Even as they inevitably pay close attention to financial issues, enrollment trends and the quality of general studies offerings, day school leaders—both professional and lay—are concerned about enacting their school’s Jewish mission. That mission, after all, is what justifies the existence of a Jewish day school and makes it so central to the health and vitality of Jewish communal life.
In the current milieu, the Jewish missions of day schools often come under severe pressures. Parent bodies are more diverse than ever before, and parents often lobby at cross-purposes to one another. Some want more and others want less of: Hebrew language instruction, prayer (tefillah), classical religious texts, prescriptive guidance about religious observances, Jewish thought or Israel studies – everything, in fact, that schools might offer. Moreover, finite resources prompt internal debates about the best ways to spend money: Should another science teacher be hired or a Hebrew language instructor? Is the priority a specialist in Rabbinics or in contemporary Israel?
Pressures, moreover, are not only internal. Some emanate from profound changes in the larger educational scene. As new technologies, for example, bring masses of data to hand with a few clicks of the keyboard, what does learning even mean in the 21st century? Where once mastery of Jewish texts was highly prized, today those texts are digitized, translated and accessible to all. What then does it mean to engage in Jewish study? As the globe shrinks, how does a school justify its sharp focus on Jewish solidarity when so many other people are in need of support? And in an age of multi-tasking, how should Jewish studies, which traditionally has involved close textual reading and focused analysis, now be taught? These and other questions challenge educators as they consider their school’s Jewish mission.
The Case Studies Project
To understand how day schools are measuring up to their potential as incubators of Jewish commitment, a team of researchers undertook to visit some 19 schools and learn first-hand how they enact their Jewish mission. The eight-member team – consisting almost entirely of former day school heads who now work in other arenas in the field of Jewish education – spent time observing schools between the spring of 2012 and the end of the 2012-13 school year. Usually in teams of two, the observers focused their attention on the ways day schools enact their self-defined Jewish mission. The Case Study team consisted of Michael Berger, Josh Elkin, Cheryl Finkel, Reuven Greenvald, Pearl Mattenson, Alex Pomson, Jack Wertheimer and Tali Zelkowicz.
Their work resulted in 20 case studies (one school is the subject of two case studies), all of which can be found online at the AVI CHAI website. Each case takes readers into a school to understand its particular set of circumstances. Appended to each case are questions designed to spur conversation among school leaders, teachers, board members and lay leaders of local Jewish education agencies and Federations, so that they can reflect on the implications of the case for their own circumstances. The open-ended nature of the cases is meant to stimulate discussion about possible take-aways from each case.
Some of the questions brought to life by the case studies include:
- How does your school stay true to its Jewish mission and continue to satisfy all stakeholders?
- What story does your school tell about its Jewish purpose?
- What key values and commitments motivate your school’s leadership team?
- How intentional is your school about learning outcomes in Jewish studies?
If these questions are of concern to you and your school, as we believe they are, please access the case studies on the AVI CHAI website and share with your board, leadership team, and wider school community. They are designed to spur conversation and reflection within your school communities about how best to enact and strengthen your school’s Jewish mission.
Dr. Jack Wertheimer will be hosting two upcoming webinars featuring school leaders speaking on the following topics:
Monday, April 20, 1-2pm EST
What story does your school tell about its Jewish purpose?
Sign up here
Wednesday, April 29, 1-2pm EST
What key values and commitments motivate your school’s leadership team?
Sign up here
We hope you will encourage your school’s leadership team, lay leaders, and others in your community who care about day schools to attend.