Jon A. Levisohn
At the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis, we’re used to hosting conferences of various sizes. At least once a year and usually more often, we bring together groups of scholars, practitioners, and other stakeholders to share ideas and learn from one another. But each time, those first moments catch me off guard. After all the planning, all the coordinating and communicating, all the preparation, people show up on campus and this thing—which had been abstract and conceptual—emerges into a concrete existence. It’s kind of miraculous.
Our conference this year, chaired by my colleague Jonathan Krasner and me, focused on Jewish day schools. But more specifically, we wanted to draw attention to questions of teaching and learning. Hence our title: “Inside Jewish Day Schools.” Some of our plenary sessions explored questions of race and ethnicity, class and economic justice, and gender and sexuality. Other sessions focused on pluralism, teacher preparation, and teachers’ conceptions of purposes, as well as on the teaching and learning of classical Jewish texts, Hebrew language, and Israel.
In the coming days, we will share some reflections from conference participants, cross-posted with our colleagues at Prizmah. Today, we offer two: one from Dr. Sarah Levy, Director of Jewish Life and Learning at Denver Jewish Day School, and a second from Rav-Hazzan Dr. Scott Sokol, Head of School at MetroWest Jewish Day School in Framingham, MA.
. . . these sessions focused on some of the biggest challenges in American education today and highlighted that day schools, while unique in the educational landscape, are not unique in other ways . . .
After the first roundtable, a session called “Embracing Diversity, Teaching Equity: Race and Ethnicity in Jewish Day School” … it seemed as if we were left with lots of questions and no answers. And that was the theme of the afternoon as a session about gender and sexuality was followed by a session about privilege and class, and a session about the emotional climates in Jewish day schools ended the day. During each session, the conversation focused on challenges that are prevalent in Jewish day schools, but not the kinds of challenges that are usually the focus of day school conferences. We didn’t focus on the questions that tend to occupy our daily thoughts in the world of practice such as meeting our fundraising goals, lowering attrition, raising the bar for academic excellence and supporting our teachers in 21st century methodologies.
Rather these sessions focused on some of the biggest challenges in American education today and highlighted that day schools, while unique in the educational landscape, are not unique in other ways, and these are all topics that need to be addressed in our schools. Equity in education is something to discuss, even amongst our population, as race and ethnicity impact our students both inside and outside of our buildings. Questions about gender and sexuality concern our students, not in spite of the fact that they are Jewish, but sometimes even more so because they attend Jewish day school. Economic and class distinctions impact the nature of our schools and who attends our schools. Sure, we’re not driven by standardized testing in the same way as public schools, but the pressure to succeed is just as high, if not higher.
Instead of going to bed depressed, however, at the thought of these never-ending questions without an answer in sight, I ended the day inspired. I had spent all day in different rooms with incredibly thoughtful, committed and passionate people who all happened to be thoughtful, committed and passionate about Jewish day school education. We’d spent the day considering my favorite question: “How can we do what’s best for kids?” Except we’d taken this question to the next level, considering how we can what’s best for all of our kids in all of our schools, not just tomorrow, but into the future.
. . . being able to confer with colleagues from both sides of the aisle has been a rare treat.
Scott then wrote:
I’ve spent the last two days immersed with colleagues from academia and the Jewish day school world at a unique conference titled “Inside Jewish Day Schools.” My own background is as an academic who now finds himself Head of School of a Jewish day school (MetroWest Jewish Day School in Framingham), so being able to confer with colleagues from both sides of the aisle has been a rare treat.
The first day looked at some big questions about the field including the demographics of our students and issues surrounding gender, race and economic privilege. These were interesting to me, but not so much as today’s topics, which were more content-related. I especially enjoyed the sessions this morning on Hebrew language instruction, and its motivations and methodologies within Jewish day schools. This is an area I myself have presented on at past conferences, and I continue to be fascinated by the many intricacies and nuances of Hebrew language instruction.
I was struck again after remarks by Dr. Scott Goldberg of Yeshiva University that literacy is an extremely important dimension of Hebrew language instruction, often neglected from serious consideration when planning our curricula and pedagogy. This neglect though is at our own peril, as Scott pointed out. A great deal of research has shown that children who struggle in literacy end up evidencing very high degrees of social and academic difficulties throughout their lives. This is equally true in Hebrew for day school students as it is in English. Given all that we now know about reading acquisition, it is critical that we provide proper literacy training to our Hebrew teachers, many of whom find themselves qualified for teaching Hebrew merely because they happen to be native speakers (i.e., Israeli). We can and need to do much better than that by our early Hebrew readers.
We are grateful to both Sarah and Scott for their participation in the conference, and for these reflections.