Why Jewish Day Schools are Unique

by Rabbi Micah Lapidus

Down here in Atlanta, GA many of us have just finished our first weekof the 2011-2012 school year. It’s a good time to pause and reflect onwhat makes Jewish day schools like The Davis Academy unique andexceptional. I recognize that this post is going to read like a loveletter (or a brag) but I think it’s important to put some of this stuffout there for folks that might not know! This isn’t a comprehensive listby a long shot, it’s more of a starting line. So feel free to run withit.

1. Jewish Time. Jewish day schools are the only institutionsoutside the State of Israel that allow families to live the rhythms ofthe Jewish calendar. Unlike public schools or non-denominationalindependent schools which typically do not acknowledge major Jewishholidays, let alone minor Jewish holidays, Jewish day schools, due toour adherence to the Jewish calendar, help families explore the Jewishcalendar by carving out sacred time for holidays like Sukkot, Pesach andShavuot.  While this makes Tishrei pedagogically challenging due to”swiss cheese” school weeks, it’s important to recognize that Jewish dayschools are unique and exceptional because they fully honor the Jewishcalendar and empower families to do the same.

2. Learning Community. One of the greatest misconceptionsabout schooling generally and Jewish day school in particular is that’school is for kids.’ Every dynamic Jewish K-12 learning institutionunderstands that, while our primary mission is to educate children, wealso educate parents, grandparents, faculty and staff. At The DavisAcademy and at many other Jewish day schools, the learning relationship,particularly when it comes to matters of spirituality, Jewish practice,and Torah study, is reciprocal. Students learn from teachers, butteachers also learn from the insights and questions of students. Parentswho’ve made the investment in Jewish day school know that, while theywill always have invaluable lessons to impart to their children, therewill be times when their children are the ones who do the teaching. Thisis primarily because of the immersive Jewish environments that dayschools represent (including the rigorous exposure to Hebrew and Jewishstudies). It’s unique and exceptional to be a part of a community whereall constituencies are learning from one another and where allconstituencies feel empowered to teach. The sense of kavod and hokhmah can be truly overwhelming.

3. Community of Practice. Fact: Jewish day schools “see” theircongregants (students) more in a given week than many otherorganizations see their congregants in a month or even a year. The sheerintensity of Jewish day school means that issues of Jewish practice areconstantly being discussed and explored. What does kashrut look like for a Reform Jewish day school with many families that come from a more “observant” background? What does kashrut look like on school trips? How do we practice Judaism on school trips? What siddur do we use for weekly tefilah? Why? What tefilot dowe recite on a regular basis? When are they taught? How do we engagenon-Jewish faculty or parents in the Jewish soul of our school? What, ifany, are the boundaries to this engagement? What definition ofJewishness guides our admissions policy? How often do we daven? For how long? What guidelines do we offer families for bnei mitzvah celebration when there are 70-80 bnei mitzvahin a given year? How do we handle the issue of birthday parties onShabbat? How does the existence of our school positively impact theoverall Jewish and non-Jewish community in our city?

At a Jewish day school, these questions and those likethem, are being discussed, debated, and put into practice every day.Parents, students, teachers, administrators, community rabbis, and otherday school colleagues are all a part of this conversation. It’s amazingto be a part of a Jewish day school where the asking and answering ofthese questions is directly impacting the Jewish future.

4. Tikkun Olam. Many Jewish organizations do amazing work in the realm of tzedakah and social justice. Even so, Jewish day schools are unique and exceptional. At Jewish day schools tzedakah and tikkun olamare integrated into both Jewish and general studies curricula. Changingthe world isn’t something that is done during specially dedicatedtimes, it’s something that is done regularly and consistently. Just asstudents learn math, science, and Hebrew, so too they learn theimportance of making the world a better place. Perhaps most importantlythey learn that their practice of tzedakah and tikkun olamis as critical to their overall intellectual and spiritual developmentas anything else they do. Only Jewish day schools have the ability toachieve this full integration of social action into the schoolexperience.

5. Your thoughts here.

Thank You and Shalom,



Rabbi Micah Lapidus is is Director of Judaic and Hebrew Studies at The Alfred and Adele Davis Academy in Atlanta, GA.

Spotlight on Lifelong Jewish Learning: This month the URJ ishighlighting resources to help congregations with their Jewish educationprogramming, from early childhood learning, through religious school,to post b’nei mitzvah, adult study and beyond. Visit the URJ Lifelong Jewish Learning website for more info.

Originally posted on The Rabbi’s Pen

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5 Responses to “Why Jewish Day Schools are Unique”

  1. avatar

    Great article for advocacy for Jewish Day Schools.
    May I quote parts of it?
    Mark Blechner
    Product Manager, Conferences and Advocacy
    Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education

  2. Daphne Price

    This is really a really great posting! Thank you for articulating your thoughts so well.
    The one factor you don’t address is the rising (exorbitant!) cost of tuition. I have 2 daughters who attend our local Jewish day school. We are Orthodox, so though Jewish day school is a luxury, for us, we don’t consider it to be optional. We are happy to support our school — but for so many families, these costs are burdensome — even with tuition breaks.
    I’m going to share this piece with our school administrators. Thank you again.

  3. avatar

    Mark– absolutely! Share away.
    Daphne– day school tuition is a serious issue. I’ve got nothing on this particular topic except to affirm your observation and applaud the bold investment you’ve made in your children’s future.
    Shabbat Shalom!

  4. avatar

    Additionally something Rabbi Lapidus was too modest to share…the children of Jewish day schools are comfortable being/talking with and approaching their Rabbi from an early age. They see him/her as a part of their entire education not just someone they see on Shabbat and/or selected Holy Days/Holidays or for Bar/Bat Mitzvah tutoring.

  5. avatar

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could add proficiency in another language, Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people and Israel? As you discuss, Micah, our students spend many of their waking hours in their Jewish day school community and have the opportunity to not only live American Jewish lives, but to be immersed in a potentially bilingual and bi-cultural experience strengthening their connection and belonging to Israel.
    All of these elements, including those you mentioned above contribute to building a future of literate, compassionate and strongly identified Jews who contribute to the perpetuation of the Jewish people, a vibrant American society and an ever-increasing global society.

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