A Day (School) Dream

  • by: Rabbi Dr. Jeremiah Unterman

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at Vol. XIII (Winter 2000).

The enormous time, energy, and resources spent continuously by the overall North American Orthodox community on its day schools is testament to its overwhelming desire to imprint its children with the knowledge, skills, values, and behaviors which will compel them to live fully Jewish lives throughout their adulthood. A billion dollars or more (!) are spent annually by Orthodox Jews for the day school education of their young. Although Conservative, Community, and even Reform day schools are emerging in not insignificant numbers, those Jewish groups still cannot compete with the steadfast determination of the Orthodox to support its day school complex. The dedication of Orthodox parents to their children’s education is both admirable and enviable.

And yet, despite the staggering outlay of funds, few Orthodox day schools have the financial wherewithal to provide the physical facilities of the average out-of-city public school, to say nothing of tire range of excellent educational opportunities available to the non-Jewish private school student. The money crunch fabricates an array of conditions that impinges on the effectiveness of our schools:

  • The paucity of qualified teachers (or even people interested in becoming teachers) due to the dearth of competitive salaries and benefits
  • Minimal expenditures for pedagogic training
  • The lack of funds to spend on curriculum development
  • The inability to provide proper services for special needs children or, conversely, for gifted children
  • The deficiency in general enrichment programs, including inadequacies in the arts, music, drama and sports
  • Insufficient library materials, science laboratories, computers (in both quantity and quality).

The Challenges
In all the above areas, the situation is getting progressively worse, not better. Our schools are falling further and further behind in the educational services they are rendering our children. The system, as whole, is in danger of becoming obsolete, which will put our children a distinct disadvantage when they try to “make it” in the outside world as adults. Only the “elite” schools will flourish. In order to save the day it will take nothing less than a major continent-wide appeal on behalf of the schools by our rabbinic, lay, and professional leadership to galvanize the community into action. What is needed is support for an initiative like the one proposed by Chicago’s George Hanus, whereby Jews everywhere will designate 5% of their estate to be willed to day schools.
However, money is not the only problem. The challenges of living in America’s open secular society are sapping the spiritual and moral strength of our people. This predicament is reflected in the problems that exist in our schools concerning such seemingly diverse issues as prayer and manners. Assuming that we can be successful in transmitting to our students an adequate background in textual knowledge and skills, how do we raise mentschen? How do we train children for kiddush Hashem, and not, God forbid, for hillul Hashem? How to instill politeness, decency, integrity, fairness, kindness, altruism, sympathy, concern, trustworthiness? How do we educate our children to be ba’alei tzedakah vehesed? In other words, how do we inoculate the child with the values and behaviors of our unparalleled Jewish ethical tradition?
And more: how do we achieve these goals in the context of ahavat yisrael when Jewish leadership is so often divisive and, worse, indifferent to the needs and circumstances of “other” Jews? How do we treat ahavat yisrael in a meaningful way when we have no discourse with Jews unlike ourselves?
And yet more: how do we instruct our children in tikkun olam when we discourage relationships with non-Jews? How can we be an or lagoyim when we live insular lives? How are they to see our light when we pull the slide down on our society? How, then, do we fulfill our mission as a people?
When we think of ethics we usually limit ourselves to mitzvot bein adam lahaveiro. But I would suggest that mitzvoth bein adam laMakom also is an ethical category. When children in our schools start off the day by davening shaharit without paying attention to the words and without kavannah, they are learning that being Jewish is a game which you can win just by going through the motions. Where, then, is honesty in our relationship to God?

If we do not succeed in the above-mentioned non-monetary challenges, we will fail both in terms of education and in our responsibility as Jews.
How then do we achieve our goals?

  • We must transform our schools into ideal Jewish environments where people treat each other respectfully and compassionately – teachers to students, administration to teachers, boards to administration, parents to teachers. School climate becomes the focus.
  • In order to realize this aim, we have to educate our staffs to reflective practice. The teacher must comprehend how important he/she can be in the life of the child – for good or for evil.
  • We must undertake serious programs in parent education and board education. Once upon a time, the school mirrored the values of the home. Today, we wish that many of our families would be guided by the teachings of our schools.
  • We must consider revamping our curricula and refocus on moral education and projects. We must carefully choose the texts we teach so that they reflect the values of our heritage. Our children must learn so that they will do.
  • We have to trust the strength of the Torah we impart to our children, and not be afraid of introducing them into controlled situations where they meet other Jews, and even non-Jews. When we do our job well, our children will influence others, and not vice versa.

If we thrust our energies into these activities, the daydream will become reality.