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Head of School Blog

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

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How are Jews Practicing Religion Today?
Rabbi Mitch Malkus

How are Jews Practicing Religion Today?

I had the opportunity this last month to read Jack Wertheimer's recently published The New American Judaism, a broad ethnographic study of how American Jews practice their religion. In order to understand the lived experience of Jews in 21st Century America, Wertheimer interviewed over 200 rabbis from across the religious spectrum, observed countless synagogues and community events, and drew upon recent survey data and contemporary studies. Professor Wertheimer, who teaches Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary and has written extensively on modern Jewish history, is an expert observer of the American Jewish scene.

Wertheimer's presents "Let My People Sing", an annual gathering in the Berkshire mountain range that draws Haredi, Conservative, Reform, Orthodox and adherents from every Jewish expression of religious thought and practice in the United States as a paradigmatic representation of the trends in 21st Century Jewish America. The event is pluralistic, attracting a wide range of Jews interested in learning about and from each other. Traditional and contemporary melodies are sung. Wertheimer sees in the event a "remixing" of elements, media, approaches and technologies. His observations of contemporary Jewish life lead him to suggest that we are living in a period of remixing, something that he describes "at times is subversive, and at other times pays homage to traditional Judaism."

Pluralistic Jewish education is not new to this idea of mixing or remixing different aspects of Judaism to create a rich tapestry for learners from a diversity of backgrounds. From my vantage point as Head of School at the largest pluralistic day school in the country, I have the opportunity to watch this remix on a daily basis. Some of this takes place on a curricular level. One example from my school is a beginning collaboration with California Polytechnic University in studying the use of robotics instruction to problem-solve for social and environmental action. Students will use robots to problem solve and test ideas for people with disabilities. This example involves students engaging in STEM learning for tz'dakah and tikkun olam is at the edge of the remixing on an educational level.

Sometimes this remixing appears in student programming. Just the other day I was walking through the halls at the Upper School and saw a flier for Relaxation Rosh Hodesh. The Mental Health Awareness Club indicates that its first session is Mindfulness + Meditation Monday. The students themselves are mixing contemporary practices for spirituality with Rosh Hodesh, the celebration of the Jewish new month.

To a great extent, what is reflected in the corridors and classrooms in Jewish day schools is a reflection of the broader trends that Wertheimer has richly documented in his research. At the same time, the programs and the students are the next generation that will be adding to the emergent remix in American Jewish life. As we watch American Jewish life develop in the coming decades, so much of what we will see will involve the creative (re)mixing of traditional ideas, concepts, and forms with contemporary practices.

Are Private Schools Better? Jewish Day Schools have a Unique Answer
Rabbi Mitch Malkus

Are Private Schools Better? Jewish Day Schools have a Unique Answer

A recent University of Virginia study suggests that private education is not inherently better than public education. This conclusion is consistent with other research. I don't believe that these results are a surprise and they beg the question why should families choose a private school?

I expect that other private-independent schools will point to their safe and caring environments and high quality academics. Some schools will continue to publicize their small-class sizes and individualized instruction. Other may proclaim they have excellent faculties who care about their students and are not required to teach to the test. CESJDS can claim all these benefits and more.

As a Jewish day school educator, I have a much stronger case for why the education we offer is so valuable; we are educating the next generation of Jewish leaders with the skills to be both successful in their lives and mensches who will make a different in the broader world because of their values. The students at my school have a clear advantage over other private-independent and public school students - they are learning who they are and what their values are. They will gain a strong Jewish identity, connection to Israel, and the foundation for a meaningful Jewish life anchored in their ancient tradition.

There is overwhelming evidence that day schools are among the most effective forms of Jewish education. Day school graduates have been shown to be more Jewishly engaged, disproportionately involved in Jewish leadership roles, more likely to raise their children Jewishly, and less likely to engage in negative social behaviors in college than their Jewish public-school and private-independent school peers. There are also studies that indicate that the families of Jewish day school students benefit from the school communities that they initially explored for their children and ultimately chose and continue to choose for their own Jewish involvement.

