Principals Perspective (May 2023) - Dr. Lisa Vardi
Dr. Lisa Vardi

The Case for a Jewish Day School Education

On the evening of Sunday, April 16, I opened my mailbox to find a yellow candle from the Men’s Club of my synagogue, B’nai Israel, along with a note from our rabbis asking that we light the candle on Monday evening, April 17 (27 Nisan), Erev Yom Ha-Shoah, and recite the Yom HaShoah meditation which included the following line:

May we be inspired to learn more about our six million brothers and sisters as individuals
and as communities, to recall their memory throughout the year, so that they will not
suffer a double death. May we recall not only the terror of their deaths, but also the
splendor of their lives.

I had been away for most of the Passover break with family and friends on the west coast. The candle was the lone item in my mailbox when I returned. It reminded me of the eight-day trip to Poland and the Czech Republic I had taken in March with 61 CESJDS recent graduates, part of the Irene & Daniel Simpkins Senior Capstone Israel Trip. It was a remarkable experience, one I will never forget. What was most extraordinary was watching the educational and genealogical pieces fit together for our graduates. They were able to make meaning of what they had learned in school and in their families. The outcome - confident, compassionate thinkers who engage the world through Jewish values with a strong Jewish identity.

Our students study European Jewish history in the 10th grade in a year-long Modern Jewish History course, one of three Jewish history courses our students are required to take. Throughout the 10th grade course, students explore the progression and development of Jewish history in western and eastern Europe, including intensive study of the Holocaust, as well as closely examining the development of the American Jewish community. These courses are the building blocks, the foundational pieces of the students’ Jewish identity. Without this knowledge, the Eastern European trip would not have been as transformational.

While in Poland and the Czech Republic, students drew on their 10th grade learning to understand how vibrant Jewish life had been in Eastern Europe and the tragedy of the Holocaust. We visited Warsaw, Lublin, Lancut, Krakow, and Oswiecim, Poland, as well as Terezin and Prague, Czech Republic. In each place we learned about vibrant Jewish life by visiting places of learning (such as Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin, Galicia Jewish Museum, Krakow Jewish Community Center, Jewish Museum in Prague) and of worship (such as Łańcut Synagogue, Tempel Synagogue, Secret Synagogue of Terezín). 

We also visited concentration (Plaszow, Terezín) and death camps (Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau) where our students led t’kasim/ceremonies to honor the victims and share family stories of survival and loss. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, Jaimin Weiss, shared the inspirational story of his grandfather, David Weiss Halivni z”l, a survivor, who dedicated his life to the study of Talmud and the raising of his family. Surrounded by his lifelong classmates, many wrapped in Israeli flags and wearing stars of David, Jaimin pledged the following:

I am here today to say that I remember. We remember. You didn’t die in vain. 
You held your Jewish identity… We will tell your stories. But being the last generation
to live amongst Holocaust survivors means more than just sharing your stories. It means
living your traditions, values, and customs that Hitler so vehemently despised. We, the
Jewish kids, strive to continue your legacy by living out the Judaism that you were killed
for maintaining. It is our responsibility to light the the candles on Shabbat, eat a Shabbat
meal, and dance on Purim. We must do it because you cannot.

I know Jaimin and his classmates will live their Jewish values and change the world for the better.

The first day back from Passover break, Monday, April 17, was exceptionally busy in the High School. I arrived home quite late that evening. When I entered my house, I immediately lit my yellow candle, placed it in my kitchen window and recited the Yom Ha-Shoah meditation, which also included a commitment “to live meaningful Jewish lives so that we may help to ensure that part of who they were shall endure always.” 

My recitation took on more meaning with an increased commitment to combat antisemitism and to support remembrance, knowing fewer eyewitnesses will be here in the near future to tell their stories. I also felt hope for future generations. Why? Because I had experienced the power of a Jewish day school education in the hallways and classrooms of the Upper School earlier that day and in Poland and the Czech Republic with the Class of 2023 in mid-March. Students must know who they are, from where they come, and the values they will embrace before going out into the world to make meaning of their lives. The education we deliver at CESJDS gives them the tools to do just that.