Distinction. It’s in the Jewish community’s DNA, and it has enabled our survival throughout the ages. We are a people scattered over all four corners of the Earth, and distinction is the unifier that has made our survival possible.
Our pursuit of distinction has biblical roots — easily seen throughout the Torah, including the narrative documenting our journey to freedom beginning with the one bold act that became the first mezuzah. Jewish Egyptians demonstrated tremendous courage to distinguish their households as G-d directed by marking their doorposts with the blood of an animal considered sacred by the Egyptians.
G-d said, “Mark your houses,” because the values that you hold inside are the hallmark of the Jewish family that will distinguish you for all time. G-d clearly had an eternal message in what the mezuzah represents, and it applies to all institutions today that are extensions of the Jewish home — including our day schools.
With every mezuzah hanging on day school classrooms, there is a clear directive for educators to distinguish Jewish subjects from the other disciplines presented in school. Success in educating Jewishly is directly related to the expression of our distinct values. Day schools should align how they convey Judaic subjects with the desired outcomes for students. They should consider the impact of their decisions on students’ Jewish self-esteem. They should ensure their policies, curricula and evaluations convey to students what it means to be Jewish outside of a purely academic setting. Are all our day schools striving for this level of distinction?
As a funder and active thought partner in the work of the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge, I spend a considerable amount of my philanthropic time meeting talented day school educators and passionate parents and philanthropists who are deeply invested in the benefits of a day school education. And as every year passes, I become more resolute in my belief about the misuse of grades in day schools’ Judaic studies classes. It is inconsistent with Jewish wisdom to judge critically a Jew’s ability to learn Torah subjects.
A student labeled anything but an “A” in a Jewish subject will internalize a view of himself or herself as less than great at Jewish study, or worse, a less than great Jew. If we agree that we want to build Jewish self-esteem in students and cultivate their Jewish greatness, what role does administering exams and assigning grades serve? We feel the painful results of this rigid form of evaluation with every student who graduates from a day school without a lifelong love of Jewish learning and a rock solid Jewish identity.
Recently I received a message from my 21-year-old, a second year student studying at IDC Herziliya, noting how much he is “starting to love the intellectual challenge of Talmud, now that there’s no grade.”
He even punctuated his WhatsApp message with two emojis: a laughing face and a crying face. He is the same student who lamented with his friends during high school about how demoralized they felt to be judged in Judaic subjects, which are supposed to build a foundation for their identity and support a lifestyle of Jewish engagement and growth.
I know in both my heart and my head that we are doing a huge disservice to our people by imitating a system of evaluation designed for subjects like math and history. Those subjects don’t cut to the core of a person’s identity. They aren’t subjects unique to a people who have a responsibility to distinguish themselves among nations. Those subjects don’t inform the values that build a home or a marriage. They aren’t the basis for morality or ethical behavior. They don’t build future Jewish leaders. Success is reflected in the happiness and wellbeing of these day school graduates, not on a job title or income level.
While I am all for academic achievement, mastery of textual skills alone is not going to see students to a definition of success that encompasses the whole human being. What will is how they navigate the world and demonstrate their ethics and courage. What will is how solidly rooted they are in their Jewish identity. What will is how relevant they view Jewish values and texts to their lives and the depth of their relationships with Jewish mentors, Jewish practice and ultimately G-d. These are the critical measures of a successful Jewish education.
Courage is a vital trait for Jewish growth and expression. It took an unimaginable amount of courage for those Jews in Egypt to mark their doorposts. It takes courage to move from one culture to another, to change practiced customs, to transform ourselves and even our institutions. Courage is so rare these days in leadership that when it shows up, it gets attention and admiration.
I observed a great demonstration of courage last March at the AIPAC Policy Conference. From the lineup of prestigious speakers, the most talked about speaker was U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley. She said, “The most important thing is to not be afraid to stick with the fundamental principles, even when they go against entrenched customs. Some of those outdated customs have gone unquestioned for years.”
Ambassador Haley presents a courage that is refreshing in politics. She dares to buck the status quo, stands up to bullying and speaks up for what she believes is just. She is a true hero. This type of courage is not foreign to Jews, who have courage embedded in their core.
I, too, am committed to fighting courageously for what I know is right, for the values that distinguish our people and for future generations of Jews to choose and to own their Judaism. I invite all Jewish day school leaders and stakeholders to have the courage to say what needs to be said, to do what needs to be done and in doing so connect the dots that will actualize our efforts to evolve day schools into the distinct greatness befitting the Jewish people.
Manette Mayberg is a trustee of the Mayberg Foundation, which founded the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC) in 2012. She now works with multiple philanthropic partners to advance JEIC’s vision to reignite students’ passion for Jewish learning and improve the way Jewish values, literacy, practice and belief are transferred to the next generation. She is a member of the ownership group of Mid-Atlantic Media, which publishes Washington Jewish Week.