Twice in my life I was given the gift of walking through an open door into a new world. The first was a world two hundred years old, that no member of my family had ever known before. The second was a world three thousand years old, a world that nearly every generation of my family had experienced, until my generation.
In the first world, I learned and thrived, in the classroom, on the stage, and on the court, at higher levels than I had ever experienced before. I interacted daily and deeply with diverse students and teachers who were driven and passionate. My experiences and my relationships expanded my mind and my heart, and opened me up to the world. In many ways, my high school experience at Phillips Academy, Andover, was everything a high school experience could possibly be. Andover represented the highest ideals of America and of enlightened Western culture. But for me, it wasn’t enough. Although it cracked open my neshama to essential questions about who I was, where I came from, and who I wanted to be, it ultimately could not help me fully answer these questions, because these questions hit the heart of who I was not only as a human being, but also as a Jew.
In the second world, I explored parts of myself and my heritage that I had never really known before. While I was living in Jerusalem and learning at Pardes, Jewish texts and tradition came alive for me. I discovered the spirit of Klal Yisrael in a learning community of committed and passionate men and women with diverse backgrounds, practices, and beliefs. Never before had I met or been inspired by so many teachers who loved and lived what they taught, whose love of God, Torah, and Klal Yisrael was matched only by their love of and respect for their students. My spiritual and intellectual journey led me home, to my roots. In Jewish culture, law and thought, I found wisdom and values about life – history, community, ethics, spirituality – that offered answers (albeit many different answers!) to the same questions that my high school experience awakened in me.
In retrospect, it is almost uncanny, yet somehow perfectly clear that the next stop on my journey would be working at the New Jewish High School of Greater Boston, eight years ago. At NJHS, I found the synthesis of my worlds and discovered my passion for pluralistic Jewish high school education.
I recently attended a meeting of a pluralistic Jewish high school’s educational policies committee, at which the group struggled with the details of how to balance the school’s competing priorities in its schedule. Exasperated by the exercise, one of our most devoted teachers suggested, “Maybe this just can’t work. Maybe you can’t be both a great Jewish school and an excellent prep school. You can’t be both Andover and yeshiva.” The room became silent and all eyes turned toward me. I thought for a moment and then responded to her analysis: “This is what I think about every day of my life. If I agreed with you, I would walk out of this room right now and leave this profession today.”
People sometimes ask me how I feel about the fact that sending my own children to Jewish high school would mean denying them the high school experience I was blessed to have. At this point in my life and my career, the answer is clear: this is simply not a choice or a compromise we should have to make. As an educator and a parent, I believe we can and we must demand the best of both worlds. To me, this is what Gann is all about.
Jewish high school education empowers and inspires students to actualize their potential as human beings and as Jews (tikkun atzmi), and to make unique contributions to the Jewish People and the world (tikkun olam).
The following are principles about schools and education that I believe will help a school achieve this mission.
Language and Lens of Jewish Culture and Values
The mission to educate a new generation of leaders who are self-actualized and capable of improving their world is universal and humanistic. Yet, while our students are individual members of American society and a global human race, they are also members of a particular people, with its own distinct stories, culture and values. A Jewish high school shapes the lens through which its students see the world. Jewish identity is not the opposing pole to students’ American or secular identities, but rather the organic lens through which they experience and interpret their world. Jewish student-athletes, for example, are conscious that they are fulfilling Maimonides’ ideal of nefesh bari al guf bari (a healthy mind and soul on the foundation of a healthy body); Jewish and non-Jewish coaches teach them to embody the Jewish ethic of kavod habriyot (honoring the dignity of every person) in their behavior toward teammates and opponents, especially at the most intense moments of competition. By modeling vibrant and engaging Jewish living and learning, the school brings age-old Jewish ideas, values, beliefs and practices to life for a new generation of students. The school empowers students to participate actively in and transform the Jewish world in which they live by graduating students who are culturally literate and who possess the skills and the desire to find meaning in the Jewish tradition.
