Head of School Blog

Education Matters - One Head of School's reflections on education, Jewish education and the Jewish world

Practicing Gratitude This School Year

I don’t know about you, but it feels like we have finally turned a corner in the pandemic that we have all been living through the past two and half years. The start of this school year feels different, it feels more typical, and I have felt a tremendous amount of excitement and energy as we approached the first day of the academic year.

I want to reflect today, the first day of school, on the concept and character trait of gratitude and connect it to our school-wide theme, Thriving. Despite all of the challenges, all of the canceled events, all of the disappointments during these pandemic years, the pervading feeling I had and want to cultivate this school year is one of gratitude. Despite everything that has happened I think we have come to realize that we are all fortunate and we all have so many wonderful blessings in our lives. 

The Hebrew term for gratitude is hakarat hatov, which literally means “recognizing the good.” The good you see is already there, it is present in all of our lives despite the challenges we may face. Practicing gratitude means being fully aware of the good that is already yours. Alan Morinis, author of Everyday Holiness, writes that “[w]hen you open yourself to experience the trait of gratitude, you will discover with clarity and accuracy how much good there is in your life” and in the world.

In his classic medieval work, Duties of the Heart, Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pakuda (1050-1120) teaches that we all tend to suffer a kind of blindness that keeps us from seeing and appreciating everything we have. 

First, he tells us that we don't feel appreciation because we are too absorbed in the world. We are constantly looking for more and so we tend to not have gratitude. Second, we are so used to all the blessings we have that we don’t really see them. And last, we are so focused on the challenges and the things that may not be as we would like, that we forget all the many blessings.

Ibn Pakuda teaches us that with practice, we can cultivate a sense of appreciation and gratitude. All we have to do is recognize all of the wonderful gifts and blessings we have and focus on those, focus on the positive. Contemporary research in psychology indicates the very same thing, when we are positive and optimistic, we begin to feel more positive and optimistic.

So, this year, as we move forward from all the challenges we have faced, let’s each make it our intention to be grateful for everything we have, to recognize our blessings, and to embrace a spirit of gratitude.

The above is based on Rabbi Malkus’ opening remarks to students in the middle school and high school at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School on August 30, 2022.

The Critical Role Hebrew Language Learning Plays in Identity Development

This past Sunday, I participated on a panel for Hebrew at the Center’s annual Hitkadmut Hebrew Educators Conference. The group’s focus was on “systemic strategies for integrating Hebrew through schools” and on the head’s role in this work.

As I prepared for the discussion, I found myself initially thinking a lot about supporting teachers and programs and about the research on language learning for students. All of the heads on the panel are from schools working with Hebrew at the Center and, while at different stages, each employs a research-based teaching methodology recommended by the American Council of the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) with a focus on speaking and comprehension. 

Numerous studies indicate that students experience cognitive benefits as a result of second language learning, particularly when the target language is so different from the native language with a different alphabet and directionality. Research shows that learning a second language improves your performance in other academic areas, enhances your memory and other brain functions, and can help increase your understanding of the languages you already speak. 

All of these are excellent reasons why learning Hebrew is important. At the same time, these benefits are available from learning other languages, so why is learning Hebrew so important in a Jewish day school environment and why should schools and families be investing in learning 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 analogy, Bialik was expressing that every language conveys feelings, nuances, and the emotional domain that are unique to itself. It is impossible to have a full appreciation for Hebrew texts and literature in translation.

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 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 religious outlook. Hebrew enables students to be part of our over 4,000 year history as a Jewish people.

For these reasons and their application to identity development, it is vital for schools and families to commit themselves to supporting research-based methods of Hebrew instruction and evaluation. (And it does not hurt that students will be advancing their academics and brain functioning too!)

Read more from Rabbi Malkus' Blog