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Sukkot and Building Covenantal School Communities
Rabbi Mitch Malkus

Starting with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, one of the themes of the Jewish holidays at the start of the Jewish new year is the juxtaposition between the universal and the particular. Rosh Hashanah is a day that commemorates the birthday of the world, of all humanity – certainly a universal day if ever there was one. However, the Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah is the particularistic narrative about the birth of Isaac and the mantle of the tradition being passed down from Abraham to Isaac.

This juxtaposition culminates with the festival of Sukkot. Some see the days of the holiday as the seven days of feasting after a wedding, but who is invited to these wedding celebrations? All the nations of the world, all peoples, are invited to a universal Sukkah. The biblical prophet Isaiah exclaims, "For My house shall be called the house of prayer for all peoples. Thus declares Adonai, God, who gathers the dispersed of Israel." (Isaiah 56: 7-8). Isaiah saw the Jewish people's particularistic, unique identity and message bringing the entire world closer together, closer to peace.

We can also view the relationship between the universal and the particular as the relationship between the individual and the community. In his book, The Home We Build Together, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addresses this issue within the context of how liberal democracies build social cohesion while honoring the dignity of individual differences. Sacks argues that the notion of a social contract no longer is able to guide our understanding of community. Instead, he argues that we should consider using the concept of covenant to imagine our individual role within a community:

For Sacks, contracts are agreements for mutual advantage. They are undertaken by individuals or groups on the basis of self-interest. They have specific purposes and can be terminated by mutual consent. Covenants, on the other hand, are moral commitments, and they are open-ended. They are sustained not by letter of law or by self-interest, but by loyalty, fidelity, faithfulness.

I read recently that the Head of the Trinity School in Manhattan cited Lord Rabbi Sacks in a letter to parents. That head suggested that the "contractual view of school is that families pay fees in exchange for the educational skills and credentials their children seek; the covenantal view of school is that families enter into a partnership with the school to build a learning community in which their children will develop their potential to serve others."

I like to believe that the vast majority of families in private independent schools and Jewish day school seek a covenantal relationship with their schools. They believe that the community plays a strong role in the education of their children and that they must contribute to that community in order for it to continue to thrive.

Covenantal communities are built on the contributions of their individual members. When the individual unique members of the community contribute to the larger body, they collectively create something greater than they could have built alone. This model for community honors and values individual differences and at the same time recognize that the universal has value and meaning for individuals. A covenantal community balances particular needs with communal norms and values beyond the transactional.

Hebrew and Jewish Peoplehood

This past week I was invited along with leaders of universities, college campus programs, Israel trips, camps and other educational programs to participate in a discussion on elevating the status of Hebrew language in the North American Jewish community.

Over the years, it has been pointed out that North American Jews, more so Americans, do not have the same level of Hebrew proficiency as do Jews in other countries. Some opine that this is because English is the lingua franca across the globe. Others believe that Hebrew language proficiency is not essential for participating in Jewish life in North America.

Leon Wieseltier has called it a "scandal" that American Jews are, to his understanding, "the first great community in the history of [the Jewish people] that believes that it can receive, develop, and perpetuate the Jewish tradition not in a Jewish language."

During the discussion on challenges that needed to be overcome for more American Jews to become proficient in Hebrew, the group kept returning to the need to articulate "why" it is essential to learn Hebrew. I believe this is just as much the case in day schools, where we see a commitment to Hebrew, as it is among the broader Jewish community.

Recently, Alex Pomson and Jack Wertheimer published a study commissioned by the Avi Chai Foundation on the teaching of Hebrew language in day schools. One finding of their work is that there is an urgent need to make a clear, eloquent and multi-faceted case to students, parents and teachers for why day school students need to develop fluency in classical and modern Hebrew.

So here is my rationale for why students, and American Jews overall, should develop proficiency in Hebrew.

Hebrew is the essential connective thread to Jewish Civilization, Jewish peoplehood, Israel and its people, and to most Jewish literature. Hebrew provides a sense of belonging and familial connection, and offers access to the historical references and meanings conveyed in classical Jewish ideas, texts, constructs, and memories. Hebrew competency is an essential element in understanding modern Israel and its people and culture.

