Strive for Distinction and Be Courageous

As we merited to make the journey, yet another year, from slavery to freedom, from the constraints of Egypt to the open desert, it is incumbent upon us to find the relevance of Passover in our lives.

There is a remarkable piece in Gd’s method of preparing the Jews to leave Egypt. Gd commands every Jewish household to take a lamb into the home for a few days, then slaughter it and mark the doorpost of the house with its blood. Imagine being in that place for a minute. Take a lamb, the very animal that is worshiped as a deity in the hostile society in which you live…care for it, then risk your life to kill it so that its blood will protect you from Gd’s final devastating blow. To take this action required such a deep trust in Gd, that most of the Jews didn’t do it. Most assimilated and were lost and only a minority followed Gd’s word and left Egypt.

This marking on the doorpost – it was the first mezuzah! Jewish Egyptians were challenged to distinguish their homes, not with a subtle mark, but with a bold, emphatic and risky statement. Gd clearly had an eternal message in this and it applies to us today.

As educators and investors in Jewish education, we are partners with the holiest institution since the beit hamigdash stood – that is the Jewish home. Many Jews, I would guess, the vast majority, have no idea that the holiest place is in fact, not the synagogue, but the home. Some even think, “I am a bad Jew because I don’t go to synagogue!” When in fact, every Jewish home has equal potential to instill the Jewish identity and values that sustain the Jewish people. The Jewish institutions that we devote ourselves to are extensions of the home. School is not a substitute for, but an essential limb of the home. When families choose to entrust their children’s education and direct their dollars to Jewish day schools, they expect an experience that, like their homes, is distinctly Jewish.  Distinction is in our DNA and has enabled our survival throughout the ages. Scattered to all four corners of the Earth, distinction is the unifier that has made survival possible. Gd said, “mark your houses” because the values that you hold inside, are the hallmark of the Jewish family that will distinguish you for all time. When Gd commanded us to make ourselves distinct, it was by the unit of the home, not the individual.

There are many takeaways here and I will highlight two of them:

  1. We have a responsibility in Jewish education, to align with the holiest component of our community, the home. Few day schools have focused resources on parent engagement and even fewer have cracked the code on how to make it work well. Louis and I, among many philanthropists, encourage community partnerships that leverage each organization’s strengths. Perhaps, schools need to forge partnerships with existing organizations operating in the adult education space. In this way, all stakeholders are included, from parents to funders to influencers, without schools trying to be something they are not. These are important dots to connect! Are we recognizing that an essential component of day school success is aligning school, home and community? Are we utilizing the resources we have available to foster that alignment?
  2. We have a clear directive to distinguish Jewish subjects. The root of mezuzah is “zuz” to move. Maintaining our uniqueness even as we move around the globe has resulted in our unlikely survival and vitality. Our success in educating Jewishly is directly related to our expression of distinct values. Sadly, the choices we often make are not connecting those dots. We need to draw that line between how we convey our Judaic subjects and desired outcomes. Let’s make self-evaluations both as individuals and institutions. How do the decisions we make impact the Jewish self-esteem of the students we serve? Are the policies, curriculum, and evaluations conveying what we intend about what it means to be Jewish and meeting the goals of a Jewish institution? Are we reaching beyond the trappings we imitate from outside the Jewish world to reflect the Jewish value of rewarding individual effort instead of results?

This leads to my ongoing concern about the misuse of grades in Judaic studies. It is just not consistent with Jewish wisdom to critically judge a Jew’s ability to learn Torah subjects. A student labeled anything but an “A” in a Jewish subject will internalize a view of him or herself as less than great at Jewish study, or worse, a less than great Jew. If we agree that we want to build Jewish self-esteem in our students, how can we work against cultivating Jewish greatness by applying exams and grading developed for general studies to Jewish studies? That dot is not connected and we are feeling the results of that disconnect painfully with every student who graduates without a lifelong love of Jewish learning and rock solid Jewish identity. 

I always share a quote from one of my kids and I was lacking material this year until I received a message from my 21 year old just a few weeks ago. Nathaniel is a 2nd year communications student at IDC Herziliya. He “WhatsApped” me, “…also started a chavruta with Rav Josh, minyan and then Gemara on Wednesdays. And I’m starting to love the intellectual challenge of Talmud, now that there’s no grade.” punctuated with an emoji of one of those laughing/crying faces.  I posted a conversation I recorded from his afternoon carpool in 10th grade on our JEIC website in 2013. He and three other boys from his class talking about how de-moralized their grades in Jewish subjects made them feel. He is still carrying that with him now, 3 years post high school. I know in both my heart and my head, we are doing a huge disservice to our People by imitating a system of evaluation designed for subjects like math and history. Those subjects don’t cut to the core of a person’s identity. They aren’t subjects unique to a people who have a responsibility to distinguish themselves among nations. Those subjects don’t inform the values that build a home or a marriage. They aren’t the basis for morality or ethical behavior. They don’t build future Jewish leaders. Our success is reflected in the happiness and well-being of our graduates, not on a job title or income level. How they navigate the world, their behavior, ethics and courage - that reflects our success as Jewish educators. While I am all for academic achievement, mastery of textual skills alone is not going to see them to this definition of success that encompasses the whole human being. How solidly rooted they are in their Jewish identity, how relevant do they view Jewish values and texts to their lives, depth of relationships with Jewish mentors, and practice of relationship with Gd - these are critical measures of successful Jewish education. Are we connecting those dots with the decisions we make about how to convey Judaics in our schools? Do we lead equally with the heart and the mind and strive to achieve a healthy balance of the two?

I mention courage as a vital trait for Jewish growth and expression. It took an unimaginable amount of courage for those Jews in Egypt to paint their doorposts with lamb’s blood. It takes courage to move from one culture to another, to change practiced customs, to transform ourselves, our institutions. And courage is so rare these days in leadership that when it shows up, it gets attention and admiration.  I attended AIPAC policy conference in March. From the lineup of prestigious speakers, the most talked about speaker was Nikki Haley. She said, “The most important thing is to not be afraid to stick with the fundamental principles, even when they go against entrenched customs. Some of those outdated customs have gone unquestioned for years.” Ambassador Haley presents a courage that is refreshing in politics. She dares to buck the status quo, stands up to bullying and speaks up for what she believes is just. She is a true hero. This type of courage is not foreign to Jews. From the lamb’s blood on the doorpost to Nachshon bravely walking into the Sea to his nostrils, we the Jewish people have courage embedded in our core.  If we choose to access this courage to become leaders in the education field instead of followers, we will enable our future generations to fulfill their mission in this world.

Nikki Haley continued with a simple retort that inspires me deeply. She said, “Some of you might've seen that the top Palestinian negotiator recently had some advice for me. He told me to shut up. Mr. Erekat, I will always be respectful, but I will never shut up.”  Well, I’m not about to either. I am committed to fighting courageously for what I know is right, for the values that distinguish us and for future generations of Jews to choose and to own their Judaism. Let us ALSO have the courage to say what needs to be said, to do what needs to be done, and in doing so connect those dots that will actualize our efforts to evolve Jewish day schools into the distinct greatness befitting the Jewish people.