Farewell to the Idea School

Farewell to the Idea School

A senior, speaking at the last graduation, reckons with the success of failure

This second Idea School graduating class will be its last; the students have benefitted from project-based learning in the Tenafly school.
This second Idea School graduating class will be its last; the students have benefitted from project-based learning in the Tenafly school.

Last week, the Idea School, the Jewish high school that used project-based learning and met at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, graduated its second and last senior class. This is the keynote talk; it was given by Yehuda Zinberg of Teaneck.

Hi, my name is Yehuda Zinberg.

I recall over six years ago, I was walking home from shul with my father, and I was complaining about a project I was assigned in school. He mentioned that they were opening a new school, one that focused entirely on projects. If I remember correctly, I responded: “That is the stupidest idea I have ever heard.”

I didn’t like projects, I thought they were an annoying interruption in the traditional educational structure I was a part of. We come into class, the teacher stands in the front of the room and imparts knowledge; we listen, and then we are tested on our retention of that knowledge. This was a system I more or less thrived in, and it is the notion of “school” that the vast majority of us have. Evidently, my thoughts toward projects have changed.

I have spent the last four years being a part of the Idea School, a school whose goal was to merge the worlds of alternative education and Jewish education via the Project-Based Learning model.

I wish I could discuss only what that means and what it has meant to me, but this is a complicated evening.

In 10 days, the Idea School will no longer exist. Tonight, we balance a group of individual celebrations with a collective memorial. When we tell a story, the Jewish people famously are instructed מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח — that we should begin with the negative and end with the positive — so I will begin with the latter.

It has always been hard to define what goes on at the Idea School, what makes our school different from others, but I think the main distinction is this: In the traditional model of education, the primary aspect of the student experience is the acquisition of knowledge. In the Idea School, this is only the first step.

Here, students have had to put their learning into action, to take ownership of it, and to make things with it. There really is no way to precisely define this process, and it cannot be fully understood without spending a few years here, but the results are clear. When the learning is motivated not by an arbitrary set of guidelines but by complicated, cross-disciplinary, real-world problems, we learn to care about the world around us, and to view each new piece of information we acquire as a tool we can use to make it a better place.

Yehuda Zinberg

When we, as students, are continuously encouraged to share our own thoughts and values in the classroom and to integrate our own passions into the learning, we learn not only that we matter, but that the things we care about matter too. Embraced with these values, we come face to face with ourselves, learn how we might operate in a complex, ever-changing world, and are given the tools we need to thrive and to live more meaningful Jewish lives within it.

We call one of those tools iteration. When a project is done, a student’s work is only beginning, as it is given feedback and then revised, improved, over and over again. In the Idea School we have not received failing grades on tests, but I think all of us have had to grapple with a different kind of failure, the feeling that comes when the project in which you are investing a portion of yourself could be better, but it isn’t, at least not yet.

I can’t help but feel that just like a project that is not yet as good as it can be, the project of our school now assumes a similar status. We will not be able to see what would have been had the Idea School continued to grow, had our ninth, tenth, and eleventh graders been able to receive the same honor we will be given tonight, and had our incredible faculty been able to continue the groundbreaking and life-changing work they have done for the past five years.

At this time of great endings, when in just a moment everyone will disperse from this place known as the Idea School, I turn to the last chapter of our Jewish origin story, the Tanakh.

I think the Tanakh, in its own way, is a series of failures. We can trace its narrative as a cycle, beginning with the Jewish people’s moral and religious failures, and then their punishment, their repentance, and finally their redemption by God, only for them to fail again. In a sense the nation of Israel was always attempting to iterate upon itself, to be the version of itself that its God and protector desired. But they always seemed to fall short. Though chronologically not the last event that occurs in Tanakh, דברי הימים ב‭:‬‮ ‬ל”ו is one of several chapters that depicts the destruction of the בית המקדש, the people’s holiest space and their strongest point of connection with God. The destruction, and its accompanying exile, are the nation’s ultimate punishment.

This, the Idea School, is our holy space. It is where we have connected with each other, and with God. Though not as the consequence of any moral or religious failure, we are now being dispersed from it.

For me, as the final person who will ever receive a diploma from the Idea School, this comes with a personal reckoning. Have I done enough, for this school and for myself, in the past four years? At times it feels like I haven’t. But the truth is this question is unanswerable. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, a Jewish thinker who has been influential in the school’s work and philosophy, said that “Faith does not mean certainty. It means the courage to live with uncertainty.” We cannot know whether we have succeeded in doing enough for ourselves, for our communities, or for our Creator. We can only try, fail, and then try again, having faith in ourselves, in each other, and in that Creator.

Perhaps גנות and שבח, the positive and negative aspects of our story, are fundamentally intertwined. The Tanakh doesn’t end on this bitter note, with the failings of the last kings of מלכות יהודה and the destruction of their nation. It ends with the beginning of their next iteration. A foreign king allows the Jewish people to return to Israel, and to rebuild their holy space there: מִי–בָכֶ֣ם מִכׇּל–עַמּ֗וֹ יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהָ֛יו עִמּ֖וֹ וְיָֽעַל‮:‬ “Who among you has God with them and will ascend?” There is always a better place, a further iteration, to aspire to. We grow and we evolve by failing forward towards that next step. There is no שבח without גנות.

To my fellow graduates, alongside whom I have been privileged to define the Idea School and grow within it, to the faculty, who have not just taught me, but have guided me to be a better and more self-aware version of myself, to my parents, the reason that I am here, who have shaped my growth in numerous, inexpressible ways, to my grandparents, Rabbi Michael and Chai Shmidman, who are a continuous source of inspiration and joy, and who have served as examples of what I would like to aspire to in my own life, and to everyone else in this room tonight, friends, family, and especially those Idea School students who are not on this stage, my wish to you is that like the Jewish people, both long ago and today, God is with all of you, whatever that may look like, and that you continue to fail, over and over again, and thus ascend further and further, for the uncertainty of that never-ending failure, its eternal mixture of sorrow and joy, is what allows us to have faith, in ourselves, in each other, and in God, and it may be the truest form of success.

Yehuda Zinberg of Teaneck, who just graduated from the Idea School in Tenafly gave the class talk at the ceremony. He is interested in pursuing a career in education.

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