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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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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.

Shining a Light on Bullying in Schools
Rabbi Mitch Malkus

As October is National Bullying Prevention Month, I am dedicating this blog to a continued awareness of and diligence in preventing and addressing bullying in school settings.

The most comprehensive data on bullying in the United States comes from a CDC study titled Bullying Surveillance Among Youth: Uniform Definitions for Public Health and Recommended Data Elements.

  • 28% of students in grades 6-12 experience bullying.
  • 9% of students in grades 6-12 experience cyberbullying.
  • 70.6% of young people say that they have seen bullying at school.
  • 1 in 3 young people admit to bullying others.
  • Research indicates that LGBTQ students are at a heightened risk of experiencing bullying because of their orientation.

These statistics are troubling to all educators and parents. Bullying occurs in every school setting and educators must acknowledge this fact and commit to continually addressing this issue because an essential aspect of our work is and always will be educating young people to understand their behavior, reflect on what is appropriate, and conduct themselves in acceptable, socially positive ways.

Bullying appears in many forms – physical, verbal, relational and damage to property. In our current environment we know that bullying takes places both in person and, increasingly, online often beyond the supervision of adults. The CDC study shows that children who experience bullying may exhibit headaches, changes in behavior, nightmares, school refusal and poor grades, low self-esteem, and self-destructive behaviors.

Since only about 40% of bullying behaviors are reported to adults, schools need to work to prevent bullying. The CDC has created guidelines for schools to support their prevention efforts. These include clear policies against bullying, creating cultures where students are respected and feel safe, and having adults take appropriate positions of authority related to bullying and bullying types of conduct.

At the same time as educators work to constantly address bullying, some experts have called not question the use of the word "bullying." Students and parents are often quick to label any and all unkind and behavior as bullying. Jim Dillon, a well-regarded educator with a concentration on bullying writes that "our well-intentioned efforts to prevent and reduce bullying have inadvertently created confusion and misdirection for educators; too much time and energy has been devoted to defining students' words and actions after they have done something wrong and less on actually helping students navigate their social world." Dillon suggests retiring the word "bullying" but increasing educational efforts within schools to address the social and emotional needs of students and to provide students with positive tools for their social realities.

I want to conclude by sharing a wonderful resource. American University School of Education has prepared a valuable infographic titled "How to Prevent and Manage Bullying in the Classroom and Online." It presents statistics, definitions, suggestions and resources to support schools and parents as we work together to prevent and manage bullying.

How Might Educators Address Issues Raised By the Kavanaugh Hearings
Rabbi Mitch Malkus
With many Americans watching how the United States Senate proceeds with Judge Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation, I have been thinking about the issues the recent sexual assault allegations raise for educators. The issues relate to both the many high profile cases of sexual assault and harassment that we have seen over the past year and to the culture teenagers grow up with in this country.

Educators have long considered how to best address drugs, alcohol, and sex with our adolescent students so that they make appropriate and educated decisions. Yet, the Kavanaugh hearings have highlighted some deeper cultural views of teenage behavior. I believe that assault or alcohol abuse should never be considered part of child's play, boys being boys, or acceptable behavior within teen circles.

Jewish education has a powerful role to play in partnering with parents to address these cultural issues within our schools, programs, and communities. The approach that Jewish educators can take goes far beyond the important areas of sex education, drug and alcohol awareness, discussions of what constitutes consent, and the culture of male privilege. The advantage we have is our ability to ground these discussions in a fundamental worldview that sees people as created in God's image, b'zelem Elohim. While normally we think of being created in God's image as meaning we try to emulate God's qualities like compassion and kindness, Judaism also expects that viewing each person as created in God's image as an exhortation of how we relate to other people and treat our bodies.

When we teach and confront students with the Jewish value concept that their bodies are sacred, that each person is endowed with uniqueness and that relationships between people should be viewed as holy, we can present a perspective that pushes back against the prevailing cultural norms. Jewish educators can and should do better in teaching our teens around these issues. We need to re-engage in conversations and planning around how our curricula and programs confront the current cultural assumptions that teens are socialized into. At the same time, our communities start with an advantage that this discussion is taking place with value concepts and framing language that is counter-cultural. Together, Jewish educators and parents can continue to create the conditions for positive teen cultures.