By Tzvi Sinensky
An intriguing development is unfolding on the Jewish day school scene. In recent years, numerous Modern Orthodox schools have entered the field of adult education.
In addition to the six Torah MiTzion Kollels that are housed on North American day school campuses, many schools now offer learning opportunities to their parent bodies and the wider community. For instance, The Frisch School features an adult education tab on its website, replete with past shiur recordings and upcoming parent learning opportunities. In addition to its annual Aseret Y’mei Teshuva Yom Iyun and “Day of Big Ideas,” Maayanot Yeshiva High School offers adult education classes on subjects as varied as Ulpan, Judaism and Social Action, Torah and psychology, Parshat Ha-shavua, Navi, Perspectives on the Akeidah, and Repentance. Torah Academy of Bergen County runs an annual Shavuot afternoon of learning, housed in local shuls, open to the community. Fuchs Mizrachi’s website lists a “Head of School Book Club.” SAR offers a full complement of daytime shiurim and an evening reading discussion group.
A number of schools have hired a Rosh Beit Midrash, who teaches a steady flow of community shiurim. A few years ago, Shalhevet High School founded the Shalhevet Institute, which, according to the school website, aims to add “an important layer to the Los Angeles Jewish educational landscape that helps further promote higher Jewish learning in our community.” To commemorate its centennial, Yeshiva University High School for Boys is offering a year-long lecture series, punctuated by a recent community-wide day of learning headlined by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
My own institution Kohelet Yeshiva is another excellent case in point. Our Beit Midrash was built with an eye toward educating not only our students but also our families and the wider community. In the words of the school mission statement, the Beit Midrash models “the centrality of a vibrant makom Torah and the pursuit of lifelong limud ha-Torah for all members of the Jewish community.”
Other schools are considering moving in similar directions. I have recently fielded queries from educators and school presidents across the country who are thinking about adding substantial community education elements to their programs, and would love to learn more about what we’re doing in Philadelphia. The trickle is beginning to resemble a steady stream.
Why Adult Education?
What is driving this unexpected trend? Aren’t day schools supposed to be in the business of producing adults, not teaching them?
For one, Modern Orthodox parents are more Jewishly educated than ever before. Arguably, there is greater interest in learning today than in any prior generation in Jewish history. As educational institutions, schools are well-positioned to help meet this demand.
The shift is also part of Jewish day schools’ wider turn toward professionalism. There was a time when there was little pressure on day schools to keep apace with advances in the field of education. Those days are fading fast. Day schools are increasingly embracing research-driven pedagogical methods. Best financial and legal practices are rapidly becoming the norm. And there is far greater investment in institutional advancement. A few decades ago, for instance, admissions officers were relatively uncommon in day schools. Communications and development professionals were almost unheard of. Today, many day schools fill all these positions. A good number employ executive directors as well. Trustees receive training in governance. Tellingly, schools are calling their leaders heads of school instead of principals, conveying that their responsibilities center not only on education but on steering the institution as a whole.