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Chaim Y. Botwinick

The Jewish Day School: A Beacon of Light in a World of Daunting Uncertainty

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“If Not Now, When? (Pirkei Avot)

The growth, development, impact and success of our Jewish day schools and yeshivot are beyond impressive.

What began as a bold Jewish communal experiment at the turn of the century has now evolved into an  amazing day school success story of historic proportion. This success is due in large measure to increased levels of communal and parental commitment to Jewish  learning and literacy for their children, the proliferation of state-of-the-art school facilities, and the utilization of new curricula and educational technology. It is also the result of an evolving need for greater educational engagement by senior educational leadership who support, respect and celebrate educational transparency, accountability and excellence.

Finally, many opine that the enrollment increases which we have experienced may also be attributed  in part to an increased level of ethnocentricity among our families and members of our Jewish community who are in search for greater Jewish involvement, spirituality and intensive communal engagement.

As we move into the future and begin to identify and benchmark the successes of our Jewish day schools and yeshivot, we must be mindful of  the variety of evolving and new challenges we are still now facing…. some of which are daunting at best.

These challenges include the evolving struggle to recruit and retain high quality teacher and administrative leadership; school affordability, rising costs for schooling, the growing  impact and influence (positive and negative) of technology and social media on the culture of our families and their children; and, more recently the harmful psychological and deleterious impact of  negative global and societal trends such as wokeism and the recent rising tide of antisemitism.

Although all of these challenges demand our upmost focus and attention, these two latter societal concerns  are of particular importance and may even be somewhat existential in nature.

The multitude of issues our day school population currently face relating to heightened levels of antisemitism, the lack of  moral clarity and increased wokism in our society, are a relatively recent phenomena. To be sure, they have slowly seeped into our societal zeitgeist which is now beginning to metastasize into our communities, families and our institutions.

Yes, antisemitism has always simmered just below the surface. But now, this harsh reality has exploded throughout the world.

As these dangerous societal realities begin to infest our communities, we can be relatively certain that their impact on our families, institutions and our educational system are and will be significant. This is with the proviso that our community sits idly by as these contagious and insidious  cancers take over our sense of moral clarity, civility and integrity.

Moral Clarity and Integrity 

Since the tragic and barbaric events of October 7th, our Jewish community has been catapulted into a frightening alternative reality, the likes of which  have not been experienced since the Holocaust..

The increased level of antisemitism, anti-Israel rhetoric, violence and Jew-hatred are at an all time high and growing exponentially. This hatred is exacerbated by a level of ignorance and wokism funded by foreign entities and supported by a misguided, misdirected and uninformed populous. This fixation and lack of moral clarity is further eroded by the false and myopically fashionable narrative and obsession with the oppressor vs the oppressed nonsense …..all of which are excuses to scapegoat and overcompensate for ignorance, boredom, indoctrination and a going level of  shallow, dangerous and poor leadership.

These societal attitudes and actions are fed by a growing number of academic institutions, five-minute Tik-Tok history lessons and personal/politically motivated  agendas which are totally abhorrent, false, fallacious  and downright dangerous.

Standing tall and proud in the midst of this turbulent sea of madness and untruths is our Jewish educational system, comprised of Jewish day schools and yeshivot that promote, support and celebrate Jewish values, moral clarity, integrity and human civility. They are true beacons of morality, decency  and values …supported by a mesorah which guarantees our vitality, viability and future.

As we look around the world, we should never take for granted the power of our Jewish day schools and yeshivot and their profound impact on our Jewish values and their inherent advocacy for motivating and supporting increased moral clarity. In fact, the Jewish day school and yeshiva represents the proud institution that still remains one of the few communal institutional bastions that are preventing the ultimate flood of dangerous sentiment, rhetoric and unabashed racial hatred from spreading in our community. This is of course in addition to our shuls, and other centers for Jewish learning, spirituality and Torah study.

The evolving role and responsibility of our Jewish day schools and yeshivot during this turbulent and daunting period in our history must be to serve as a strong catalyst for our schools to continue on course and to redouble their efforts in order to infuse our students with healthy values and character. To be sure, the values of our Jewish community are indeed supported and protected by a moral compass and imperative of authentic Torah-inspired Judaism, which are part and parcel of the mission and value proposition of our Jewish day schools and yeshivot.