Hayim Nahman Bialik, the pioneer of modern Hebrew poetry, wrote over a century ago that "reading a poem in translation is like kissing a woman through a veil." With apologies for his gendered analogy, Bialik was expressing that every language conveys feelings, nuances, and the affective domain that are unique to itself. Only the Hebrew language links us to the past, present, and future of the Jewish people, and to a specific land. No other language – and Jews have spoken many Jewish languages throughout our history – bonds us to the soul of our history, textual tradition, people, and the land of Israel than Hebrew does.

There are very compelling educational reasons for teaching Hebrew that relate to 21st century learning skills and brain research, but these arguments can be made for other languages as well. At the end of the day, Hebrew alone holds the potential to cement the union between Jews around the world with each other and our heritage, no matter our geography or our theological outlook.

Ritual and Observance as Education

The late Harvard University Professor of Philosophy and Education, Israel Scheffler, purposes that the rabbis saw Judaism's rich symbolic system of ritual and holiday observances as containing educative potential. The rituals themselves are an educational experience for those who perform them. Scheffler says that rituals perform three symbolic functions.

Denotation: First, rituals pick out various events and aspects of life associated with Jewish history and each with distinctive associated values. By repeated occurrence, the rituals and observances bring participants into continual contact with these values.

Expression: Ritual actions, according to Scheffler, have a second function beyond denotation. Just as a painting may express joy or nostalgia while denoting a landscape, a rite may express a feeling or attitude while portraying a historical event. For example, Pesah, brings with it feeling the bitterness of slavery and the joy of redemption. The repeated exposure to such symbolized values shapes the character and sensibility of the participants over time.

Reenactment: Ritual performances allude indirectly to previous performances. Each new Seder calls to mind Seders past. Each Passover Seder, in effect, alludes to previous performances while at the same time portraying the Exodus and expressing the joy of liberation. The repetition of the rites also serves another purpose beyond shaping individual perceptions – that is the development of tradition – the sense that with each repetition of the ritual, we are doing a repetition.

As Rosh Hashanah approaches, we have an opportunity to experience these days using Scheffler's three symbolic functions as a framework to assist us in making sense of our experiences and tapping further into their meaning. However we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, either in synagogue, performing rituals at home, or together with friends and family, our observances denote specific ideas and values that express feelings or attitudes. As we perform these rituals and observances, we are connected both to the ideas and feelings that lie behind these rituals and to our previous performances of these rituals. Each experience with ritual and observance conveys meaning and connects us indirectly to our past performances
A Caring Relationship is at the Center of Outstanding Teaching

With schools beginning this month across the United States, I have been focusing on what intentions educators have as they enter the academic year. People choose teaching for many reasons and I believe that, universally, teachers care about their students. I have been privileged to work with hundreds of educators who are passionate about what they do. Nel Noddings, the Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, Emerita, at Stanford University, asks teachers to think beyond "care" in the sense that they conscientiously pursue certain goals for their student and work hard to achieve those goals. When Noddings speaks of "care," she is arguing that educators establish relationships of care and trust.

The relational sense of caring forces us to say that it is not enough to hear the teacher's claim to care. Does the student recognize that he or she is cared for? Is the teacher thought by the student to be a caring teacher? In this relational sense of caring, we need to look at both what teacher's intentions are and how students experience those intentions.

In her work "Caring and Competence" (1999), Noddings suggests that caring relationships provide the foundation for successful pedagogical activity. When we listen to our students we gain their trust, and in an on-going relationship of care and trust, it is more likely that students will accept what we try to teach. Building this type of caring relationship allows students to see learning as cooperative with the teacher rather than teaching as something we do to students.

After gaining their students' trust, Nodding's second stage of care is for teachers to engage those students in dialogue. Teachers learn about their students' needs, working habits, interests, and talents. Knowing the student in this way enables teachers to plan for their individual progress.

