
The first post I wrote as the Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network was entitled “Schechter: Becoming the Adjacent Possible for Jewish Education”. In it, I wrote of my hopes for a reborn Schechter:
That’s how I see what is happening in Schechter schools – an adjacent possible for the future of education. That’s what role I see for Schechter in the field – learning from and contributing to a larger adjacent possible for the future of the Jewish people. Let our ability to serve as incubators of innovation catalyze the field. Let our thirst for the new and the better stimulate and foster healthy collaborations with our sister networks of schools, foundations, federations, stakeholders, supports and friends, both in the Jewish world and beyond.
“[L]earning from and contributing to a larger adjacent possible for the future of the Jewish people.”
Having had the blessing of visiting over forty of our schools, I can say with confidence that Schechter schools are contributing to the future of the Jewish people each and every day. Our schools broadly share assumptions about standards, innovation, excellence, rigor, integration, Zionism, Hebrew language acquisition, centrality of prayer, and much more which simply cannot be reduced to policy or schedule or a prayerbook. They are big tent schools who serve diverse communities. They produce Jewish communal leadership in unprecedented numbers ensuring there is a future to reach towards.
“Let our ability to serve as incubators of innovation catalyze the field.”
I am proud of the growing impact of edJEWcon on the field as a result of the stage Schechter has been able to set for its ongoing evolution. I am staggered by how many of our schools are leading innovation and inspiring the field. Robotics, STEAM, Coding, Makers Space, Project-Based Learning, 21st Century Learning – pick any slice of the innovative educational future and I can give you 3 Schechter schools who are leading the way.
“Let our thirst for the new and the better stimulate and foster healthy collaborations with our sister networks of schools, foundations, federations, stakeholders, supports and friends, both in the Jewish world and beyond.”
We are proud of this brief, but critical chapter of Schechter’s proud history that we have helped write. We are excited about the next chapter of Schechter to be written as part of the story of NewOrg. And we look forward to both knowing and sharing who the authors of that story will be…
As for me?
Well, I hate to end the season and head off to summer on a cliffhanger…
…but it wouldn’t be authentic or transparent to suggest that I know more than I do. And as of this writing, there isn’t much more I can say other than, “Stay Tuned”!
I can say for sure that when my future becomes more clear, you’ll be able to read all about here on “A Floor, But No Ceiling”. This blog will again be reborn with new challenges to explore, new opportunities to share, and new issues to grapple with. I look forward to resuming our journey together soon…
Believe it or not, as we sit here in the midst of the Jewish holiday rollercoaster this season brings, we have schools who are now counting weeks, not months, of the remaining school year! As with our schools, so is true of our network. Except with summer comes not an end, but the beginning of a new chapter in a NewOrg. While we look forward to exciting updates about the field, we definitely want to keep the focus on schools. So…let’s take another opportunity to “shine the spotlight” on Schechter schools!
As a reminder…
…each of our schools was asked to share in their own words examples of programs and initiatives of what they think makes their school unique, special, excellent, and innovative. We promised to batch and share out as they came in. The first volume was published in early March and the second a few weeks later . It is my pleasure now to introduce you to three more of our amazing schools…
Name of School: Kadima Day School (West Hills, CA)
Area of Strength/Passion/Specialty: Differentiated Hebrew Program
Brief Description of Current Work/Projects: Kadima’s Hebrew program is designed to meet the variety ability levels of our students. Currently the school offers advanced and grade level courses throughout the elementary, in addition to ulpan as necessary. In the middle school, the program is able to differentiate even move by combining learners from a variety of grade levels.
Area of Strength/Passion/Specialty: Character Education
Brief Description of Current Work/Projects: Kadima Day School is committed to helping our students navigate through both the social and academic journeys of elementary school. Our emphasis on character education is rooted in our mission, helping students build an identity that is based on core Judaic values. Each grade will tackle the foundations of character develop and grow in their understanding of “The Kadima Way.”
In order to create a cohesive program, the school has identified the following components to be implemented on an annual basis:
Value of the Month
Visual Cues to help students self monitor (posters in classrooms / hallways)
Grade Level Mitzvah Projects
Rosh Hodesh Mitzvah Award – monthly award teacher to student
Name of School: Perelman Jewish Day School (Melrose Park/Wynnewood, PA)
Area of Strength/Passion/Specialty: STEAM
Brief Description of Current Work/Projects: Perelman’s inquiry-based learning fosters critical thinking skills and empowers students to wrestle with complex issues using traditional texts and new technologies. We teach an authentic Jewish legacy while preparing students to compete in the digital age. This educational approach establishes a superior intellectual and emotional foundation for future education – and for life.
Our STEAMprogram connects individual disciplines as access points for guiding students to take thoughtful risks, engage in experiential learning, persist in problem solving, innovate and create.
