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TITLE: Preserving Modern Orthodoxy in our Day Schools
Author: Rabbi Jack Bieler


Modern Orthodoxy

in our Day Schools

Rabbi Jack Bieler




In theory, at least, the modern Orthodox day school embodies the modern Orthodox approach to Judaism, and the growth of these schools would seem to exemplify the success of modern Orthodoxy as a whole.

Both Judaic and general studies are expected to be treated seriously in such schools. Quantitatively, modern Orthodox schools devote approximately equal time to both sides of the curriculum, and within each–again, in theory–equal time to all of the disciplines. Qualitatively, superior teaching is demanded across the curriculum. Since many of the parents want their children to continue both Judaic and general studies on a high level at elite Israeli yeshivot and American universities, a modern Orthodox high school, to gain credibility among the parents, must provide classes that will meet the needs of those who are so motivated.

The day schools encourage lifelong learning not only in the area of general academics but also in Judaic studies, as attested by the proliferation of batei midrash (places for intensive Jewish study) on college campuses that are attended by day school graduates, as well as the high levels of attendance of day school graduates in various forms of Jewish adult education.

Extracurricular activities constitute another avenue for students to apply the modern Orthodox combination of spiritual values and academic skills to situations more closely approximating what they will be doing once their formal education is completed. In fact, one of the great success stories of modern Orthodoxy is the increased scope of extracurricular opportunities for day-school students. Not long ago, participation in a Model UN, mock trial competition, or debating round robin, let alone various athletic leagues, would have been impossible because of the constraints of Shabbat, kashrut, and tzniyut (modesty of attire). Especially in smaller communities, where the few Orthodox schools have entered leagues that include non-Jewish schools, the challenge of interacting with less observant Jews and/or non-Jews in competitive contexts while maintaining halakhic standards of behavior, could only have been addressed and surmounted by modern Orthodoxy.

Despite these accomplishments, modern Orthodox educators, parents, and some students have developed doubts about whether the reality of the contemporary modern Orthodox day-school experience matches its ideals. Questions are increasingly raised about whether these educational institutions really provide a modern Orthodox education and produce modern Orthodox young people. To find the reasons for this malaise we must gauge the effectiveness of the modern Orthodox day school by criteria that go beyond such obvious facts as the manner in which the school day is organized, what extracurricular activities are available, and where the graduates continue their education.



Written Evidence

The first criterion for determining whether a day school is in fact "modern Orthodox" is the image that the school publicly presents of itself by means of the printed word–mission statements, recruitment brochures, communications with parents. While mission statements are typically short and to the point to allow for quick understanding, ambiguity in regard to religious and educational approaches could allow modern Orthodox principles to be eroded without the school community even being aware of it. Here is an example of a mission statement for a modern Orthodox school that leaves nothing to the imagination:

The proposed school will aim at the highest standards of academic excellence in both Jewish and secular studies. It will aim at producing students who are thoroughly at home in both contemporary society and the full range of the Jewish heritage. It will unashamedly aim at creating leaders in all spheres of contemporary life, individuals whose sense of Jewish responsibility is deep and broad, encompassing an identification with the Jewish people in its totality, with Jewish history in its diversity, and with the state of Israel in its centrality. It will promote the Jewish traditions of principle and tolerance, intellectual depth and social concern, loyalty and generosity, academic rigor and ethical example. It will take as its task the projection of an Orthodox way of life and thought that earns the admiration of others of whatever faith. It will aim at creating in its pupils an integrated personality whose Jewish identity is knowledgeable, secure and proud, a spur to achievement and responsibility, and a challenge to exemplary citizenship in an ethnically and religiously plural society.

But the mere existence of a mission statement clearly delineating the school’s commitment to modern Orthodoxy means little unless the statement is disseminated amongst all of the school’s "shareholders"–members of the staff, students, and parents.

