Jewish school brings summer camp to class

The Jewish Community Day School in Watertown, MA, incorporates camp-like overnight trips as part of its Jewish environmental education curriculum. That is part of a broader push toward experiential learning and character formation.

According to University of Miami demographer Ira Sheskin, “Adults who had a Jewish overnight camp experience as children are significantly more likely to exhibit Jewish behaviors as adults.”

The experiential nature of summer camp is part of what makes it so deeply formative rather than merely educational. That’s the aim of the Jewish Community Day School. Oren Kaunfer, a former MTV producer turned spiritual educator, says, “When trying to describe my job, I do often say, ‘I bring camp to school.'”

“Everyone is sitting on the ground,” Kaunfer said. “It’s got a camp feel to it. It’s taking Jewish experiences and making them more memorable and exciting and deepening them.”

Ira Stoll, reporting for the Jewish Journal, wrote that the trend of Jewish schools trying to integrate the positive elements of camp life into the school year, without sacrificing academic rigor, “mirrors what’s going on in American education overall.” This involves an emphasis on informal, experiential, project-based learning rather than lectures, worksheets, and drills. The thinking goes that this approach will better prepare students to be lifelong learners in the global economy and the internet age.

The key, said Sheshkin, is to bring camp elements into the classroom in a way that enhances the school’s Judaic and academic rigor.

The practices of a school are critical to students “catching” the character of the school, write James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson in The Content of Their Character, which summarizes the findings of the School Cultures and Student Formation project from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. In the schools studied—including Jewish day schools—they conclude, “The moral and missional ethos of a school was reinforced through a range of practices, or routinized actions—some formal, some informal—all oriented toward giving tangible expression to the school’s values and beliefs.”

The experiential nature of summer-camp-like activities are ideal for giving expression to the school’s values and beliefs—and making those values stick. “It’s taking Jewish experiences and making them more memorable and exciting and deepening them,” says Kaunfer.

Making formative learning experiences memorable is critical for schools interested in character formation. For schools that can’t do overnight experiences, project-based learning is one way to strengthen the formative practices of a school.

Jewish Day School offers scholarship for service

A Jewish day school on Long Island, New York recently launched a unique scholarship for students that makes tuition more affordable for families while encouraging them to give back to their community.

The new Community Service Grant is funded by “a donor who wanted to honor the memory of his father in a meaningful way,” Joshua Trump, board president of the Westchester Day School, told Jewish Week. “The priorities were: do something that would help the school by growing enrollment, do something that was mission-oriented and do something that would impact the community,” he said.

WDS officials devised the grant program to offer families $15,000 in tuition assistance over two years in exchange for a pledge to complete at least 75 hours of community service each year. WDS will give out two to three Community Service Grants in the first year, officials said.

“It provides an attractive incentive to prospective young families looking to move into the community or considering Westchester Day School, but it also highlights the priorities of WDS. We place a premium on families who are doers in the community,” said Trump (no relation to the president).

“The mission statement says, we’re here to ‘prepare students to live as mensches; first and foremost a WDS student is a mensch,’” Trump said. “It’s as blunt as it could be. And we’re really trying to demonstrate that and articulate that message in everything we do.” Mensch is a Jewish term that refers to a person of integrity and honor.

So far, two families have applied for the Community Service Grant, which requires applicants to detail exactly how they plan to volunteer. The volunteer work could involve only one family member, or several, and those who organize larger events would get credit for hours worked by everyone who participates, according to the news site.

“Part of the message here is, not only are we hoping families will show up and spend time working in the community, but they’ll also take leadership roles by creating programs and encouraging others to do more,” Trump said.

Paul Bernstein, CEO of the Jewish day school organization Prizmah, told Jewish Week the Community Service Grant is likely the first of its kind in the nation. “We don’t know of anyone else who’s done a similar community service (program) and tied it to tuition assistance,” he said. “We think this is a first, and we’re just delighted that people are trying different ways to really serve families and make it more affordable.”

Head of School Rabbi Joshua Lookstein said he hopes other schools adopt similar programs, which benefit both students and local communities. “One of the exciting things about it is that we think it could be a model for day schools across the country,” he said. “We feel it’s a win-win situation for everyone—more students in Jewish day schools and more of those in need being cared for.”

As Trump’s appeal to the mission of living as mensches suggests, scholarship programs like the Community Service Grant are not incidental to the culture of schools, or to character formation in students.