Fifth graders are engineers, working in teams to build a boat and bridge using a standard set of materials. Fourth graders are entrepreneurs, developing their own business plans with advice from students at the Wharton School of Business at University of Pennsylvania. All levels experiment with coding and learn to create their own QR codes. Students become experts on a particular system of the human body, presenting its function to their peers and a team of doctors, defending why it’s essential to our survival. They integrate science with language arts and research skills in a non-fiction reading unit about biomes. Art education is also integrated into science, as students learn about the solar system by studying an atmospheric phenomenon called the Aurora Borealis – Northern Lights – a fantastic light show in the night skies when solar energy erupts from the surface of the sun.
In the coming weeks Perelman will open an even more innovative classroom, one where kids will be writing on the white-board wall, posting sticky notes, thinking, designing and building. This will occur in our new MakerSpaces, where diversity and cross-pollination of activities are critical to the design. These innovation labs will accommodate a wide range of activities, tools and materials, and provide hands-on, creative ways to encourage students to design, experiment, build and invent, as they deeply engage in science, engineering and tinkering.
Our curriculum empowers teachers to take risks so that they too become agents of change. The silos of teaching and learning are interdependent as our students speak up, own their learning, ask questions and design the future.
Name of School: Academies at Gerrard Berman Day School (Oakland, NJ)
Area of Strength/Passion/Specialty: STEAM
Brief Description of Current Work/Projects: September 2015 marked the launch of the GBDS Science Academy, with the goal of employing hands-on , inquiry and project-based learning and experiments at all grade levels. This innovative curriculum integrates the Next Generation Science Standards, the Engineering Design Process, and environmental awareness. A partnership with PicoTurbine/STEAM Rocks! has led to 3D design enrichment programs during school breaks.
Some notable examples of student projects are:
Building drawbots using small hobby motors and legs made using markers
Utilizing squishy circuits to make “hamantaschen” for Purim, with filling lit up with LEDs
Testing water quality of streams in the 40 acre Great Oak park adjacent to the school
Investigating cell growth in different conditions through guided inquiry
Building Rube Goldberg machines
Employing an earthquake shake table to test building codes
Designing and testing parachutes (with action figures not people!)
Participating in NJ Makers Day
Area of Strength/Passion/Specialty: Leadership & Environmentalism
Brief Description of Current Work/Projects: The Academies at GBDS is proudly the only Leader In Me Jewish Day School in NJ. Based on the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, our Leadership Academy gives our students the 21st century skills needed for both professional and personal success. Several new initiatives have developed as a result of adopting the Leader in Me culture: the Middle School students created a Wax Museum exhibit called “Through the Eyes of a Leader,” and this year’s theme for the school play is “Robin Hood and the Leader in Me.” Additionally, at the end of the 2015-2016 school year, a premiere Leadership Day will celebrate our many successes. Please visit our school’s Leader in Me Blog for updates about how our school thrives using “The 7 Habits”.
The Academies at GBDS is committed to promoting practices that make the school more environmentally conscious and sharing those practices with the community. A school-wide recycling initiative, through our partnership with TerraCycle and Preserve Products, is bringing the school closer to the goal of sending zero-waste to landfills. This initiative was launched by constructing a large permanent mural, using plastic waste diverted from the cafeteria waste stream,which is displayed in our multi-purpose room.
This year, inspired by the Leader in Me, the Middle School students are planning, building, and maintaining a greenhouse and garden, thanks to a grant from Project Learning Tree. The 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students are in charge of all aspects of the project, including designing and building the raised bed gardens, and selecting, planting, and maintaining the gardens. The students will also design and print hydroponic gardening equipment using the 3D design program TinkerCad, eventually leading to year round gardening.
One of the clearest goals that I set for myself when becoming Executive Director was to visit each of our full members by the end of my second year. I had no way of knowing, of course, that the end of my second year would also be the end of my last year. These visits have surely been the highlight of my brief tenure. They have also been deeply clarifying in our thinking about what Schechter really is…a question that only grows more important as we look forward to a new future within a NewOrg.
I wrote at quite some length a few weeks back about how Schechter’s (r)evolution these last few years matches up nicely with the thought process which led to NewOrg. In that post, I wrote explicitly why I thought that the creation of NewOrg represented a “win-win” not only for Schechter, but for Conservative Judaism. What I only touched upon, but want to go deeper on here is the question of what makes Schechter “Schechter”. This isn’t an academic question. However permeable the boundaries, in order for Schechter to live and breathe within NewOrg; in order for the larger Jewish community to make sense of the different kinds of schools; in order for schools themselves to know who they are and why, now seems like the perfect time to have the conversation.