While it is obvious that new students and parents must be made aware of what the school stands for, it is just as vital for the staff to be sensitized to the school’s values and goals. Needless to say, the overall mission of the school should not be the concern of only the Judaic studies staff, but ought to be subscribed to by the entire faculty. While all involved, Jewish or non-Jewish, cannot be expected to alter their private lifestyles in accordance with the mission of the school, they should certainly adhere to the ideals and values of the school while engaged in school activities with or on behalf of the students. Before school begins each year, the orientation for new faculty members, particularly those previously unacquainted with a modern Orthodox lifestyle, should include a session devoted to explaining the school’s philosophy and how that philosophy is expected to be manifested in the day-to-day life of the school. Furthermore, schools should recognize the tremendous influence wielded by non-professional staff members. The comments and actions of bus drivers, athletic coaches, and drama directors, for example, leave lasting impressions on students, and can go far to promote or negate what is taught in the classroom.

Indeed, the school’s mission statement should be prominently on display throughout the school building, in classrooms, hallways, and offices. Also, the school should conduct an annual review to determine whether and to what extent the mission statement has actually been applied.

Other written materials that indicate how a school views itself and how it wishes others to view it are recruitment brochures, newspaper advertisements, fund-raising campaigns, and promotional videos. Whose pictures are prominently being displayed? What activities are being highlighted? What statistics are being shared? If one were not already familiar with the school in question, would these materials being disseminated to the general public provide an accurate snapshot of the school’s ethos and atmosphere?

Even student publications, such as newspapers, yearbooks, and literary

journals, which often reflect the views of student editorial boards and faculty advisors, can yield subtle but telling statements about the institution’s self-image, since the degree to which a school gives students leeway to test freedom of expression and even adolescent rebellion tell the reader much about the school. (Censorship of student publications is a delicate issue in all schools, but I would argue that maintaining the school’s self-image is more important than affording students the opportunity to critique their school, particularly in terms of its religious orientation, however sincere their intentions).


The Ideal Student

A parallel and equally important way to help determine the modern Orthodoxy of a school is the profile of the "ideal" student, since the way the school defines success reveals much about the educational experience that is offered.

What, for example, is the school’s ideal range of religious observance? Although observance is a deeply personal matter and therefore difficult to "engineer," a school can create conditions that encourage it. If a school determines that prayer is a central value, a "whole school approach" would have to be adopted. Naturally, the obvious communal prayers in school–with emphasis on precision and on sufficient time allotted to them–and commitment to birkat hamazon (Grace After Meals) and other berakhot rishonot and aharonot (short blessings before and after eating) whenever food is consumed inside and outside the cafeteria would have to be emphasized. But there would also have to be serious study of the meaning of the prayers, appreciation of and training in the variety of prayer traditions (such as Ashkenazic and Sephardic), insistence that the entire school community–including the observant Jewish professional staff–pray together, opportunities for prayer together with parents and other family members both inside and outside of school, attention to prayer on field trips and retreats, and even attention to the type of prayer book that is made available to students.

Another school might seek to specialize in the development of exceptional middot (ethical character traits) in its students. Virtually every aspect of the school experience would have to undergo scrutiny to ensure that such middot are being advanced and not undermined: curriculum, classroom presentations dealing with the curriculum, literature that is assigned, cultural events that are engaged in, the language used and level of sportsmanship manifested in the sports program, the functioning of school assemblies,

student government, and student publications, relationships between different grades and genders, how members of the school community–including janitorial, maintenance, secretarial and transportation personnel–are treated and treat one another, perceived fairness in the enforcement of school rules, and evidence of favoritism shown particular individuals or groups.

Considerations of other religious goals, such as commitment to and familiarity with halakhah (Jewish law), a deep-seated love of Israel and the Jewish people, or a passionate love for Torah learning of all kinds, could and should be similarly approached, organically, so that these values pervade as much of the school experience as possible.

Creating a total program for any one of these goals, of course, does not, in theory, negate doing the same for the others. Naturally, however, this will entail much time and effort, and some sort of pragmatic triage is unavoidable. The challenge becomes even more daunting when the goals of a secular education are added into the mix. Thus if a day school views entrance into an Ivy League college as a paramount element of success, it will increase the number of Advanced Placement courses offered. Not only will this inevitably take time and "prestige" away from other goals of the school, but it will also run the risk of producing a level of academic competitiveness that may be at odds with the Jewish and ethical values to which the school is officially committed.


