The first day of school is marked by welcome assemblies, positive charges to students about treating others with respect, trying your best and in some cases discussing the values of the particular school. These are all worthy and important messages for students to engage with and hear. At the same time, the beginning of the school year is a good time to discuss what education is all about and in the case of Jewish day schools, about the goal(s) of Jewish education.
At the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, we articulate that the purpose of our school is to "ensure a vibrant Jewish future." In our context that means engaging students in an exemplary and inspiring general and Jewish studies program to foster students and graduates who are compassionate thinkers that engage the world through Jewish values. This particular conception of Jewish education is rooted in the idea that our students live in a society where they are navigating their dual identities and commitments between their Jewish selves and their American selves. While Jewish values and American values are often in tension, we believe that one can be dedicated equally to being a knowledgeable and passionate Jew and an active and engaged America citizen. Through the interaction or integration of their Jewish heritage and the American society in which they live, students will develop their own sense of meaning.
The early history of Jewish education in the United States emerged from a different perspective. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jewish education in this country was geared toward the acculturation and accommodation of Jewish life in America. That orientation shifted in the 1980's and 1990's as the Jewish community became focused on maintaining Jewish identity. Instead of focusing on acculturating the Jewish into American life, Jewish education became synonymous with Jewish continuity, with perpetuating the tradition.
Recently, a discussion has emerged among some Jewish educators that reflects another shift in the purpose of Jewish education in the United States. Some of these thinkers posit that Jewish education should be directed to making a positive difference in the lives of Jews today. Rather than focus on how to become more Jewish or more knowledgeable, Jewish education is a vehicle to enable Jews to thrive as human beings. One way to do so, as Chip Edlesberg, former Executive Director of Jim Joseph Foundation writes, is "to mine Judaism's rich treasury of wisdom for purposes of making meaning and living authentically in a complex, dynamic society." To Susan Kardos, Senior Director of Strategy and Education Planning at the Avi Chai Foundation, that means developing "a learning environment that both shapes and tests beliefs and commitments" to provide real opportunities to grow.
Fifteen years ago, three giants of Jewish education, Seymour Fox, Israel Scheffler and Daniel Marom, edited a volume titled Visions of Jewish Education in order to present different perspectives on the outcomes and purposes of Jewish education. At the time, they cautioned readers not to view their edited volume as the last word on the subject. They wrote that their project would fail "if the reader assumes that the visions outlined in the book are final and finished projects." As the contexts and environments where we practice serious Jewish education change, we are called upon to reimagine and redefine the purposes of our endeavor. More so than our specific answer to what the purpose of a Jewish education is, asking and grappling with the question is essential.