A Beit Midrash for the Whole Community: Jewish Day Schools as Centers of Adult Jewish Learning

by Dr. Cindy Dolgin and Rabbi Joshua Rabin

Every day, thousands of Jewish children learn in Jewish day schools and yeshivot, institutions of learning united by a collective mission to help students go forth and teach Torah to the world. However, most Jewish day schools do not see themselves as institutions of community learning, and assume that the education of children must be their exclusive mission. We challenge that assumption, and believe that Jewish day schools are uniquely suited to be the central Beit Midrash where adults from the broader community can feel at home to study Torah.

Right now, the entire non-Orthodox Jewish Community wants to know how we can ensure that we will educate a generation of knowledgeable and committed Jews who are well-versed in the texts of our tradition, and passionate about core Jewish practices. At the same time, we already know that Jewish day schools played a critical role in educating the Jews who remain involved right now. As a result, if our communities want to stem the tide of declining participation and engagement with Jewish life, any strategy must involve investment in institutions that promote immersive engagement in Torah study. When analyzing the growth of Orthodox Judaism in the twentieth century, Jonathan Sarna argued that Orthodoxy succeeded because it “bet the house” on Jewish day schools, and Jack Wertheimer wrote in A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America that the day-school movement was “the most significant factor in the revival of Orthodoxy” (page 130). In turn, if our communities want to make the right investment to ensure a brighter future, there are few institutions that are a better investment than Jewish day schools.

At the Schechter School of Long Island, we know that the education we provide our students will enable them to be passionate and literate Jews when they enter adulthood, Jewish exemplars for the next generation. However, a day school does not exist in a vacuum, and the opportunity exists for day schools to be embedded in what Gail Furman calls the “microecology” of their community, where the school is central to “the creation of local community” (School as Community: From Promise to Practice, page 10). In other words, if Jewish communities want to expand their commitment to Jewish learning, the day school can be a central institution in promoting that value community-wide. While we believe that there is an appropriate Jewish day school for every Jewish child, the reality is that many parents will not provide a day school education for their children. However, even if a parent does not choose day school education, that does not mean the doors of learning in the day school should be closed to those parents.

In the midst of our core priorities to provide excellence in K-12 secular and Jewish education, over the past two years, our Schechter made the decision to make adult Jewish learning a central component of our broader mission. Incrementally, we have expanded our adult learning opportunities with four different intimate offerings on different days of the week and times of the day that are free and open to the public. In the morning, we offer Parashat HaShavua classes taught by our own faculty and administration. At lunchtime, we host the Kolot adult study program run by the Jewish Theological Seminary. In the evening, we run a series of shiurim taught by community rabbis from across the denominational spectrum. And on Sundays, we serve as a host site for Sifriyat Pijama B’America, a version of the PJ Library specifically targeting Hebrew-speaking families.

While each of these programs appeals to different audiences, our annual “Night of Jewish Learning” brings hundreds of Jews together with something for everyone. On Saturday night, February 8th, people from across Long Island, Brooklyn and Queens will come to study Torah together, centered around the theme of “Jewish Identity in a Global Society.” Session topics include Shabbat as a mechanism of Jewish identity, the shaping demographics of the Long Island Jewish Community, family dynamics in the Torah, what the Maimonidean book burnings can teach us about religious extremism today, and many others. Participants will have the opportunity to learn with twenty different teachers from across the Jewish spectrum, including two sessions taught by Schechter alumni, one session taught in Hebrew, one session taught in Farsi, and a keynote address by Yossi Prager, the Executive Director of the Avi Chai Foundation, North America.

In making the decision to offer a wide variety of adult learning programs, we found that turning our institution into a community Beit Midrash enhances our school’s mission in four distinct ways. First, adult learners coming into our school serve as role models for lifelong learning for our own students, who witness adults of all ages carving time out of their busy schedules to come and learn Torah. Second, adult Torah study allows alumni and parents of alumni to continue an active engagement with Jewish life at our day school. Third, adult study provides an opportunity for our school to offer a value-added experience for adults who may or may not have attended day school or sent their children to day school. Finally, adult study helps our school establish a niche within the Long Island Jewish Community as a place where adults can receive a variety of high-quality adult learning opportunities that complement the mission of our partner institutions.

Many people are familiar with the statement from the Talmud that, “The world only exists because of the breath of children in the schoolhouse” (Babylonian Talmud, 119b). Citing this text, the Rambam makes a provocative statement in his Mishneh Torah about the importance of Jewish communities placing teaching and learning Torah at the center of their communal agenda:

Teachers of small children should be located in each and every land, in each and every region, and in each and every village. If a village does not have children who study Torah, the city’s populace is placed under a ban of ostracism until they employ teachers for the children. If they do not employ teachers, the city deserves to be destroyed, since the world exists only by virtue of the breath of children coming from the mouths of children in the schoolhouse.

(Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Talmud Torah, 2:1)

Hyperbole aside, the Rambam’s statement makes the argument that the schoolhouse is the life-giving force of a Jewish Community. In the landscape of American Judaism today, where it is more important than ever to show how rich and vibrant Jewish life can be for Jews at all stages of life, a Jewish day school cannot be content to only focus on educating our children, but must send the message that Jewish learning is a lifelong pursuit for people of all backgrounds. Every Jewish day school has the potential to be the great Beit Midrash at the heart of the Jewish community if they are willing to see the possibilities of what can exist when the breath of Torah from children and adults fills the hallways of the schoolhouse. All the rest is commentary; let’s come together, and study.

Dr. Cindy Dolgin is the Head of School of the Schechter School of Long Island, and Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Rabbi- in-Residence of the Schechter School of Long Island. You can visit the school’s website, or RSVP for the Night of Jewish Learning by clicking this link.