The Mishkan, Chicago World’s Fair and Jewish day schools

What is a day school education for? The Mishkan has much to teach us in this matter; however, first it is instructive to take a look at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

All the great US architects of the age converged to create a temporary, glorious set of enormous classical buildings that were for everyone, not just the rich and powerful. The Fair arose at a time when cities were grimy, filled with the soot of factories and the muck of horse manure; an economic depression drove ever more people into poverty and despair; further, Chicago had burned down in 1871, and it was uncertain whether the city could arise again. Tens of thousands were employed to produce this huge enterprise in under two years. The architects decided that all the buildings would be painted white, hence it became known as the White City. It gave people hope, as hundreds of thousands came from all over the country to view its wonders.

The Fair introduced America to new marvels, everything from the first Ferris wheel to belly dancing to Juicy Fruit chewing gum and Shredded Wheat; it was where many experienced the light bulb, movie, and telephone for the first time. More importantly, the Fair felt like the visual embodiment of American principles and ideals, as the highest artistic and scientific accomplishments were accessible for all to witness and enjoy. No wonder the Fair gave rise to American rituals such as the Pledge of Allegiance and Columbus Day. In the hearts and minds of all who attended, the Fair left a glowing image that remained for decades afterwards, providing a radiant symbol of what America could be at its best.

The Mishkan, I believe, holds a place in Jewish memory similar to the Chicago World’s Fair in American memory. It was a structure built by and for everyone—the opposite of the pyramids of Egypt, constructed by slave labor to house the dead pharaohs. Every Jew could contribute, both in material resources and physical labor, to the extent that he or she desired and was able. The Mishkan came at a time when the Jews must have wondered, What will our religion ever amount to? Will we ever rival the glories of the home we fled? Its construction was crucial for inspiring confidence and initiative in a people long used to physical and spiritual degradation. With God’s architectural plans, conveyed by Moses to Betzalel his project manager, the Jewish people created a structure that would serve them, not Moses. All could contribute, all could benefit from this portable Temple. No wonder God called upon a new spirit of volunteerism: through the Tabernacle Judaism is established as a religious community of democratic citizenship, in which individual talent and passion is allowed to support the whole of society.

The Mishkan offered a perfect expression of the relationship between people and God, with God giving the blueprint but requiring people to understand it and fashion it, to make it accurately and beautifully, to take it apart and build it again. It served as the visual embodiment of Jewish principles and ideals, as the highest artistic and religious accomplishments for all to witness and enjoy. In the hearts and minds of the Jewish people, the Mishkan has left a glowing image that has remained for countless generations, providing a radiant symbol of what Judaism could be at its best.

To return to the opening question: What is day school education for? Is it primarily to teach Jewish values, Hebrew, rabbinics? Is its main purpose to have strong academics and get students into top colleges? Or is there something else?

The Mishkan gives us a different answer: Jewish day schools provide our youth with an image of the Jewish community at its best, of what our community can be—an image that students will hopefully take with them, that they will be inspired to recreate and develop throughout their lives. Day schools educate students not just as individuals—although they usually do that very well, preparing students to succeed academically, socially and emotionally—but also to understand their role within Am Yisrael, as an irreplaceable part of the Jewish people, a person with responsibilities and opportunities derived from being part of our nation, our history, our covenant with God. They educate students not just to “be all that they can be” but to “do all that they can do” and to “care all that they can care.”

Here are some aspects of the Mishkan that I see reflected day schools:

Klal Yisrael

In the Mishkan, all were welcomed and valued; no one checked people’s yichus, synagogue membership or attendance. Similarly, day schools welcome children of parents from Israel, Russia, the US and elsewhere; students from different Jewish affiliations and practices forge common bonds as one people with shared learning, rituals and celebrations. Day schools try hard to admit people no matter their financial resources; they increasingly look to be inclusive of a wide range of learning differences. Teachers work to ensure that there are no insiders and outsiders, that everyone belongs and is appreciated.

Highest Common Denominator

God’s blueprints for the Mishkan ensured that the people worked together and aimed high, to create a work of true excellence, proportion and beauty. Likewise, at day schools students learn to channel their differences into fruitful collaborations that reach high levels of achievement. Whether they’re partnering in tefillah or chesed, Jewish text study or a science fair, day school students often work in groups or teams to collaborate on projects. But even when working alone, they get to show off their own talents in the context of a communal effort in which everyone’s gifts and creativity are prized.

Enveloping Atmosphere of Jewish Life and Learning

The Mishkan provided a visual reminder to the people of God’s presence among them—ושכנתי בתוכם —through all of its details: the enclosures, ascending in levels of kedushah; the elaborately wrought menorah, the table for shewbread and the altar, the angels above the ark, the fine fabrics, and the clothing and headpiece of the high priest. The experience engulfed all senses: touch (fabrics), smell (incense), taste (meat), sound (Psalms), sight (ark). At day schools, on a more modest scale, the atmosphere conveys a world of Jewish culture and values through multiple senses and intelligences, from Israeli flags and maps to Hebrew on the doors, the sounds of Israeli songs to constantly updated Hebrew poems and essays and creative Jewish art projects.

All Kinds of Knowledge Serve the Jewish Mission

The Mishkan required donors, carpenters, fabric designers, metalsmiths, tailors, and master craftsmen, all knowledgeable and experienced in their work. At day schools the day is divided between Jewish studies and general studies, all aspects of which are equally valued and all are part of the larger Jewish environment of the school. By valuing secular studies alongside Jewish studies, a school makes the powerful statement that all learning is a part of our Jewish identity and that Jewish and secular knowledge together form a common pursuit to “study God’s ways.”

A Structure that Is Both Consistent and Dynamic

The Mishkan is a complex structure with numerous parts clearly described and located within the whole; yet it is also meant, Ikea-like, to be easily disassembled and re-assembled, to accompany the people’s wanderings in the wilderness while retaining its mission of serving as God’s dwelling place. Day schools too are places led by people concerned about how to best preserve the core elements of our tradition, to ensure that the Jewish planks and sockets, curtains and loops don’t get lost in the rush to change. But they are also places open to ideas and methods derived from contemporary innovators and scholars, places willing to empower students to experiment and discover ways to make Judaism stronger and more inspiring.

A popular Jewish song goes, בלבבי משכן אבנה —I will build a mishkan in my heart. Jewish day schools do precisely that, creating a community resembling a mishkan that students take with them in their hearts. We all know that the Jewish people in America are facing great challenges. There’s no substitute for day school education to instill the awareness of belonging to the Jewish people, the knowledge of Hebrew and our Jewish heritage, the love of Israel and the dispositions to become engaged, dedicated Jews and Jewish leaders. The Jewish community needs to find ways bring more students into the holy structure of our day schools.

About the Author
Elliott Rabin is the Director of Thought Leadership at Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools, where he edits Prizmah's magazine HaYidion.
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