James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson, editors of The Content of Their Character, a publication of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, write:

The commitments and beliefs inculcated by the school may or may not be articulated, but they are nonetheless promoted and reinforced in school settings . . . How a school is organized, the course structure and classroom practices, the relationship between the school and outside civic institutions—all of these matter in the moral and civic formation of the child.

The Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues and others offer resources to help teachers cultivate honesty in their classrooms and encourage giving back to the community.

Jewish school opens its doors to non-Jewish students

The Jewish Academy of Orlando is opening its doors to students of different faiths for the first time.

The change, effective in January, comes after repeated inquiries from non-Jewish parents and a vote by the school’s members to amend the bylaws and enroll non-Jewish students, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

The Jewish day school, where tuition ranges from $11,000 to $16,000 per year, has struggled to stay afloat after a drop in preschool attendance related to hoax bomb threats called into Jewish institutions across the United States last year, said Paul Lefton, spokesman for the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando.

The Jewish Academy, a fixture in the community for four decades, currently enrolls about 75 students after it eliminated its middle school program in 2016 and consolidated preschool through 5th-grade operations into one building. Parents and administrators believe the school’s 1-to-14 student-teacher ratio, use of technology, and character-focused curriculum will help draw in families of other faiths, the Sentinel reports.

Students recently studied Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, for example, and analyzed how it fits with the Jewish virtue of “kavod,” which means kindness and respect in Hebrew. Director of Academics Nikki Buyna said the school’s motto is “Go out and change the world,” based on the Jewish philosophy “tikkun olam” (“repair the world” in Hebrew), according to the news site.

“It’s not just academics,” Buyna said. “It’s also character.”

Jewish Academy alum Amanda Jacobson Nappi believes the move to open the school to families of different faiths will be a win for new students and the school. “I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for the school community to be able to take advantage of the program and the innovative learning the school has to offer while, at the same time, having diversity in the school, which is something we promote as part of our own learning,” she told the Sentinel.

Paul Bernstein, CEO of the Jewish day school organization Prizmah, told the news site that many Jewish schools have opened enrollment to now-Jewish students for a variety of reasons, from declining enrollment to a desire to share their faith with the community. “Families like the spiritual nature of faith-based schools even if it’s not your own faith—particularly if you are one of the monotheistic religions,” Bernstein said.

Bernstein’s comments seem to jibe with research conducted by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture that analyzed character formation in ten sectors of education—including Jewish, Islamic, Catholic, and Evangelical Protestant schools. The findings, published in The Content of their Character,  feature education researcher Charles Glenn’s observation that in Islamic schools, “Christian schools were spoken of approvingly and Christian organizations and parents seen as potential allies; students told us of making friends with students in Catholic and other faith-based schools, of volunteering at churches.”

Religious schools are compelling to families of other faiths—or those of no particular faith—in large part because of the emphasis on character and strong ethical traditions.

Prizmah, which works with about 350 Jewish day schools across the U.S., hosts an admission community of practice for schools like the Jewish Academy of Orlando to navigate the challenges of retaining a distinct school identity, and connecting with families who value that distinctive education.

Christian, Jewish, and Muslim students create drama for understanding

Chicago students of different faiths are continuing a tradition that’s drawing them together through the Olive Tree Arts Network, a nonprofit that uses creative expression as a catalyst for cross-cultural dialogue.

About 150 students from eight of the city’s religious day schools—including Muslim, Catholic and Jewish schools—come together each year to participate in a shared curriculum known as Poetry Pals, run through the arts network, The Chicago Tribune reports.

The program tasks pre-teen students with working together to create wacky stories based on their religious customs, with the underlying goal of forming stronger bonds between students of different faiths, Olive Tree director Ilene Siemer told the news site.

“This is a really important stage in kids’ lives, because they don’t really have pre-seeded notions of each other yet,” Siemer said. “So we’re able to effectively convey how much we all have in common without having to deal with any of the baggage that many adults may carry.”

Students with Bernard Zell Jewish Day School and the Muslim Community Center Academy headed to the Catholic St. John Fisher School earlier this year to learn about the Catholic faith. In January, they went to the Muslim Community Center Academy, where students did a skit about a gang of Irish dancing squirrels cutting down a Christmas tree, and listened to Muslim students explain the basics of the Islamic faith, the Tribune reports.

The events offer students a way to have fun with their peers from other religions, while also sharing the philosophy, customs, and traditions of their own faith.

“I feel like I’ve gotten to teach (other students) a lot more about our religion, and how even though there are differences between our religions, the differences are very small and we can all still be friends,” said 11-year-old Ibrahim, one of five students who made a presentation about his religion. “I wish more people could understand that Islam is a religion of peace more than anything else.”

