What Exactly Is A Schechter Education Anyway?

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.

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
  • Egalitarian
  • Inclusive of children with special needs (where adequate resources exist)
  • Inclusive of LGBT students, families and faculty
  • Educating the whole child
  • Differentiated and personalized learning
  • Interactive curriculum
  • Best practices across both Jewish and General Studies instruction
  • Zionist
  • Sound governance
  • Schools of and for the communities they exist to serve
  • Dedicated to faculty growth

Family Ties

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:

  1. What would you add to the list of characteristics of the Schechter family?
  2. 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.

Author: Jon Mitzmacher

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher is the Head of the Ottawa Jewish Community School. Jon is studying to be a rabbi at the Academy for Jewish Religion and is on the faculty of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) as a mentor. 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.

2 thoughts on “What Exactly Is A Schechter Education Anyway?”

  1. Thank you Jon. I commend the effort to define to some degree Schechter schools and my overwhelming question is whether we need to have a definition any longer. As you said, any one of these things may or may not exist in a Schechter school or any other day school and while I understand that we have inherited an idea of definition, I wonder if it is at all necessary at this point.

  2. Jon, I always enjoy your blog posts and really appreciate this opportunity to think about what exactly IS a Schechter school. For our new school, completing our second year, Schechter schools are a strong network of schools that support and guide one another. I have been amazing by this network of support. I truly feel like our new, small school is part of a larger family who is eager to see us succeed.

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