What Happens Afterward?

Another criterion for measuring a school’s modern Orthodoxy is whether and where graduates are expected to continue their post-high school education. If a year or more of study in an Israeli Torah institution is part of the profile of the ideal graduate, the Judaic studies curriculum should reflect that goal, serving to acclimate the student to the experience of intensive text study and to prepare him/her for the entrance examinations given by the Israeli schools. Once again, such an emphasis may come into conflict with other values of the school–secular studies, extracurricular activities, community service. Even with the imaginative juggling of schedules, a determination of priorities will have to be made, a determination that will define the very character of the school.

The question of a day-school graduate’s post-high school education also raises the vexing issue of what happens when a student wants to attend an institution whose character clashes with the stated purposes of the high school. (For elementary day schools, the issue comes up in decisions about which high school to attend.) A student graduating from a Zionist school that takes a positive approach to secular studies, for example, might wish to study at an Israeli institution hostile to the State of Israel and to secular culture; or another student, perhaps from that very same modern Orthodox high school, might apply for admission to a college that has no Orthodox presence on campus and where even the availability of kosher food and Sabbath services, let alone the opportunity for continued Torah study, is doubtful. Legally speaking, a school is obligated to send transcripts and other student records to whatever institution a student and his/her parents wish. Yet the school community must ask itself why this particular student chooses to reject the stated ideals of the school. And while there will undoubtedly be certain situations where it is clear that the decision emanates from personal and/or family factors outside the school’s control, there will surely be others where the choice results directly from messages sent, or not sent, by the school itself. In such cases, institutional soul-searching is in order: Are the avowed goals and principles of the school articulated clearly, effectively, and sincerely enough to be internalized by students?

Another litmus test for a school’s modern Orthodoxy is the vocational guidance provided to students, both overt and subtle. While there are no "modern Orthodox" professions, a school claiming such an ideology has both an educational and a religious responsibility in this area. Many schools have job fairs where people who work in various fields– oftentimes parents or others who have some relationship to the school-give presentations about what they do. Similarly, many schools arrange internships for seniors whereby students can gain first–hand experience with one or more professions. A self-consciously modern Orthodox school should focus not only upon the nature of the profession, but also on how one can function as an observant Jews while employed in that field. Furthermore, in light of the dearth of modern Orthodox young people entering the rabbinate and Jewish education, these professions should be presented as just as significant, if not more significant, than careers in the secular world.


Values of Modern Orthodoxy

Since modern Orthodoxy stands for mutual respect between men and women, and their equal participation, within the bounds of halakhah, in all activities, the way members of the school community interact with members of the opposite sex constitutes yet another measuring rod for a school’s modern Orthodox character. This is true whether the school is completely coeducational, one where male and female students utilize the same building and general facilities but have some or all of their classes separated according to gender, or in single-sex schools.

A modern Orthodox school should also have a distinctive approach to cultural pursuits. One of the most common casualties of the financial and time limitations imposed by the dual day-school curriculum school is music and the arts. While in the lower grades these disciplines are effectively used as heuristic devices to impart other parts of the curriculum, they are virtually invisible in the middle and upper grades of the modern Orthodox day school. Not only does this absence deprive talented students of an outlet for self-expression and a means to deepen their self-esteem, but it also prevents other students from a rigorous and consistent exposure to significant aspects of the cultural traditions of world civilization. Even if care is taken to avoid the violation of religious standards, whether of sexual propriety or of offensive religious imagery, enough remains to provide meaningful surveys of the arts, if not as required courses, then at least as electives.

Does the day school seek to guide students as to the type of community where they will ultimately choose to live? For a person to maintain his/her modern Orthodox values, community is essential. Therefore, while still in school, students should be made to understand how environment affects religious and moral commitments. Through yemai iyun (days devoted to study of a topic outside the regular curriculum), shabbatonim (weekend retreats) in various communities, and/or academic courses, students can be exposed to a wide variety of Orthodox communal options–isolationist vs. integrationist, biased vs. tolerant, materialistic vs. spiritual, Zionistic vs. Diaspora-centered. Students should then be equipped to give serious thought, from a modern Orthodox perspective, to where they choose to live and raise their families.