Siemer said a major objective of the program is to provide students a “safe place to ask questions” about different faiths and to quell prejudices before they evolve into something more dangerous.

The religious day schools in Chicago and elsewhere offer a unique space for students to form strong identities, and to learn from others with different beliefs.

The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia fielded a study of ten sectors of schooling—including Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic schools—to examine how those institutions form character and citizenship.

Charles Glenn, lead researcher of Islamic schools, wrote about the experience in The Content of Their Character, currently available for preorder:

One student expressed appreciation that the Islamic school “feels actually kind of safe. You know everyone’s just like you, you’re not the outcast or seen as different or any of that. It’s really like, it’s a healthy environment and really just safe.”

The Islamic school provides a safe place for identity formation. The Olive Tree Arts Network extends that safe environment by creating a space where students can build relationships with kids of other faiths through a shared creative experience.

In addition to convening middle-schoolers for these creative events, the network also offers a simple infographic to help individuals of other faiths—or no faith—to understand the core beliefs and influential figures in Islam, Catholicism, and Judaism.

Summer school prepares Jewish students for leadership

A Yale University summer school is helping Jewish students who do not attend Jewish schools to study how their faith plays into a variety of issues—from public policy to economics, history and statesmanship—in a bid to cultivate young leaders.

Over the last six years, the Tikvah Institute for High School Students has hosted juniors and seniors from Jewish schools at Yale’s campus in New Haven, Connecticut, and this year the summer school is offering classes specifically designed for Jewish high-schoolers who don’t attend Jewish schools.

The new Maimonides Scholars program is sponsored by the Maimonides Fund, a Jewish philanthropy organization, according to the Jewish Standard. The Maimonides Scholars program is an addition to the current Tikvah Scholars program, which caters to Jewish students who attend Jewish day schools.

Former Orthodox Jewish school principal and Tikvah Institute dean Rabbi Mark Gottlieb explained that the new Maimonides Scholars program isn’t designed to promote a particular view of Judaism, but rather to cultivate leaders outside of the traditional Jewish school system.

“We aim to reach these students where they are, showing them the sophistication and beauty of Jewish thought in a nondenominational way,” he said. “We will have teachers representing different denominations, and students won’t be expected to adopt Orthodox practice. We don’t intend to convey an exclusive or monolithic view of Judaism. When students are exposed to Jewish texts and ideas that speak to them, we expect they’ll grow closer to Judaism, wherever they are in their practices and beliefs.”

The intent, he said, “is to train these students to take on leadership positions in the Jewish community on campus and beyond, by teaching them a broader base of knowledge and wisdom through history, politics, and philosophy,” Gottlieb said.

The Jewish Standard reports:

While the Tikvah Scholars and Maimonides Scholars sessions will be separate and geared to each cohort’s educational background, there will be integrated experiences, including a debate workshop. Both cohorts will be provided with kosher cuisine and a choice of non-mandatory Shabbat options for prayer, meditation, and study.

All 120 students are urged to “see each other as real allies in the struggle to represent and live their Judaism in a deep, sophisticated, and proud fashion, building up to the time when they arrive at college together,” Rabbi Gottlieb said.

In essence, the summer school, as a whole, draws out the unique strengths and contributions of Judaism in a way that is not “an exclusive or monolithic view of Judaism.”

James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, in the final chapter of The Death of Character offers this hopeful word regarding the kind of work that the Tikvah Institute is pioneering.

Creating space in this way for different moral communities to flourish in public and private life might very well lead to conditions that are conducive to the growth of people of good character . . .

That certainly bodes well for the students accepted to the Maimonides Scholars program—and for the schools to which they will return in the fall.

Jewish families can find out more about the Maimonides Scholars program, which runs from June 24 to July 8, 2018, on the program’s website.  Applications are available online, and the deadline to apply is February 16, 2018.

Jewish college partners with public schools to prevent violence

After a fight at a Philadelphia area high school left eight teachers injured and four students arrested, the dean of a nearby Jewish college approached the local school board with a plan to work with younger pupils in community building and relationship skills.

The Jewish Exponent reported that the early morning fight at Cheltenham High School in May 2017 began between two female students and quickly escalated when two more girls jumped in with punches.

Rosalie Gurofsky, Gratz College dean and vice president of academic affairs, offered Cheltenham District Superintendent Wagner Marseille a proactive plan, using restorative justice practices aimed at getting to the root of violent outbreaks. Because the college offers a master’s program in safe schools, Gurofsky also pitched the idea to other Gratz faculty members. Ultimately, it was decided to start the training at the lower grade levels. In October 2017, a customized program of four contracted workshops for 5th- and 6th-graders began at nearby Elkins Park School.

