All societies have a moral or ethical code, and schools have long been given the responsibility to transmit it to the young. Since the word “moral” comes from the Latin mos, meaning the code or customs of a people, it is clear that Jewish education is moral education, education for life, and more specifically, for a Jewish life.
Although at its inception, public education was likewise expected to instill ethical values, over the centuries, this imperative changed and, in America at least, concerns over the separation of church and state and fear of state-sponsored “secular humanism” have diluted public moral education into vaguely-defined “character education.” Compared with the public sector, our task as Jewish educators is far more challenging and goes well beyond teaching academic subjects.
So where does that leave Jewish educators with regard to ethics? How can we instill Jewish values in our students in an effective manner such that concepts such as tikkun olam, derekh eretz, gemilut chasadim, rodef shalom, etc. become integral parts of their nature, enduring aspects of their character? Can such concepts be taught in a vacuum, in a course, or must they be modeled on a daily basis by all in the school community?
And who can live up to that standard? The moral and ethical dilemmas that face a Jewish community day school administrator or board leader each day are daunting. In addition to student-centered issues like cheating, bullying and substance abuse, schools today have to take on newer challenges like “sexting,” cutting, gender identity, eating disorders, suicide, etc. Schools also have to wrestle with questions of best placement for children with disabilities, appropriate financial assistance for middle-class families, hiring and retention of quality teachers, humane replacement of ineffective staff, dealing with families who are themselves beset by issues such as divorce, intermarriage, unemployment, bankruptcy, domestic violence, etc.
As a principal, I would often discuss with colleagues those questions that kept us up at night: do we call Child Protection Services about a family whose child has a bruise, when we know that this is really a good family? Do we give scholarship assistance to a family which goes each year on an expensive vacation to Disney World (always taking the children out of school a week early)? What do we do when a family threatens to pull their child out because they don’t want him to have a teacher they heard was “too strict”? What do we do about a teacher who feels that the child with Tourette’s Syndrome is “just acting out”? How do we handle the parent who “borrowed” money from the PTO funds and “forgot” to pay it back? Or the family that insists on having their child tested over and over again, seeking a label that will provide him some unspecified “benefits”? Or the parents who refuse to have their child tested, for fear of having her “labeled”? Or the board member who asks that grades be changed?
Rabbi Simlai taught (Makkot 24a), “Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moses; then David came and reduced them to eleven in Psalm 15; Isaiah (33:15), to six; Micah (6:8), to three: ‘To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God’; Isaiah again (56:1), to two: ‘Maintain justice, and do what is right’; and Habakkuk (2:4), to one: ‘The righteous person lives by his faithfulness’.” It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to produce one issue on the theme of ethics in Jewish day schools. The articles contained in this issue deal with a very broad, complex and difficult subject, which nonetheless lies at the very core of Jewish education. We hope that you will be challenged and provoked by what you read here, and that you will use this issue as a springboard for serious and significant conversations about a vital topic.♦
Dr. Barbara Davis is the Secretary of RAVSAK, Executive Editor of HaYidion and retired Head of School at the Syracuse Hebrew Day School in Dewitt, NY. Barbara can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Each fall, the seventh grade students in my Jewish social studies class begin the year by participating in the Jewish Court of All Time online simulation. JCAT is an innovative learning adventure that is a joint venture between the University of Cincinnati’s...[More]
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