The type of education, secular and religious, that the graduates will choose for their own children is another factor making for a modern Orthodox school. Today, a growing number of parents who were educated in day schools are sending their children to schools with a more traditional religious orientation than those they attended. Various reasons contribute to this phenomenon: dissatisfaction with the quality of Judaic studies at the modern Orthodox school; the feeling that the "outside" society today is more inimical to religion, and that students therefore require stronger Jewish "immunization" in order to maintain their religious identities; and a sense that the values of the modern Orthodox community are too materialistic or otherwise lacking in proper spiritual and ethical depth. Obviously, the reluctance of parents who received a modern Orthodox education to make such an experience available to their own children undermines the continuity of modern Orthodoxy. Thus one of the goals of these schools must be to ensure that the experience of the students will be sufficiently positive that the graduates will seek out a similar education for their offspring.

Similarly, we see parents who received superior secondary education in a day school and then went on to college and graduate or professional schools, who allow, even encourage, their children not to do the same. Once again, several factors may be at work. First, larger families and skyrocketing tuitions induce some parents to opt for a minimal secular education for their children. Second, parents may feel disenchanted with, and even fearful of, the negative effects of the present-day campus experience. And third, the modern Orthodox community today is more affluent than ever before, and thus families are able to accept their children’s early marriages and non-academic vocational pursuits.

Quite aside from its negative impact on the quality of the education offered in the secondary day school, the movement away from the liberal arts college program has had, I believe, particularly adverse effects on the modern Orthodox community. To be sure, the trend today throughout the world of higher education is to de-emphasize liberal arts in favor of more "practical" courses of study. Even so, the narrowness of thinking and even intolerance that specialization often breeds–or at least the broadmindedness that it precludes–undermine the values of inclusiveness, flexibility, and sensitivity that lie at the heart of modern Orthodoxy. The day school should not only aim to advance a particular form of religious education, but also to convey the type of secular education that enhances the modern Orthodox worldview for the student generation and, ultimately, for their children as well.

The extent and intensity of connection to Israel and things Israeli is a modern Orthodox value. The most direct means for assessing a school’s Zionist orientation is the number of graduates who choose to reside in Israel, or at least to spend significant amounts of time there. But even short of this, the degree to which our schools inculcate a love of Israel as a religious, rather than merely a secular or cultural value, is another litmus test for the school’s modern Orthodox orientation. Today, tensions between the secular majority and the religious minority in Israel, exacerbated by the internal political situation there, are making American Orthodox attitudes towards the State of Israel, even in certain modern Orthodox circles, ambivalent and problematic.

Day schools must ask themselves whether, aside from the celebrations of Yom HaZikaron (memorial day for Israel’s fallen soldiers), Yom Ha’Atzma’ut (Israel Independence Day), Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day), and Tu B’Shvat (the Jewish arbor day, which has become another occasion to connect students to things Israeli), Israel plays a role beyond the Hebrew language classes. Teaching Judaic studies classes in Hebrew–Ivrit b’Ivritis much more than a pedagogical device to advance a skill that will facilitate study of primary and secondary texts and enable students to understand the prayer book. Teaching in Hebrew is also a resounding ideological statement about the school

community’s relationship with Israel, and the degree of ease with which

students can converse in Hebrew makes aliyah that much more possible. The proliferation in the U.S. of kollelim (centers of intensive religious study)

populated by Israeli graduates of yeshivot hesder (modern Orthodox Israeli yeshivot whose students serve in the army), some of them actually based in American day schools–Fuchs Beit Sefer Mizrachi in Cleveland, Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago, and Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington–not only establish an ongoing Israeli presence in the school, but also embody a linkage between religious observance and Torah study, on the one hand, and Israel on the other. A Bnei Akiva (religious Zionist youth group) presence in a school that can be reinforced through after-school and weekend activities will also deepen this connection, as will the creation of a culture that encourages students to study Torah in an Israeli institution for a year or two after graduation. Furthermore, Rabbi Moshe Tendler has suggested that practical halakhic problems taken up in class should utilize, as much as possible, cases dealing with Israeli life, and show how Jewish law is applied to advance the notion of the centrality of Israel.

