Driving Innovation in Jewish Education: Believe in Your Turning Radius

Driving Innovation in Jewish Education: Believe in Your Turning Radius

An 18-wheeler makes a U-turn on Flatbush Avenue. That’s not a setup to a joke; I watched it with my own two eyes. Based on what you might know about big trucks and Brooklyn, you may realize that this seems like an insurmountable task and incredibly daring. Clearly, this turn was necessary for the driver’s destination. Why else would someone attempt this? Ultimately, even with hundreds of honking cars and onlookers, the driver successfully rerouted the truck -- with a carefully managed maneuver that didn’t even need a do-over. The driver knew what he needed to do to be successful; clearly he received ample training and had great experience on the road.  

How fitting to watch such a memorable turn in direction happen when I was traveling to visit a number of excellent, student-centered schools, who are rerouting the field of Jewish day school education.

Measured, Not Mindless Innovation

Measured, Not Mindless Innovation

There is a frenetic pace that has taken over Jewish education, and education in general. Maybe this is a result of the flood of offerings on social media promoting how to be a #betterschool or the latest technology you must have to be #cuttingedge. Perhaps it comes from a feeling that in order to retain and attract students schools can’t stop moving, training, improving, innovating. This is overwhelming educators and is having a ripple effect into all aspects of Jewish Day Schools. We are losing talented teachers and school leaders who want to keep up, but the speed at which things move may be too fast for even the most dedicated educators.

Let me be clear, I am not saying that training or improving or innovating are bad. In fact, they are a must if we want our children to excel and be engaged citizens who see the world through a Jewish lens. Our students need exposure to a variety of disciplines and skills, and they need to master them. However, what I have felt, seen and heard is a growing grumbling from teachers and leaders alike who are grabbing at the next best thing that is just out of reach. Whether it’s a 3-D printer, a new STEM lab, the latest coding software, SEL curriculum, personalized learning – schools can’t stop figuring out what they are missing. But, perhaps, they are missing the point of day school education in the first place.

It's All About Trust: 6 Tips for Boosting Buy-In with Change Initiatives

It's All About Trust: 6 Tips for Boosting Buy-In with Change Initiatives

The trust-fall — it’s the quintessential team-building go-to game. I love feeling exhilarated and terrified all at once! The key to its success is obvious; you must trust that people will actually deliver on their promise to catch you. It’s not enough just to hear, “We’ve got your back; we won’t let you fall.” Action transforms a promise into proven trustworthiness.

Trust in school leadership is important to productivity, innovation, loyalty, positive morale, and more. There is no shortage of research and opinion pieces citing the ways leaders can earn trust. Clarity, consistency, contribution, compassion, and other traits that don’t begin with a C are essential for building leadership trust.

A slightly interesting twist in the trust game surfaces in a recent article about trust in leadership in the Harvard Business Review by Holly Henderson Brower, et al. “Trust begets trust,” the article’s authors noted. To build trust FROM others, leaders need to show trust IN others.

Modeling the Joy of Judaism

Modeling the Joy of Judaism

The month of Tishrei is filled with Jewish holiday commemorations and celebrations, with all that goes with them. We begin with preparations for Rosh Hashana; hearing the shofar blasts before and during the holidays, making sure our holiday finery--whether white or colorful--is ready, and assuring that our meals with family and friends are fully planned and outstanding with all the attendant necessities: the round challot with honey, the apple, the new fruit. We continue with Yom Kippur, beating our chests, crying [if you are like me] over our distanced relationship from God and from others, and vowing to ourselves to do better in the coming year. Then we embrace Sukkot with all of its pageantry: the Sukkah, the lulav and etrog, and the dancing to celebrate completing another cycle of Torah reading on Simchat Torah.

Most of our schools provide both intellectual and experiential lessons for the students; as much as can be done with the Tishrei holidays so early in the school year. The children complete all sorts of projects on holiday paraphernalia. They learn about the reasons for and the rituals connected with each holiday, and they practice those rituals in a hopefully spiritual environment in school.

Are these school activities sufficient for inspiring our children to develop an enduring connection to their Judaism? They are single activities, each limited to a specific episode. How can something enduring emanate from a one-hour experience? Obviously, the atmosphere at Jewish schools should be saturated with Jewish values, practices, and life experiences, but is that enough?

Jewish Educators:  The Heart, Mind and Soul of Jewish Education

Jewish Educators: The Heart, Mind and Soul of Jewish Education

Jewish education is the most important gift we give our children and our communities. This is not because Jewish education supports continuity. Judaism, a religion of growth, of personal evolution, forward movement, Tikun Olam, must grow students, not so they can mirror the present, but so that they can shape the future.  We should not be satisfied with an educational system that merely holds the line or allows continuation of Judaism as we know it.  Jewish education is the key to fulfilled Jewish learning and living that builds beyond where we are now.  It is the most powerful guarantee of a generation that will advance Jewish life and help advance the world in important ways.

