What Makes a Good Day School Curriculum?

By Rabbi Elchanan Poupko

Having studied Jewish education, I was often perturbed by the attempts to professionalize and academize the filed. Rubrics, curricula, assessments, and so on were vigorously studied with the hope of full implementation. In a field like Jewish studies, educators, schools, and parents often wonder: what is success? When does a parent or a school know that they have done well with their Jewish education? I would strongly argue that academic measures are the last place to look. The following story exemplifies this argument best.

An excited student came to me one bright Monday. She was away from school on Friday and did not get the usual Parsha sheet that I gave on Friday. With great excitement and a smile on her face, she showed me a handwritten, three-page, Dvar Torah which she shared with her family. I didn’t ask for it nor was she expected to do this. Yet she had gathered from my informal comments in class, that studying and sharing the weekly Torah portion with your family on Friday night, was an important priority. What is a greater Day School success, the three-page Dvar Torah this student shared with me, or a different student who had studied hard for a Chumash test for which a grade with be given and which will be reflected in the report card? Which student has exhibited skills an attachment to Judaism which will last with them for life? What do Jewish parents, who at times are sparing bread from their mouth so their kids get a good Jewish education prefer, an 100% on a Chumash or Navi test, or a lifelong attachment to independent Torah student which will remain with their children for the rest of their lives? The answer is obvious.

On another occasion, I arrived in school on the first day after winter break. A student came over to me on their own account and shared with me that they had said the Shema on every day of the break on their own. Tears came to my eyes. Is it not this kind of pride and attachment that parents send their kids to a Jewish school for? Should this student see themselves as “not good at Judaic studies” because they didn’t do very well on test on the structure of Jewish prayers or should we perhaps concede that this student learned the most important lesson we have to teach remain connected at all times.

Jewish educators should no longer hide behind academic markers of success in Jewish schools. We need to think beyond the box. Of course, academic success is a huge deal and we should be taking it very seriously. We need to ask ourselves, however, what do we – what do parents – really define as success. We need to be honest about day school success parameters and do our best to implement measures for those to work.

If we teach Tefillah workshops and spend hours on the topic, and then once school is over no student bothers to pray or say birkat hamazon, then we have failed epically. If we teach ethics and students then graduate to be unethical, we have wasted our time.

I am reminded of a progressive modern orthodox woman whose sons graduated a renowned modern orthodox school just to go on and turn completely non-observant and marry non-Jews. While the woman embraced her children and accepted their life choices, she kept mourning the wasted tuition money and education she gave her children in a modern orthodox school. It didn’t matter to her much that her children can read a Chumash beautifully or can give 7 different explanations about the meaning of Passover, if they didn’t observe Passover. It didn’t really matter to her that her children had excellent knowledge of the laws of Kosher, while they didn’t eat Kosher. Parents – perhaps far more than teachers – see Day School success in continuity. Day School lessons have been meaningful if they carry on into students’ lives.

Day School teachers need to be looking in very serious ways into implementing and acknowledging affective success in their classes. Correct, there is no way to grade how attached a student feels to Judaism, but there is a way for us to show that this is what we value. There is a way to – formally or not – reward those who show understanding of this direction. Children and students, in general, are guiding by the hopes and expectations of the adults in their lives. We need to begin with showing we care. One way I did this was by (following the recommendation of a parent who asked me to do this), telling students they will get extra credit for Parsha if they share it at their Shabbat table. Other ways can include asking parents to send mitzvah notes, casually telling a student their Tefilla is sincere and inspiring and that we value that, kindness charts, honesty rewards, asking students following vacations and breaks what mitzvahs they did and what they were excited about, and many more.

Jewish educators need to be bold, transparent, and consistent with what success really is about. Sometimes this will mean compromising old-school, dry, academic standards. Most times this will mean making students more enthusiastic, proud, and engaged in what it means to live as a Jew. Let’s begin the conversation.

Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a rabbi, teacher, and a writer. He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.