A Philosophy of Definition
When one seeks to define something, one wants the definition to state the necessary and sufficient conditions for that thing (Dorff, 1970). One has stated the sufficient conditions when anything that fits the definition is included; and one has stated the necessary conditions when everything in one’s definition is required (i.e. when nothing extra is demanded). For example, to define a table as a flat surface would be necessary (a table must have a flat service), but not sufficient (there are other flat surfaces). Most things do not lend themselves to such definition. And if it is difficult to define clearly what a “table” is, how much the harder to define a particular kind of Jewish day school experience. To put it another way, in order to precisely define Schechter, one would have to ask, “What are the necessary and sufficient conditions to be a Schechter school?”
I could try to list out the necessary and sufficient conditions, but inevitably I would soon be faced with challenges to both kinds of conditions. For example, if a condition of a Schechter school was that forty percent of the day is dedicated to Jewish Studies (a commonly identified Schechter condition), it would neither be necessary (there are Schechter schools who spend both less and more time of their day in Jewish Studies) nor sufficient (there are other kinds of Jewish day schools who spend forty percent of the day in Jewish Studies). Even something like, a Schechter school has a Conservative rabbi who serves as its religious authority, is a condition that is neither necessary (there are Schechter schools with other religious authority models) nor sufficient (there are are other kinds of Jewish day schools who may have a Conservative rabbi as its religious authority).
Ludwig Wittgenstein, a twentieth century philosopher, suggested that when we define something we “often state the ‘family characteristics,’ as it were, either because we cannot do any more than that, or because that is all we want or need to know in the first place” (Dorff). Even though there are other objects that have four legs and a flat surface, we know that both “four-leggedness” and “flatness” are critical family characteristics of “tables”. We know that certain things are true of virtually all the members of the family, but others are true of some and some of others. And, like all families, some members are more closely related to others.
The Schechter Family
I can report firsthand that there is indeed a “Schechter Family” of Jewish day schools in North America. I can (and will) state clearly what I believe the characteristics that make Schechter “Schechter”. I can also report that there are characteristics that not all Schechter schools share while still being part of the “family”. There are also characteristics that Schechter schools share with other families of Jewish day schools. Ours is a diverse family, but a family nonetheless.
Here are what I believe to be the family characteristics of Schechter in no particular order:
Progressive approach to education
Innovative, future-forward, pioneering of 21st century pedagogies
Serious and rigorous Jewish studies
Hebrew as a living, breathing language
Jewish experiences derived from or informed by Conservative Judaism
Inclusive of children with special needs (where adequate resources exist)
Best practices across both Jewish and General Studies instruction
Schools of and for the communities they exist to serve
Dedicated to faculty growth
You can quibble with my choices. There is no perfect way of doing this. There are examples of Schechter schools who lack or who have different characteristics, but I will argue that (only) the majority of Schechter schools have a sufficient majority of these characteristics to declare them related.
But that’s me!
I invite you to share your perspective as well. Specifically, I would love to hear your answers to these questions:
What would you add to the list of characteristics of the Schechter family?
What does it mean to your school to be part of a Schechter family?
As NewOrg prepares to roll out membership information to the field, it is important that the Schechter family of schools sees how its family journey is entwined with the journey of the field. By better defining what makes Schechter “Schechter”, we can help NewOrg orient its exciting array of programs, resources, staff, and assets to better meet the needs of our family. Because however defined, this is a family of schools who will be building a new home in NewOrg. This is a family of schools who knew themselves to be a family regardless of where the central office was located or who staffed it. And this is a family poised to expand its definition of family. This is a family of schools who have made significant contributions to bring us to the Jewish present and are poised to help lead us to a bright Jewish future.
Having just gotten back from trips to Las Vegas, Los Gatos, and Los Angeles (trying to get all my “Las” and “Los” in one fail swoop), I think it is definitely a great opportunity to once again “shine the spotlight” on our schools!
As a reminder…
…each of our schools was asked to share in their own words examples of programs and initiatives of what they think makes their school unique, special, excellent, and innovative. We promised to batch and share out as they come in, the first volume of which I published a few weeks ago. It is my pleasure to introduce you to three more of our amazing schools…
Area of Strength/Passion/Specialty: STEAM, Inquiry Based Approach & Science Fair
The Science Department is creating and hosting a competition that will include schools from around the country. Students will have to solve logic problems, engineering challenges, and mathematics problems. This will be conducted live via web based technology.
Brief Description of Current Work/Projects:
C-Span Student Cam 2016 documentary contest
IB –All Middle School teachers are being trained in IB framework as we pursue IB accreditation
Community Outreach – Our Live Streaming continues to be a success with the recent streaming of both the Siddur Ceremony and the Havdalah Ceremony.We have had very positive reviews of our streaming events.
Links to Photos/Articles/Videos of Current Work/Projects:
Through a progressive teaching lens – applying project-based learning and design thinking methodologies – our highly-trained faculty address the individual needs of each child by utilizing a specially developed, integrated curriculum. Indeed, academic excellence is a fundamental goal of Adat Ari El. We maintain a rigorous general and Hebrew/Judaic studies program, combined with top-notch instruction in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math), physical education, and music. Furthermore, ADAT supplements the core curriculum with extensive enrichment opportunities in all areas, as well as academic support, if needed. Our students graduate with all the skills and confidence to succeed in their next educational endeavors, and make a difference in the world.
