Be a Mensch As You Walk Through the World: Dr. Susie Tanchel and Rabbi Tully Harcsztark in Conversation
Rabbi Tully Harcsztark is Principal of SAR High School and a 2017 Covenant Award recipient. Dr. Susie Tanchel is Head of School at JCDS-Boston’s Jewish Community Day School, and a 2018 Covenant Award Recipient. While their schools are in different states, cater to different religious populations and different student age groups, both educators are committed to instilling within their school communities a culture of empathy and respectful dialogue.
Here, Susie and Tully engage in a conversation about how character education takes shape at their schools and why it’s such a critical piece of any learning environment in 2018.
TULLY: Susie, can you share with me how the goal of character education became a part of the JCDS curriculum?
SUSIE: Sure. Thanks, Tully. Our commitment to character education and development began with our founding in 1995. At the time, a group of deeply committed parents created JCDS with the explicit goal of building an intentionally pluralistic Jewish community day school that offered a rigorous, intensive Hebrew language program. A key component of this founding vision was an emphasis on the development of the whole child. Our founders believed that academic excellence is essential, but insufficient; our children need to be mensches as they walk through the world, capable of contributing to the common good in meaningful ways.
Over the last 23 years, we have continued to look at the changing world around us and to think critically about who and how we want our children to be in it. As our world becomes increasingly fractured and polarized, our founding vision remains a beacon: we aspire for our children to be able to navigate complexity, participate in difficult conversations, and be agents of change in their communities. In order to accomplish this, they need countless opportunities to develop the skills, capacities, and inclinations necessary to live lives of meaning and purpose – and we need to create the training ground for them to create this practice here at JCDS.
SUSIE: Tully, I have heard about SAR for many years and I am inspired by all you are working to accomplish. What was the impetus for your character education curriculum at the high school?
TULLY: Susie, just as it has been at JCDS, respectful discourse and the capacity to learn from peers have been foundational principles at SAR since its inception. We value honest dialogue, and our teachers work hard to create an environment that encourages our students to raise challenging questions while learning to listen to each other in earnest.
A few years ago, we found ourselves struggling to maintain the respectful environment of which we were so proud. The increasingly contentious political climate surrounding the 2016 election, as well as some of the debates taking place within the Jewish Orthodox community, had begun to generate notable tension within the school walls. We realized that we needed to take a closer look at our habits of mind and to raise our collective awareness to ensure purposeful engagement and discussion when approaching issues of membership and citizenship.
As an administration, and then as a faculty, we set out to unpack some of the underlying core issues. We noted that as Zionist American Jews, there are many ways to tell our story. And the way we tell that story can shape the kind of citizen we become. For some, Jews are a minority in the United States. For others, Jews are a remarkable success story in the United States. While not a contradiction, the starting point matters. From a cultural perspective, we are a minority; economically, we have integrated remarkably well. Considering that, we realize that our core narrative can determine our political alignment as Americans – and students need to understand and reflect on that idea.
How I understand my Jewish story can shape how I understand my story as an American citizen. And that is not all. Our support for the State of Israel makes the situation even more complex. What does it mean to be a proud American with a Zionist dream? Do we vote as Zionists or Americans? What do we do when those affiliations do not align?
Being Jewish in America is a wonderfully rich, multifaceted experience. Having the capacity to understand and navigate the various parts of our identity is crucial to becoming an engaged citizen and a productive community member. This has become a significant conversation in our school community and has provided a forum for rich learning discussion for our students.
Susie, I know that JCDS recently took its’ commitment to character education to an even deeper place with something called the “Seven Habits of Mind and Heart” (I read about it in your Covenant Award materials!) I’d love to understand that more.
SUSIE: At JCDS, we believe that character education is not something that can or should be taught for 45 minutes on a Tuesday morning; rather, we that it should find expression in every part of our educational program and community, whether it is in the Tanakh or math classrooms, or during a school-wide celebration of Rosh Hashanah.
To that end, a few years ago I led the JCDS faculty through a process of defining the seven Habits of Mind and Heart that animate our educational vision. As a group, we engaged in deep dialogue about what our goals and aspirations were for our graduates as we narrowed down the list of skills and capacities necessary to function in pluralistic communities. These include: integrity and ethical living, multiple perspectives and empathy, curiosity, perseverance and resiliency, capacity for reflection, desire to solve problems, and rigorous appreciation for evidence.