The Most Essential Part of a Jewish Education Isn’t What You Think

The Most Essential Part of a Jewish Education Isn’t What You Think

In the 1990’s and 2000’s, Judaic teaching capitalized on newer approaches to curricular scope and sequence (spiralling up), giving way to the development of proven pedagogic approaches for skill-building over the last 10 to 15 years. While we can appreciate and lean on the merits of that effort, it is a misplaced focus. When it comes to Judaic Studies, the most important aspects of pedagogy teachers should embrace are those associated with motivational pedagogy. Whether or not a child wishes to engage in the wisdom of our thoughtful lessons after the school day ends impacts more than our job performance. It is the very reason we perform our jobs.

We all should aspire to create a setting where Jewish students want to learn Judaic Studies when they aren’t in the classroom. We know that the depth and power of our tradition can guide, inspire, and influence their lives in positive ways.

Founding a Day School by Turning Values into Action

Founding a Day School by Turning Values into Action

My commitment to Jewish education drives my work, my philanthropy, and my passions. Among my proudest efforts was helping to create the Jewish Community Day School of Greater Boston (JCDS) over two decades ago.  The school’s founding was rooted in core values that were surfaced from visioning exercises and conversations among a committed and passionate group of day school parents.

We began with “artifacts” (as defined by Edgar Schein), reacting in some ways to what we didn’t want and then flipping the lens from complaining to envisioning. In fact, at an early convening, we set rules giving everyone two uninterrupted minutes to speak with a limited time for complaints and a request to focus most of their time to describe the ideal. We recorded everything we heard; we clarified with each person the essence of what they shared. We asked everyone to listen deeply to each other and got a sense of the varying perspectives in the room. It was a long night. There were over 100 people in the room.

Of Grades and Judaic Studies 2: Syncing the Ecosystem

Of Grades and Judaic Studies 2: Syncing the Ecosystem

Culture change takes times, especially when accompanied by practical systems and structures that need to change.  People set emotional and habitual dependencies within patterns of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration which has worked well enough to be considered valid.  To wit, our world could not make an instantaneous shift to alternative fuels despite the benefits. Among the many necessary transitions, first on many people’s mind would be to solve “How would all the current gasoline based cars on the road run?” So, too, for schools pursuing change.

When a school considers a new system for reporting student learning in Judaic Studies that does not use traditional grading as the barometer for success, one may see this as the domain of the professionals alone to make. The movement toward an unfamiliar definition of accomplishment, despite the overwhelming benefits, requires not only buy-in, but support from all groups in the Jewish Day School Ecosystem.

OP-ED: Of Grades and Judaics – Responding to the Call to “Pursue Distinction”

OP-ED: Of Grades and Judaics – Responding to the Call to “Pursue Distinction”

In "Of Grades and Judaics - Responding to the Call to 'Pursue Distinction,'" featured in EJewishPhilanthropy, Rabbi Feld ups the ante on a conversation that is no longer the elephant in the classroom...

Read his case for why traditional grading in Judaics is counter to our timeless system of Torah education and his observations gleaned from JEIC's work to help schools and teachers produce Judaics classes without grades.

OP-ED: What is the Key to Jewish Survival?

OP-ED: What is the Key to Jewish Survival?

What do you think is the key to Jewish survival?

Read on EJewishPhilanthropy.com Rabbi Shmuel Feld's response to Rabbi Meni Even-Israel's op-ed on this essential question.

Advancing Jewish knowledge is an essential step toward ensuring the survival of the Jewish people, but the journey cannot end there.
— Rabbi Shmuel Feld

Done with Grades

Done with Grades

In "Done with Grades" on the Times of Israel Blog, Dr. Erica Brown shares educational research and her own perspective on grading's negative impact on students -- particularly in Jewish studies in day schools.

"There will come a day when a few courageous Jewish day schools have the vision to take a bold step out of an outmoded system and do what Jews have done for millennia: study for its own sake. You brave few will make life-long learners out of your students. You will foster curiosity and love. You will nurture engagement and intellect. You will grow the soul. You will show the rest of us the way."