Brief Description of Current Work/Projects:
Our school philosophy, rooted in the Design Thinking process, launched this year, along with the opening of a new Design Lab. What makes ADAT’s version of Design Thinking different is the added ingredient of empathy. It is the why we are doing what we are doing, not just the what. Jewish values should ultimately guide us to use a process like Design Thinking to gain a deeper understanding of the world around us and challenge us to try and make a difference.
The Design Lab is a creative action-oriented space that will provide heightened learning opportunities and a cutting-edge 21st century learning program – all wrapped up in the Design Thinking process. It is comprised of five different rooms: the Think Tank, Research Café, Development Center, Innovation Lab, and Digital Processing studio, each of which correspond to a step in the Design Thinking process. So, in short, we have an Innovation Lab AND four other rooms that allow our students to bring the Design Thinking philosophy to life.
Links to Photos/Articles/Videos of Current Work/Projects:
Area of Strength/Passion/Specialty: STEM, Hebrew Language, Creative Writing, Critical Thinking
Brief Description of Current Work/Projects:
There’s no doubt that Gross Schechter has always had a strong science and mathematics program. Proof of this can be found in our excellent showing at Science Fair year after year, as well as our graduates’ record of advanced placement in math. However, as an institution committed to best practices and 21st century learning, this year we have incorporated increased hands-on projects and design challenges in the science lab. These projects help students gain critical thinking and problem solving skills through an enhanced science program, which more deeply integrates Science with Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). This integrated approach facilitates learning from an engineering point of view, which fosters creativity and promote participation (and enjoyment) for all students.
In eighth grade, we have combined two curricula, Engineering Fundamentals and Physics by Inquiry. Engineering Fundamentals is supported by The Center for Innovation in Jewish Education (CIJE) and emphasizes the Engineering Design Process. As a testament to our strong foundation in science here at Gross Schechter, we were one of 35 schools selected to receive a grant to implement this special program. In this course, students learn about the role of engineers in society and practice using some design engineering tools, such as drafting tools, computer aided drafting and bridge loading software. Students learn the fundamentals of engineering and then will be presented with design challenges. These challenges will require them to use physical science concepts to design and create a working model that meets the criteria of the design challenge. Our adoption and integration of Physics by Inquiry is supported by The University of Akron Department of Physics and Department of Science Education. In this program,each of the design challenges and activities will be presented without the aid of formulas, laws, or theories. After data gathering and analysis, students will look for patterns and formulate rules that lead them to what we call The Laws of Physics. This approach engages students and keeps them on their toes as they learn through discovery. At Schechter, it’s paramount that education is joyful and engaging (in all subject areas), and that our teaching inspires a lifelong pursuit of learning. We believe that these enhancements to our science program will do just that.
Three more schools of different sizes in different cities all of whom are doing great works, the “Schechter Difference” indeed! We look forward to introducing to you even more of our schools in the weeks and months ahead…
When we think about Purim as parents, we probably think most about this: “What shall I dress my children as this year for Purim?”
But in a hopefully growing number of families, including ours, the question isn’t what are we going to dress our children as for Purim. In our family, we ask ourselves what are we going to dress as for Purim?
I would wager a bet that no more than 10-15% of families attending Purim services and/or carnivals this year will come in costume. Why?
The phenomenon is often referred to as “pedicatric Judaism” and I find that Purim is its paradigmatic Jewish holiday. I Googled “pediatric Judaism” to see who should get credit for its coinage and the best I could come up with was the following from a Reform Judaism Magazine article:
Why, then, the emphasis on what Rabbi Larry Hoffman, professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, calls “pediatric Judaism”? “We have planned for our children only,” he wrote in 1996. “In our understandable anxiety to pass on Judaism as their heritage, we have neglected its spiritual resources for adults, leaving ourselves with no adequate notion of how we too might draw sustenance from our faith as we grow up and grow older.”
That sounds about right.
Far too often, even those who are the most engaged – the ones who do affiliate with synagogues and do try to provide their children with Jewish educational experiences – they work to ensure their children experience and participate, but neglect to include themselves.
When as a graduate student in Los Angeles, I first attended a synagogue in which adults participated in Jewish holiday celebrations as adults – active, joyous and engaged – it was almost surreal. This was not a Judaism for children – costume contests, parades, pony rides and candy (although that may all have been there as well) – but a Judaism that adults took seriously for themselves. They were not lining the walls watching the children within; they were celebrating the joy of being Jewish for themselves.
