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Head of School Blog

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

Parent Perspectives on Jewish Day Schools and Disabilities
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, CESJDS Head of School

For at least the last decade, there has been increasing conversation about how to broaden inclusion in Jewish day schools, so a greater number of students with disabilities have access to serious Jewish education. Some of this conversation is about the challenges schools face, how day schools have failed children with disabilities, and what practices support inclusion. Yet, until recently, no research had been done that explored the experiences of parents of a child with disabilities in a Jewish day school setting.

Dr. Abigail Uhrman recently published the findings of her study on the parent perspective of disabilities and Jewish day schools. Uhrman found that parents of students with a disability:

  1. Chose Jewish day schools because they were looking for a warm and nurturing setting that supported their Jewish/religious commitments.

  2. Felt that, with a few school exceptions, day school teachers and administrators were generally lacking in providing guidance and support around disabilities.

  3. In cases where the students had mild to moderate disabilities, parents found parent-school communication to be positive, while parents of children with more severe disabilities felt the schools were insensitive and ineffective in their communication.

  4. Noted that there were few alternatives to a serious Jewish education and that the broader Jewish community was generally unaccepting. These families experience feelings of aloneness and marginalization.

  5. Overall, the parents in the study paint a "grim portrait of their interactions with individuals and institutions within the Jewish world" (day schools and others).

While Dr. Urhman's study is limited in scope and was conducted in only the New York/New Jersey region, she writes that the findings mirror those found in non-Jewish schools. Jewish day schools are, therefore, not alone in the inadequate experience parents feel as they support and advocate for a child with disabilities.

As my concern is the Jewish day school world, I will focus on the implications of Dr. Uhrman's study in that context. As Dr. Uhrman notes, "Schools should be more transparent about the resources they can provide and the needs they are able to successfully accommodate." Having a greater awareness both from schools and parents around supporting students with disabilities can alleviate some of the feelings of aloneness that parents experience.

A second implication is that schools need to understand better that parents of a student with disabilities do not expect schools to solve the challenges themselves but "to be part of the team that ... [is] working on the problem." Parents of a child with disabilities want and need to feel that schools are in this with them.

Another implication Urhman suggests is parents of a child with disabilities are incredibly open and willing to help school teams better meet their child's needs when they are asked compassionately. How schools explicitly engage parents, elicit their advice and a support, and manage parent conversations is essential.

Beyond expanding resources for broader inclusion and developing greater awareness of the challenges students with a disability face, Uhrman's study shows that Jewish day schools can work to better engage, communicate, and form stronger partnerships with parents of a child with disabilities. Being part of the Jewish community demands that we make central the experiences and feelings of parents of a child with disabilities.

Follow Mitch on Twitter: @MitchMalkus.

Can History Serve as the Keystone of Being Jewish?
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, CESJDS Head of School

A couple of years ago, the Pew Research Center issued a study, A Portrait of Jewish Americans (2013), that caused alarm among many in the Jewish community. Among the lesser discussed findings was that roughly three-quarters of American Jews consider "Remembering the Holocaust" the most essential element of what it means to be Jewish today. In fact, other aspects of Jewish identification like being part of the community (28%), caring about Israel (43%), and observing Jewish law (19%) pale in comparison.

Three decades prior to the Pew study, Yosef Yerushalmi explored the relationship between history and memory in his slim but influential work, Zakhor. As literary critic Harold Bloom wrote in his review of Zakhor, [Yerushalmi proposed that] "Scripture has been replaced by history as the validating arbiter of Jewish ideologies." This is why, for most modern American Jews, "remembering" an event like the Shoah can replace engaging in the practice of living Judaism as the leading quality of their Jewishness.

I have been reflecting on this proposition since we just completed the two-week calendar period of the observance of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom HaZikaron (Israel Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror), and Yom Ha'azmaut (Israel Independence Day). I had a chance to read recently a paper by Dr. Ben Jacobs, a CESJDS Alum and former faculty member, and currently a Visiting Professor at George Washington University, on the "deficient" role Jewish history plays in most educational settings. Jacobs opines that in day schools text study often crowds out Jewish history.[i] In public schools, students usually learn more about Jews as victims or rabble-rousers, and in supplemental Jewish schools there is little time to fully cover Jewish history. What is lost, according to Jacobs, is the "complexities and ambiguities in Jewish life."

Jacobs argues that the teaching of Jewish history, and particularly teaching through the approach of Nel Noddings' "ethic of care" can inspire students to mine history as the basis for an active involvement in the world. Jacobs notes that the nuance and critical thinking and reflection needed to truly understand Jewish history raises questions for students about how they live their lives today and broad questions around minority communities, identity, and the future of the Jewish community. Rather than shift students away from engaging in being Jewish, Jacobs sees the study of history as a vehicle for a deeper, more nuanced, and reflective Jewish practice.

