By Barbara Albert
In my 30+ years as an educator in one of the world’s leading Jewish day schools, I have always made an effort to use the “Whole Child” approach to teaching.
The definition of the Whole Child has morphed over the years, but it can be understood as a method whereby every facet of a child is awakened and encouraged via the curriculum. In simple terms, the Whole Child is exposed and engaged in all aspects of school life, from math and science and reading and writing, to arts, music, and physical activity each and every day. The teacher strives to weave subjects together, to demonstrate how everything we study in school and in life is interconnected; how math for example, plays an important role in art composition or how music and rhythm enhances reading skills.
School is a huge part of a child’s life, but adding a vibrant home life to an already rich education is the ideal combination for maximizing a child’s potential. Where school provides the technical information, the home is the place for informal learning, where the child learns family rituals and behaviour patterns and how to live a safe, happy and healthy emotional life.
In my incredible city of Toronto, and it’s next-door city, Vaughan (Thornhill), education, specifically the future of Jewish Education, has been in the spotlight in the most devastating way lately.
In November, the Leo Baeck school, a beacon of the Reform movement education, announced that their north, Thornhill branch building would be sold. With numbers dwindling, the building could no longer be sustained, so the branch is being relocated further north to share space in another building.
In March, the northern, Thornhill branch of the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto (CHAT) high school announced that it was closing due to low enrollment. The magnificent, state of the art building that only a few years ago was bursting at the seams with teens will be amalgamating with its southern branch.
A new casualty was announced this week as my school, Associated Hebrew Schools, will be selling its northern, Thornhill branch due to declining enrollment. A final decision as to where we will relocate has yet to be determined.
What is happening to Jewish education in what is arguably the mecca of the Jewish diaspora? Why are so many day schools suffering to survive in an area teeming with Jews? The answers are complicated.
The easiest, most glaring answer to the question of dwindling numbers is the extremely high cost of Jewish education. With soaring house prices in the Greater Toronto Area, families are choking financially. Unfortunately, one of the first luxuries to go by the wayside is Jewish education.
In my opinion, the next, not so easy answer is that it’s extremely easy to live Jewishly in Thornhill. Most likely, your next door neighbour is Jewish. There are plenty of synagogues (especially Orthodox) to choose from. Kosher food is abundant, and there are Hebrew speakers everywhere. In some of the area public schools, there are so many Jews that classes barely function on the high holidays. It’s easy to push Jewish education aside when there’s so much Judaism around you.
The last answer, however, is the scariest. I believe that the reason the numbers of day school students are dwindling is not only for the two reasons above, but because a large number of parents are grossly apathetic when it comes to Jewish education. It seems that a Jewish day school education just doesn’t light a fire under them.
So what is the solution? How do we open branches and not close them?
Of course, the issue of the high cost of Jewish education needs to be addressed. Initiatives are being made, specifically at CHAT, but more work is needed to bring the fees down.
Although we live in an area that is densely populated with Jews who can readily live Jewishly, we need to encourage families (other than Orthodox families whose children continue to attend day schools) to enroll their children in places of Jewish education, especially day schools. I do not, by the way, think that this problem is restricted to Toronto. I have heard similar stories happening in other cities. There needs to be a change. We need a paradigm shift. We need to create a ‘buzz’ that will make Jewish parents feel that Jewish education is a necessity.
I am calling on Federations, not only in Toronto, but all over the world, to initiate a campaign to make Jewish education ‘sexy’-appealing, alluring. We need to create and brand something I call, the ‘Whole Jew.’
Just like the Whole Child, the ‘Whole Jew’ is well versed in all aspects of Judaism. The Whole Jew has the ability to feel at home in a synagogue service if desired, and can fluently converse in Hebrew. The Whole Jew can explain the laws of kashrut and Shabbat even if he or she doesn’t keep them. The Whole Jew can quote Bialik, Sholem Aleichem and the Rambam. The Whole Jew can recognize a Chagall and an Agam. The Whole Jew knows what goes on at a ‘farbrengen,’ as well as at a ‘maimuna.’ The Whole Jew is ‘cool’; the Whole Jew is current; the Whole Jew is the person everyone wants to be. And the way to become the Whole Jew is simple: enroll in Jewish education.
So federations and world Jewish leaders, let’s create a worldwide buzz. Let’s make the Whole Jew campaign happen. Let’s make Jewish education accessible, affordable and desirable. It’s time to turn Jewish education into a priority.
Barbara Albert is an educator at Associated Hebrew Schools of Toronto.