What’s the danger of “pediatric Judaism”? For me it is the perpetuation of the idea that being Jewish, or perhaps more accurately doing Jewish, is something that is only for children. We are our children’s most powerful role models and teachers and they are surely paying attention. When they can see that we take something seriously, it is a signal to them that they ought to as well. Children learn how to be an adult by watching our adult behaviors. We understand this as parents and so we think carefully about how we behave in front of our children, what kind of language we use, and what kind of values we express and try to live by. So, too, it is with being a Jewish adult. Our children are looking to us to see what adult Jews do and it presents us with a big opportunity and a huge responsibility.
I don’t wish to pile on parents. Jewish schools and institutions play a part as well. If Rabbi Hoffman is correct that adult Jews do not see in Judaism a resource to find their spiritual needs met, we have to be willing to ask the difficult question of why? What programs, classes, experiences, outreach, etc., have we not successfully offered or facilitated that have led to this situation?
We will all need to do more if we are ever to cure ourselves of pediatric Judaism. In our schools and our synagogues, we need to reach out to parents and provide them with the support, education, experiences and love they will need to find the courage to try on new ideas and behaviors. We will need to present a Judaism worthy of the education and sophistication of our parents. Luckily, Judaism contains within it all that and more.
So this year…what are you going to be for Purim? Don’t let your children have all the fun…and don’t let them think that the fun of Purim is only for them!
As I blogged about last week, part of the joy of running the Schechter Network is the opportunity to visit so many of our schools and see firsthand the excellence, the innovation and the impact of the work of our talented leaders and dedicated teachers. We, as a network, have strived in our rebirth to be more cognizant of that excellence and to be more strategic in how we leverage it between our schools. We have focused less energy, however, on trying to use our bully pulpit to shine a brighter light on our schools for the greater good of advocacy and support. We want to try to do better…
…each of our schools was asked to share in their own words examples of programs and initiatives of what they think makes their school unique, special, excellent, and innovative. We promised to batch and share out as they come in.
We have been pleased with the responses so far and look forward to more volumes of the “Schechter Spotlight” after today’s. Without further adieu – and in no particular order – it is our pleasure to introduce you to three of our amazing Schechter schools…
Description of School: Community Day School is a nurturing, academically excellent Jewish day school for the 21st century. From Early Childhood through Middle School, we inspire our students to love learning through innovative teaching methods and hands-on discovery. CDS is a welcoming community where Pittsburgh families who span the spectrum of Jewish belief and practice can learn and connect along with their children. As our students grow in knowledge from preschool through 8th Grade, they grow as people — finding their passions, embracing their Jewish identities, and preparing for successful and meaningful lives.
We’re opening our new 3-year-old program in Fall 2016 (currently accepting applications on a waiting list).
We’re implementing Lucy Calkin’s Writing Workshop curriculum school-wide. This groundbreaking model used by thousands of schools worldwide was developed at the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project (TCRWP) at Columbia University in New York City. It’s a rigorous and engaging curriculum with a proven track record of improving student achievement that transforms children as early as kindergarten into published authors.
Community Day School has been recognized as a Facing History and Ourselves Innovative Schools Network Partner School, and we’ve introduced a rich “Facing Choices” curriculum in Pre-K to Grade 8. As part of this initiative, this year marked the first time that Community Day School was in session for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Instead of taking the day off, we took on the essential themes of this important day together as a school and with the broader Pittsburgh community in a meaningful way that honored the life and legacy of Dr. King.
We’re training interested CDS teachers on each level to coach every grade in mindfulness practices and we’re linking mindfulness to the ancient practice of t’fillah. Our students begin each morning in a meditative space as a way to connect with their past, reset their priorities, and get set for a day of purposeful and sacred work.
We’ve embarked on a visioning process by convening a task force of educators, parents, technologists, and scientists to identify opportunities for innovation and growth related to technology integration at Community Day School.
We’re establishing a Middle School Advisory program.
We’re benchmarking Hebrew language progress with a DIBELS-type Hebrew language assessment being created and piloted for us, as well as piloting “Dvash,” a new program for teaching Hebrew to children with dyslexia and other language-related challenges.
We’re offering a new class for parents of children ages 2-10 years old called Foundations for Jewish Family Living developed by The Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning to enrich the Jewish conversations that naturally emerge around the dinner table when parents and children are able to share their learning.
Area of Strength/Passion/Specialty: Multi-age, personalized learning
At Ner Tamid Community Day School, we do not divide our community of learners by age and grade level. Elementary and middle school aged children have the opportunity to learn together and from one another. Our multi-age classroom supports individual growth through an approach to learning that is child centered rather than curriculum centered. Each child becomes a successful learner on his or her own continuum of growth. The mixed-age environment requires teachers to facilitate the learning of each child rather than to instruct the class as a whole based on predetermined grade-level skills and content. This grouping evolves into a true family of learners.