So, circling back to our original question, can "Remembering the Holocaust" constitute a meaningful and sustaining practice of being Jewish? The serious study of Jewish history can certainly arouse passion and care in its students and it should be a part of any rigorous Jewish education. There is, however, an additional step – to use the study of history to explore what it means to be Jewish today and to ask how it animates engagement in the world as a Jew. For me personally, Yom HaShoah presents great meaning, but my journey is only complete when that remembrance is coupled with observing Yom HaZikaron, Yom Ha'azmaut, and then other holidays and rituals throughout the year – when memory, the study of history, and practice are paired.


[i] CESJDS has rich Jewish history department and requires students to take a significant scope and sequence in what we believe is an essential area. View the course catalog.

The Complexity of Teaching the Holocaust in JK-12 Schools
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

Just a few weeks ago, a local official in Montgomery County, MD, where CESJDS is located, asked the public school system to evaluate its Holocaust curriculum, saying "There is a striking ignorance of the facts." Since most school curriculum across the United States is set on the local level, there is a range of coverage of the Holocaust. If in an area like Montgomery County, just outside Washington, D.C., there is concern that students may not be exposed properly to this important content, the same is probably true across the country.

Unlike public and other private schools, Jewish day schools cover Shoah education as part of our missions. For day schools, the question becomes 'when should we begin this curriculum and what should be the focus of this study be?'

At CESJDS, the study of the Shoah begins in the Lower School with experiential education at the youngest grades. Students through grade 3 learn about the Holocaust mostly on Yom Ha-Shoah via a campus wide moment of silence*, the lighting of memorial candles, and an explanation of the day within the context of the Jewish calendar. As students move into the upper elementary grades, they read children's literature, participate in communal remembrances, engage in developmentally appropriate discussions and experience a unique artifact exhibit. In addition to these curricular experiences, these older students also read and hear about the Holocaust at other points of the year. The guiding principle in the lower school years is based on the academic literature that children of an elementary school age are not at an appropriate cognitive or social-emotional development level to be exposed to the details of the Holocaust. One such study we rely on in planning on our curriculum is by Professor Samuel Totten.

As students move into middle and high school, there is an opportunity to expand their study of the Shoah in a significant manner in addition to ongoing Yom Ha-Shoah commemorations. By grade 6, students at our school experience their first visit to the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum (USHMM) along with their parents. The USHMM believes that students in grades 6 and above "demonstrate the ability to empathize with individual eyewitness accounts and to attempt to understand the complexities of Holocaust history, including the scope and scale of the events." Later in middle school, students participate in the Holocaust and Human Behavior Seminar in partnership with Facing History and Ourselves. This curricular unit employs readings, primary source material, and short documentary films to examine the challenging history of the Holocaust and prompt reflection on our world today.

Once students reach the high school, we engage them in an intensive study of the Holocaust. The formal study concludes with a 10-day visit to Eastern Europe as part of the Irene and Daniel Simpkins Israel Capstone Trip in 12th grade. In the high school years, students are asked to reflect on the more detailed history of the Shoah and some of the theological challenges the Holocaust raises. Studying this event within the context of their Jewish history courses fosters broader thinking for students in this area.

When, what, and how to teach the Holocaust is demands a high level of sensitivity and keen awareness of the complexity of the subject matter. Even in Israel, where all students learn about the Shoah there are debates about this topic. Unlike public and other private independent schools, Jewish day schools are uniquely positioned to both teach their students and participate in the ongoing educational conversation about how to best learn about and study the Shoah.

*Supported by the Bassin Family Endowment

Follow Mitch on Twitter @MitchMalkus.

What happened after an anti-Semitic bomb threat at my school
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

The following is an op-ed written by Rabbi Malkus and published in The Washington Post on March 10, 2017.

What happens when someone calls a school to say he plans to blow up the building while spouting a vile and sadistic anti-Semitic tirade? On Monday, the school I lead received such a call. One moment smiling, high-fiving students were entering the campus to begin their week; the next that sense of joy and welcome was shattered and became dread and danger.

My school was not the first to receive such a threat, and it was not the only school or community center affected that morning. In fact, since Jan. 1 more than 100 Jewish day schools and other Jewish institutions across the country have been forced to react to bomb threats. Other faith traditions, including Muslim organizations and mosques, have also received threats.

What occurred because of that phone call? Two very different things.

The first result was a major disruption and violation of our right to safety and security. Students who had just sat down to study the ancient texts of our tradition, or gene therapy, or trigonometry, received the emotional shock that someone wanted to destroy their school simply because it was a Jewish institution. Parents who had just begun their workdays felt their hearts skip a beat as they received the news that their children were in danger. Faculty and staff were thrust instantly into positions challenging them to show their students care and calmness while, at the same time, they held the very real feeling that an explosion might take place at any moment. The staff and administration spent countless hours responding to parents, community members and the media. What should have been the beginning of a normal week of learning instead brought feelings of fear and anxiety accompanied by physical threat — exactly what the perpetrator sought to accomplish.

