our jewish future

Let’s radically raise the stakes!

I loved reading Lindsey Bodner’s piece in eJP last week. Her words resonated with me as I’ve spent over a decade working as a funder in the Jewish day school field. Lindsey posits that a radical departure from the current system is not only warranted, but required, for the future success of day school education. I’d like to add to her view of success and raise the stakes. 

According to the American Jewish Population Project, there are approximately 1.6 million Jewish children in the United States (AJPP, March 2021). Of these, only 292,000 are enrolled in Jewish day schools. More than 80% of American Jewish children – almost 1.3 million – are outside the day school system. Some families may hesitate to enroll their children in day schools fearing that their own values and practices won’t be respected. Others worry that Jewish day schools are academically inferior to local public or private schools. However, for the vast majority of Jewish families a full day Jewish education is not even on the radar.

While the system may need an overhaul, here’s a more radical claim:  we are capable of educating the enormous number of kids that so far, the “system” has never even touched.

The Kohelet Foundation spent a decade experimenting with new approaches to address both priorities. And in January 2020, our small team ceased operating the foundation and launched Tamim Academy. 

Tamim Academy is a network of new Jewish elementary schools that offers a joyous and inclusive approach to Jewish education. It matches an outstanding and innovative educational model with the importance of growing the “whole-child.” This past Fall, we opened our first four schools in New York, NY; Burlington, VT; Greenwich, CT and Boca Raton, FL. There are more coming – many, many more.

Based on a franchise model, our schools benefit from economies of scale – an outstanding laboratory for curriculum development (based in the science of how children learn), centralized training, quality control and shared resources. As in most franchises, each local school is responsible for its own budget, recruitment and hiring, though the network provides ongoing support and access to resources for these too. While our schools range in size, they are not designed to be very large. This promotes the student centered pedagogy and allows a Tamim Academy to be viable in a community of almost any size.

We know we’re competing with the finest public (read: free) and private schools. We know we have to offer something compelling. It’s not just about academics and it’s not just about Jewish content. 

Tamim’s curriculum contemplates the whole child. It weaves Judaic and general content together with the requisite skills in an environment that embraces the challenge of educating for social-emotional and spiritual growth. Life skills sourced in Jewish tradition are aligned with Common Core standards; science and social studies are integrated with parsha and chumash; our reading curriculum is built on the science of reading and naturally familiarizes students with words and phrases from Tefila and Torah. The curriculum pushes past the rudimentary paradigm of isolating “real life” from Jewish life and fosters the whole child, giving students the skills, confidence and context to succeed and make a unique difference in an increasingly complex world.  

And who better to work with us to build this new paradigm of Jewish K-8 education than Chabad Shluchim, perhaps the greatest change agents in the Jewish world today. Chabad Shluchim seem to possess a unique ability to draw in the widest variety of Jews. Their success on the college campus (Hertog Study of Chabad on Campus) and in building vibrant Jewish community, anywhere and everywhere, are just two examples of this power to alter the Jewish landscape. We need a landscape change, and their ubiquitous and excellent preschools are the starting point for, and natural pipeline into, every Tamim Academy.

And echoing the responses of Jonah Hassenfeld and Ziva R. Hassenfeld, teachers are key. As the heart of every school, teacher training must be extensive, extraordinary and ongoing. The high cost of a degree, low earning expectations and frustrating classroom conditions have led to a dearth of bright and talented teachers. This is simply untenable. For now, our own Bryna Leider, Tamim chief impact officer, leads all of our training through a variety of resources. In the next few years, we anticipate a one to two year hybrid program that will prepare teachers to work both within the Tamim network as well as across the spectrum of Jewish day schools. Conferring a masters degree, our program will combine online studies with an internship in a Tamim school. We must invest in our teachers and equip them to lead. 

I agree with Lindsey; “let’s harness that energy.” And, let’s also radically raise the stakes. Why are we satisfied that more than 80% of our children, the vast majority of our Jewish future, are simply out of the frame. I wonder what’s possible for the Jewish people and the world if those kids were blessed with the deep knowledge, experience, and opportunity to express their whole selves, materially and spiritually.

Holly Cohen is the CEO of Tamim Academies.