If Tikvah Wiener’s hopes come to fruition, a new modern Orthodox coed high school will open in Bergen County in September 2018.
It’s a school that aims to answer the question: What if school was more likelife?
Life, after all, does not come in 45- or 90-minute periods. Life does not separate out the language-based aspects of your activities from the mathematical, your secular activities from your religious identity.
Life is often a group activity.
Ms. Wiener, who lives in Teaneck, is a former head of the English department at the Frisch School in Paramus, now the county’s only coed Jewish high school. She is now finishing up her third year as chief academic officer at the Magen David High School in Brooklyn. Magen David’s director of instructional technology, Rabbi Michael Bitton of Lakewood, will be her partner in the venture. When this school year ends, they will leave Magen David to devote themselves full time to creating what they’re calling the Idea School. Idea is an acronym for innovation, design, entrepreneurship, and the arts.
As readers of her columns in this newspaper have come to learn, Ms. Wiener is passionate about making students passionate about learning. She is a devotee of a technique called “project based learning” and has organized a network of schools devoted to the technique.
She and Rabbi Bitton have begun to gather support for their idea. That includes an endorsement from the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
Jason Shames, the federation’s CEO, said that “Tikvah is bringing something unique to the table. A new model for Jewish education is coming to town. It’s not a duplication of what’s being offered.”
He said that with a growing number of students in the day school system, “there’s enough demand. I think there’s room for four great high schools in our community, each with its own position. It’s good for the marketplace. Hopefully what it does is it makes all the products even better.”
“We want to be part of the community and contribute to the community,” Ms. Wiener said. To that end, she has been meeting with principals of day schools that will feed into the school, and of the high schools with which it will compete.
The school will not neglect content and skills “and traditional types of text acquisition,” Ms. Wiener said. There will be a beit midrash, the traditional study hall.
But the twist she is excited about is a focus on interdisciplinary teaching, with teachers teaching in teams, where history and English, for example, would not be demarcated as separate subject. A study of Greek history might lead to a study of philosophy, which might lead to going out and interviewing people about their values. She has seen that model used in some of the non-Jewish schools she has studied, most specifically High Tech High in San Diego, Calif. The next step for her school would be to bring in the Jewish counterpart to the philosophy.
“You should always be thinking about what it means to be Jewish, no matter what class you’re in, rather than this bifurcated schedule where I’m in English class and I don’t think about what it means to be Jewish until I’m in Talmud class,” she said.
“The current model of education was created about 125 years ago,” she said. “It hasn’t really changed since then. It was a factory model of education. Look at the way schools are set up: You go from one room to the next. Here I’m going to learn math, there I’m going to learn science. In the end, you’re going to learn all this stuff. You’re the product.”
Ms. Wiener’s partnership with Rabbi Bitton began years ago, long before she went to Magen David, when he called to ask about the interdisciplinary work she was doing at Frisch.
At the Idea School, they will be co-heads of school.
“We chose that title deliberately,” she said. “One of our aims is to create a collaborative environment. We want teachers to be co-teaching. So our leadership model is a collaborative one. The fact that he is a man and I am a woman, and that we fall on different parts of the Orthodox spectrum — it’s nice to model the different ways we want our students to get along and to respect each other’s opinions.”
Ms. Wiener said what might seem to be an untraditional model for education actually is rooted in the Jewish tradition. “We’re moving the school away from standardized tests testing for one answer because life is about learning that answers are complex,” she said. “You might do one thing in one situation and another in another situation. That’s part of what the Talmud is about.”
She promises the new school will offer “a very personalized way of learning and a very meaningful way of learning. The day is going to be divided into longer blocks of times, giving kids a chance to really get into their learning, whether Judaic studies or secular. They’ll be able to make things that are important for them, whether art or STEM” — that stands for science, technology, engineering, and math — “or other projects they want to create.
“Hebrew acquisition is going to be a major focus of the school. We’ll be building chesed into the school day,” she continued.
“One of my concerns is how are we honoring and protecting our kids’ childhood and adolescence. When we think about how kids learn and how people learn, should it be in a very high anxiety environment? The system we’ve created for our kids seems to be really anxiety-producing. The panic over the resume building to get into college. ‘I have to be this all-around fantastic person at age 16,’ they think. ‘I have to save the world.’ We’re really looking at the whole person, being mindful to give kids time to be kids, not overscheduling them, so they’re not coming home and doing another day of school after school.”
Raz Haramati of Englewood comes from a family of Jewish educators. Both of his parents taught at the Yeshiva of Flatbush for decades. He chaired the board of education of the Yavneh Academy when his four children were younger. Now he has joined the board of the startup school. “I’m excited by the thought of doing something different,” he said.
He has known Ms. Wiener for many years, and invited her to sit on the Yavneh board. “When she told me that she was thinking about opening up her own school, my first reaction was, ‘How can I help you?’”
He said Ms. Wiener’s ideas of what and how students should learn align with his experience in the business world, where he works in finance. “We’re looking for skills such as teamwork, collaboration, iteration towards a solution, pulling in from diverse areas of knowledge and ability,” he said of his workplace. “These need to be primary skills. People are driven by following their passion. That’s something that should be central.”
He’s excited by the idea of a Jewish school “taking a holistic and integrated view of the world, and not only from the skills-versus-compartmentalized-knowledge perspective. When we talk integration, it isn’t just integrating your language arts with your history to get a holistic view; it’s understanding that modern Orthodox Judaism is not two separate spheres of Judaism and the secular world. Integration needs to occur there as well. Fundamentally we believe the study of science and the discovery of the world is part of God’s mission of creation and the continuation of the creation process. It’s not just a secular activity. It’s fundamentally a religious activity.
“You need to imbue students with knowledge and skills, but it all needs to be done from an integrated Jewish perspective, one that will lead to students more passionately connected to their Judaism.”
He said such a model is rare in Jewish education. In fact, they’re studying a Presbyterian school geared around design thinking and passionate learning for an idea of how such an integrated religious perspective might work.
“Tikvah and Michael are the leaders, they have the vision of where they want it to go,” he said. “They need help with getting the Jewish community behind them.
“We want to bring Jewish education into the 21st century. The big challenge is lay support to get behind this initiative. We need more people stepping up with their checkbooks and their time to bring this idea to fruition.”