By Tikvah Weiner

On April 30-May 1, 2018, the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University hosted a conference entitled Inside Jewish Day Schools, where educators in the field and researchers studying it got a chance to hear from each other. The conference, co-chaired by Jon Levisohn and Jonathan Krasner, engaged a series of panelists who offered views on a range of issues, as well as facilitated sessions that explored those topics in deeper ways. The evening consisted of dinner and a viewing of clips from the edu-documentary Race to Nowhere that attendees then discussed. The two days were informative, rich, and thought-provoking.

Some highlights: the panels on day one were on race, gender and sexuality, and class, topics we don’t discuss often enough, if at all, in Jewish day schools. As a result, our students, ignorant of the place they inhabit in the American landscape, become even more sheltered and oblivious of the advantages they have. An example: the suburbs in America were created to exclude blacks by preventing them from owning homes, through practices such as redlining and restrictive covenants. Yet students, many of whom live in suburban enclaves, have no knowledge of how their neighborhoods came to be, and the day school system, though giving our students precious Jewish knowledge, might be guilty of perpetuating a system of wealth and privilege that those in it don’t actively interrogate.

The conference left us with a call to action: to have conversations in our schools and classrooms about what Jewish identity means and how we’ve appropriated aspects of whiteness, and to incorporate other identities and perspectives into our schools, by hiring and retaining people of color and by having our students interact with other races and ethnicities in authentic and meaningful ways.

The panel on class was particularly fascinating, since I had never heard articulated openly and honestly some of the challenges that class and growing economic inequality have created for our communities. Since the 2008 economic crisis, parental and communal groaning about affordability has become de rigueur, but the longer view of day school history shows us we’ve built a system that requires great affluence. As our communities’ wealth has grown and we’ve moved farther away in the last half a century from our roots as impoverished immigrants, we’ve become blind to the luxury we now take for granted — and that not all of us have.

Over the same time, the American school system’s obsession with grades and our society’s competitive college admissions process have led to wealthy communities’ developing cottage industries around shadowing schooling. Parents and students have learned to fight for every point on a test, and schools feel increasingly pressured to inflate grades. What does this race to nowhere do to actual learning — and to the moral, spiritual, and intellectual health of our communities?

This question lay at the heart of the table discussions we had during the evening, when we talked about clips that Jon Levisohn introduced and showed from Race to Nowhere. Middle schoolers killing themselves literally and figuratively because of schoolwork; a college admissions process designed to bring out the worst in students, parents, and schools; and parents and kids feeling lost and alone, navigating a system designed to rob children of their childhoods were some of the depressing features of this nevertheless important and thought-provoking film. One immediate fix I wanted to give the school system after watching it was a homework overhaul. Why are kids required, as one former student of mine said, to do a day of school after their day of school? A good question indeed.

Day two of the conference saw more expected topics of discussion on, for example, Hebrew language instruction and on the balance between skills and content in Judaic Studies. But the fact that we were learning from top researchers in the field in these areas imbued them with new meaning and gave us greater insights into how we might approach language acquisition and Judaic Studies material. Panels on social and emotional learning and on what it means to be a day school student today provided twenty-first century ways of looking at our schools and thinking about how we might cater to the next generation. Sociologist Dr. Steven Cohen added humor to the discussion, asking us how we deal with all the lines being blurred by this next generation of kids. He wondered what it would have felt like to have asked his Bubbie, “Did you date a non-Jew?” He answered, “There are many parts of that sentence my Bubbie wouldn’t have understood — starting with the fact that it was in English.”

Dr. Cohen left us with these questions: what is memorable and meaningful about the Jewish day school experience? What do we know about what our students are experiencing and what they’re learning? What is happening in the classroom?

Given the many aspects of their lives, society, learning, instruction, and assessment that we pondered over the two days in Boston, these questions were appropriate ones to take home with us. I look forward to discussing them with my peers, students, and parents, and to bringing them back to Brandeis next year to explore again.