Modern Orthodoxy stands for seeking to make the entire world, not just the Jewish world, a better place. In recent years, though, Orthodox Judaism has become increasingly isolationist, both as a delayed reaction to the trauma of the Holocaust and also as a kind of defense against the perceived erosion of values and morality in secular society. Thus one of the hallmarks of modern Orthodox education today should be the degree to which a school resists this trend, engaging with the general world, attempting to improve conditions not only for Jews but for all members of society, and inculcating empathy with all those sharing the human condition. (None of this, of course, should prevent the rejection of those aspects of the outside world that negate the values of Judaism.) In practical terms, these are the questions a day-school community should ask itself: Are charities directed only to Jewish causes, or also to broader human hardship situations? On days devoted to performing hesed (community service), which organizations and facilities are helped? Similarly, if the school requires community service from students (if it doesn’t, that is also a major statement), what sort of activities qualify? Who are the speakers invited to come and address the student body-only those representing

specifically Jewish issues, or others as well? Which models of those engaged in service professions are held up to the student body for emulation-individuals who work exclusively in the Jewish community, or also those engaged in good works in the broader society?

Communal activism is also intimately related to the modern Orthodoxy of a school. Day schools located in metropolitan areas often call upon students to participate in rallies and demonstrations. Do the students understand the significance of these activities and the issues that are involved? Strong relationships between the school, on the one hand, and the synagogue and local Jewish social services, on the other, would help clarify the value of such activism. In addition, the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values has developed a curriculum combining community-service programs for day schools together with a retreat in Washington aimed at encouraging students to engage in lives of activism on behalf of the Jewish community. It is important, in this connection, that communal activism not be cast simply as the defense of the community from outside threats. Rather, the programs should evoke positive feelings if they are to appeal to the broadest range of students and shape their personalities.

Modern Orthodoxy stands for devotion to, and concern for, all members of the broader Jewish community regardless of level of religious commitment. This issue is both one of the most important criteria of modern Orthodoxy and the most difficult to achieve. Orthodox schools are ideologically grounded: the schools have a normative religious position, to the exclusion of other religious points of view. Furthermore, children long for consistency, since clear guidelines help them develop their own identities. Encouraging respect for all Jews might be perceived as encouraging relativism, thereby undermining the normative religious teachings the school imparts. Thus there is pressure, both from the institution and the students, to promote exclusivity and single-mindedness. It is, then, quite a considerable challenge to convey to students that it is possible to disagree with someone regarding religious observance, but still to respect and even love that person as a fellow-Jew. If our day-school graduates do not come away with such sensitivity, it is difficult to see how there can be mutual respect between the various Jewish movements. To my knowledge, none of the ideologically identified "Orthodox" institutions–as opposed to the trans-denominational community schools–have seriously grappled with this issue. It is time they begin to do so.




Nurturing a Modern Orthodox Outlook

Curriculum and approaches to learning must be scrutinized when considering a school’s modern Orthodox character. Beside encouraging the attitudes and approaches outlined above in our discussion of the ideal graduate–religious observance, lifelong learning, contributing to general and Jewish society, etc.–the coursework, assignments, class discussions, and materials utilized in class should be designed to develop a certain type of learner and thinker.

