By Jason Friedland
Recently I had the privilege of attending (virtually) the high school graduation ceremony for The Leffell School’s Class of 2020, my first commencement as the school’s board president. In one of the most moving moments of this unprecedented event, a student speaker gave an impassioned address centered around gratitude. Her heartfelt words of appreciation for everything the school has given her, the message to her peers imploring them to turn gratitude into action, and the hope in her voice encapsulated and contextualized my own belief that now more than ever, I want a day school education for my children.
The Leffell School prioritizes academic excellence, making sure that students receive a first-class secular education. With a smaller overall student body than many public schools, Leffell is particularly focused on the unique needs of each child. Never was this focus on academics on better display than when Covid-induced quarantining began in early March.
Our school orchestrated a seamless transition to remote learning for 740 students in K-12. The diligence and creativity with which our educators individually and collectively approached this challenge was nothing short of astonishing. Demonstrating a literal “we’re all in this together” philosophy, the school regularly sought feedback from students, parents, and teachers, constantly making adjustments to ensure to the extent possible, a vibrant, relevant, and fresh virtual experience. While friends with kids in other schools expressed their dissatisfaction with their children’s remote offerings, our kids were challenged and engaged in the “classroom.”
As a Jewish school that appeals to a broad cross section of religious observance, Leffell focuses on providing a joyful Jewish experience. Our educational program teaches proficiency in Hebrew, Bible, Jewish practice and thought, but also why this is still applicable in the modern world. Leffell’s approach appeals to students and their families on the emotional level too with music, celebrations and meaningful trips to Israel.
Some may wonder how a parochially focused education can be relevant in 2020 when so much of what needs to be healed in our society is based on relating to others. Paradoxically, providing our students with a strong background in their own heritage gives them the sense of identity, confidence, and perspective to engage with people who are different from them.
A key focus for the school is raising children to be adults with good values. Our school has been referred to as “a mensch factory” based on the character of our students and alumni. The ongoing and deliberate inculcating of kindness, respect, and values begins in kindergarten and extends through high school, when our students are most engaged with the larger community in activities ranging from mock trial to Moot Beit Din competitions, to working with people with disabilities through engineering, to midnight runs to help the homeless. We are providing a values-based education that promotes not only academics and good behavior, but also ethics and fairness, translated into action. This all leads to a lifelong voluntary attachment to Judaism, the Jewish People, and the State of Israel, as well as a commitment to learning and tikkun olam (repairing the world).
Perhaps the best-kept secret about how great it is to enroll your child at The Leffell School is the community of students, parents, teachers and staff that combine to create an experience and lifestyle for the whole family – a caring community. During the isolation imposed by quarantining, the school reimagined each and every special program and celebration and the community stayed connected in myriad ways, such as Zoom all-school tefilot, Kabbalat Shabbat services, and Havdalah.
One factor that prevents some families from considering the school is the perceived cost of education. Certainly providing everything that comprises the Leffell School experience comes at an enormous cost. But generations of parents, grandparents, and like-minded donors have funded and continue to fund tuition assistance so that enrollment is available to any family regardless of their ability to pay.
The past few months made me realize how much I appreciate a Jewish day school education, and the advantages offered by The Leffell School in particular. Other schools can bring kids up to speed on their academic work. But a school steeped in Jewish values and learning will give its students the strength and perspective to face challenges, envision opportunities, and feel positive about the future. A day school education will reinforce Judaism’s resiliency and its commitment to gratitude and to the sanctity of life which adds to our human experience.
Jason Friedland is board president at The Leffell School (Westchester Cty, NY).