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Saturday, June 06, 2020

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Yigal Gross, in his letter, asked “What Is a Jewish Education?” (May 14, 2020). This is a fair question, but I fear that his answer is not accurate and leads to some problematic conclusions. Mr. Gross sees the Jewish classes as the essence and the secular classes, no matter how excellent, as adjunct, and not part of that definition of a Jewish education. I would like to put forward a different vision of what Jewish education is, and why it cannot be replaced by a Talmud Torah (supplemental school) approach to a public school secular education.

A Jewish education is one in which the awareness and mentality of the Jewish life and lifestyle is a constant. If we want to turn out students who see their religious identity as central and pervasive, fragmenting them in the educational process is counter productive. A Jewish school is one that starts with a daily schedule and yearly calendar that are sensitive to the holiday cycle. Extracurriculars are geared to the lifestyle of the Jewish family in timing, food and content. A Jewish school is one that reinforces the values of Yiddishkeit through all of its formal and informal elements; its teachers are familiar with the specific communal and religious needs of the Jewish student and that sensitivity drives the educational process.

A Jewish education is one in which the secular studies classes need not be distinct from religious classes. Curricular crossover is available and shows how the disciplines inform each other. The teachers are resources and have resources to make secular learning part of a rounded and cohesive whole.

I would be hard pressed to mention a gezeirah shava in Shakespeare were I to teach in a public school. A Judaics teacher could not integrate literary theory into a Nach class without a complementary lesson from a literature teacher. History classes in a Jewish school allow students to see their own historical heritage as an important subject that parallels and interacts with world history. Chemistry class can bring in someone to discuss the types of smoke that would have risen in the Beit Hamikdash based on the components in the Ketoret, and its architecture can be considered in the light of geometry.

Debates about current secular controversies, ranging from from abortion to immigration and slavery to vegetarianism, can be discussed through a variety of lenses, including the Jewish one. The classes, staffed by excellent teachers enticed by the advantages of working in the private school system, do not require that the student check his or her religious identity at the door. Even if the subject on a particular day is not officially informed by a Judaic concept, a student can make the connection on his own and know that he has people with whom to discuss his approach. Teachers become role models, not just teachers in Judaics classes. These role models live a life that includes the decision to work in the Jewish community. A positive workplace that impresses non-Jewish teachers models a Kiddush Hashem. In fact, I can’t see how any moment spent in the school environment (in or out of the building) is not part of the Jewish education.

I’d like to think that I work in a yeshiva that champions this approach and comprehensive concept—educating the whole student at all times. Having worked in and sending my children to other yeshivot, I like to think this is not a singular experience. The question remains whether current yeshivas are providing this vision of Jewish education (and how well), or whether that level of attention to religious existence is worth the expense (either in theory or in current iteration).

These are fair concerns and there have always been options for those parents who don’t see this complete integration of identity as a necessity or who are looking for something else that yeshivot don’t provide. There are local public schools, homeschooling and online public schools. But to dismiss a huge chunk of the offerings in the Jewish school as having “nothing to do with Jewish studies at all” is to betray a deep lack of understanding about what Jewish schools should be doing, what they are doing and how a well-rounded educational experience works.

Rabbi Daniel Rosen
English Teacher, The Frisch School
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