The Day School Challenge

As we know, most  Jewish day schools and yeshivot today have pretty well developed and defined Judaics curricula which include include Chumash, TaNach, Talmud, Mishna, Halacha,  Beur Tefilah, and in select cases HaShkafa, to name a few. By the same token, many of these institutions provide comprehensive General Studies curricula, based upon State standards and accreditation requirements. But in light of today’s environment, as just indicated, the question must be asked – are the provision of these academic standards and requirements sufficient to prepare our students to confront  the  tide of  societal indifference, woke philosophies  and antisemitism?

Today’s society demands new educational response and new approaches with emphasis on more sophisticated high level teaching and instruction.

In light of these new and evolving realities, it is essential that our Jewish day schools and yeshivot prepare our students with an extensive knowledge-base of history, civics and current events. These areas of knowledge are required in order to help our students navigate their future direction beyond the four walls of our day schools. They will and should prepare our students with an arsenal of knowledge, insight, understanding and higher order thinking absolutely essential in order to withstand the winds of untruths, conspiracy theories and alternative historical  facts. We can no longer rely on the rudimentary knowledge we have amassed or have been taught in our  middle or high schools. We must educate our children so that they can challenge the status quo in a mature, knowledgeable and civilized fashion

Today’s, proliferation of  indoctrinated false facts and reality have already seeped into our communities, culture and workplaces. The sooner our youth are prepared to  respond and confront these challenges, the safer and more secure they will be in today’s turbulent upside-down environment.

Antisemitism

The critical role of our day schools in educating our students regarding antisemitism and its impact on our community is paramount.

Last year,  I had the opportunity to engage a group of  high school students regarding the recent surge of antisemitism around the world and in particular, in the United States.

The conversation was beyond depressing and disappointing. I was in total disbelief  by their lack of knowledge, awareness and immaturity regarding the current  resurgence of global antisemitism. It was as if we were talking different languages and living on different planets. Most of the students had absolutely no idea that antisemitism was still a significant  problem in the world, let alone the United States.  For those who did, they expressed confidence, and the unrealistic notion, based on what they hear at home, that our government will control it before it gets out of hand. Indeed wishful pediatric and immature thinking.

I then proceeded to engage the students in a discussion regarding the Holocaust. When did the Holocaust occur? How it occurred? Where it occurred? What were the  outcomes and consequences? Again, most students only had a very rudimentary understanding or knowledge about the Holocaust. And, for those that did respond with greater detail, they only had a very basic or elementary knowledge or understanding regarding this critically important aspect of our history.

Following  this engagement, I was once again, in total disbelief. I asked myself ….how is it possible or even feasible for these high school students to exhibit such a lack of knowledge or understanding? Upon further investigation, I reviewed the school’s general studies curriculum…and sure enough…there was hardly any in-depth material being taught regarding antisemitism. The only material I found was a very brief unit outline devoted to the Holocaust, created by a young teacher who herself admitted to possessing a very profound lack of knowledge of the subject.  This school did however offer a program devoted to Yom HaShoah and a program entitled as Names Not Numbers. In addition, the school did make concerted efforts to take their 11th grade students to the local Holocaust Memorial. ….even though the students preference was for a trip to a water-park or to a local game center/arcade.

Yes, teenagers will be teenagers has always been the obvious default refrain.  But, we must begin to stop making excuses for our schools that are not pushing this curriculum agenda and narrative with more commitment and passion.

As an educator, past head of school and principal, I can recall vividly how parents would line-up and march into my office kicking and screaming in my office that the teaching of the Holocaust and the history of  antisemitism was way too much for their children to be exposed. As a result, they implored the school to “only touch” upon these issues for fear that the school would shock, traumatize or better yet “upset” their children (a topic for another post regarding the over abundant coddling of our children and the price we and they pay for it).

Unfortunately, these and other parents did not fully trust the school that their faculty would teach these subjects with care and sensitivity. Maybe, just maybe these parents themselves did not have a positive experience or exposure as students to these subjects and are now superimposing these feelings, sensitivities and demands on our schools today. Alternatively, maybe many of our schools do not have the faculty with required experience and necessary expertise to teach these critically important and sensitive subjects.

