Dear B’nai Shalom members, families, and friends:
It is no secret of my joyful pride in the strength, heart, and sincerity of the devoted and loving B’nai Shalom members, families, and friends. Their dedication and commitment to the shul continue to successfully make B’nai Shalom the thriving, inspirational place it is to gather, daven, and collectively show our pride in our Yiddishkeit. It is likely also not a secret that so many of our members, families, and friends, can point with pride to their upbringing, household practices of our traditions and customs, and often, fond memories of learning in chedar.
Today’s young Jewish children have different challenges than the students of the age of the long-ago chedar. Among those challenges are, what I call: “The Power Play in Jewish Education.” Just as power plays a prime role in big business and corporate dealings, it plays just as big a role in Jewish education. Just as those who wield the power in big business are the power brokers, determining the fate of those subject to their decisions, likewise in Jewish education, the same fate is determined by the existing powers over their underlings. However in the case of Jewish education, this set-up should be more alarming to us as Jews because the innocent pawns whose future is determined for them are pure, faultless children. And herein lies the tragedy of contemporary Jewish education in America.
The structure of Jewish institutions will differ from place to place, but in general there are four common elements to all: the faculty, the principal, the governing board of directors, and of course, the children.
From a mere educational standpoint, the teachers are the true backbone of any school. If the prescribed curricular materials are presented and taught well, there will be achievement in academia. If there is ineffective teaching, there will be failure.
Teachers themselves can be categorized into three groups. The first and most desirable is the type of teacher who loves children, is inspired in his teaching, gifted in his ability to communicate, and allows even the dullest wit to see the shining light of solution. This is a teacher who works with objectives in mind and determination in practice, who tries all sorts of teaching methods to prod students along, and who has a good sense of educational psychology as well as a full grasp of common sense to be sensitive to students and their individual needs.
Unfortunately this type of teacher is the rarest of all. But we all know when we have experienced the positive influence of such an educator. He is the teacher we never forget, the one we always quote, the one we try to emulate, and the one we respect the most. Generally, this dedicated type is found in the primary grades because of the special needs of younger children, but this is not always so. Upper grade children will occasionally be fortunate enough to be touched by such a marvelous human being as well. We all can lovingly remember just such a person and proudly whisper his name as we slowly smile and nod our heads in recollection.
The second type of teacher is the one who tries very hard, who would like to have the qualities of the first type, but simply lacks in too many categories (often in common sense) to be a consistently effective instructor.
Lamentably, the third type of teacher, predominantly found in Jewish education, is the most common. He is the teacher by default rather than choice, the college student who majored in education because all other areas were too demanding, the Hebrew teacher who landed a job because he happens to speak Hebrew.
Jewish education is loaded with this third type of teacher. Israelis with no experience or background are continually awarded teaching positions by virtue of their birthplace. Young, religious men and women are commonly given jobs because they keep kosher and observe Shabbat.
More students are turned off and away by teachers who cannot teach and who are unable to relate to the students themselves. Especially in after-school Talmud Torahs, where students are there against their own wishes, a teacher must be able to perceive the cynical attitude of his pupils and thereby act on it, modifying his teaching methods and sometimes the material being taught. This is probably the biggest failure of the teaching component in Jewish education.
In fairness to teachers, it should be said that much of the policy, curriculum, and overall verve and vitality of a school come from the principal. A dynamic principle can instill pride and dedication into otherwise mediocre teachers and help maintain a true learning spirit. Teachers respond quite directly to the attitudes and objectives of a principal. A halfhearted school administrator immediately communicates his lackadaisical approach to teaching, which is picked up by the teachers who then also fail to put forth their greatest effort.
Just as many teachers come into the profession without much ability, there are far too many principals who have attained that high position without administrative accomplishment. If the following statement about teachers is valid, “Those who can, do; those who cannot, teach,“ then I propose we add the following addition, “Those who cannot teach, become principals”.
What actually occurs, quite often to the detriment of the field is that the finest teachers are awarded for their diligence by being removed from their field of expertise and placed into the higher position of principal about which they know nothing; thereby losing a gifted teacher and gaining an inept administrator all in the same motion.
The most harm that can be done overall to a school comes about with the most unqualified, the least interested, and the most powerful of all bodies, the Board of Directors.
This board is generally made up of men and/or women who have no inner feeling for the maintenance and continuation of Judaism, who have no children in that learning institution, who do not have any background in the field of education, but who DO have the largest hunger for the power to decide, control, and execute official policy in the school.
Is it not ironic that this is the group which hires the school principal, such a vital and delicate position? The board of directors has the responsibility for filling the highest position in the school with the best possible candidate when it does not even know the very qualities to seek in such a person. We trust an educationally–ignorant group of laymen to approve school curricula, hire teachers, select school texts, direct calendar coordination, and form official policy. Is there no bigger farce?
School boards tend to be made up of men and/or women who, in their careers, are executives in medium to medium–high level leadership positions. They seem to be frustrated by the elusive higher echelon status and, therefore, turn their efforts to something they can, in fact, control as high-ranking officials. The institution is the recipient of their ambitious efforts but in the meantime, a network of politics is formed and the school suffers as a result. Every board member becomes an automatic expert on what is correct and good for the school. And, of course, money plays a major part in the decision-making process. Those areas deemed expensive and not necessary or chopped out of a budget whether or not such action was educationally sound. The school is the toy of school board members.
The fourth and dearest element of the schools are the students. They are the unfortunate victims of the power play in Jewish education. As already mentioned, not all children attend Jewish schools through their own wishes, but this notwithstanding, the children are the future generations of Jews. They are the lifeblood of our people and they form the indestructible link bridging our rich heritage and past to our hopes and aspirations for the future. If we lose them while we have them, we are collectively committing social, cultural, religious and historical suicide.
We would, in effect, be writing the final chapter to one of the greatest sagas post-historic mankind has ever known. And this would be a crime unto ourselves unaccomplished by the likes of Pharaoh, Haman, Khmenicki, Stalin, and Hitler.
So once again we cry out to each other as Jews, to respond to the call, review the current situation and reevaluate our priorities. Our children are our legacy to the world through whom we may gain immortality. Like the flame of the Ner Tamid, the eternal light, though we may at times flicker, may we protect ourselves so that we are never extinguished.
With Torah blessings,
Rabbi Dr. Yaacov Dvorin