Rabbi Tully Harcsztark is Principal of SAR High School and a 2017 Covenant Award recipient. Dr. Susie Tanchel is Head of School at JCDS-Boston’s Jewish Community Day School, and a 2018 Covenant Award Recipient. While their schools are in different states, cater to different religious populations and different student age groups, both educators are committed to instilling within their school communities a culture of empathy and respectful dialogue.
Here, Susie and Tully engage in a conversation about how character education takes shape at their schools and why it’s such a critical piece of any learning environment in 2018.
TULLY: Susie, can you share with me how the goal of character education became a part of the JCDS curriculum?
SUSIE: Sure. Thanks, Tully. Our commitment to character education and development began with our founding in 1995. At the time, a group of deeply committed parents created JCDS with the explicit goal of building an intentionally pluralistic Jewish community day school that offered a rigorous, intensive Hebrew language program. A key component of this founding vision was an emphasis on the development of the whole child. Our founders believed that academic excellence is essential, but insufficient; our children need to be mensches as they walk through the world, capable of contributing to the common good in meaningful ways.
Over the last 23 years, we have continued to look at the changing world around us and to think critically about who and how we want our children to be in it. As our world becomes increasingly fractured and polarized, our founding vision remains a beacon: we aspire for our children to be able to navigate complexity, participate in difficult conversations, and be agents of change in their communities. In order to accomplish this, they need countless opportunities to develop the skills, capacities, and inclinations necessary to live lives of meaning and purpose — and we need to create the training ground for them to create this practice here at JCDS.
SUSIE: Tully, I have heard about SAR for many years and I am inspired by all you are working to accomplish. What was the impetus for your character education curriculum at the high school?
TULLY: Susie, just as it has been at JCDS, respectful discourse and the capacity to learn from peers have been foundational principles at SAR since its inception. We value honest dialogue, and our teachers work hard to create an environment that encourages our students to raise challenging questions while learning to listen to each other in earnest.
A few years ago, we found ourselves struggling to maintain the respectful environment of which we were so proud. The increasingly contentious political climate surrounding the 2016 election, as well as some of the debates taking place within the Jewish Orthodox community, had begun to generate notable tension within the school walls. We realized that we needed to take a closer look at our habits of mind and to raise our collective awareness to ensure purposeful engagement and discussion when approaching issues of membership and citizenship.
As an administration, and then as a faculty, we set out to unpack some of the underlying core issues. We noted that as Zionist American Jews, there are many ways to tell our story. And the way we tell that story can shape the kind of citizen we become. For some, Jews are a minority in the United States. For others, Jews are a remarkable success story in the United States. While not a contradiction, the starting point matters. From a cultural perspective, we are a minority; economically, we have integrated remarkably well. Considering that, we realize that our core narrative can determine our political alignment as Americans – and students need to understand and reflect on that idea.
How I understand my Jewish story can shape how I understand my story as an American citizen. And that is not all. Our support for the State of Israel makes the situation even more complex. What does it mean to be a proud American with a Zionist dream? Do we vote as Zionists or Americans? What do we do when those affiliations do not align?
Being Jewish in America is a wonderfully rich, multifaceted experience. Having the capacity to understand and navigate the various parts of our identity is crucial to becoming an engaged citizen and a productive community member. This has become a significant conversation in our school community and has provided a forum for rich learning discussion for our students.
Susie, I know that JCDS recently took its’ commitment to character education to an even deeper place with something called the Seven Habits of Mind and Heart (I read about it in your Covenant Award materials!) I’d love to understand that more.
SUSIE: At JCDS, we believe that character education is not something that can or should be taught for 45 minutes on a Tuesday morning; rather, we that it should find expression in every part of our educational program and community, whether it is in the Tanakh or math classrooms, or during a school-wide celebration of Rosh Hashanah.
To that end, a few years ago I led the JCDS faculty through a process of defining the seven Habits of Mind and Heart that animate our educational vision. As a group, we engaged in deep dialogue about what our goals and aspirations were for our graduates as we narrowed down the list of skills and capacities necessary to function in pluralistic communities. These include: integrity and ethical living, multiple perspectives and empathy, curiosity, perseverance and resiliency, capacity for reflection, desire to solve problems, and rigorous appreciation for evidence.