Brief Description of Current Work/Projects:
We end our week with Passion Project Friday! Each child has the opportunity to explore a topic that is personally interesting to them. Children investigate their topic across the content areas, incorporating everything from science, to Judaics, to Hebrew. They learn research skills, connect with experts on their topic, and end the year with an exposition.
Area of Strength: We’re considered strong in many areas—general studies, for example; our Humanities program; our play-based, Reggio Preschool; critical thinking, our Buddy Program, multi-age learning, etc. I would say if I had to choose one thing to hang our hat on, which encompasses all of that, it’s our individualization. We are known throughout the community for our ability to challenge even the most gifted children while still scaffolding for those who need more support. We teach students, not subjects. People come to us because they feel the other schools treat them like cogs in a machine, not as individuals. They value the individualized attention we provide.
The Dollhouse Project: Our 7th/8th science classes have been studying electricity and circuits. As part of their final project, they had to work in groups to build dollhouses. The houses had to be fully functional with working electricity. Students built every aspect of the house themselves. One even included a working elevator. Photos of the dollhouses can be found on our Facebook page.
The Family Project: Our Preschool is play-based and Reggio-Emilia inspired. Integral to these philosophies is the notion that our curriculum emerges from the students, and the students document their own learning. The Family Project is something the entire Preschool/Kindergarten took on together, and the concept was that each class documented what family means to them, but in a different way. The students created a giant gallery about the concept of family. Here is a blog post that features images from the gallery and some examples of what it looks like for preschool-aged children to document their own work: http://akibablogger.blogspot.com/2015/11/family-is.html. Our Preschool has become a leader in Reggio learning, and last year three of our teachers were selected to visit Reggio Emilia, Italy, to learn about this philosophy at its source, in its original home.
The Mishkan Project: In Tanach class, our 5th/6th graders learning about the Mishkan created 3-D models of the vessels used in Tabernacle. Then, they presented them to parents in a Mishkan fair. The intention was to bring the Mishkan to life through hands-on, collaborative team work, and to be able to present their creations orally to a formal audience. Here is a blog post with photos: http://akibablogger.blogspot.com/?/news/blog/
Mock Appellate Court: As part of their unit on Mesopotamia, one of the 5th/6th History classes is going to be holding a mock appeals court. During their study of Hammurabi’s Code, they found some passages that were remarkably similar to passages in Parshat Mishpatim. They specifically looked at the case of a pregnant woman who is accidentally hit and miscarries. The punishment in each text is different, but the question is the same: is the fetus a human life or the mother’s property? The students then looked at a modern day court case from Massachusetts that deals with the same scenario: Thibert vs. Milka (1995). The students will be simulating a mock appeals court by taking on the roles of appellate lawyers and writing appellate “briefs.” They will do this after analyzing a series of fictional cases and deciding whether these cases hurt or help their position. They are also looking at the various excerpts from the Talmud that deal with this issue.
Three schools of different sizes in different cities all of whom are doing great works, the “Schechter Difference” indeed! We look forward to introducing to you more of our schools in the weeks and months ahead…
My board chair uses a yiddish expression to describe the journey Schechter has been on since our recent rebirth and it translates essentially to “riding two horses with one tuchus“. The metaphor probably explains both why the direction of the Schechter Day School Network has occasionally appeared helter-skelter and why our rumps are sore from travel.
However jarring it might seem from the outside to witness the transition from the Solomon Schechter Day School Association to the Schechter Day School Network to NewOrg over the course of just three years, the truth is that the story of Schechter and many of its schools is the story of NewOrg and that is why I am confident and enthusiastic that NewOrg is a game changer for Schechter and for the field.
Let me state clearly that each organization has its own unique story leading up to this moment. In the here and now, as the leader of Schechter, it is only my place to share our story.
The story of Schechter over the last couple of years is a story of renewal, reconnection, reintroduction and rebirth. I have visited over thirty-five Schechter schools in the last eighteen months and I can testify that the state of our union is strong. There is unequivocally a thing called “Schechter” that includes, but is not limited to, both a clear educational philosophy and a strong sense of Jewish mission and vision. There are broadly shared assumptions about standards, innovation, excellence, rigor, integration, Zionism, Hebrew language acquisition, centrality of prayer, and much more which simply cannot be reduced to policy or schedule or a prayerbook. There are relationships with Conservative Judaism that include synagogues (USCJ), camp (Ramah), youth movements USY), and academia (JTS and AJU) and our schools have a multivalent relationship with the movement that is not a weakness of either, but a strength of both.
The story of Schechter is that of a big tent where Schechter schools share an overwhelming majority of critical characteristics that taken together clearly identify them as “Schechter” while preserving sufficient room for schools to be who they are in an ever-changing, ever-more-blurry Jewish world. I blogged at length early in our rebirth about how all Schechter schools (really all Jewish day schools) are by some definition “community schools” and I revisit that notion here only to suggest that among many catalysts and forces that led to NewOrg, one that I believe is deserving of inclusion is the reemergence of Schechter as a vital force in the field. Our work helped clarify that some boundaries are more permeable than others; that some lines had grown more blurry than others and that the future of Schechter and the field would require a healthy re-imagination of that adjacent possible.