While students at my school have all the benefits that other private-independent learners do, what makes their education so valuable and meaningful is that the Jewish component is combined with the best of general education. There is a well-known story in the Midrash (ancient rabbinic commentaries on the Torah) of the Roman Emperor whose cooks are unable to match the taste of the Shabbat food the rabbi prepared despite having all the recipes. "The ingredient [you are missing] cannot be bought at the marketplace, nor brought from a foreign land. It is called the Sabbath spice and it can only be found in the food served on the Sabbath day," Rabbi Judah tells the Emperor. Similarly, Jewish day schools have something that cannot be replicated in other school settings. That's why I assert it truly is a better education.

Blessing our Children on Shabbat
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

In 2013, South African Chief Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein called on his entire community to keep one Shabbat together. In an amazing display of communal unity, the South African community came together and held massive Shabbat dinners throughout the country. The central idea that animated Rabbi Goldstein's challenge was that Shabbat transcends the barriers that divide often the community and it is, therefore, an our opportunity to renew family and community life and build Jewish identity. In the wake of this South African communal initiative, an organization called the Shabbat Project was launched and now communities all around the world often host Shabbat Across ... events. As this is the Friday of Shabbat Across JDS, I wanted to share amended excerpts from a letter I had written to all those families who are participating in this program.

We hold a monthly campus-wide Kabbalat Shabbat service at our Lower School that is a highlight for many of our students as well as for me personally. The unbridled joy from the communal singing and dancing creates a special feeling for everyone in the Isadore and Bertha Gudelsky Performing Arts & Athletic Center on those Friday mornings.

I have a custom of blessing all of the students at the service after telling a short story. I recite the Priestly Blessing (Birkat Kohanim) that is also part of the Shabbat evening home ritual when we bless our own children. This fifteen-word blessing is the oldest surviving physical fragment of biblical literature, some 2,700 years old. It comes from the era of the First Temple, built by King Solomon and today is housed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It is so old that it is not written in the Hebrew alphabet as we recognize it today, but rather in the ancient Semitic script, the first alphabet known to humankind. It is to my understanding the oldest liturgical formula still in regular use.

Rather than recite the blessing myself at Kabbalat Shabbat. I prompt all of the teachers, parents and grandparents who are present to recite the words themselves. For thousands of years, this formula was recited exclusively by the priests in the Israelite community. Then the rabbis came along and expanded the group of people able to say the blessing to include their numbers as well. Today, we need as many blessings as we can get and parents use these sacred words to bless their children. Therefore, at school, all of the adults bless all of our students. It is an honor to do so and a concrete manifestation of the care our entire faculty has for the students.

In the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, we all need as many blessings as possible, and particularly, to bless our children who represent our personal and communal future.

A Seismic Shift for American Jewry?
Rabbi Mitch Malkus

Like Jews and other people all across the United States and the world, I was horrified and saddened when I learned of the news that eleven people had been savagely killed this past Saturday at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I have lived my entire life with the sense that Jews were woven into the social fabric of America in a manner that was different from the entire history of the Jewish people. This is not to say that I had not experienced anti-Semitism or that I was naïve to the virulent strands of white nationalism or the doctrines of neo-Nazism found in corners of the United States. It is a pervasive feeling that my Jewishness is completely embraced and accepted in the society in which I live. After Saturday, the Jewish community may have reached a seismic shift in how we view ourselves in the "land of the free."

That the tragic shooting took place in Pittsburgh has deep historic resonance for the Jewish community and for the future of Jewish life in America. It was in Pittsburgh (technically Concordia Hall) in 1885, where eighteen rabbis signed the Pittsburgh Platform, arguably the one of the most influential document for Judaism in the United States throughout the 20th Century. The Platform was seen by many as a statement of what Reform Judaism was. Beyond the denominational focus and the details of the document, it sketches out a vision that is optimistic, open to religious pluralism, and that confines Judaism to a belief system rather than to broader categories such as peoplehood and nationhood. In the view of its signatories it positioned Judaism as part and parcel of America. As they wrote, "[W]e deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evil of the present organization of society." The approach taken by its authors was embraced by the majority of American Jews, regardless of the denomination they may have affiliated with.