But something else — something wonderful and amazing — happened, too. Later that day, and throughout the rest of the week, I received countless emails, phone calls and letters from concerned citizens and local and religious leaders expressing their support for our students and our community. Then, a news conference was held where both U.S. senators from Maryland, three U.S. representatives and virtually all of the major elected officials of our county condemned the bomb threats and the hatred they represent in clear and strong language. The climax of this outpouring came when more than 40 religious leaders filled our stage to announce their condemnation and support. Thus, the second outcome of the bomb threat was an unexpected bolstering of my faith in what it means to be an American and in the American experiment that I believe in so deeply.

Seeing those religious leaders, representing Anglicans, Catholics, Episcopalians, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, among others, was one of my proudest moments as an American. The leaders stood tall to proclaim that when one religious group's constitutional right to worship and congregate freely is threatened, all religious groups are threatened. This is what Americans do in difficult times: We stand up for each other.

At that moment, it was abundantly clear to me — and to the hundreds of others in the auditorium — that those responsible for threats made in hatred had unleashed an outpouring of love and support. As the United States experienced a precipitous rise in hate speech over the past year, I expected that it would be the Jewish community that would need to stand up for the rights of Muslims, Hispanics and other groups being targeted. Seeing those religious and elected leaders stand up for my own community reassured me that the American values that have enabled American Jews to flourish in this country will continue to be a source of strength for all Americans.

Rather than darkness and hate, a bomb threat brought light and hope for our future as a country.

Follow Mitch on Twitter @MitchMalkus.

Remarks from Press Conference Alongside Federal, State, and Local Leaders
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

This morning, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and Bender JCC hosted a press conference with remarks from Senators Cardin and Van Hollen; Maryland Representatives John Delaney, Jamie Raskin, and John Sarbanes; Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett; Montgomery County Police Department Assistant Chief Darryl McSwain; Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner; Jewish Federation of Greater Washington CEO Steve Rakitt; and Reverend Mansfield "Kasey" Kaseman, condemning the bomb threats against CESJDS, Gesher Jewish Day School, and organizations nationwide. Rabbi Malkus spoke alongside these esteemed individuals. Please find his remarks below.

This past Monday morning marked the start of the Hebrew month of Adar - a time of happiness in the Jewish calendar. The ancient Jewish sages offered a dictum that mi sh'nikhnas adar marbim b'simha, as the month of Adar begins, our joy increases. And, in fact, that is what was occurring at both of our campuses as students in our Lower School entered the building to song and dance, and students in our high school gathered for an assembly.

That sense of joy was shattered quickly as the Upper School Campus of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School received a threatening phone call warning of a bomb in our facility and promising destruction to Jewish souls. CESJDS is not the first school to receive such a threat and was not the only school or community center affected on Monday. Day schools from coast to coast, along with other Jewish institutions, were targeted with bomb threats.

As you can imagine, this had a significant effect on all those school communities and their students. I want to share the individual impact of the threat that we received with the knowledge that this type of threat has already had a similar impact on over 100 Jewish institutions since January 1st of this year. I also want to acknowledge that other faith groups, including our Muslim friends, have received similar threats.

So what is the disruption when a school receives a bomb threat? Students who had sat down to study the ancient texts of our tradition and others who were learning about gene therapy or trigonometry received an emotional shock that someone wanted to blow up their school simply because it was a Jewish day school. Parents who had begun their workday instantly felt their hearts sink as they received the news that their most precious children were in immediate danger. Faculty and staff were thrust into positions that challenged them to show their students immediate care, demonstrate calmness, and at the same time hold the very real feeling that an explosion might take place. Beyond these feelings, the staff and administration spent countless hours responding to parents, community members, and the media. What should have been the ushering in of a joyous Hebrew month became just the opposite, a feeling of dread that is accompanied by physical threat.

The Hebrew month of Adar has its climax when Jews celebrate the holiday of Purim and read from the Book of Esther. The Book tells the story about the Jews of a country called Persia that are threatened with annihilation because their customs are different than those of the king. Yet, the story becomes turned on its head when the plot of the king's advisor, Haman, is squelched by Esther and Mordechai. The text of the Book of Esther recounts that v'ha-hodesh asher nahafokh l'hem m'yagon l'simha u'm avel l'yom tov, the month was transformed from one of grief and mourning to a time of festive joy and one of light.

I am here to condemn the bomb threat to our school and all of these bomb threats, to call on our local and national authorities to do everything in their power to find the culprits and to bring them to justice, to enable faith communities across the United States to practice their beliefs freely.

I am also here to give thanks. I have personally experienced, and have heard over and over again that our elected officials condemn these acts in the strongest terms and that they are committed to protecting our community and ensuring our free exercise of religion. I have also seen dedicated and professional members of the Rockville and Montgomery County Police Departments respond immediately to the threat at my school. In addition, our school has received an outpouring of support from elected officials, national and local community organizations, and hundreds of emails from concerned citizens across the country – these are all the lights of joy that held us up in a difficult moment and which give me hope that our community and country will move forward from this difficult time. Just as the Jews of Persia turned sorrow into joy, we will turn these threats into safety, security, and unity. We will uphold the values of the United States as a beacon of light in a difficult and sometimes dark world.

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