It goes without saying that the typical course of study should be comprehensive and rigorous in every subject area (with due allowance for program modifications necessary for the learning disabled). Students should be expected to demonstrate mastery of Judaic studies subjects as well as the humanities, sciences, and mathematics throughout their years of middle and high school. I believe that this should include the senior year. A trend has developed in some schools for students to leave after their Junior year to study in Israel or to start college, either due to financial considerations or to an impatience to "get on with one’s life." However if we understand the dual curriculum as a unique opportunity to engage in modern Orthodox learning experiences, it follows that students should be encouraged to remain part of such an environment for as long as possible. A similar argument, by the way, can be made against the wholesale transfer of credits from post-high school study at an Israeli Torah institution to one’s undergraduate college. This has the effect of seriously limiting the number of elective courses one takes in college,

preventing the student from broadening his or her educational vistas. If modern Orthodoxy presumes to promote breadth of outlook, rushing to complete college–unless there are economic or family reasons for doing so–should not be encouraged.

The Judaic studies curriculum should offer a well-rounded program of several different disciplines that are presented to both boys and girls. The teaching of Talmud to girls remains controversial even in some modern Orthodox circles, resulting in some girls having an extra Judaic studies course opening, often filled by Torah sheb’al peh (the oral Torah). A similar asymmetry often exists for boys in terms of the study of navi, the prophets. This is because boys are often assigned a double period of Talmud to assure–hopefully–more significant achievement, and thus one Judaic studies class period, typically navi, must go by the boards. Quite aside from the message sent by providing dissimilar Judaic curricula for boys and girls, the absence of courses for girls that require them to think in an organized fashion about the development of Halakhah and to grasp the process of rabbinic thinking, on the one hand, and the boys’ lack of serious exposure to the moral teachings and elegant language of the prophets, on the other, constitute a significant shortcoming in day-school education. There is no simple answer to this dilemma, since any rearrangement of the curriculum to compensate for intensive Talmud study by boys will end up shortchanging some subject. And, to add another complexity to the problem, many schools have to worry not just about academic considerations, but also how the school curriculum "looks" to potential students, their families, and different elements in the local Jewish community.



All day-school classes should promote the careful dissection and analysis of issues, the presentation of diverse viewpoints and approaches, and drawing comparisons and contrasts between competing perspectives. And, of course, students should be encouraged to ask substantive and probing questions. While most educational institutions at least claim to encourage critical thinking on the part of their students, it is not uncommon that a day school will apply different standards and expectations to the two sides of its curriculum. Although sophisticated and critical thinking may be consistently demanded within the general-studies disciplines, Judaic studies are rarely approached in the same manner. In defense of this double standard, some claim that encouraging a critical approach with respect to religion could weaken the student’s commitment to Jewish belief and practice. Yet surely the opposite could also result. If students are trained to think in a sophisticated way in one area of study, but prevented from doing so in another area, they might well conclude that either some important perspectives are being withheld from them, or else that religious studies are not intellectually rigorous, and therefore not deserving of much time or effort. This was, indeed, the reasoning of Sara Schenirer, the founder of the Beit Yaakov movement, and the great rabbis who backed her initiative to give Jewish girls, for the first time, a formal Jewish education: Since the Polish government after World War I was providing serious secular education for Jewish girls, only a similarly serious Jewish education could prevent them from dismissing the Jewish culture of their homes as hopelessly primitive, and possibly abandoning it. A strong case, then, can be made, on Jewish grounds, for the establishment of critical thinking as a major objective of all classes, general and Judaic.

Such critical thinking can also serve another purpose–to help the day-school student become an independent thinker once he or she leaves the school’s supportive environs. A critical sensibility should enable that day-school graduate to draw distinctions, to evaluate critically his/her surroundings. And it is precisely the modern form of Orthodoxy, which promotes significant and meaningful interaction with the surrounding secular society, that most needs to help its members distinguish between those aspects of society that are congruent with Orthodox tradition and those that are not. Furthermore, a day-school graduate imbued with a critical modern Orthodox sensibility would be able to disagree, even strongly, with a perspective it deems Jewishly unacceptable, while avoiding a judgmental approach that devalues those who differ.

