Rabbi James Kennard: Jewish Schools Are The Key
Why are Jewish schools so important in the establishment of Jewish identity? Why do studies throughout the world show that attendance at a Jewish day school, allied with a positive home environment, is so successful at promoting ongoing Jewish engagement?
It’s not just the obvious – the quality and quantity of Jewish studies and the Hebrew language, the gateway to Jewish learning, literature and connection with Jewish people in Israel and around the world. Even though a Jewish school usually provides several hours a week of Jewish learning, skills and understanding provided by excellent and approachable educators, it’s the “hidden curriculum” that makes the greatest difference.
In the last 15 years, Jewish schools in Melbourne have developed outstanding programmes of informal Jewish education; camps, Shabbatonim, lunchtime activities, minyanim and many other positive Jewish experiences. Whereas the formal lessons impact on the head, it is these out-of-classroom events that reach the heart. As a Maths teacher I may wish that my students will remember their trigonometry or calculus lessons for all time, but in reality the memories that will endure forever will be of how we turned the school upside down for Purim or coloured it Blue and White for Yom Ha’atzmaut.
And the hidden curriculum acts in more subtle ways. In a Jewish school, the rhythm of the school week is that of the Jewish week, with Friday a different and shorter day. The rhythm of the year is that of the Jewish year, as each Chag approaches and then recedes. In a child’s eyes, an event’s importance can be measured by its power to change schedules. So in a Jewish school, the importance of Shabbat and festivals is manifest.
Yet it’s the unforeseen interruptions to the schedule that perhaps provide the most powerful message. When all lessons cease so that students can watch the release of Gilad Schalit, or to pray for peace and safety when Israel’s at war, students truly understand the significance of the people and state of Israel in their lives.
Some may ask “if a student attends a Jewish school all their lives, and lives inside a ‘Jewish bubble’, then how can they integrate into the wider society at University or beyond?”. The answer is provided by the hundreds of thousands of graduates of schools such as the mainstream institutions in Melbourne and their similar counterparts around the world. These myriads of students have, over the last fifty years, made their way through, and indeed contributed greatly to, each of the concentric communities – Jewish, national and global – around them. The evidence suggests that the in this endeavor the Jewish schools have not hindered, but helped.
For many Jewish graduates of non-Jewish schools (and I speak from personal experience), life becomes compartmentalized into distinct Jewish and general components, with at best a porous membrane in between. But a student benefitting from the holistic, integrated experience of a Jewish school sees no division, but just “life”, connecting to the world but permeated with Jewish identity. They can grow to be knowledgeable, engaged, Jews, with the confidence to wrap themselves in an Israeli flag or to stand on stage and tell their family’s story on Yom HaShoa. This pride and comfort in their identity comes from growing in a safe and empowering Jewish environment, that gives our graduates the confidence to take their place as Jewish Australians without a hint of a dichotomy between the components of their identity.
Some might say that I have a vested interest, that I promote Jewish schools because I work for one. But the truth is the reverse. I consider it a tremendous privilege and blessing to be an educator, able to help young people grow and learn in a Jewish school, and thereby to give them the tools to build Jewish life and to build Jewish lives.