According to Noddings, the final area of concern in building caring relationships is related to what she calls competence. As teachers acquire knowledge about their students' needs and realize how much is needed beyond the curriculum, teachers are inspired to increase their own competence. Teachers who live in caring relationships with their students aspire to greater goals with their learners.

The writer and educator Parker Palmer tells of the time he walked into a college classroom during his third decade of teaching. He went into the classroom grateful for the opportunity to teach but when he came home that evening he was convinced that once again he would never "master this baffling vocation." Annoyed with his students and embarrassed by his own "blunders" Palmer wondered "might it be possible at my age, to find a new line of work, maybe even something I know how to do?"

Palmer, like Noddings, concludes that education is ultimately relational and that beyond the techniques and strategies he has at his disposal, he must be authentic with his students. For Palmer, that means a strong sense of self. Only by knowing yourself can you connect with students, and connect students to your subject. For Noddings, a caring relationship with students is at the core of pedagogical success. This is the message I shared with my faculty as we head into the school year.

This blog is based on part of the welcome address Rabbi Malkus delivered at the start of CESJDS Staff Week on August 21, 2017.

Some Guidelines for Parents and Educators on Charlottesville

When neo-Nazis demonstrated in a University town, in broad day light, and perpetrated violence, I was personally disgusted and troubled. I also needed to formulate a response as a parent and an educator.

For generations of Jews of who have borne witness, it is painful. It is particularly painful to witness this awful display of hatred at a time when we thought our country had moved beyond such expressions of hatred. I was shocked at the overt racism of the KKK and white supremacists and the brashness they displayed in shouting slogans like "Jews will not replace us."

As a parent, I have values that I hold dear and that I want to impart to my children. I believe all people are equal and deserve equitable opportunities to live a meaningful and secure life. I would like to prepare my children to live in a diverse world while being secure and proud of their own identity. I value living in a democracy where people are free to express their opinions and beliefs, even when they are abhorrent to me. I believe that as people learn about each other, they see our shared humanity, and use this recognition to address bias, stereotypes, and yes, hateful tendencies that are often emanate out of ignorance.

For parents, I think it is important to speak with our children directly about the incidents that took place in Charlottesville. Children need to hear from us that they are safe, and they also need to hear what we value and hold dear. Childhood psychologists contend that discussing difficult topics that hit close to home in age-appropriate ways is good for children's social and emotional development. Finally, it is a good practice to ask your children questions about what they know about Charlottesville. Knowing what your children know and how they are feeling enables parents to speak directly to their needs and fears.

Over thirty years ago, in Skokie, Ill., members of the Nazi Party of America sought to march in a community where 40,000 of the approximately 70,000 residents were Jewish. While the march never actually took place, my father took me to a huge counter rally in a neighboring town. I will always remember being there, a little scared of the emotionally charged environment, but empowered that I was part of the response to the hatred that was proposed. That was one of the most profound experiences I have ever had and it taught me to not be afraid to speak up, despite the fact that I was just 12 years old at the time.

As an educator, I believe that we should be addressing political issues directly. While I hold steadfast to the principle that educational institutions and teachers remain non-partisan because of the unequal power dynamics that exist in K-12 environments, research shows that students who participate in political discussions are more likely to engage as citizens when they are older. In a values-based environment, it is also essential to live and teach by the principles we espouse.

I am committed to creating learning environments that embrace differences of opinion and foster civil discourse. Teachers have a powerful role to serve by modeling positively how to have conversations. I am particularly insistent that history be used to ground those discussions; this is something that is essential for learning. Classroom communities also need to establish shared norms by discussing and setting clear rules and expectations for participation. Lastly, I feel it is important to prepare students for the conversations they have, and for educators to provide multiple modes for learners to participate in discussions and to reflect on both their ideas and views they do not share.

Our children and students are looking to us as parents and educators to see how we are responding to the hatred that was revealed in Charlottesville. We have an opportunity to teach students about their values, and to model a civil discourse that is all too infrequent in our society.

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