Two weeks ago, we told you about the International Baccalaureate program that the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County has begun to use in its middle school.
The IB program teaches students to make connections between various subjects in surprising but intellectually rigorous ways, and to make connections between the Jewish and outside worlds in ways that aid their understanding and deepen their commitment to both.
As it turns out, the story doesn’t end there. Last week, the New Milford school learned that it had won a $50,000 grant and a two-year commitment for consultation and advice from the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge for what the JEIC calls its “piloting of groundbreaking ideas to achieve sustainable Judaism.”
Ruth Gafni, Schechter’s head of school, and Ingrid Goldfein, who has shepherded the IB program there, went to Florida a few weeks ago with the other two finalists — chosen from 63 applicants — for a three-day session that was part learning, part sharing, part competition, part pure collaboration. “We were the only non-Orthodox school, and the only women representing the school,” Ms. Goldfein said. “They created such a spirit of collaboration and inspiration; we learned together with them and from them.”
“The three days in Florida were an amazing experience,” Ms. Gafni said. “We had a day of learning, and that included speaking about the why of what we do, and connecting through conversation, in pairs or larger groups, about why we are committed to doing what we are doing personally.
“The personal really intertwines with the professional. If you are passionate about what you are doing and where you are going, it affects the way you are going to do your work. It’s not just a workplace. It’s about the passion for the cause, for Jewish continuity, for Jewish kids to be able to love Judaism.
“We met with the two other finalists — one was the other school that won, Stars of Israel in Brooklyn — and they also invited the people who won in previous years. The first day was getting to know you, more personal, and the second day was moving from the personal to the general.
“It felt like a marketplace, a hub of Jewish learning, of innovation, a look at the richness of what is happening all across this country. The conversations were rich, and you learned from everybody. It really was well beyond our expectations.
“The third day was the presentation,” Ms. Gafni continued. “I did feel a lot of pressure. Important educators from all over the United States — university professors, heads of schools, rabbis, including Haskel Lookstein,” who has retired from both the pulpit of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, the prominent Upper East Side Orthodox synagogue, and as the head of the Ramaz School.
“Five of those distinguished people served as judges, and Ingrid and I made the presentation, alongside the other two,” Ms. Gafni said. Then, energized, excited, hopeful, and humbled by the breadth of wisdom and skill they’d seen, the two educators came home, and they waited.
“I got the phone call on Tuesday night, and I screamed so loud that they probably could hear me in Florida without the phone,” Ms. Gafni said. And then, more soberly, she added, “The main thing is thinking about how we can make our students and our graduates and the kids who are going through our system really love what they are learning, and stick to it through their lifetimes.
“It is about teaching our children with love and compassion and understanding, and about understanding as well that going through the Jewish educational system is a privilege that brings with it the added value of truly connected kids who live authentic Jewish lives.
“We have to show why, when you have free and appropriate and good public school systems, Jewish education is necessary. So to be with other like-minded people who talk about innovation and the value of the education — it’s big. It’s really big.”
The executive director of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, Jason Shames, and Adi Rabinowitz, the Schechter school’s president, were in the audience as the finalists made their presentations.
Their presence “was a statement about how important the grant is; how transformative it could be,” Mr. Shames said. “I was more than happy to be there, and to be part of it. The grant is an opportunity to change the way we teach our youth Jewish texts.
“I would do the same for any of our schools,” he added.
“If Schechter can transform itself from being a yeshiva for Conservative kids to a school that can help the entire community, that would be a very good thing,” Mr. Shames said. “It would be good for kids who are not necessarily interested in text study — and it’s not at the expense of kids who are interested in text study.
“It will give the school cachet and allow it to diversify,” he said.
The JEIC is a project of the Mayberg Family Foundation; Rabbi Shmuel Feld is the JEIC’s managing director. “We designed this process to be different,” Rabbi Feld said. “We figured that everyone else has done the standard grant-giving; what we really want to do is create a movement of people who really know each other and feel connected to each other. Even if they do not get grants, they will have had a tremendous experience together.
“That was our bet four years ago, and it worked really well, so ever since, we put a small group of intellectual, innovative, creative, and dedicated people together, in a place where they can only gain from working together. We haven’t had a bad year yet.”
Although the process of being awarded a JEIC is competitive, each competitor school really is challenging and competing with itself. There is no fixed number of finalists; similarly, there is no fixed number of grantees. “Although we have told them several times, our finalists always are surprised to hear it directly — everyone has the opportunity to win a grant,” Rabbi Feld said. “We can give grants to all of our finalists or none of them. The goal of the first day and a half is to discover the opportunity of having intelligent, driven people in the same place. We never discuss the competition the first day; we tell them directly that we are not judging them on some bizarre metric for who is better at working together.
“One of the bases of this is the fact that almost all educators, and particularly the innovative ones, feel isolated in their schools. You can look at the winning schools this year and last — they are all in the New York area.” (Of course, he conceded, “out of 815 or so Jewish day schools in North America, about 450 or so are within 30 miles of Times Square, so that does kind of weight that statistic.”) But despite how close the educators are geographically, “most of them would never get to know each other.”
The unorthodox style of competition has its own pressures. “It is both a relief and even more stressful, because if you don’t win, you can’t say that they’re better. If you don’t win, it’s because you didn’t seal the deal. You didn’t do it.”
But there is another way to look at it, he added. “You wouldn’t be in the finals if we didn’t think that your idea is game-changing. We wouldn’t have invited you. Our primary goal is to have a group of people getting together who will create more and better ideas.”
Rabbi Feld talked specifically about the Schechter school’s winning program. “It’s really fantastic,” he said. “They are attempting something that no Jewish day school has been able to do. There are a small handful of Jewish day schools that have applied the IB standard to general studies, but I have never even heard of anyone trying to apply it to a Jewish studies program.
“There are a few reasons for that. For one thing, there is extensive training necessary. You have to have a Judaic staff that you can invest in.” You can’t have frequent staff turnover. “The second reason is that there is a concept that Jewish texts are somehow either resistant or impenetrable to these kind of activities,” to applying a global or civic or secular or scientific lens to a Jewish text. “There is a component of that that’s true. If you teach history, or social studies, or language, you want them to use the method as a tool, but often on the Jewish side the thinking is that you already have a deep connection to a 3,000-year-old tradition.
“But that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be tremendously beneficial and also really interesting to discover how you look at the central question or answer from the Jewish text, understanding how point of view might affect the answer, trying to think through, from the IB sense, not just the simple idea of how the time period affects the writer, but also the true intent of the documents. What were they trying to say?
“Take one of the prophets. Say Jeremiah. He was a guy who had access to the king. What was he trying to do? What was the information he was applying? And how does it apply to our world?
“From the prophet Micah there is a direct idea that what God really wants of you is moral behavior, and that there is the ability to create a peaceful world. That concept might be a very interesting set of discussion points in a Judaic class. It would be interesting to start in middle school or high school, and then come back after college and see that it still speaks to you.
“Middle school is the time when the prefrontal cortex begins to develop. That’s where deep analytical ethical decision-making thought comes from. It provides ideas of how my own actions will affect the world. It’s wonderful to think that when kids are becoming bar and bat mitzvah, instead of a giant party they are investing deeply in the text, in a systematized way.
“I think that Ruth and Ingrid are outstanding thinkers, and I am deeply honored to have an opportunity to work with them,” Rabbi Feld concluded.