The Whole Jew

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.

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  • I love this article! It is a well reasoned piece illustrating that Jewish law and Jewish culture are completely intertwined.! Both are necessary for The Whole Jew !!! Painful to read but this resonates strongly!!

    • Thank you, Roberta. This is a very painful topic, yet I believe that it’s the elephant in the room that we’ve been dodging for decades.

      I like to think that the Whole Jew takes things further than even what you are suggesting. Whereas the Whole Jew needs to see that Jewish law and Jewish culture are intertwined, (s)he must also understand that it is precisely his/her Jewish values, ethics, and history that make him/her a valuable and valued member of secular society.

      In my vision, Whole Jews learn Talmud, so that we can become critical thinkers at our secular jobs. Whole Jews study Pirke Avot, so that we can behave morally and ethically at home, with our friends and in the world around us. Whole Jews learn Torah and Jewish history, both ancient and modern, so that we can stand up to people who try to distort it and argue it intelligently. Whole Jews learn Hebrew and about Israel, so that we can truly feel the language; we can feel at home when we are there, and so that we can speak to any political issues surrounding the State of Israel with intelligence.

      The Whole Jew isn’t afraid that if (s)he knows how to daven or even read Torah, (s)he will feel that (s)he will be branded if (s)he were to walk into a shul of any denomination. The Whole Jew is proud to be Jewish, because being Jewish makes him or her a better citizen of whichever country (s)he resides.

      The Whole Jew is a literate Jew, in every aspect of Judaism. The Whole Jew need not be observant, need not be a Zionist. The Whole Jew must, however, have the tools to make informed decisions; and the only way to accomplish that is through excellent Jewish education.

      This fundamental change in attitude of who we are as a people via a sweeping, global campaign will, I believe, translate in us realizing that Jewish education is vital for the future of the Jewish people

  • Barbara’s excellent essay does indeed cover account for more than the Greater Toronto area. Nearly every Jewish-positive description she offers for her city can be shared by Cleveland (though they probably beat us in the snow and ice department – barely). A public high school with a significant percentage of Jewish families offers Hebrew, as does at least one of the very desirable independent schools (the same one that experimented this year with a Kosher food option). Synagogues – in sheer number and in diversity – abound. Our Federation is – justly – known as one of, if not the most generous when it comes to subventions to Jewish Day Schools. The support goes further than financial; partnership with and guidance from the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland (think BJE, but turbo-charged) is invaluable. One more essential element of the equation: the day schools offer genuinely excellent education. Not “for a day school” excellent – but excellent, period.

    And yet. Families still insist that Jewish education – intensive, sophisticated, 21st century – is a luxury, not a necessity. As Barbara brilliantly wrote, it’s just too easy to fool oneself that Jewish-by-osmosis can do it all. Please: my friends and colleagues and neighbors (this is Cleveland after all – we’re all neighbors) in synagogues and supplemental schools, this is not a diatribe about your schools. It’s simply an underscoring of nearly all the data familiar to all of us: that Jewish Day Schools are an essential driver toward pretty much every measurement of Jewish engagement.

    Barbara is also correct in citing cost as one of the reasons for day school hesitancy, and we do need, collectively, to address it. But even with that, I think her make-Jewish-Day-Schools-sexy campaign is the salient element in this equation. To that end, we do need our Federations – and our synagogues and agencies and JCCs – on board and at the table. We need a Manhattan Project-size campaign to change the hearts and minds of American Jews – where all hands are enthusiastically on deck. If that allusion doesn’t work for someone, then here’s my recent favorite: consider this a seatbelt campaign. I can certainly remember when seatbelts weren’t even there, and if they were, only ___ (fill in your own blanks) used them. Years of cajoling, of commercials, of data – and now, no five year-old would get in a car without buckling up – without being told to do so.

    What’s needed is a fully-funded (read: big bucks), long-range approach to changing attitudes. Not an ad every six months in the local Anglo-Jewish press and a few synagogue-day school Shabbatot. Not a brochure for a few pediatricians’ offices or a once in a while lunch with realtor estate relocators. This has to be an in-your-face, aggressively loud and proud campaign, with ambitious and measureable goals. If a community has an already wonderful percentage of Jewish school-age children in day schools (say Cleveland, with its 30% or so), why settle? Why not aim for 50% – or 75%? Since when do Jews settle? BILU probably wouldn’t have gotten far if they said, Let’s drain half the swamp; or, How about a third of Israel will speak Hebrew?

    This is marketing, but it’s marketing as truth-telling. An enthusiastic, consistent, professionally-produced, (very) well-funded ten-year campaign. At the same time, of course our schools have to become genuinely excellent – the best schools, period. But that, sadly, has not proven to be enough.

    We’re either serious or we’re not.

  • While day school enrollments are suffering, Jewish child care (especially for babies, up to 2 years) is doing very well; ,in many cases, there are not enough spaces. Perhaps the federations that spend so much money on “showey” items, can redirect their monies to subsidize Jewish day school enrollment for all Jewish children in their communities.
    Ways need to be found to encourage families who have had positive experiences in Jewish early childhood programs to continue their child’s Jewish education, hopefully in a day school setting.
    Supplementary Jewish education is not even an answer.

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