“All Things Considered”: Top 10 Steps to School Change

“All Things Considered”: Top 10 Steps to School Change

After a long, and at times, arduous three-year process, the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County became an authorized International Baccalaureate (IB) World School for the Middle Years Programme. As the first Jewish day school in this Metropolitan area to become an IB school, we join a short list of three Jewish schools in North America to have achieved this prestigious accreditation (with the others in Toronto, Mexico City, and Palm Beach Gardens, Florida) and six secular schools in New Jersey. Our Schechter school now ranks among 1,500 IB Middle Years Programme schools around the world.   What's more, we are proud to lay claim as the first Jewish day school to tailor this gold-standard educational framework to our Judaic studies curriculum. This means we are creating a uniquely Jewish experience for our students to connect their Jewish learning to the world around them and to turn their learning into action. We chose the IB because it offers a powerful lens through which we can better integrate and teach general studies and Jewish text, traditions and Hebrew language. The journey has been demanding and has called for the support of our teachers, students, parents, and board; it has paid off.

We have achieved the first big milestone in this process of school change; however, we recognize we are still at the beginning of a journey. Our success will depend on our continued commitment to full implementation of all aspects of this program. We have documented a few key lessons we have learned along the way that we believe would help any school embark on a similar school-change initiative.

OP-ED: Manette Mayberg Calls for Jewish Day Schools to Pursue Distinction

OP-ED: Manette Mayberg Calls for Jewish Day Schools to Pursue Distinction

Manette Mayberg, trustee of the Mayberg Foundation, shares a compelling call to action to Jewish day schools in an op-ed featured in both the Washington Jewish Week and EJewishPhilanthropy.

Her message... Pursue Distinction!

The Mayberg Foundation collaborates with multiple philanthropic partners to advance JEIC’s vision to reignite students’ passion for Jewish learning and improve the way Jewish values, literacy, practice and belief are transferred to the next generation.

Social Geography’s Impact on the Jewish Day School Ecosystem

Social Geography’s Impact on the Jewish Day School Ecosystem

Unless you spend time in the same place as others, it can be challenging to create meaningful connections with them. Proximity matters in relationship building. When a school segments subsets of its population in areas of the building that are distant from peers, the students may not have the opportunities needed to develop strong friendships and grow from beneficial interactions with one another.

The same is true for stakeholders in the Jewish day school ecosystem.

Hesed (loving kindness) is at the Heart of our Work

Hesed (loving kindness) is at the Heart of our Work

I had the privilege of attending the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC) 2018 Retreat –a wonderful gathering of educators, investors, and leaders in the world of Jewish day school education. Over the course of the retreat, we were asked to think deeply about the purpose of day school education. We were asked to reflect on our own values, and how we would bring those values to life in a school setting. And we were asked – in an uplifting keynote by philanthropist and visionary leader, Manette Mayberg – to consider the importance of distinctiveness as an enduring Jewish spiritual value.

Her words brought to mind one of my favorite midrashim – a rabbinic commentary from Vayikra Rabbah inspired by a verse from this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt.” [Leviticus 18:2]

A Charge to IR18 Attendees to Strive for Distinction Using Courage

A Charge to IR18 Attendees to Strive for Distinction Using Courage

As we merited to make the journey, yet another year, from slavery to freedom, from the constraints of Egypt to the open desert, it is incumbent upon us to find the relevance of Passover in our lives.

There is a remarkable piece in Gd’s method of preparing the Jews to leave Egypt. Gd commands every Jewish household to take a lamb into the home for a few days, then slaughter it and mark the doorpost of the house with its blood. Imagine being in that place for a minute. Take a lamb, the very animal that is worshipped as a deity in the hostile society in which you live…care for it, then risk your life to kill it so that its blood will protect you from Gd’s final devastating blow. To take this action required such a deep trust in Gd, that most of the Jews didn’t do it. Most assimilated and were lost and only a minority followed Gd’s word and left Egypt.

This marking on the doorpost – it was the first mezuzah! Jewish Egyptians were challenged to distinguish their homes, not with a subtle mark, but with a bold, emphatic and risky statement. Gd clearly had an eternal message in this and it applies to us today.

As educators and investors in Jewish education, we are partners with the holiest institution since the beit hamigdash stood – that is the Jewish home. Many Jews, I would guess, the vast majority, have no idea that the holiest place is in fact, not the synagogue, but the home. Some even think, “I am a bad Jew because I don’t go to synagogue!” When in fact, every Jewish home has equal potential to instill the Jewish identity and values that sustain the Jewish people. The Jewish institutions that we devote ourselves to are extensions of the home. School is not a substitute for, but an essential limb of the home. When families choose to entrust their children’s education and direct their dollars to Jewish day schools, they expect an experience that, like their homes, is distinctly Jewish.  Distinction is in our DNA and has enabled our survival throughout the ages. Scattered to all four corners of the Earth, distinction is the unifier that has made survival possible. Gd said, “mark your houses” because the values that you hold inside, are the hallmark of the Jewish family that will distinguish you for all time. When Gd commanded us to make ourselves distinct, it was by the unit of the home, not the individual.