The goal is that these Habits of Mind and Heart will become just that: a natural way of being for our children as they walk through a world that will require them to remain in conversation with people who think and believe differently. Our abiding hope is that our students understand that remaining in community does not demand agreement and that disagreement, the sharing of different opinions, strengthens us all. We hope they develop the courage to embrace productive disequilibrium — some amount of tolerable discomfort, as they continue to search for new answers — in the midst of important and challenging conversations.
Our teachers explicitly teach these Habits in developmentally appropriate ways and offer students opportunities to practice them repeatedly in a myriad of circumstances. For example, our Kindergarteners explicitly practice the habits of curiosity and multiple perspectives when they explore one another’s Shabbat customs. By second grade, they are utilizing these same skills and capacities when they share different possible strategies for arriving at the solution to a multiple digit addition problem. As our students grow older, we scaffold their learning as they practice the capacity of holding multiple — even contradictory — perspectives or interpretations, whether when interpreting a piece of art, a Biblical or Shakespearean text or an argument on the playground.
We are building a scope and sequence for the Habits of Mind and Heart that allows our teachers to meet students where they are in their development, and to challenge them in their continued growth. Our children are developing into human beings who are capable of contributing to, and effecting change in, the ever-changing world they inhabit.
Tully, I’m curious if your implementation differs because you are working with older (high school-aged) students?
TULLY: This year, we have begun a number of new initiatives to encourage meaningful learning around citizenship and communal membership. SAR High School has adopted צדק as our theme, and it will shape our informal programming and is reflected in a number of curricular units as well. Our focus on justice from a communal and institutional perspective has given students the opportunity to explore the ideas of rights and obligations – as citizens of the United States and as members of their local and Jewish communities, and as Zionists supporting the State of Israel. Students consider public vs. private education, learn about the origin of the Hebrew Free Burial Association and other institutions and explore ways to balance Jews’ commitments to their own community with their obligations to the broader society.
Our new citizenship course, The Values of Citizenship developed by Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz, takes a different approach than most of our other general studies courses, which equip students to know, understand, and think. This course seeks to do something more akin, in fact, to what we do in our Judaic studies courses—to also have our students act and feel as American citizens. An essential part of the course is to ask students to engage, as Jews and Zionists, in deliberation about the meaning, obligations, and commitments of their American citizenship.
Finally, SAR High School is a founding partner in the Civic Spirit initiative, an undertaking to develop curricula and approaches for teaching American citizenship and civics in faith-based schools. Educators from the twelve participating schools, six Catholic parochial schools and six Jewish day schools, spent a week on a retreat in July working on developing curriculum, considering foundational texts, and designing action civics projects to engage their students in the practice of citizenship. The vast differences in demographics and religious approaches among the schools, and the deep shared commitments to values that derive from religious commitments, spurred profoundly meaningful reflection and conversation among the participants.
Susie, how does this political moment inform how and why you teach character education at JCDS and how do you convey even to your youngest students, the importance of empathy and kindness?
SUSIE: In the tumultuous times in which we live, we are more likely to hear stories of isolation than inclusion, of alienation than acceptance, and of greed than gratitude. Our society is marked by polarization and an increasing lack of kindness. In stark contrast, stands our shared Jewish tradition and values. Today the intentional nurturing of community might be viewed by some as counter-cultural, but it is the lifeblood of the Jewish people. Our ancestors knew the timeless truth that our destinies are intertwined. The Torah teaches that we are all connected and our individual actions have far reaching implications for the collective.
This very same belief animates our community at JCDS. We know it is our sacred responsibility to raise our children in a school that teaches Hebrew, STEM, Tanakh, literacy, and just as importantly, cultivates our students’ empathy, resilience, and growth mindset. As our name, Jewish Community Day School, suggests, we are first and foremost a community. A community characterized by acceptance, warmth, kindness, and joy. In short, we teach our children we are in this together. The K-8 years are the most formative for character development. We take that weighty responsibility seriously and it informs everything we do here at JCDS.