And that brings us to NewOrg.
NewOrg makes possible for Jewish day schools what the current constellation of organizations could not – the ability to be defined across a multiplicity of domains and the opportunity to be resourced as such. Schools will no longer be reduced to one definition as a result of politics or size or religious affiliation or cost. NewOrg is the promise of personalized organizational support equal to that which our leaders and teachers require and our students deserve. If you are a Schechter school by virtue of your Jewish mission and vision, a community school by virtue of your pluralistic enrollment, Hebrew immersed by virtue of your approach to second-language acquisition, Zionist by virtue of the centrality of Israel, “21st century” by virtue of your beliefs about innovation and educational technology, fiscally safeguarded by virtue of your endowment programs, etc., etc., etc., then your school will engage with NewOrg along and across all these dimensions with the people and resources necessary to be the most successful version of your authentic self.
That’s why we believe this is a huge “win-win” and a gigantic “yes, and” for Schechter.
It is also why we believe this is a huge win for Conservative Judaism.
I’ll have more to say about this in upcoming posts, but for now let us be clear that the opportunities NewOrg presents are not only about what Schechter schools get, but what Schechter has to offer the field. It makes it possible for the vision for Jewish day school that makes Schechter “Schechter” accessible to other schools who resemble Schechter schools in myriad ways. There are Schechter schools whose Jewish mission and vision are either determined or informed by normative Conservative Jewish beliefs and practices. But there are a significant number of other schools whose centrist Jewish mission and vision mirror Conservative Jewish beliefs and practices. NewOrg will provide those schools access to Schechter expertise and resources proven successful in a centrist Jewish context. So not only is Schechter’s influence not reduced by NewOrg, we believe it is significantly enhanced, and with it the ability to share in the education of thousands upon thousands of Conservative Jewish children who attend other day schools.
NewOrg does not resolve each issue nor solve each problem facing Schechter or the field. Not even close. Affordability, relevance, and excellence are just three categories of work NewOrg will need to address in bold new ways to fulfill its promise. There remains many questions unanswered and an accelerated transition process during which to answer them. Not to mention our guarantee to the commitments of the here and now. Our accountability to our schools and our programs remains as we navigate the path from here to there.
The story of the Schechter Day School Network may not turn out to be the longest chapter in Schechter’s narrative, in fact, it is likely to be its shortest. But we believe wholeheartedly that it will go down as amongst its most impactful and historic. The narrative of Schechter will now be interwoven with the narratives of our sister organizations and of NewOrg itself. We pray that together we will write a new and powerful chapter for our children, our communities, and our people.
Why are these nights different than all other nights?
Wrong holiday, I know.
But there is actually something powerfully different about Chanukah that has much to teach us about the power of experiences and a pedagogy of meaning…
Chanukah is the only Jewish holiday without a sacred text of its own. (There is a Book of Maccabees, but it is part of the Catholic Bible.) Instead of a public reading, we are commanded to bear silent witness to the miracles of the season with a public doing – the lighting of candles in a window.
For me the pedagogical takeaway isn’t so much the “silence” as it is the “act”. It is an action that anyone can take; it is not so ritualistically complex that only the most knowledgable amongst us can perform it. It is an action performed publicly and in the home. And it is an act through which the meaning can be found through the doing. It is truly and act of “na’aseh v’nishma“.
This quotation from the Torah (Exodus 24:7) has been interpreted in many ways in Jewish tradition. The meaning which speaks most deeply to me is: “We will do and then we will understand.” This meaning comes from a rabbinic story (also called “midrash”) that explains Israel’s unconditional love for the Torah. The midrash is as follows:
When the Children of Israel were offered the Torah they enthusiastically accepted the prescriptive mitzvot (commandments) as God’s gift. Israel collectively proclaimed the words “na’aseh v’nishma “, “we will do mitzvot and then we will understand them”. Judaism places an emphasis on performance and understanding spirituality,
values, community, and the self through deed.
Simply put, we learn best by doing.
This idea has powerfully stimulated my own Jewish journey and informs my work as a Jewish educator. I think there are two major implications from this: One, regardless of the institution, we have a responsibility to provide access to informal Jewish educational programs to our young people. Two, our formal educational institutions can stand to learn from what makes informal work. Namely, I believe strongly in education that is active, interactive, dynamic, and most importantly experiential. It is one thing to teach Judaism; it is something more powerful to teach people how to live Judaism.
It is one thing to teach social action; it is identity forming for our children to go out into the world as part of their Jewish Studies experience and make the world a better place by doing social action.
It is one thing to read about Israel; it is transformative to visit Israel. (Now more than ever.)
