Dr. Susan M. Kardos is Senior Director of Strategy and Education Planning at The AVI CHAI Foundation. Previously she served as Director of the Initiative for Day School Excellence at CJP in Boston. She holds an Ed.D in educational policy from Harvard University. She lives in Bergen County, NJ with her husband and two children, and is on the board of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County.
Tell me about your professional journey.
After serving for seven years as a middle school teacher at two different private schools, I was ready to think more broadly about education as a field, particularly public education. I went to Harvard for a doctorate in educational policy, where I learned much more about issues of new teacher workforce, school leadership and reform, and education organizations and systems.
In my first semester, I took a course on education, politics, and policymaking. For the final paper, the professor asked us to pick any topic in politics and education. I looked at underground schools in the Warsaw Ghetto as a form of political resistance. The spark for this idea came from my time at Jewish day school, which I attended until going to public high school, and whose eighth grade curriculum was focused on Holocaust history.
Even after submitting the paper, I was encouraged by my non-Jewish professor to study this area in even greater depth, in parallel to my other coursework. I embarked on a four-year obsession to pursue this topic on my own time and dime. It was an intense period. I spent a lot of time in the archives at the Holocaust Museum, at YIVO, and doing survivor interviews. I was at a stage where I was thinking a lot about the next stage of my career, and I felt called to take all the expertise I developed in independent and public school education and translate it for use on behalf of Jewish education. I wanted to use my skill and talents on behalf of my people. I was being trained for and poised to begin a scholarly career at a research university, but instead, after I earned my degree, I got a post-doc at Brandeis, at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, which Sharon Feiman-Nemser had just started. Sharon is a well-known scholar in the general education community, and her interests and expertise were directly aligned with mine. I found the fact that she had gone into Jewish education inspiring.
Because of the paper on the Warsaw Ghetto – which was published in the Harvard Education Review and appeared in two books as a book chapter – I was introduced to Barry Shrage, President of CJP, who found the paper useful in his work and who distributed it widely. As a result of a $45 million gift to CJP, I was hired as Director of the Initiative for Day School Excellence. It was a good fit for me to be at an organization so much more mission-driven than what I would have found at a university and to be working on behalf of the 14 Jewish day schools in Boston.
What do you value most about your day school experience?
I had an amazing experience at day school. For me, it’s not so much about the curriculum or the pedagogy as it is about the context. I was at my local Orthodox day school for 10 years (I was in the first pre-K class offered at the local day school), and it determined who I am, how I understand the world, and what my purpose is in it.
The social networks and connections were very important. There were 30 kids in our graduating class: three of them were at my wedding, and I’m in touch, more or less, with at least a third of them. There’s something about the intensity of the experience and its sense of community and responsibility that has this effect. Even more than the high school years, these are formative years, where kids are taking a lot of things in. They can critique and object later, but it has to already be there to be internalized. The kind of Jewish commitment I have is from my day school.
What needs are unique to Jewish day schools, and which are shared with other types of schools?
Jewish day school has much to learn from its secular private schools peers. We are less odd and particularistic than we think we are. In a sense, Jewish schools are not different from private schools with comparable enrollment. At the same, our tradition and our history have lessons to teach us about how to run a school; what to teach and how to teach it; what to expect from teachers, parents, students and what they should aspire to; and what kind of school community to build.
What do you believe is the biggest challenge Jewish day schools face?
The biggest challenge is not facing day schools themselves. It faces the Jewish community as a whole. It’s the crisis in moving toward more and more bifurcation within our own people, with Orthodox on one side and non-Orthodox on the other. Intensive and immersive Jewish education doesn’t seem to be as consistently important to the non-Orthodox sector. For many, putting the affordability challenge that Jewish education presents into the equation exacerbates a problem that already exists. There’s a center within the Jewish people which is falling out. I think that center serves as a critical bridge between the two poles. The more that falls out, the greater tragedy it is for the Jewish people, since it limits the sense of access to and ownership of our tradition, history, and sacred text within non-Orthodox communities.
What do you believe is the greatest opportunity for Jewish day schools?
Anyone who is Jewish is compelled to be optimistic. It’s our lot to wait and wait for Mashiach to come. That compulsion to hope and dream is doubly strong for Jewish educators. The job of an educator is always, and must always be, to think each and every day has the potential to be each kid’s very best day, to go in it with all the hope in the world. Accordingly, the opportunities are more vast than the challenges. Day schools have the potential to transform the lives of kids, their families, and the community. Every day in day school, adults and kids have the opportunity to dare to create experiences that are deeply and joyously Jewish. It’s the most sacred opportunity in the world.
How do your experiences as a parent influence your understanding of Jewish education?
As a parent, all the abstractions of academic education became more real. It has really solidified my resolve to want my kids to have a Jewish day school experience. My children are now in a bilingual Hebrew-English preschool.
While I got my day school education at a particular time in history which had particular emphases, I personally don’t want my daughter’s Jewish education to be about her carrying around the weight of our very difficult history. Sure, I want her know and understand and internalize our past, but I want her to focus on our present and our future. I want her to be engaged in, inspired by, and empowered by her role in this great Jewish project. For me, Judaism is about glory, brilliance of sacred texts, that kind of joyousness. Things are moving in that direction in the field of Jewish education, and I hope that will continue. I hope AVI CHAI’s focus on Jewish literacy, religious purposefulness, and peoplehood, and the joyousness of that, will be a big part of the influence we can have in our grant-making.
What do you find most rewarding about working at AVI CHAI?
The most rewarding things I do are when I’m in direct contact with people in the field. I’m constantly being inspired by their commitment, knowledge, and wisdom, and the personal and financial sacrifices they’ve made to do the work they do so tirelessly. I also value relationships with colleagues at other foundations, who are part of this project also.