The Blessed Laboratory that is the Jewish School
In his poem entitled, “Ha’matmid,” Chayim Nachman Bialik described the role of the Jewish school in four words,
בית יצירה לנשמת האומה – “The laboratory for the creation of our nation’s soul.”
I have spent my entire life surrounded by the value of Jewish education. I grew up in a family of rabbis, teachers, Jewish camp staffers and Day School administrators. I attended a pluralistic community Day School in the Washington, DC area from Kindergarten through High School. And I have been blessed to spend most of my professional life in the Day School, this בית יצירה לנשמת האומה, as a teacher and administrator for the past fifteen years. And it is Bialik’s description that guides much of my vision for the Jewish Day School.
While Jewish youth groups and camps do amazing things to enrich Jewish identity, there is no other space with the constancy of the school. It is the Jewish Day School where Jewish children spend a large majority of their waking hours each year. It is in the Jewish Day School where, on a day-to-day, month-to-month basis, children are engaged in the rhythm of the Jewish calendar with a like-minded community in a shared, sacred space. The laboratory is a fitting word to describe the schoolhouse– where Jewish education, Jewish identity and Jewish connection are blended together in a magical brew.
In a laboratory, productive work can only take place with fundamental knowledge and solid educational foundation. Creative and dedicated educators must work tirelessly to help each student attain skills and literacy in math, Ivrit, literature, science, chumash and Jewish history. Teachers and administrators must constantly evaluate the quality of the curriculum and employ state-of-the-art pedagogic practices in order to most successfully deliver the tools essential for creating educated members of 21st century American and Jewish communities.
But simply teaching academic subjects to our students is not enough. The skills learned must be seen as the first step, as ingredients students use to grow as Jews and as human beings. They must go beyond the facts and make knowledge meaningful. They must relook at preconceived assumptions to make connections that will help them make sense of the world. This laboratory must enable students use STEM skills to help them experiment with 21st century questions and challenges. It must facilitate students’ and families’ exploration of how they will connect to Israel, Torah and Am Yisrael in their own unique ways. The school is the laboratory for experimentation and exploration. And this laboratory is tasked with nothing less than the enormous mission creating the soul of our nation.
Of course, one cannot think of cultivating the soul of a group without stepping back and listening to the souls of its members. Every parent, every teacher and every student needs something different in order for her or his soul to reach its potential and develop its voice. The academic, emotional, social, and Jewish identity of every student must be understood for us to do the best job possible to shape souls in our schools. For us, as teachers and leaders, to best understand these identities, we must meet our constituents where they are. We must hear their stories and use them to create unique Jewish communities where diversity and mutual respect for the Jewish journey can thrive.
And teaching, facilitating and even listening is not enough. With every breath we take, we, as teachers and educators have to be role models. Whether it is in the classroom in front of twenty students, at graduation in front of hundreds or in the grocery store running into one student, we must tirelessly work to embody the essential values of interpersonal middot by showing unending kindness, warmth and generosity. Living these values does not begin and end with the school day. Educators must strive to be the consistent embodiment of the values we wish to inculcate in our students. We must be there for each other in good times and bad with a warm smile, an attentive ear and an open heart. Being truly present for others can be challenging, but it is critical in the mission of cultivating the נשמות, the souls of our community and of our nation.
I feel so honored to be part of the Kinneret Day School family. It is a school that truly fits Bialik’s description. Along with Mr. Abramovitz, the Kinneret faculty, family and alumni have created a unique laboratory– one that exudes, warmth, love and respect for every member of the wide family of humanity and for every single Jew — no matter their background, country of origin or religious affiliation. It is a laboratory that, in its storied history, has nurtured the souls of countless students, who are all contributing to the world and the Jewish community in their own unique ways.
“Day Schools like Kinneret will secure the future and continuity of American Jewry. Such schools will link the Jewish community in the United States with our people in the State of Israel and all over the world.” These words, spoken by Golda Meir at the Annual Kinneret Dinner in 1949 ring just as true today.
May we be blessed to work together in our holy laboratory to secure our future — נשמת האומה , the soul of our precious people.
Rabbi Frank’s Blog – http://mifrasimafrank.blogspot.com
Rabbi Aaron Frank is Head of School at the Kinneret Day School in Riverdale, NY. Prior to coming to Kinneret, Rabbi Frank was the Associate Principal at SAR High School. Before moving to New York, he worked at the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Baltimore for twelve years, serving as Lower School and then High School Principal. In addition to his work in education administration, Rabbi Frank has served as a High Holidays rabbi at Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, Maryland since 2001. A graduate of the Jerusalem Fellows program at the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem as well as of the Principals’ Center at Harvard Graduate School of Education, Rabbi Frank serves on the board of the International Rabbinic Fellowship and on the Rabbinic Advisory Board of Yeshivat Maharat. He served as Associate Rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale under the mentorship of Rabbi Avi Weiss from 1996 until 2000 and was a founding member of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Baltimore. A musmakh of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Aaron holds a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Michigan and an M.S. from Columbia University School of Social Work. Rabbi Frank is married to Laura Shaw Frank. They have four children; Ateret, Yanniv, Elinadav, and Neri.