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

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What's Really Important in College Selection?
Rabbi Mitch Malkus

What's Really Important in College Selection?

For many students, entry into competitive colleges and universities is a, if not the, primary goal of their high school education. As a Jewish private-independent school we often find ourselves part of this culture. We want to share all of our students' acceptances, and, at the same time we try to push back by focusing parents and students on finding the right "fit" school through our college guidance program.

A recent survey and working paper by Challenge Success, a non-profit organization affiliated with the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, synthesizes current research and concludes that rather than choosing a college based on selectivity, students should ask if they will be engaged at the college in ways that allow them to form positive relationships with their professors, have the opportunity to seek out mentors, apply their learning through long-term projects and internships, and find community.

The working paper begins by looking at what it calls the "flawed" ranking system that is presented by US. News and World Report, Princeton Review, and Barron's, among others. These rankings are based on arbitrary and not particularly meaningful criteria. Research indicates that differences between institutional ranks are often statistically insignificant, and more importantly, overlook measures of quality that are more important for long-term outcomes.

Mayhew et al. (2016) have noted in their research that there is little evidence to suggest over the past forty or fifty years that selectivity in college admissions has any relationship to student success. They write, "Accounting for student background characteristics, the weight of evidence simply does not support students' or policymakers' beliefs that a selective admissions process enhances student learning." (p.96)

So what factors might students and their families take into account instead of selectivity when choosing a college? What criteria will make a difference related to learning, financial, and other outcomes? The working paper suggests that "students who benefit the most from college are those who are the most engaged in their academics and campus communities and take advantage of the opportunities and resources their institutions provide." A 2014 Gallop-Purdue survey reports that six key college experiences are most closely linked with well-being, future job satisfaction, and thriving after their studies. The six are: taking a course with a professor who makes learning exciting, working with a professor who cares about students, finding a mentor, working on a long-term project, participating in an internship, and being active in extra-curricular activities.

How can students best find colleges that will help them engage in these six key areas? There is so much variability between colleges because there is such a wide range of students. Given this variability, high school students and their parents would be wise to focus on finding the schools and universities that best match their interests and personalities. Students will be more engaged by finding schools that fit their interests and personal styles.

Beyond this individual finding, I believe there are some important takeaways for high schools and our college guidance departments. First, just as we have a wide variety of students, we need to expose students to a wide array of colleges to match their interests. The number of colleges that a high school routinely sends students to is probably a more important factor in success in the college process than the number of highly selective colleges to which its students are admitted. Another lesson is that both the college guidance process and high school programs in general need to help students gain a clear understanding of themselves and what they are interested in pursuing. Finally, high schools need to teach students how to engage in extra-curricular activities, how to seek out and develop relationships with their teachers, and spark an interest in being mentored and participating in internships. Students who enter colleges with these skills and choose schools that will engage them in their unique interests will find success during their university studies and post-graduation. Success in the college process ultimately is more about "fit" than about admittance to the most selective school.

**If you are interested in this topic further, you might consider Frank Bruni's book, Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be.

CESJDS Has Prepared You to Live and Lead in a Hybrid World
Rabbi Mitch Malkus

CESJDS Has Prepared You to Live and Lead in a Hybrid World

We are pleased to share Rabbi Malkus' charge to the 2019 seniors who graduated from CESJDS this past Sunday. His address was titled "CESJDS has prepared you to live and lead in a hybrid world" and explored how the school as a hybrid institution prepares students for the non-binary realities they will face in the world in which they live.

Earlier this year, JDS alum and Broadway star Ethan Slater visited the school. And as his Tony Award-nominated alter ego SpongeBob SquarePants would say, "This kind of day / Couldn't get much better but it keeps on trying."

Parents, I know days like these bring out such a strong mix of emotions. Such pride at what your child has accomplished... Such wistfulness that the time has come for them to spread their wings... Such relief that many of you have written your last tuition check.

And students, I hope you take a moment to look around this room. Cherish all those moments that have made your time at JDS so special. Think about the legacy you're leaving behind. You've pulled off a great senior prank—pretending to be TSA agents and intensively screening everybody who came through the door. You've dominated Hebrew Academy (well, almost) on the basketball court and showed you were dancing queens in an amazing production of Mamma Mia!

You've sang your hearts out at Zimriyah. Even if the judges didn't appreciate it last year. Or the year before ... Or the year before that... At your final Kabbalat Shabbat last month, you wore your JDS jerseys, wrapped your arms around each other, and sang songs of farewell. And now... here we are.

This ceremony is called a commencement. It's a beginning, not an end. And I can't help but think about some other beginnings. Almost 20 years ago—before I came to JDS—I began as a head of school. That was my beginning. My second day was September 11, 2001. Many of you were born that year. That was your beginning. It's a huge generational marker. Some even call your age cohort the Post-9/11 Generation.