Gratz now is training teachers, as Gurofsky says, as “a natural extension of the Jewish identity of Gratz.”

The School Cultures and Student Formation Project at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture investigated the particularities of distinctive schools—and Jewish schools were among those unique schools. Was it possible that their unique and strong moral sources could equip them to strengthen a community—rather than splinter it along religious, ethnic, or class lines? Dr. Jack Wertheimer, the lead researcher of Jewish day schools writes in The Content of Their Character: “For all their distinctives, Jewish day high schools share a good deal in common with their public and private school counterparts when they address matters of private virtue.”

In the case of Gratz, it is the combination of a unique Jewish identity and broad commonality with the public schools that catalyzed this partnership. Such collaborations underscore the vital role that distinctive institutions—religious, civic, and educational—play in forming character.

That partnership is helping teachers on the frontlines of forming school culture. At Elkins Park School, “more than 86 percent of the teachers surveyed rated the training highly impactful to their classrooms.” With sustained effort, the district trusts that this hard work in the earlier grades will shape the skills and dispositions of students before they reach the pressures of high school.

To learn more about how to use classroom circles—as the Elkins Park School teachers are learning—the Open Society Institute in Baltimore offers this guide.

Jewish students reconnect with African American community for MLK Day

Students at a Jewish school in Detroit spent Martin Luther King Jr. Day honoring the late civil rights leader’s legacy of activism, through both programs at the school and a coalition of teens who headed to Los Angeles to plant urban gardens and converse about race.

“It’s not just about MLK Jr. but racial justice and fighting for equality,” Rachel Fine, teen engagement manager for the Jewish social services group Repair the World, told the Jewish Journal. “I think it is a good time to create a campaign around something that means a lot.”

While most schools were closed for the MLK holiday, Fine and seven 17- and 18-year-olds at the Orthodox Shalhevet High School flew to Los Angeles to plant urban gardens at churches and compare racial issues facing minorities in both cities. It’s part of a broader effort by Repair the World and other Jewish organizations to reconnect Jews and African-Americans on civil rights issues.

Other students at Shalhevet High School spent MLK Day working through a curriculum designed to encourage them to reach out to elected officials and to take action on the issues they care about most, according to the news site.

“On MLK Day, Shalhevet High School honors his legacy with continued activism. The goal of our school-based program is to cultivate the voices of the future, helping students to recognize the power of their lived experiences,” Shalhevet principal Daniel Weslow said. “In doing so his legacy lives on in each student as they broaden his humanitarian mission through their agency.”

Jewish schools in Los Angeles are also reflecting on the connection between the Jewish and African American communities, including a special student-led service at deToledo High School aimed at honoring King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside civil rights leaders from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.

A special interfaith service at Temple Aliyah in LA also aims to bring together Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities to celebrate King’s legacy and his partnership with Jews during the civil rights movement.

“What we wanted to do was reignite, re-establish that relationship that we had for so long between the Black community and the Jewish community, to stand together as we did in the ‘60s, when Rabbi Heschel and Martin Luther King stood together, Temple Aliyah Chazzan Mike Stein told the Jewish Journal. “We wanted to see what we could do to help each other.”

The alliance of Jewish leaders like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement provides a touchpoint for Jewish schools to honor Dr. King, while also highlighting the unique beliefs and commitments Judaism provides as an ethical framework for students to engage in activism.

Jack Wertheimer studied how Jewish schools work to form character as part of the School Cultures and Student Formation project with the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

Wertheimer quotes a teacher who described the unique contribution of Jewish faith-based schools.

“If society approves of racism, as it did before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, we don’t do that,” the teacher said. “Rejecting incorrect social norms is part of being different as a Jew … Everyone has a tafkid (role) to serve God, but Jews in particular have a task to sanctify God’s name.

Wertheimer wrote:

Doing the right thing by fellow human beings, the teacher contended, may require Jews to take a countercultural position This did not make Jews superior, she added, but it did mean they had a special religious responsibility to behave humanely.

In a time of polarization, it’s encouraging that religious communities and schools are—on the basis of strongly held commitments—effectively unifying people of different faiths using the example set by Rabbi Heschel and King more than 50 years ago.

Further details about Wertheimer’s research into character formation at Jewish day schools is featured in the new book The Content of their Character, available for pre-order at CultureFeed at a discount.