The goal is that these Habits of Mind and Heart will become just that: a natural way of being for our children as they walk through a world that will require them to remain in conversation with people who think and believe differently. Our abiding hope is that our students understand that remaining in community does not demand agreement and that disagreement, the sharing of different opinions, strengthens us all. We hope they develop the courage to embrace productive disequilibrium – some amount of tolerable discomfort, as they continue to search for new answers – in the midst of important and challenging conversations.
Our teachers explicitly teach these Habits in developmentally appropriate ways and offer students opportunities to practice them repeatedly in a myriad of circumstances. For example, our Kindergarteners explicitly practice the habits of curiosity and multiple perspectives when they explore one another’s Shabbat customs. By second grade, they are utilizing these same skills and capacities when they share different possible strategies for arriving at the solution to a multiple digit addition problem. As our students grow older, we scaffold their learning as they practice the capacity of holding multiple – even contradictory – perspectives or interpretations, whether when interpreting a piece of art, a Biblical or Shakespearean text or an argument on the playground.
We are building a scope and sequence for the Habits of Mind and Heart that allows our teachers to meet students where they are in their development, and to challenge them in their continued growth. Our children are developing into human beings who are capable of contributing to, and effecting change in, the ever-changing world they inhabit.
Tully, I’m curious if your implementation differs because you are working with older (high school-aged) students?
TULLY: This year, we have begun a number of new initiatives to encourage meaningful learning around citizenship and communal membership. SAR High School has adopted Tzedek as our theme, and it will shape our informal programming and is reflected in a number of curricular units as well. Our focus on justice from a communal and institutional perspective has given students the opportunity to explore the ideas of rights and obligations – as citizens of the United States and as members of their local and Jewish communities, and as Zionists supporting the State of Israel. Students consider public vs. private education, learn about the origin of the Hebrew Free Burial Association and other institutions and explore ways to balance Jews’ commitments to their own community with their obligations to the broader society.
Our new citizenship course, The Values of Citizenship developed by Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz, takes a different approach than most of our other general studies courses, which equip students to know, understand, and think. This course seeks to do something more akin, in fact, to what we do in our Judaic studies courses – to also have our students act and feel as American citizens. An essential part of the course is to ask students to engage, as Jews and Zionists, in deliberation about the meaning, obligations, and commitments of their American citizenship.
Finally, SAR High School is a founding partner in the Civic Spirit initiative, an undertaking to develop curricula and approaches for teaching American citizenship and civics in faith-based schools. Educators from the twelve participating schools, six Catholic parochial schools and six Jewish day schools, spent a week on a retreat in July working on developing curriculum, considering foundational texts, and designing action civics projects to engage their students in the practice of citizenship. The vast differences in demographics and religious approaches among the schools, and the deep shared commitments to values that derive from religious commitments, spurred profoundly meaningful reflection and conversation among the participants.
Susie, how does this political moment inform how and why you teach character education at JCDS and how do you convey even to your youngest students, the importance of empathy and kindness?
SUSIE: In the tumultuous times in which we live, we are more likely to hear stories of isolation than inclusion, of alienation than acceptance, and of greed than gratitude. Our society is marked by polarization and an increasing lack of kindness. In stark contrast, stands our shared Jewish tradition and values. Today the intentional nurturing of community might be viewed by some as counter-cultural, but it is the lifeblood of the Jewish people. Our ancestors knew the timeless truth that our destinies are intertwined. The Torah teaches that we are all connected and our individual actions have far reaching implications for the collective.
This very same belief animates our community at JCDS. We know it is our sacred responsibility to raise our children in a school that teaches Hebrew, STEM, Tanakh, literacy, and just as importantly, cultivates our students’ empathy, resilience, and growth mindset. As our name, Jewish Community Day School, suggests, we are first and foremost a community. A community characterized by acceptance, warmth, kindness, and joy. In short, we teach our children we are in this together. The K-8 years are the most formative for character development. We take that weighty responsibility seriously and it informs everything we do here at JCDS.
More to Consider
How Do You Teach Tzedek? (By Rabbi Danny Kroll, The Grand Conversation, SAR blog, Sept 2018)
Teaching Civic Spirit in the Trump Era (By Steve Lipman, The Jewish Week, August 2018)
Modeling Civil Discourse in an Uncivil World (By Rivka Schwartz, The Grand Conversation, SAR blog, November 2016)
An Interview With Dr. Susie Tanchel: The First Out Head of A Jewish Day School (By Shira Burns, My Jewish Learning, March 2017)
This post originally appeared in Sight Line, the digital journal of The Covenant Foundation. Reprinted with permission.