And for this time of year?
It is one thing to study Chanukah; it is something infinitely more meaningful to light a menorah in the window, surrounded by family.
So please next week let’s gather together in our windows to light the Chanukah candles.
In addition, this and each Chanukah, let’s not forget our Jewish values of tzedakah (charity) and kehillah (community). Along with your normal gift-giving, consider donating a night or two of your family’s celebration to those less fortunate than ourselves.
We have come out of Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur and headed straight into Sukkot. I have just finished my frame and look forward to this Sunday and when we will finish the decorations and usher in the holiday as a family.
This is absolutely my favorite holiday of the entire year. There is nothing else like it on the Jewish Calendar – sitting outside in a sukkah you built yourself (which is pretty much the one and only thing I actually can and do build), with handmade decorations from your children, enjoying good food with friends and family in the night air, the citrusy smell of etrog lingering and mixing with verdant lulav – this is project-based Judaism at its finest.
But here is a complicated truth: Even though our Jewish day schools will be closed on Monday and Tuesday for Sukkot, it is reasonable to assume that a sizable number of our Jewish day school students will not be found in neither synagogue nor sukkot enjoying what is known as “The Season of our Rejoicing”. But I’d wager that many, if not most, were in synagogue this week for Yom Kippur.
So when it comes to “atoning” we have a full house, but for “rejoicing” we have empty seats?
If our children – if we – only experience the Judaism of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and not the Judaism of Sukkot, the simple truth is that we are not exposing them to the full range of beauty and joy our tradition has to offer.
So why, in fact, is this what typically happens?
I’m not entirely sure, but I think it has to do with the exotic nature of the holiday. As someone who did not grow up celebrating this holiday, upon coming to synagogue as an adult and watching a congregation march in circles waving fruits and branches – well this was not the Judaism I knew!
No one likes to feel uncomfortable and adults especially are wary of feeling uneducated or unprepared. I know how I felt encountering Jewish ritual for the first time as an adult – it was scary. I, however, was lucky. I was pursuing a degree in Jewish education and, therefore, had all the support and resources I needed to learn and grow. I realize that most adults coming at Jewish practice for the first time (or the first time in a while) are not so lucky. The amount of “stuff” Judaism asks of us to do – building the sukkah with precise specifications, shaking the lulav and etrog in the proscribed way, chanting less-familiar prayers, coming to synagogue on unfamiliar days – can be overwhelming.
But that’s also why it can be project-based Jewish living at its finest!
Don’t lose the forest through the trees…I’d simply ask you to consider this: When building your child’s library of Jewish memories, which memory feels more compelling and likely to resonate over time – sitting in starched clothes in sanctuary seats or relaxing with friends and family in an outdoor sukkah built with love and care?
You don’t have to choose just one, of course, that is the beauty of crafting a project-based life of sacred time. Come to synagogue for the High Holidays, to be sure. But don’t miss out on Sukkot (or Simchat Torah or Shavuot or “Add Jewish Holiday Here”). You can’t build a palace of time with only two beams (however “High” and “Holy” they may be)…
Let this Sukkot be your and your family’s experiment with project-based living. Build a sukkah or visit one. March with lulav and etrog. Eat outside. Experience the fragility of God’s world. Be glad. Make a memory.
Let this Sukkot truly be the season of our great rejoicing.
“My people were brought to America in chains,” Martin Luther King Jr. told the American Jewish Congress’ Biennial in 1958. “Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.”
Each year, as Jewish day schools prepare to honor the legacy of Dr. King with special programming and content, I am reminded of how important it is that we prepare our students to live in the world outside the Jewish community. This year, in light of current events both at home (which I wrote about a few weeks ago) and abroad, I am especially reminded.
It is not that diversity is absent in the Jewish schools. One typically finds a range of national origins, ethnicities and social classes within the walls of the school and students have ample opporunity to learn how to get along in a diverse community. However, when it comes to racial diversity, I feel we have a special responsibility in light of the historic relationship between the Jewish community and the civil rights movement (see “Selma” for example. Seriously…go see it). Although we make an effort to expose our students to the larger world around them, the simple fact is that they do spend most of their days in a wholly Jewish environment. However, the Jewish values of kehillah (community) and tikkun olam (repairing the world) extend beyond the Jewish community. Our educational responsibility is prepare our students to be citizens of the city, state, nation, and world in which they live.
You’ll find this reflected in our choice of library books and posters in which we do our best to present a range of cultures. You will see it expressed in the “hidden curriculum” by how we devote school time in both general and Jewish studies to learn about, experience, and commemorate the wonderful holidays of our shared cultures. As we study the life of Dr. King and his continued impact on our society, we are reminded of the words of the prophet Isaiah (42:6-7), “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have appointed you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, and from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
May Monday’s holiday be a reminder that we live in a world still in need of healing and an opporunity to do our small part in its repair.