If #JewishDaySchoolKidsAreBlessed were a hashtag I’d have a lot to tweet about. But that wasn’t always the case for me. Though I personally attended a Jewish Day School for kindergarten (Stephen S. Wise in Los Angeles), I do not consider myself a “product” of the Day School Movement and I never thought I’d work at one. In fact, I’d say that, even as a rabbinical student, my attitude was somewhere between ignorance and wariness. Surely Jewish Day Schools were nothing more than small, parochial private schools, sheltering kids from the real world. And at a great financial and social cost no less.
For the last six years I’ve served as the Director of Jewish and Hebrew Studies at The Alfred & Adele Davis Academy, Atlanta’s Reform Jewish Day School. When I look back on my former attitude regarding Jewish Day Schools all I can say is that I was 1) uninformed and 2) that the view is very different from the “inside.”
On the topic of #JewishDaySchoolKidsAreBlessed I’ll simply offer one thought that’s particularly fresh in my mind. Students at Jewish Day Schools are among a small minority of children anywhere in the world that are given the time, space, support, and resources to develop an authentic and compelling spiritual practice.
Davis Academy students are consistently exposed to developmentally appropriate prayer (tefilah) during their years of study. I’ve personally witnessed countless children journey through different phases– the wonder and curiosity of early elementary, the literalism of upper elementary, the deep questioning, skepticism, and struggle of middle school. Few leave Davis fully formed and secure in their spiritual lives (indeed that’s not the goal), but all leave having had ample space and support in exploring their spiritual lives.
Even the finest public and private schools in the world typically don’t support the kind of spiritual exploration, experimentation, and growth that children need. Consequently most children (and in turn most adults) encounter spirituality as something foreign, intimidating, new-ageish, or perplexing, rather than as an intrinsic and essential part of the human experience.
While it’s quite possible to develop a spiritual practice outside of school through interactions with faith communities or through a variety of different activities, the fact that Jewish Day Schools carve out and dedicate time for spiritual practice is a powerful statement of purpose. The fact that it’s deeply countercultural is something to be lamented rather than celebrated. Spiritual education is an area where Jewish Day Schools can and should shine and it’s an area where we can offer expert advise and insight to educators that aren’t fortunate to work in environments that celebrate spirituality.
Through my doctoral studies I’ve learned that different countries have different attitudes toward spiritual education. The UK and Australia, for example, mandate that public schools provide some sort of spiritual education for their students. For obvious reasons that’s not the case here in the U.S. Unfortunately, banning spiritual education from the classroom has the unintended consequence of destroying this capacity for too many children.
#JewishDaySchoolKidsAreBlessed for many reasons. One reason is because they are given the space and encouragement to grow spiritually, in turn making them better able to begin to appreciate the many other blessings they are lucky enough to have.
Those of us who work at Jewish Day Schools have to work together to make sure that we do indeed support spiritual growth for our students. It is our obligation to make sure that time dedicated to tefilah isn’t a source of dread but a source of joy and inspiration for our communities.