Having been involved in Jewish education for many years as both a student and a teacher, I have often felt perturbed by the attempts to professionalize and academize the field. Rubrics, curricula, assessments, and so on were vigorously studied with the hope of full implementation. In a field like Jewish studies, educators, schools, and parents often wonder: what is success? When does a parent or a school know that they have done well with the Jewish education they provide to children? I would strongly argue that academic measures are the last place to look.
The following story exemplifies this argument best.
An excited student came to me one bright Monday. She was away from school on Friday and did not get the usual Parsha sheet that I gave on Friday. With great excitement and a smile on her face, she showed me a handwritten, three-page, Dvar Torah which she shared with her family. I didn’t ask for it nor was she expected to do this. Yet, she had gathered from my informal comments in class that studying and sharing the weekly Torah portion with your family on Friday night was a priority. What is a greater day school success–the three-page Dvar Torah this student shared with me or a different student who studied hard for a graded Chumash test that will be reflected on the report card? Which student exhibited skills and an attachment to Judaism which will last for a lifetime? What do Jewish parents, who at times are sparing bread from their mouths so their kids get a good Jewish education, prefer–a 100% on a Chumash or Navi test or a lifelong attachment to independent Torah study that will remain with their children for their entire lives? The answer is obvious.
On another occasion, on the first day after winter break, a student came over to me to share that he had said the Shema on every day of the break on his own. Tears came to my eyes. Is it not for this kind of pride and attachment that parents send their kids to a Jewish school? Should this student see himself as “not good at Judaic Studies” because he didn’t perform very well on a test about the structure of Jewish prayers? Perhaps we should concede that the testing was irrelevant because this student learned the most important lesson we have to teach to remain connected to his Judaism at all times.
Jewish educators should no longer hide behind academic markers of success in Jewish schools. We need to think beyond the box. Of course, academic success is important, and we should be taking it very seriously. We need to ask ourselves, however, what do we—what do parents—really define as success. We need to be honest about day school success parameters and do our best to implement measures for those to work.
If we teach Tefillah workshops and spend hours on the themes and skills, only to find that once school is over no student bothers to pray or say birkat hamazon, then we have failed epically. If we teach ethics and values that students do not follow after they graduate, then we have wasted our time and their time.
I am reminded of a story about a progressive modern orthodox woman whose sons graduated from a renowned modern orthodox school and then turned completely non-observant, marrying non-Jews. While the mother embraced her children and accepted their life choices, she kept mourning the wasted tuition money and education she gave her children in a modern orthodox school. It didn’t matter to her that her children could read a haggadah flawlessly or could give seven different explanations about the meaning of Passover, if they didn’t observe Passover. It didn’t really matter to her that her children had excellent knowledge of the laws of keeping kosher, while they didn’t observe kashrut. Parents—perhaps far more than teachers—see day school success in continuity. Day school lessons have been lasting if they carry on into students’ lives.
Day school teachers need to be looking in very serious ways into implementing and acknowledging affective success in their classes. Correct, there is no way to grade how attached a student feels to Judaism, but there is a way for us to show that this is what we value. There is a way to reward—formally or not—those who show understanding of this imperative. Children and students, in general, are guided by the hopes and expectations of the adults in their lives. We need to begin with showing we care. One way I did this was by following the recommendation of a parent, who encouraged me to give extra credit for Parsha study if students share it at their Shabbat table. Other ways can include asking parents to send mitzvah notes, casually telling a student theirTefilla is valuable because it is sincere and inspiring, keeping kindness charts, offering honesty rewards, and asking students following vacations and breaks what mitzvahs they did and what they were excited about, and many more.
Jewish educators need to be bold, transparent, and consistent with what success really is about. Sometimes this will mean compromising old-school, dry, academic standards. Most times this will mean making students more enthusiastic, proud, and engaged in what it means to live as a Jew. Let’s begin the conversation.
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a rabbi, teacher, and a writer. He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
This article was posted originally on eJewishPhilanthropy and was reposted with permission.