Three Thoughts for Jewish Educators as We Start the New School Year

By David Steiner

This article is for directors of education, those people who work tirelessly behind the scenes to make the next generation of Jews worthy of the proud traditions of our people. At this time of year, while you are thinking about family services during the days of awe and school openings and curriculum nights, please try to leave room in your overflowing brains for some of the most important ideas behind our work.

School is not a natural phenomenon. Teaching is. School may have existed in different forms over the years, from Socrates and his discourses to the cheder in the shtetle, but the organization of groups of children in learning places, away from the families where they live their Jewish life, is not ideal. Parents and guardians are the natural conveyors of treasured values. Certainly schools have benefits, but they are a supplement to the Jewish home. Religious schools are likely the first Jewish community of our children. They get children, in most cases, to their synagogue or community center at least once a week. Most of all, however, schools allow us to hire teachers, text people who embody the zeitgeist of Judaism and Jewish knowledge, who care about children, who have been trained in curriculum and teaching. They may not be the children’s parents, but the relationship they form with students is at the epicenter of the child’s relationship with their Judaism. Embrace your teachers. Love them. Teach them. Learn from them, and treat them with respect. Your teachers are the center of your educational program, not the textbooks, not the school mission, not the innovations you bring to the school. At the center of every great school are great teachers.

There is no terminal point in education. My friend, the great historian of education from the University of Wisconsin, Herb Kliebard, often reminds me that you cannot backward engineer education. Curriculum by design doesn’t work because it doesn’t account for the unexpected challenges along the way. He illustrates this point with a scene from the Spielberg movie, Lincoln. The president responds to a question about his plans for Reconstruction after the war. Lincoln wisely recalls the days when he was a surveyor. He says something like, “Back then, I could tell you the direct path from any point A to and point B, but I could never tell you where you would want to go after climbing the first hill along the way or traversing the first river.” While many teachers and administrators are convinced that assessment should be based on the achievement of specific goals, Lincoln and my friend Herb correctly suggest that education is a journey, not a destination.

Remember the null curriculum. When I was a child sitting in the Hebrew school classroom, I could not help but daydream about myself on the baseball diamond with my non-Jewish friends. While I was “locked up” in Hebrew school, they were free to do what they wanted. Jewish education is by design distinct from what our students would be doing if they weren’t with us. The null curriculum of Jewish education is what we leave out. More important than the ball game the students are missing is the stuff we don’t touch within our Jewish lives. When we teach forefathers and leave out their wives and sisters, we privilege men to all of our students. When we make Hebrew education token or only for the purposes of bar/bat mitzvah and prayer, we leave out the importance of modern Hebrew and the international Jewish dialog we want our students to be part of. When we teach Bible as history and then jump straight to the shoah, we teach our students that revelation and persecution are at the core of Jewish life and ignore the rich history that makes the Jewish people so unique among nations. We need to find a way to engage young Jews in ways that go beyond the dichotomies of Hebrew and religious school, of formal and informal education, or camp and school. Thinking about the null curriculum helps us organize our values and explore priorities. It also helps us examine the gaps and cracks in our educational systems. Best of all, it does what empathy does to sympathy; it makes us consider what are students are experiencing when they see us address certain subjects and leave other parts of their lives on the wayside.

There is much to think about and explore as we enter the Jewish school year. These are just three, which I hope will catalyze richer, not necessarily newer or more innovative, thinking about schools and their purposes. We have a sacred chore in front of us. With supported teachers, our students at the center and the ability to be flexible about our direction, this journey will be worth it.

David J. Steiner, Ed.D. is working to complete his rabbinic ordination. He has been a congregational director of education for both the Reform and Conservative synagogues, and he recently returned to America from a fellowship at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.