According to the 2008-9 AVICHAI study, there are approximately 230,000 students in Jewish day schools in the US alone. Figuring an average tuition of $12,000 a year, that amounts to a staggering 2.76 billion dollars each year spent on day school education. It is fair to surmise that the parents who pay tuition, alongside the philanthropists and foundations that help to sustain these institutions, believe that day schools provide the most meaningful vehicle for the ______ of the Jewish community and for the _____ of the students who attend those schools.
I have thought quite a bit about what to insert into those blanks. What is it, precisely, that we are paying for? Survival of the Jewish community? Continuity? Limmud Torah? A feeling of Jewish belonging? My initial thoughts were that each school, or each subset of schools, would come up with a different set of goals to fill in those blanks. Surely the Hasidic school in Brooklyn has different goals than the Modern Orthodox one in Chicago, which is in turn different from a Solomon Schechter in L.A., a Community day school in Boston or a Reform day school in Atlanta.
Yet the more I consider the question the more I suspect that all the above institutions can fill in the blanks with the same word. Commitment. Everyone who sends a child to a day school, and everyone who provides financial support for a child to attend day school, expects some level of Jewish commitment. The level of commitment and the precise commitments expected will vary from school to school and even from student to student, yet no one would invest what they do without the expectation that the product will be some form of enhanced Jewish commitment.
The problem is that in an open society, and perhaps especially in a post-modern society, commitment is not only difficult to achieve, but may even be counter-cultural. We hate to be defined or labeled and carry on ourselves the symbols of multiple affiliations. We belong to so many groups – both real and virtual – that we really belong to none. We don’t even need to commit to cell phone carriers; we can switch our plans and take our numbers with us.
This, of course, raises serious questions about the purpose of our entire enterprise and presents us with something of a paradox. I highly doubt that many of us would (or should!) do what we do were we not dedicated toward enhancing our students’ Jewish commitment – however it is defined. Yet educating for commitment can be like navigating a minefield. It raises questions about how much of a teacher’s personal values and opinions are permitted, or encouraged, in the classroom; it challenges us to do some soul searching about how tolerant schools need to be about allowing for opinions antithetical to their essence. (How many Orthodox schools would allow a Biblical scholar to demonstrate why she considers the Documentary Hypothesis as valid? How many Reform day schools would allow an Orthodox rabbi to teach why they view patrilineal descent as invalid?) And assuming we are successful at instilling commitment within our students, how successful do we really want to be? Would we consider ourselves successful if our students’ commitments so far exceeded their parents’ that they no longer considered their parents’ Judaism, or the schools’ vision, legitimate?
In our Research section, Lisa Grant explores the difference between engagement and commitment and Steve Bailey proposes a conceptual framework for educating toward commitment. Three articles, by Ed Frankel, Micah Lapidus and Ira Bedzow, independently examine quotes from literature – contemporary and classic, Jewish and secular – to seek guidance on fostering commitment while exploring the complex nature of commitment in our era. Rounding out this section, Tamar Ketko delves into the ethics and impact of teaching Jewish history in Israel.
Our Applications section opens with Lookstein’s Eli Kohn, who describes the process and results of a curriculum design project which involved the school’s re-examining its core values. David Bernstein shares a practical workshop he has run in a variety of settings, and Elliot Feldman proposes an educational mind shift to redirect our efforts at building commitment. Three articles create a fascinating dialogue about defining commitment in the contemporary era. Yonatan Yussman presents a radical rethinking of education, to which Erica Brown responds. Sam Kapustin, writing independently of the other two, provides yet a third perspective. It is a discussion not to be missed.
In our Features, Levi Cooper reveals the creative attempts of two early twentieth century Rabbis, independent of each other, to bring about a rededication to mikveh immersion. Finally, our Perspectives column features Rabbi Daniel Landes, Rosh Yeshiva of the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.