Open and Responsible Identity Construction – The Jewish High School Graduate
The graduates of a pluralistic Jewish high school are Jews-in-process. The skills and knowledge they gain in school are tools for each student’s construction of and commitment to a personal Jewish identity. Our students have the freedom to make important choices – as Jews, Americans and human beings – about who they want to be and the lives they want to live. But they do not construct their identities in a vacuum, merely as individuals unbound to history or community. Rather, graduates of a Jewish high school feel bound to and capable of making choices and decisions in serious dialogue with the Jewish tradition (texts, ideas, laws, traditions), history, family, Jewish community and the Jewish People, and their authentic selves. The nature of this dialogue changes depending on many factors, including the age and maturity of the student, as well as the Jewish commitments of the student’s family and community. For some students, the voices of Jewish law and tradition often challenge the voices of self and sometimes family as well. For others, the voice of self often challenges the voices of tradition and community. All students, however, maintain a vibrant dialogue that seeks to respect, hear, and understand all of these voices as they learn and grow. This can be challenging, and students are supported by teachers who model their own efforts to balance personal authenticity with expanding and deepening Jewish commitments.
Tikkun Olam – Social Responsibility and Derekh Eretz
The quest for knowledge must be accompanied by the development of moral character and social responsibility. High school students are susceptible to adolescent narcissism and the tunnel vision of the college process, but a Jewish high school puts at the center of its mission the values of social responsibility and derech eretz (ethical behavior). Students learn that they have an obligation to be aware of and give back to their school, the Jewish community, the Jewish People, and the State of Israel, as well as their local community, their country, and people around the world. Our students know that more important than being able to clone a human being is having the Jewish values and moral sensibilities to make humble and responsible decisions about how to use the power over human life. They also understand that every human interaction is an opportunity to be a mensch and to repair a small part of our broken world. Inviting a new or socially uncomfortable student to join a group of friends for lunch carries as much ethical and spiritual significance as serving in a soup kitchen, because tikkun olam begins at home. Educators, administrators, and lay leaders model these values when they speak and when they act, whether in the classroom, at board meetings, or during informal conversations.
Pluralism and Klal Yisrael – Character Education in a Caring Community
As a school that serves and celebrates a broad spectrum of Jewish beliefs and practices, a pluralistic high school is infused with love of and commitment to Klal Yisrael – the Jewish People as a whole and every individual Jew. Students gain knowledge and understanding of the history, ideology and practice of a wide range of Jewish movements. In and out of the classroom, school discourse promotes and models openness to and respect for every Jew and for diverse expressions of Jewish living. By celebrating diversity and cultivating dialogue, the school teaches students to combine openness and understanding with challenge and introspection. Through respectful makhloket (principled debate), students gain new and deeper understandings of each other and themselves.
Pluralism is both a model for creating community and an ethos for relating to people and to often unheard voices. True diversity extends beyond Jewish beliefs and practices to differences such as gender and sexuality, learning styles and intelligences, and socioeconomic status. A pluralistic school creates a caring and safe environment by guarding and valuing the integrity of every person, whether student, teacher or maintenance person. The community equally values and celebrates the student who matriculates to Harvard, Rhode Island School of Design, or a post-high school program in Israel. This environment encourages students with different talents, interests, and intelligences to take risks and develop self-confidence by pursuing excellence and tasting success in their own ways.
Preparation for College and for Life – Academic Excellence and Curricular Integration
Next to life itself, there is perhaps no greater Jewish value than education, and the Jewish high school provides an outstanding education in both Jewish and general studies. Teachers are passionate and knowledgeable about their subject matter, as well as the process of teaching and learning. Educational leaders and teachers who envision and strive for excellence, cutting edge facilities and technology, and innovative modes of instruction and curriculum design ensure a dynamic educational program that stays true to the school’s mission and philosophy while evolving to meet the demands of our fast-changing world.
Compelling teachers and subject matter that challenge and engage students prepare them to succeed in college and in life. In order to prepare students for life, the school must break down rigid and artificial distinctions between academic disciplines that bear questionable relevance for students’ lives. Instead, the curriculum highlights the contribution of every discipline – Talmud and Tanakh, math and sciences, humanities, religion, the arts – to a timeless conversation about great ideas and essential human questions. Authentic performance tasks require students not merely to learn a subject, but to do a subject, to apply it in relevant and compelling ways to their lives and their world. Imagine a project in which students explore their responsibilities to the environment by learning about ecosystems in Biology, Jewish environmental ethics in Rabbinic Literature, and environmental public policy debates in History; as a final project, they research and write Gann’s “Green Book,” a school handbook for ecological responsibility.
