'Malaise' In The Classroom


Reprinted with permission of The Jewish Week
May 19, 2000
Edah Tapes

'Malaise' In The Classroom

By: JONATHAN MARK, Associate Editor
Modern Orthodox group convenes conference to fight perceived problems in day schools.

Edah, the Modern Orthodox advocacy group, is warning that some of its schools are suffering from a "malaise" that's dulling the Modern Orthodox mission. In a newly released monograph from Edah on Modern Orthodox education, Rabbi Jack Bieler, expanding on his presentation at the group's 1999 conference, warns that this "malaise" - in unnamed schools - has set in despite the familiar garlands of academic success and extra-curricular activities. Rabbi Bieler, a member of the Edah advisory council, writes that "Modern Orthodox educators, parents and some students have developed doubts about whether the reality of contemporary Modern Orthodox day-school experience matches its ideals. Questions are increasingly raised about whether these educational institutions really provide a Modern Orthodox education and produce Modern Orthodox young people." In response, Edah is sponsoring an all-day conference - "Modern Orthodoxy Begins in the Classroom" - on day school education on Sunday at Martin Luther King, Jr. High School, on Amsterdam Avenue at 66th Street in Manhattan. The conference will run from 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. and will include presentations, discussions, and workshops with education professionals, parents and lay leaders. The cost for the conference is $35, and $10 for educators and students. The program and registration information are available at www.edah.org. Edah mailed the Bieler essay to all conference participants. Eric Weisberg, Edah's program director, told The Jewish Week that "Over a year ago, education was identified as an area that needed to be addressed within the entire Modern Orthodox enterprise. In particular, last February [at Edah's annual conference] one of the sessions was specifically on Modern Orthodoxy within our day schools, such as the definition of a Modern Orthodox school. People became very passionate about it. One of the main things that we wanted to do at this conference, which perhaps differentiates it from other conferences on day school education, is to attract not only professional educators but also board members and parents and administrators, bringing them all together so that virtually every session will feature presentations from both a professional and a lay person." Asked to identify the top educational problems in the New York area, Weisberg said: "Attracting younger Modern Orthodox people to [make a career in] day school education. Because we have not been overly successful in that, often the teachers in a Modern Orthodox school are themselves not Modern Orthodox - usually, in New York, they're to the right of Modern Orthodox." Why is that a problem? Several Modern Orthodox principals have privately told The Jewish Week that some of their most inspirational teachers were trained in 'yeshivish' or haredi schools. The problem, says Weisberg, is that this "sends a mixed message. It's not that they're not good teachers, often they're very good. The [Modern Orthodox schools] have teaching standards and these teachers are appropriate to be teaching. But in terms of transmitting the ideology of Modern Orthodoxy, the students are getting a mixed message." In a position similar to the Conservative movement's policy that intermarried Jews not be hired for "role model" positions, Rabbi Bieler writes that the entire staff, not just in religious studies, has to get on board with the Modern Orthodox program. "While all involved, Jewish or non-Jewish, cannot be expected to alter their private lifestyles in accordance with the mission of the school, they should certainly adhere to the ideals and values of the school while engaged in school activities or on behalf of students." He advises schools to have pre-school orientation sessions for staff on Modern Orthodox ideology "and how that philosophy is expected to be manifested in the day-to-day life of the school." When it comes to freedom of the press, Bieler advises schools to be more Orthodox than modern. A crackdown on the editorial freedom of students newspapers and yearbooks is necessary, he says: "I would argue that maintaining the school's self-image is more important than affording students the opportunity to critique their school, particularly in terms of its religious orientation, however sincere their intentions." With presenters from SAR, Ramaz, the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, Drisha, and several other out-of-town institutions, the panels will also include the transmission of ethics; the transmission of faith, piety and passion in the modern context; the post high-school year at an Israeli yeshiva; women's issues; opening the door to Western culture; community and non-denominational schools; special education and special needs; and defining and transmitting religious Zionism. One topic conspicuous by its absence is the financial viability of day schools for parents that are expected to pay spiraling tuitions, and school administrations that are expected to keep costs down while offering generous scholarships and competitive salaries. By contrast, the American Jewish Committee is sponsoring a conference on Jewish education for educators, policy planners and communal leaders, by invitation only, on June 7, at which the No. 1 question, according to Steve Bayme, AJC director of Jewish Communal Affairs, will be "How do we make Jewish education affordable?" Addressing that question will be Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary, whose essays on day school education in the 1999 American Jewish Yearbook and Commentary (Dec.) attracted considerable attention; George Hanus, who is attempting to establish a national endowment fund through a communal tax on inherited wealth; and John Ruskay, senior executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation, who has attempted to change communal and philanthropic norms toward enhanced funding of Jewish education.

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