(Parenthetically, the teaching of this subject matter does in fact require a level of skillful teaching and instruction which are age appropriate and sensitive to the maturity levels of students. . It is therefore the role and responsibility of the head of school, principal or unit head to ensure that these teaching standards are in place.)

When looking a this phenomenon under a high resolution microscope, it is obvious that this state of affairs is totally unacceptable. Yes, there are those schools that do indeed address these issues more front and center than others in their curriculum; but, in light of other pressures and challenges they are now becoming few and far in between.

In light of this sad reality, I would like to strongly suggest that our Jewish day school and yeshiva community press the reset button in order to address more directly and strategically how we teach our students about the growing threat of antisemitism; and its growing impact on our communities, our society and the world.

Several suggestions include the offering of a course of study which focus upon contemporary challenges and issues relating to antisemitism.

As envisioned, the curriculum would be comprised of a confluence of civics and history; and how our society confronts the growing nature of antisemitism.

First and foremost, as Jewish educators, educational influencers and thought-leaders, we must ask ourselves the following questions:

  1. How do our schools create strong bonds and linkages between the relationship between antisemitism, Jewish identity and Jewish pride?
  2. How do we understand the many ways in which antisemitism is currently effecting our classrooms, schools and communities; and
  3. How should our schools create internal/school environments which are aimed at instilling Jewish pride in our students?

These specific questions and others will be presented in an impressive workshop series –  Arming Ourselves with Jewish Identity and Pride to be offered by The Lookstein Center. The final session in this series  to take place on February 5th is entitled: Caring for Our Students and Ourselves in the Face of Antisemitism. This is a must for all schools and Jewish educators.

In addition to these kinds of workshops and seminar offerings, our Jewish day school and yeshiva community must make a commitment to integrate these topics into their regular curriculum. To be sure, the days of coddling,  protecting and shielding  our high school students from the harsh realities of our society must be challenged – lest they become exposed to these threatening ills of society upon leaving the four walls of our institutions.

As sad as it might appear, we must (without exception) prepare our students with knowledge, understanding and insight regarding the dangerous resurgence of local and global antisemitism in a society infatuated with hatred, bias, wokism and alternative facts.

If not now, when?

In addition to the integration of these topics into our school’s history, civics and current events curriculum, we must also provide our faculty with a more in-depth and comprehensive series of pre-service and in-service professional development  traing opportunities which focus upon these critical areas.

Endnote

Formulating my thoughts in preparation for the writing of this blog was challenging at best.

In doing so, I was force to sublimate many of my personal feelings inherent in suggesting that our youth be exposed to these most difficult and sensitive topics. But, if not now when?

As the phrase goes – “Rome is Burning”. If we do not educate our youth while they are still in our charge, then we run the tremendous risk of them not being prepared for a future world of uncertainty.

Remember, a skilled, sensitive and experienced teacher can approach these sensitive subjects in the absence of delving deeply into the gruesome imagery of the concentration camps, crematoria and other horrific realities of the Holocaust.

At best, this blog  endeavors to respond to the harsh realities we have all  experienced since the October 7th massacre of our brothers and sisters.

Yes, some sort of switch was flipped on October 7th, the likes of which are virtually impossible to fathom . At best, we must prepare ourselves, our students and our community  to confront these harsh realities.

Having said that, it is our Jewish day school and yeshivot  who represent the shining beacon of light and knowledge required to start this difficult and sensitive conversation. They indeed  represent the one institution in our orbit that has the potential and even mandate to not only prepare our students for the future but future generations as well.

We must never underestimate the tremendous power and influence  of  high quality teaching, learning.

Finally, it is important to note that in order to move in this direction, we must forge new and meaningful partnerships with our parents. This may be a more significant challenge in light of their hesitancy and reluctance to expose their children to these evolving harsh realities.

But, if now now, when?

About the Author
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is a senior executive coach and an organizational consultant . He served as president and CEO of the central agency for Jewish education in Baltimore and in Miami; in addition to head of school and principal for several Jewish day schools and yeshivot. He has published and lectured extensively on topics relating to education, resource development, strategic planing and leadership development. Dr. Botwinick is Author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness”, Brown Books, 2011
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