The ideal Jewish day school graduate

It was a few months into my first year as the Director of Judaics at our community Jewish day school, when a teacher came into my office to discuss my vision of our school. In the midst of the conversation, she asked me the following question:

“What is your view of what a student in our school should look like when they graduate?”

This question, which is not an uncommon one to be asked of an administrator, threw me. As much as I felt comfortable with my vision of Jewish education, I could not answer. Looking back, I now realize that the very fact that I could not answer that question and still cannot answer that question today, really defines how I view Jewish education.

I attended a school that in many ways was viewed as elite. It offered the best General Studies education and the best Jewish education, an elaborate dramatic production, excellent sports teams, after-school clubs galore. But I am a terrible athlete, had no interest in acting or singing and while I was a good student, I was not a stellar performer in subjects that did not speak to my interests.

Today, I love to learn and have spent hours pouring over the very subjects that I was not ready to embrace while in school. I learn them in depth and I attempt to teach them with clarity and in ways that will inspire interest and curiosity. But I did not always feel that way about these subjects when they were taught at school. I imagine I surprised many teachers when I embarked on the field of Jewish education.

While I was not an outstanding student, what I was, was unusually knowledgeable about Israeli history and passionate and opinionated about all issues related to Israel. Passionate about all issues that I cared about, really.

This did not endear me to some in the school administration. While the school had created opportunities for many different kinds of students to excel, they did not have an avenue for students like myself who felt a burning inside to discuss issues of interest. Instead of applauding my passion and teaching me to guide it in a way to make it most effective and appropriate, I was made to feel outspoken. Instead of making me feel special for caring about things that mattered, I was made to feel mediocre because I didn’t excel in the places that they had laid out for students to shine. To be clear, my experience in school was not dramatic, I was never the “bad kid”; I was sent to the principal’s office only once in all my time at school and I did well academically and socially, but looking back, I truly feel the school missed an opportunity to make the most of who I was, rather than making me feel mediocre for who I wasn’t.

It took me a long long time to get over the feeling of being stifled and mediocre.

To this day, when I’ve spent 13 years channeling my passion as an effective Judaic teacher, when my career has advanced that I now work as an administrator and balance it with being an active rebbetzin, mother and blogger, I still feel my level of confidence drop to some degree when we visit my parents in the city where I grew up. I feel successful in my life, and try hard to do well in my many roles but sometimes I wonder if I work so hard to prove a point to those back home who never thought much of me.

That’s the power of education. And while I know that no one ever intended to make me feel badly about myself, it’s been a lesson to me about how damaging education can be. My story did not have to continue on a positive note, many other stories, that have far more dramatic infractions, do not.

As administrators of Jewish day schools, the fate of how a child will feel about themselves, about Jewish learning and even about Judaism in general, is in our hands. While it is natural and normal for students to connect with some subjects more than others, it is our duty to make sure that they graduate connected with some aspect of Judaism. After all, it is perfectly fine for a student to love science and abhor history if they’re going to enter the medical field but if they graduate hating Judaism, where will they be as a Jew? We are losing too many kids to Judaism to focus on one method/expectation of education. Our Sages teach us that there are 70 paths to Torah, it is so important that we find the path that speaks to each and every one of our students in their own individual way.

So many students in schools today do not connect to Gemara learning, and yet they are forced to spend hours a day translating words that do not speak to them and trying to understand halachic analysis that goes over their head. Does Gemara learning really have to be mandatory for every student? Aren’t there so many subjects that students can learn instead that they can connect to: Tanach, Jewish History, Jewish Philosophy? A student should never be made to feel like a failure for being unable to connect to any one subject; the risk of turning them off to Jewish learning is a price far too high to pay.

If a student has tremendous difficulty learning in Hebrew, we are blessed to live in a day and age where almost all Jewish learning is available in English. Is it preferable to have the ability to learn in the actual language that the texts were written? Of course. But not every student will have the ability to do so. Should we turn a student off to Jewish learning because they aren’t gifted in languages?

And we must be so careful not to teach to our students but to make them engaged in the process of learning. Torah SheBaal Peh, Oral Law was not meant to be written down because contrary to the Tanach, the Written Torah, which was canonized, the Oral Law is an unfinished book to this day. Every thought that any student has about Torah is a part of the Oral Law. Their thoughts and opinions truly matter and count as Torah learning. We need to impart this idea to them.

I look back at my experiences from school and I am thankful for them because I now have the sensitivity to be mindful to my student’s needs — both to those that have an easier time with regards to behavioral and academic expectations and those that do not. In my role at our school, I try not to put my students into a box of expectations but to discover their personalities, their talents, what makes them tick and to make them feel confident about who they are and how they can learn and contribute to the Jewish world. I try to applaud their efforts and to put an emphasis on the journey much more than the end result. It’s not always easy and it’s certainly a work in progress as an educator but I want my students to feel empowered about who they are and how they can contribute; never stifled and pushed away.

And so I think back to that question that the teacher posed and I realize that it is not that I could not answer the question of what I want a graduate of a Jewish Day School to look like, but the fact that I choose not to answer the question that defines the very essence of what I think Jewish education is all about.

About the Author
Ariela Davis, a native New Yorker, is the Rebbetzin of Charleston, South Carolina’s historic Orthodox synagogue, Brith Shalom Beth Israel, and the Director of Judaics of Addlestone Hebrew Academy, Charleston’s Jewish day school. She is the wife of Rabbi Moshe Davis and the mother of four children.
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