By Jody Passanisi
Coming back from this year’s Prizmah Conference in Atlanta, GA, it is clear that the future of Jewish education is in the hearts and souls and on the minds of an incredible group of impressive educators; educators that put students at the center, who make it their mission to learn for the sake of learning, to be open to what’s next, to listen and respect the dignity of others, and who are daring to dream. The dream theme of the conference resonates: after all, those of us who have been in education can be sure that one thing will happen – it will change – and sooner and quicker even than it did the last time.
So perhaps this inevitable tide of change is the number one reason to send your children to a Jewish day school.
It may seem that grounding in tradition is, in itself, antithetical to change, but really what tradition can be is the mooring required to sustain and support change. Having a structure, shared values, and a tradition to hold on to when things change or shift – whether in the education world, or in your personal life, or in the larger world – our traditions, songs, foods, celebrations, and language give our students roots so that they can embrace the change that awaits them.
This one is my husband’s main reason for sending our kids to Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto. The idea that students study ethics, from Tanach, Rambam, to Buber to Heschel during their school days – and that they focus on these middot (character traits) in a way developmentally appropriate for their grade level – makes us hopeful that as they grow up they will gain increasing understanding of the importance of others and their own actions and place in the world.
I have had the privilege of working at two wonderful Jewish day schools, and visiting many others, and if you ask someone from their Jewish day school what the distinguishing characteristic about it is, they will invariably say “community.” Jewish day schools come together for their students, teachers, and families during times of happiness and times of sadness. It is during these times that the primary value of being in a Jewish day school is evident; it’s not just a place for your students to be educated, but a place for a family to be embraced and cared for by others.
Similar to grounding, but a grounding in history and the past, students who go to a Jewish day school feel that they are a continuation of history – and the history and social studies they explore is not limited to those outlined in the Common Core or State Standards – it’s an integrated history that includes them and brings their own stories and families’ stories to the fore.
5. Superb Education
Jewish day school education is rich and rigorous; not only do schools provide academically excellent programs in language arts, history/social studies, math, and STEM, but the skills students learn through collaborating, analyzing, and questioning Jewish text deepens their abilities in all other subject areas as well. The benefits from learning a second language, like Hebrew, as our K-8 students do, challenge their brains through an engaging exploration of language and meaning.
6. Whole Child and a Well–Rounded Curriculum
There is a joke/truism among Jewish educators that there is never enough time at a school – especially a Jewish day school. You put in Jewish studies, Limmudei Kodesh, and Hebrew and you’ve got enough scheduling issues as it is – nevermind the fact that Jewish day schools are also including art, robust Maker and STEM programming, dance, music, and physical education – and these are seen as integral to the experience of the whole child in a day school setting. We value the whole – the soul, the unique experience of every student and how they view the world. We are also working to make sure that students’ educational and emotional needs can be met in our settings. For example, at Hausner we have a strong Learning Support Team with three on-site educational therapists and a school counselor. The student’s whole self – spiritual, emotional, academic, and artistic – it all matters.
7. Soul and Social Responsibility
Jewish day schools are committed to both community service and philanthropy in our local communities and beyond – and we inculcate these values in our students. Hausner is in the heart of Silicon Valley- and I like to think of it as the soul of Silicon Valley. Our students’ souls are fed here, even when the pressures of the tech environment encroach- and we model soulful giving of our time and funds. The students see this, they participate in it, and they learn to do it independently through programs like Avodah La’Olam; they see that they can make a change in the world, not just when they are adults, but now.
One of my most recent awesome moments was when a student I had at Heschel in Southern California, who recently started at Stanford, came to visit me at Hausner. As an educator it is always such a pleasure to see and talk to former students. But then a week later, I received a text from this student asking a question about a history paper. I answered back and later had the privilege of reading the paper. It was a pretty great paper, but perhaps I am biased. The relationships – between teachers and students, between the students themselves are lifelong. Hausner students always say that their Hausner friends are their lifelong friends. These are deep connections that last into the future, but are built in the present. Our students feel comfortable to seek out their teachers for advice, for help on academics, and they know that we are there for them.
9. Progressive Education
Many Jewish day schools are committed to progressive education practices- for example- Tikvah Wiener’s The Idea School is breaking new ground in Jewish progressive education. Jewish educators are constantly learning to apply design thinking, progressive education practices, and new data-driven research findings into the way we imagine schools. Jewish education, with its focus on collaborative, chevruta-based learning, is primed to shift focus to student-centered learning – a place for students to uncover and create meaning. The convergence of Jewish learning, the arts, and general studies is an opportunity that many Jewish day schools have leveraged to create progressive and integrative programming and experiences for students.
10. For the Future
As I began, at Prizmah, we were dared to dream of the future – thousands of Jewish educators from all over North America, and from England, Mexico, Israel – coming together to commit to forging ahead into the unknown – we may not know what education will look like, but we will be there to support our students, to ground them, and to enable them to dream now and in the future.
*These are my ten reasons for sending students to a Jewish day school based on my experiences in community schools – there are a myriad of reasons not listed here that may apply to other schools and some that may not apply.
Jody Passanisi is the Director of Middle School at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto. She is the author of History Class Revisited, and the co-host, along with Shara Peters, of the podcast “Find Yourself a Teacher.” She is a current member of Prizmah’s YouLead cohort. She has two current, and one future, Jewish day school students and is a cystic fibrosis advocate.