And in many ways, I think that tragedy was a turning point. It marked the end of a binary world and the beginning of a hybrid world. What do I mean by that? For many people my age, the world we grew up in was pretty black and white. There was a Cold War going on... and you were on the side of Communism or democracy. Israel was under siege... and you were with her or against her. There was generally one way to be a practicing Jew... and you were either observant or not.

That was then. But one thing we have learned since that dark day in September is how complex and non-binary the world is. The same social media technologies that can help crowd-fund a stranger's medical care... Can also help turn someone to hate and violence... as we tragically saw at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. The same news sources that inform us can also inflame us. Today, the world is shades of grey. The choices we make are not "either or"—they are hybrids of many different options and opinions. Luckily, that's exactly what you have learned here at JDS.

In your classes and conversations, you have come to appreciate the words of Talmud Hagigah 3b: "And God spoke all these words. Therefore make your ear like a grain hopper [funnel] and acquire a heart that can understand the words of the scholars who declare a thing unclean as well as those scholars who declare it clean... the words of those who declare a thing forbidden and those who declare it permitted... the words of those who disqualify an object as well as those who declare it fit."

JDS itself is a hybrid. We choose to blend tradition and innovation. We value a pluralistic approach to our school, the Jewish community, and American society as a whole. It has never been our goal to teach students to adopt a particular perspective. We are invested, rather, in helping students live with complexity, contradiction, and ambiguity. We want you to think for yourselves and come to your own conclusions. As the artist and architect Maya Lin put it, we seek to create a place in which to think, without trying to dictate what to think.

Think about our school curricula—the way our Jewish and general studies education inform one another. So that, for instance, you can hear the echoes of the prophet Isaiah when you're studying the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. You've studied Torah and Jewish teachings as part of a multi-millennial process of interpretation that stretches across the generations. And you've learned to see how different interpretations emanate from particular historical experiences but also resonate today.

At a moment when the partnership between the Jewish communities in the United States and Israel is strained ...you have studied the Hebrew language in ways that allow you to transcend those divides and interact creatively with Israel and Israeli culture.

You have classmates who have written New York Times letters to the editor about Supreme Court nominees. Programmed robots. Tutored and donated toys to less fortunate students at Shriver Elementary in Silver Spring. All of those experiences go into that grain hopper. And what comes out is a nuanced understanding of things clean and unclean, forbidden and permitted, fit and unfit. As one alumna[1] put it, "JDS was the best GPS for discovering who we are."

Hopefully, you have discovered that who you are is a class comfortable with complexity ... prepared to engage with a world that does not resolve itself into simple and easily digestible answers. And that GPS will continue to help guide you as you venture out into the world. See, you may be leaving JDS. But JDS will never leave you.

Out in the world, you will soon realize that not everybody is as comfortable with complexity as you are. From our leaders to our local communities, you'll meet a lot of people still stuck in those old binaries. So my wish for you is that you will show the rest of us how to transcend those binaries and embrace that hybrid outlook—in your studies, in your careers, and in your lives. In the words of Talmud Hagigah, acquire that heart that can understand. And appreciate that no single choice or approach is the only valid one.

In the coming years, some of you may find yourselves supporting Israel by attending AIPAC. Some of you will show your support for Israel outside of AIPAC. Five of you are choosing to support Israel by serving in the IDF. And every one of those approaches can be applauded. Similarly, you may come to appreciate that there are many ways to be a committed Jew. That could mean strictly keeping Shabbat and keeping kosher. Or dedicating yourself to studying Jewish texts or Jewish history. It could also mean going to shul infrequently but channeling your dedication to tikkun olam into non-profit work. Or it could mean embracing all the cultural aspects of being Jewish: enjoying Jewish foods ... reading Jewish literature ... applying Jewish values to your life ... and watching the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. All of those are Jewish pathways. And you will decide for yourself what unique blend of tradition and innovation feels right to you.

And when the time comes to build a career, I hope you bring that same flexible approach. Whether you go into an office from 9 to 5 or work remotely while taking care of a young child, know that there are many right choices. In your life and relationships, you will encounter multiple paths. And it is now up to you to embrace the multiplicity of life. And show the rest of us how to walk those paths as well.

Yesterday's parashaParashat Trumah—details the building of the aron ha kodesh, the holy tabernacle, and the gifts the people of Israel were expected to offer. It specifies in precise detail the kind of wood the ark should be made out of (acacia) and how many cubits the curtains should be (which is 30 cubits long by 4 cubits wide). The world you will construct for yourself will not be so clearly laid out. The decisions you make won't be black and white. There won't be an instruction manual. But with the education and experiences you have gained here at JDS, with your JDS moral GPS, you have all the tools you need. And we know you will build something beautiful.

Class of 2019, Mazal Tov and good luck!

[1] Debbi Schnitzer Cooper '93 at the 2018 HOS.

*This is an excerption from Rabbi Malkus' full graduation speech

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.