Making Community Involvement Normative

 Posted by on June 12, 2014 at 2:43 pm  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
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AVI CHAI’s recently released report, “Hearts and Minds: Israel in North American Jewish Day Schools,” took the measure of day school Israel education through comprehensive surveys of schools, teachers, and students and school site visits. As schools, educators, and others in the Israel education ecosystem consider the report’s key findings and their implications, we plan to feature some responses from the field here on the blog. In this post, Head of TanenbaumCHAT Lee Buckman discusses his reactions.

By: Lee Buckman

One of the most significant findings in the Wertheimer et al study on Israel engagement is the relationship between Israel engagement and a sense of peoplehood.  For example, students’ engagement with Israel is closely associated with their connection to other Jews.  Likewise, to the extent that parents are involved in the Jewish community, their children will be more attached to Israel.

As the Head of School of a Jewish day high school (TanenbaumCHAT), I would like to focus on the implications of these findings for the high school population and particularly young alumni.

First, do schools have an obligation to help their graduates get involved in the Jewish community?  Given that we have limited time and resources and need to devote them to educating high school students when they are in our school, educators may rightly say that their responsibility to their students ends with high school graduation.

Nevertheless, at the very least, we should ensure that we do a proper hand-off to university campus Hillels or other Jewish organizations.  Imagine if Jewish day high schools were to send to Jewish campus organizations a roster of graduates who will be matriculating in the fall to their university.  Such a hand-off would increase the odds that day high school graduates will remain engaged in the Jewish community and continue to deepen their connection to Jewish people and Israel.

Second, I wonder what role Jewish day high educators can play by making the high school one communal organization with which emerging adults should stay involved.  Granted that most high school graduates don’t want to return to high school or at least want a break.  But at the appropriate time, how can Jewish day high schools play a role in helping students develop a habit of communal involvement by inviting graduates to return or contribute to their alma mater?

Recently, TanenbaumCHAT piloted a program called CHAT RECHARGE in which we invited alumni who are currently university students to return for a week to study in a beit midrash in the morning and work for the school in the afternoon.  Both components of the week focused on Israel engagement.  The morning was devoted to aspects of civic leadership in Israel and was meant to educate the graduates on various contemporary Israeli issues so that by the end of the week they could have a meaningful dialogue with a group of Israelis in their age cohort about the responsibility of Diaspora Jewry towards Israel and vice versa.  The afternoon was devoted to collecting stories of TanenbaumCHAT alumni who have made aliyah and thought carefully about their relationship with Israel in an effort to help current high school students wrestle with the question:  What does Israel mean to me?

Content aside, the point is to think of ways in which high schools can keep alumni engaged in substantive ways so that communal involvement is something that is simply normative for emerging Jewish adults.  Of course, Jewish communal involvement has intrinsic value; for the purposes of Israel engagement, Pomson et al has shown that it is one of the main drivers.

Third, we know from the study the positive correlation between parent involvement in the community has on students’ attachment to Israel.  If high schools highlight the involvement of alumni in the community, might there be a similar effect?  Alumni create a plausibility construct.  In other words, alumni show current students what someone who once was a student in the same school, with the same social pressures and academic aspirations, can do or does.  The question I think about is: How can we tap into hyper-engaged alumni so that our current students will say, “maybe I should do that too when I graduate”?

Jewish day schools will achieve their Jewish mission more fully to the extent that they make horizontal connections with other institutions (e.g. encourage student involvement in Jewish summer camps, youth groups, synagogues) and vertical connections (ensure that there is a good hand-off to the university and then keep the Jewish mission of the school at the center of their consciousness as emerging Jewish adults who are ready to send their children to Jewish day school).

Rabbi Lee Buckman is Head of School at TanenbaumCHAT, the Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto.