An Edah Editorial
By Rabbi Jack Bieler

Day Schools as Moral Thermostats
By Rabbi Jack Bieler


As day schools multiply, it is clear that a significant percentage of the American Jewish community has finally recognized that intense Jewish education yields greater Jewish identity and commitment. But do we overlook the nature of the education that these institutions provide to our children? Are they producing only commitment to identity, or a serious commitment to Jewish values as well?

Many Jewish educators recognize that the young people sitting in these classrooms and studying Judaism are internalizing a significant portion of the values pervading the caustic general secular society. Today's day school graduates appear ill-equipped to respond thoughtfully and constructively to the immodesty, aggressiveness, violence, self-indulgence, substance abuse, materialism and overt anti-Semitism that mark our epoch when they no longer find themselves in the Jewish "hothouse" of the day school.

Even during their tenure as students under our supervision, we are struck by the degree to which our contemporary social values have made inroads into day-to-day student life. I constantly hear: statements such as: "I know that it's really not legal to download albums, but wait 'til you hear what I've got on my iPod!" or "Quick! I have to copy your homework because I spent last night watching MTV."

Can we confidently say that the typical manner of speech, dress, interaction with peers, types of after-school recreation, deportment towards teachers, administrators and even parents truly reflect internalized Jewish and spiritual values, or have Jewish learning and experience been compartmentalized, and are only called upon within specific frameworks and at finite times during the day?

The late social critic and educator Neil Postman developed what he referred to as a "thermostatic view of education". Postman claimed that education should serve as a balancing factor with regard to the general trends of society. When society is excessively rigid, schools should encourage creativity, flexibility, and change; when however society becomes overly relativistic and devoid of bedrock principles and discipline, then education must supply the momentum whereby the internal pendulum within each student can swing in the opposite direction, and engender a counter-force that will give rise to a healthy personal equilibrium.

While Postman was referring to all educational contexts, I believe that his perspective has particular relevance to the world of the day school. We attempt to educate our students not only so they can function as productive and contributing members of society at large, but also so they will be both willing and able to preserve their particularistic Jewish identity, beliefs and traditions in the face of a majority culture. This second purpose becomes more important as many of the majority culture's values have become antithetical to Jewish belief and commitment.

For example, the media bombards all of us with unceasing examples of dishonesty in industry, politics, the sports world, and representatives of religious movements, even Judaism. Postman would argue that it is up to schools to counter the apparent growing acceptability of dishonesty as part of the "real world". Students must be made to realize how destructive the general cynicism and lack of trust in one's fellow man is that arises from the assumption that everyone is engaged in misrepresentation and lying.

Postman's mandate was for public schools. Educational establishments committed to transmitting fundamental Jewish values must make that much more of an effort to help students recognize and ultimately internalize the principles of "From a false matter you must distance yourself" and the ideal of "One who walks wholeheartedly, engages in righteousness and speaks the truth in his heart."

To accomplish this, changes would have to be made in terms of teacher training, Judaic as well as General. Educators would have to realize that they are expected to be concerned not only with subject matter, but also with the religious and ethical growth of their students; curriculum development would have to include, if not primarily focus upon, character and personality improvement, and the design of extra-curricular experiences would have to address and strive for the development of clear-cut Jewish values in one form or another.

The issue cannot be dealt with through the occasional stand-alone unit or study day; what is necessary is that the choice of which chapters to study in Bible, which Talmudic themes to investigate, and which epochs in Jewish history to explore, as well as which Shakespearian plays to study, reflect conscious choices as to which historical individuals in American and world history should be presented as role models. In addition, ethical issues that are inherent in technological advances and how the school community addresses everyday moral dilemmas should be made into case studies of the highest level of Jewish belief and teaching.

The going wisdom maintains that as a student develops proficiency in Jewish texts, Jewish values will enter into him/her by some sort of osmosis, or that values are best inculcated in the student's home by his/her parents. Such views are naïve, at best, and irresponsible at worst. Unfortunately, we are all familiar with students who master Jewish subject matter, yet miss the greater ethical and theological points implicit in these disciplines.

John Dewey conceptualized the school as a "safe" environment for students where they would not be exposed to the insanities of general society. The time has come for day schools to become contexts in which Jewish values are clearly exemplified so that day schools will contribute to a Jewish continuity that makes a moral contribution to general society.

Rabbi Jack Bieler has taught in Yeshivat Ramaz and the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy for the past 30 years, and is currently the rabbi of Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring, MD

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