Education with Soul
In his work of Hasidic educational philosophy Chovat HaTalmidim (A Student’s Obligation), Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira offers the following advice to teachers: “The word chinuch (education) is a special word that implies the realization of the already inherent capacity of a person or object; the actualizing of a potential . . . Our task is to cause that potential to emerge, to accomplish the chinuch that will transform a person . . .” A Jewish high school sees its students as whole human beings, whose minds, bodies and souls must be nurtured and engaged. In the classroom, teachers remember that they are not transmitting information to detached brains, but rather seeing, meeting and shaping the souls of young human beings. Physical education, character education, social-emotional learning and spiritual education are as essential to a student’s high school experience as “academic” learning. Outstanding and expansive programs in athletics and the arts, clubs and extracurricular activities, tefillot (Jewish prayer) and Shabbatonim (community Sabbath retreats), as well as other opportunities for personal and communal reflection, evoke students’ creativity and help them to better understand themselves as learners and as people.
The Sacred Art of Teaching
In the words of Martin Buber, “only in his whole being, in all his spontaneity, can the educator truly affect the whole being of his pupil . . . you need a person who is wholly alive and able to communicate himself directly to his fellow beings . . . his aliveness streams out to them and affects them . . .” A Jewish high school values – in rhetoric and in practice – the sacredness of every teacher and the sacred task of teaching. School culture nurtures teachers’ minds and souls, and promotes their development as thoughtful, reflective and creative pedagogues. Reasonable teaching loads and preparation time, dignified and competitive salaries, timely and respectful evaluation, and a culture of professional development send the message to students, teachers, parents, and the community that teachers are the lifeline of the educational process, and that the school keeps its lifeline healthy and thriving. The Head of School leads the Board and the community toward these ideals, while navigating the school’s competing programmatic priorities and financial realities.
Community of Learners – Torah Lishma and Reflective Practice
At a Jewish high school, learning is not primarily about tests, grades, or college; ongoing learning lishma (for its own sake) regularly enriches the lives of students, teachers and the whole community. Texts and ideas are the heart of a vibrant communal discourse, and teachers model a commitment to their disciplines and to lifelong learning by making the time and space for learning lishma in their lives. Picture two faculty members at a table in the dining hall, engaged in a debate over a page of Talmud; soon, more and more students gather around and join the discussion, until the passionate voices of teachers and students turn the dining hall into a Beit Midrash. All-school town meetings, faculty meetings, board meetings, and other communal gatherings begin with words of Torah that infuse the community with a sense of meaning and purpose.
In addition to learning for its own sake, professional practice, including the study of teaching and learning and educational leadership are the focus of ongoing reflection and collaborative inquiry. Teachers strive to deepen not only their content knowledge, but also their knowledge of how to teach and how students learn, as well as the social, emotional and psychological dimensions of high school students’ lives. Open and honest feedback and communication within the school promote a healthy, supportive, collaborative working and learning environment. School leaders and teachers who are reflective, self-aware and self-confident engage in honest assessment and push themselves and the school toward ongoing growth and improvement.
Community of Leaders – A Culture of Empowerment and Responsibility
A Jewish high school maintains unwavering commitment to creativity, innovation, and excellence in every area, whether in the classroom, athletics, the arts, admissions and recruitment or institutional advancement. Leadership is not about position or status, but about character and action. The Head of School leads in partnership with the Board, and is surrounded by concentric circles of leaders, from the administrative team through the student and parent bodies, who are expected and empowered to take responsibility for the school community. Clearly defined roles, responsibilities, and relationships, goal setting, supervision and mentorship set people up for success and professional growth, and create potential leadership tracks within the school. By listening carefully in an open and non-defensive way, despite holding strong convictions and opinions, the Head of School keeps the community firmly rooted in the school’s mission and vision and carefully leads constituents through complex and challenging decisions about the school’s future. Programmatic choices and financial decisions balance a commitment to fiscal responsibility with ongoing innovation and growth. A culture of entrepreneurship – of risk taking and accountability – challenges every person in the community to help lead the school into the future.