Our day schools have much to learn from Neil Postman’s Teaching as a Conserving Activity. Postman argues that schools must try to create "homeo-stasis"–a state of balance–between the students and general society, by guiding the students to counter the trends that prevail in the world around them. When society is overly conservative, according to Postman, schools should encourage freedom, but when the surrounding culture turns permissive, the schools should inculcate stabilizing values. The modern Orthodox school should function in the same way in regard both to the values of the outside world and to values that exist in the contemporary Jewish world. It should provide students–not just through specific courses but also through the overall atmosphere of the school–the means to discern, naturally and almost instinctively, which aspects of their general and Jewish societies to embrace and which to reject in order to remain modern Orthodox. That this should apply to the Jewish world too needs emphasis, since we hear all too often that it is only the secular world that bears dangers for the Orthodox. Depending on the particular community, problematic aspects of Orthodox society today could be over-emphasis upon materialism, intolerance, militarism, and insensitivity to others even within the traditional Jewish community.


Potential Conflicts

A modern Orthodox school’s courses and activities should reinforce the ideological orientation of the educational program. One question to ask of a school is how general culture and Western civilization are treated in Judaic studies classes. A very common example of potential conflict–one that tends to come up in discussions of the Hanukka holiday and of the destruction of the Temple–is the great debt owed by Western Civilization to the contributions of Greek and Roman culture, on the one hand, and the

negative manner in which the classical Jewish sources portray Greece and Rome, on the other.

But the converse situation can come up as well-how the general studies classes handle religion in general, and Orthodox Judaism in particular. Several years ago, one of my students informed me that a debate had taken place in his English class regarding the existence of God. He proudly told me how he had taken the position that God did exist, and showed me the proofs he had cited to make his case. I was struck that this most significant discussion had taken place in an English class rather than a Judaic studies class. Undoubtedly, one reason must have been the greater sense of openness that at least some students sensed in their secular classes. Subsequently, the school initiated a course within Judaic studies on such issues. Other examples of general studies curricular areas that lend themselves to the consideration of religious positions include mythology, evolution, the history of religious movements, and human sexuality.

Another sensitive issue is the manner in which non-Jews are regarded in Judaic studies courses. A number of issues can arise that could potentially lead to negative presentations of non-Jews–the biblically obligatory war against the seven Canaanite nations, the imperative to destroy Amalek, slavery in general and the Canaanite slave in particular, the laws about whether a non-Jew’s life might be saved on the Sabbath, whether the laws of returning lost objects pertain to non-Jews, and the seeming discrimination between Jews and non-Jews in taking interest on loans.

The way the State of Israel is viewed, particularly when controversial political and security decisions are undertaken, could lead to serious problems in the day school, since the Israeli government is controlled by the secular majority and the school, by definition, teaches Israel from an Orthodox perspective. While it would be dishonest to misrepresent the real tensions between the religious and secular elements in the country, at what point does a modern Orthodox analysis of the situation become a justification for withdrawing support from, and empathy for, the country, even if a distinction is maintained between the land of Israel and its government? Therefore I believe that, aside from informing students of the various positions that are being taken regarding the issues of the day, the school must be careful about advocating a particular point of view, especially since the members of the school community do not reside in Israel.

Numerous potential conflicts can also arise from the types of language and the contents of scenes in books, plays, movies, and videos that are chosen for use in class, or that are assigned or recommended to be read or seen outside of the classroom. Furthermore, religious principles like kol isha (men hearing the voice of a woman), kashrut, and Shabbat must be taken into account for those planning field trips and those making arrangements for participation in tournaments and competitions. Choosing chaperones with appropriate religious sensibilities for such events is important for maintaining consistency between the school and its sponsored out-of-school activities.

In addition to these aspects of the overt curriculum, there are components of the school’s "hidden curriculum" that also bear special consideration when evaluating whether a school is truly modern Orthodox. A school’s policies can sometimes convey subtle messages that have a more profound affect on student attitudes and views than the syllabus being studied or the extracurricular activities that have been carefully designed. Here are some questions that can tease out the "hidden curriculum": Are boys and girls in a coed school assigned the same quality of teachers? Are the teachers both for general studies and for Jewish studies professionally trained in the field of education? Do they hold accredited degrees? How many classroom hours are devoted to Judaic studies as compared to general studies? Do all teachers convey proper respect for other disciplines and for other staff members? Are there certain classes that are never canceled even when there are scheduling conflicts, while others are often canceled? Which classes have regular tests, homework, and projects, and which do not? Which classes always start on time, with teachers religiously taking attendance, and which do not? Do all members of the faculty and administration attend the various in-school and out-of-school activities that the school sponsors?

