The Integrity of Reform Jewish Day Schools
Daniel is a Wexner Graduate Fellow and rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City, where he also earned a master’s degree in Religious Education. Daniel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jake’s 4th-grade math students are learning the rudiments of algebra, practicing the placement and manipulation of points on a grid. Last night’s homework was to plot and connect a series of ordered pairs. The result? NEXT YEAR IN JERUSALEM.
Yael’s 1st-grade Hebrew class is practicing basic pronunciation, reading, and speaking skills. Their classroom exercise is to match pictures of plants with the appropriate word written in Hebrew. The examples used? The seven species of Israel.
Molly’s 8th-grade language arts class is concluding their year-long curriculum revolving around questions of forgiveness. Having read and discussed Raisin in the Sun, Macbeth, and other works of literature, the class is preparing to embark on their weeks-long final project, a collaborative debate about whether a criminal could be forgiven. The man on trial? Karl, from Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower.
I witnessed each of these activities during my visit to the Rashi School in Dedham, MA as a rabbinical-education student in the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s fourth annual Day School Externship. (Read more about the externship HERE and HERE.) The Rashi School is a Reform independent school that draws students from Reform and non-Reform communities throughout the Boston area. As a participant-observer for a full week of the Rashi School’s classes and community activities, I learned a great deal about the inner workings of this top-tier day school, and several weeks later I continue to process and examine the many facets of Jewish education I encountered.
In particular, I have been pondering one question over and over again: How can Jewish day school be a model of the Reform ideals of integrity and integration?
In my view, integrity and integration have been hallmarks of Reform Judaism since its earliest days. Reform’s emphasis on “informed choice” demonstrates the importance of individuals working to live lives consistent with their values (integrity), and Reform’s openness to many sources of knowledge as portals to truth and moral development characterizes the movement’s embrace of social virtues from non-Jewish quarters (integration). In the field of education, these values of integrity and integration were expressed in the American Reform movement throughout the 20th century with an unwavering commitment to public schools with only a small minority of Reform Jews supportive of full-day Jewish schools. In recent years, as non-orthodox day schools have proven to be a stable—if small—part of the American Jewish educational landscape, the question has been raised: Can day schools uphold the Reform values of integrity and integration?
The anecdotes I shared above are attempts to act on these values. While the Rashi School, like all day schools with which I’m familiar, holds special “Jewish Studies” courses in addition to “secular” courses such as math and literature, secular teachers are also encouraged to include Jewish themes and sources whenever possible. Bridging the perceived gap between “Jewish” and “secular” allows students to operate in an American context as Jews with more integrity as they successfully integrate Jewish and non-Jewish perspectives into their lives. While these examples are good starts, the Rashi School staff members with whom we spoke shared that they crave more.
Of course, the challenges to a fully integrated curriculum are considerable. It is rare to find teachers fully capable of teaching “secular” subjects who also can uncover the Jewish lessons that connect students as Jews to the global village. One Rashi School official mused about the possibility of a dual teaching staff—one for “secular” learning and one for Jewish learning—in every classroom, but the financial commitment necessary is beyond reach at this point. The individuals with whom I spoke during my visit to the school agreed that more can be done to reach these goals – the question remains whether this effort will become an educational priority.
On the day I returned to New York from my brief visit to Boston, my teacher Dr. Jonathan Krasner (Wexner Graduate Fellowship Class 7) published “Day Schools and the End of the Melting Pot,” in which he raises these very same questions. He concludes, “If we are serious about addressing the downside to day school education [ethnocentrism] we will need to couple our commitment to day schools with a serious effort to find opportunities for our day school children to have meaningful social interactions with a more diverse population and to cultivate within them greater feelings of connection to the American body politic.” I honestly do not know if this effort can be achieved in the educational landscape as it stands. Yet I am encouraged by the attempts of the Rashi School, Dr. Krasner, and others who have set out to try to address this pressing challenge facing Reform day school education.
I love Reform Judaism’s commitment to integrity and integration, and I yearn for an educational model that epitomizes these values meaningfully and effectively. Can Reform day schools be that model? I’m eager to find out.