In the context of a Judaism that fits within the broader understanding of how faith works in America, Jews have flourished in the United Stated since the Pittsburgh Platform in ways unimaginable in the prior arc of Jewish history. This is not to say that the founding principles of America and the Constitution were not also vital to how minority religions function in the United States. Nor does it mean that Jews did not face significant discrimination and obstacles to full participation in society. However, from the time the Platform was written to last Saturday, Jews have lived and worshipped freely within America's own narrative of itself. In the approximately 125 years since, Jews have steadily integrated into every aspect American society.

The brutal murder of eleven Jews on Saturday in their synagogue may have shattered the very worldview Jews envisioned for themselves in modern day America. Anyone who has traveled to Europe and other countries with sizeable Jewish communities knows that those communities carry themselves very differently than American Jews. Seeing heavily armed guards and electronic security gates when attending synagogue or visiting Jewish schools outside of the United States is common. In the short time since the Tree of Life shooting, I have observed what appears to be the rumblings of a seismic shift in the Jewish community. People are questioning the place of Jews in America, the safety of worshipping freely and the security infrastructure that has been built. As America experienced greater numbers of gun violence, the Jewish community responded with increased measures. That was a response connected to broader societal risks, but after Saturday, the Jewish community appears to be reevaluating how it sees itself within the broader civic context of the United States.

My belief in the founding principles and the very idea of America is strong and bolstered by my personal life experience. The United States can rise above the vitriolic evil that led to Saturday's attack. At the same time, this assault on both the Jewish community and the bedrock concept of America is rattling American Jewry to its core.

Reflecting on Increased Anxiety Among Teens
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

There were four reported teenage deaths attributed to suicide last year in the greater Washington, DC area. Healthy and safe teens is one of the major concerns that keeps me up at night. Throughout my nearly twenty years as a day school head, my perception is that there has been an exponential increase in the stress levels of students. Some recent reporting in the Washington Post confirms that teenagers in general are experiencing greater anxiety.

I want to highlight some current research which suggests that despite the many social capital advantages upper middle class youth have, they are, paradoxically, more at risk than other youth cohorts lower on the socio-economic continuum. Researchers at Columbia University have found increasing levels of stress, substance-abuse, risky behavior and anxiety among affluent families. Even ten years ago, Marano documented that college students from this population continued to exhibit stress and anxiety on campus that had begun while the youth were in their home communities. The researchers from Columbia University identified a number of factors that contribute to the increased stress they recorded that, unsurprisingly, I also hear from parents and colleagues alike. In particular, they mention, the inordinate emphasis on striving for high achievement throughout the school experience. The researchers note that there is "the sense of pressure, criticism, and overly high expectations from adults ... that pressures to succeed come not just from parents but ... from outside the family."

For Jewish day schools and private-independent schools, there are some suggested approaches we can take to address this troubling situation. Among the recommendations are the following:

  • Create parent education for those in the early elementary years that shares the impact of over focus on achievement on teens since it is much more difficult to change patterns in middle and high school.
  • Work to create programs and cultures that highlight intrinsic rather than extrinsic values and rewards.
  • Support a shared sense of community values and concern for our youth.
  • Develop mindfulness, stress reduction and strong counseling programs.
  • Partner with families to be proactive in identifying and then quickly addressing issues as they arise.

This past week, one of our admissions directors and I visited a local private-independent school where we have seen increased interest in joining the CESJDS community for high school. When we meet with the head of school and middle school director, they commented that from the outside they viewed CESJDS as having a culture that balances achievement and well-being. I genuinely believe this to be true as well, and at the same time know that this issue needs further attention in all schools. Navigating this balance is not easy. With increased programmatic emphasis, enhanced partnership with parents and a view toward a healthy approach to both achievement and well-being, I believe schools can push back against the societal pressures our teens experience.