These questions are vital, since when students see that some classes are not treated as professionally as others, that some teachers are not as prepared as others–particularly if this is consistently observed as applying to one part of the dual curriculum as opposed to the other, or to one gender in contrast to the other–the students’ development of a modern Orthodox worldview is endangered.


The Need for Integration

A final feature of modern Orthodox education that is of profound significance, and yet increasingly rare, is the deliberate engineering of opportunities to integrate subject matter across the curriculum. As important as it may be for a modern Orthodox institution to seek to anticipate and eliminate potential conflicts between various subject areas, it is even more vital to be able to demonstrate that, in fact, the various areas of knowledge are complementary, making up a unified whole. All too often it appears to day-school students that, rather than attending a single school, they are studying in eight or nine different schools that are coincidentally located under the same roof.

A strong case can be made for the virtues of interdisciplinary learning even in an exclusively secular context. Alfred North Whitehead writes:

The solution which I am urging, is to eradicate the fatal disconnection of subjects which kills the vitality of our modern curriculum. There is only one subject

matter for education, and that is Life in all its manifestations. Instead of this single unity, we offer children-Algebra, from which nothing follows; Geometry, from which nothing follows; Science, from which nothing follows; History, from which nothing follows; a Couple of Languages, never mastered; and lastly, most dreary of all, Literature, represented by plays of Shakespeare, with philological notes and short analyses of plot and character to be in substance committed to memory. Can such a list be said to represent Life, as it is known in the midst of the living of it? The best that can be said of it is that it is a rapid table of contents which a deity might run over in his mind while he was thinking of creating a world and had not yet determined how to put it together.

The cognitive dissonance created when students study different disciplines as part of a single curriculum-let alone when the subject areas are parts of Judaic and general studies curricula, ordinarily perceived by most as mutually exclusive-leads to compartmentalization at best, and de-emphasis and delegitimization of one or the other curricular area at worst. To be sure, modern Orthodox day schools operate under tremendous time pressure, and many of the teachers and administrators are not equipped to engage in integration of the dual curriculum. Yet some limited integrated experiences should at least be attempted. Even if there are no completely interdisciplinary courses, there might be mini-courses at regular intervals, yemai iyun for several days, a single day or even a morning or afternoon, assemblies, or guest lectures by members of the faculty associated with other disciplines.

If we expect our students to live lives that reflect an integrated approach to the general and religious experiences, then educational experiences should model such an approach. It is, indeed, possible to argue that regularly separating Judaic studies from secular studies encourages a mindset that is directly antithetical to modern Orthodoxy–that you only have to strive to be spiritual, moral, and ethical during a clearly demarcated portion of the day. Such an implied message of departmentalization and compartmentalization could justify, in some minds, cheating in general studies, even if such an action

were deemed wrong in Judaic studies.



If integration is a value, then it is extremely important that the adult staff include a critical mass of individuals who embody such an integrated approach not only in their teaching, but also in terms of how they live their lives. All too often the only individuals in the school setting who are confronted with juggling the different messages and assumptions of the dual curriculum are the students, with the professional staff composed of mono-dimensional subject-matter specialists. Only when students realize that they are both studying and observing "Life," as Whitehead put it, can there be a reasonable expectation that integrated thinking will inform a student’s outlook after graduation.

A truly modern Orthodox school, then, must be concerned not only with delivering high quality academics and extracurricular activities. The institution must also view itself organically in terms of the public image it projects, the type of student it ultimately wishes to produce, the nature of its curriculum, the manner of teaching and learning it promotes, the attitudes that pervade its classes, the messages suggested by its policies and structure, and the seriousness of its attempts to create a coherent experience that

bridges all aspects of the school. Only then can the school be said to be modern Orthodox.











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