The Promise of Day School Education: Cultural Virtuosity
post by Hillel Torah | May 28, 2019
MAY 15, 2019 – I’ve been studying Jewish day schools for the last 25 years, a long time by most measures. Over two days recently, the potential of this enterprise to create Jewish cultural virtuosos – people with outstanding ability to contribute to Jewish culture – suddenly gained new clarity for me.
On Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), I concluded a three-day visit at the Akiva School, a small, K–6 community day school in Nashville, Tennessee. The following day, I was at Hillel Torah, a modern Orthodox day school in the suburbs of Chicago. I visited the schools as part of a book writing project with my colleague Jack Wertheimer, a project made possible by the The AVI CHAI Foundation.
At Akiva, I observed an especially moving Yom Hashoah ceremony. Winding their way up from the school building to a Holocaust memorial in a wooded corner of the community campus, students, teachers, and parents heard sixth grade students stationed along the way tell personally researched stories of heroic individuals in the Holocaust. The event’s format – climaxing with song and poetry – is the same every year. The youngest students understand little at first. By the time they make it to highest grades they are leading the event.
Later, during recess, I observed a group of second to fifth grade students. They come together each week as a committee to plan initiatives that do good for children-in-need. Their current project is a shoe drive for refugee children in the Nashville area. As they went about their business, I could close my eyes and imagine listening to a group of adult activists holding the same meeting to determine strategies for catching people’s attention, select which committee members are responsible for what, and confirm follow-up tasks. These students were getting the job done now.
Finally, before leaving the school, I sat down for a focus group with sixth-graders. The Head Teacher suggested that since we were meeting during their Jewish studies class, we should start the conversation with text study. We looked at a Mishna in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) that proposes a taxonomy of stronger and weaker students. While the group had access to the English translation, our discussion riffed off the Hebrew text, as students made connections to words and concepts they had seen in other rabbinic texts. In turn, this particular text served as a starting point for reflecting about their own learning at Akiva.
Hillel Torah, in Skokie, Ill., could not be more different. The school is at least five times the size of its counterpart in Nashville. All of the students come from religiously orthodox families that are intent on enrolling their children in a day school. (Spoiler alert: the general education in these two places was similarly sophisticated and progressive – a phenomenon that calls for elaboration in another article.)
As on my earlier visits to Hillel Torah, I joined the students from the oldest grades for tefilah; they take part in a minyan for Shacharit and Mincha every day. The service was led with tremendous competence by the boys. Essentially, it was no different from a weekday service in any one of the synagogues their parents might attend. Indeed, on a previous occasion I was at the school, the supervising teacher arrived late. To my amazement, the boys just got started with the minyan by themselves; on time, and with remarkable decorum.
On this visit, I observed the students rehearsing for a special Yom Haatzmaut performance, just four school days away. The show is a rite-of-passage responsibility of the eighth-grade class. As the students repeatedly rehearsed skits about the UN vote on Palestine, immigration to Israel, and other aspects of Israel’s story, they were directed by a teacher who spoke with them only in Hebrew. Some students responded in English, but all clearly understood both what they were being told and the script they were performing.
Observing these moments in such proximity to one another, the thought dawned on me that they reflect the essence of day school education when practiced most effectively. Hundreds of miles apart, these students were being initiated into the essentials of Jewish culture: the ability to tell stories about profound moments from the Jewish past, contribute to the well-being of society, engage in meaning-generating text-study, pray fluently, and appreciate Israel’s significance. These skills and knowledge went beyond merely being culturally competent.
Research about those who become virtuosos in music, art, and business highlights the benefits of doing the same tasks repeatedly. Psychologists attribute this process to neurological plasticity; our brains change through repeated exposure to these experiences. Anthropologists attribute these same outcomes to the power of ritual: repeated performance that produces a bodily form of knowing.
In a day school setting, through the repeated practice of well-crafted experiences, day after day, week after week, year after year, children have an opportunity to become virtuosos of sorts. The day school setting offers a routinized structure (routine in the healthy sense of regularized) with the opportunity over time for learners to internalize important values, become experts in complex endeavors, and grow in responsibility – when skilled school leadership and educators are in place. With the possibility of achieving such outcomes, day school students have a launching pad from which to make a decisive contribution to Jewish communal thriving.