“Education holds the key to changing the world and making it better. For education to achieve all that it can, we must have teachers who believe in the moral, ethical, Jewish ideas we teach and who are committed to inspiring their students”
—Rabbi David Eliach, A Covenant of Dreams: Realizing the Promise of Jewish Education, 2009
“There are children, grownups, everywhere
That would love to hear your voices
Singing for our health to be bright
So that we can join together...and paint our world with healing and hope”
-From the original song, Painting Our World with Healing Hope, by Karina and Debora Zilberman
“Families that share stories about parents and grandparents, about triumphs and failures, provide powerful models for children. Children understand who they are in the world not only through their individual experience, but through the filters of family stories that provide a sense of identity through historical time...Through sharing the past, families recreate themselves in the present, and project themselves into the future.”
—“Do You Know…” The power of family history in adolescent identity and well-being
Read more about Dr. Marshall Duke and his work, here.
“There are people out there who are educating their hearts as we speak. They’re getting on with the work, they’re loving their kids, they’re loving their students, they’re loving their communities. We must retrain our vision toward those people—we must develop eyes to see and ears to hear where that love is already happening—that is worth our energy and our care and our time, to tend that love, to show that love ourselves.”
—Krista Tippett, Founder and CEO, The On Being Project
"Civil discourse requires us to listen generously and to act as though—and to really believe—we could be open to persuasion. We each may think: 'I did not cause this situation, I am not to blame.' Yet we each have the capacity to help society turn the corner, if we honestly ask what went wrong and what we can do about it."
- Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard University
The Wow Metric of Success: Jewish Life in Bloom on the Farm: Spring has arrived, and the Jewish community is busy planting with purpose. In Vaughan, Ontario, the yellow coltsfoot and purple-blue scilla are just starting to flower at the Kavanah Garden, a half acre community garden that’s part of Shoresh, the Canadian-based Jewish environmental organization that includes the Kavanah Garden and Bela Farm. Last Sunday, on “Yom Manual Labor” volunteers gathered to turn the soil, plant seeds, paint outdoor tables and participate in construction projects with the Shoresh team, preparing the garden for growing season.
“Our Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include all members in the fabric of Jewish life. Doing so helps each of us recognize the unique strengths we all bring to the Jewish community, and that community cannot possibly be complete until we actively and intentionally welcome each other.”
-Meredith Englander Polsky, 2017 Covenant Award Recipient, Director of Institutes and Training, Matan, and Developmental Support Coordinator, Temple Beth Ami Nursery School
“From all of my teachers, I have grown wise.” Psalms 119:99. Framing Jewish Education, a project of The Jewish Lens and supported by The Covenant Foundation, was created to engage teachers, students, and families in conversation about the value of Jewish education and to illustrate the power of great teaching and learning via a curriculum based on visual literacy and text.
“For me, study is a divine and daily imperative; I study a page of Talmud daily so that I am not only teaching. My teaching is constantly being fed by my learning.” —Erica Brown Associate Professor, George Washington School of Education and Human Development. Director, Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, 2009 Covenant Award Recipient
The Covenant Classroom means something different to every educator but common goals are to motivate, engage and be inclusive of all learners. In this volume, we’ve collected an array of Teachings on Inspiration and Motivation in all areas of Education.
#ThankATeacher It has been twenty-five years since The Covenant Foundation first opened its doors, and we continue to be humbled by extraordinary Jewish educators from across North America and across the spectrum of Jewish life who have devoted their careers and considerable talents to the field of Jewish education. Now, in celebration of a quarter-century-old tradition of honoring Jewish education and educators, and to kick off a year of public engagement around great teaching, we’re proud to share The Covenant Foundation voices app with you: a new digital way to give and share your gratitude.
“There are just two outcomes that really matter: First, that students feel Judaism is the fertile ground in which they get nurtured to grow, and second, that they find Judaism joyful.” Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director, JCC Manhattan
“What would it look like if we bet on Jewish early childhood education for the long-term, as our tradition instructs? The task might seem large, but the reward, we know, is great (Pirkei Avot 2:15).”
“Countless leaders have been inspired by the story of the Jewish people leaving bondage in Egypt – those whose names we know, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and those whose names we never will know, whose every-day acts of kindness and resistance fuel social change. This story, our story, has become a cornerstone of modern social justice work.”
—Abby Levine, Director of The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable
This is how I see a “Covenant Classroom”: a place where challenging topics are passionately discussed; a place where complex ancient texts are grappled with; a place in which self- esteem grows, and motivation to learn increases exponentially because of it. An environment in which each Jewish soul is given the confidence to continue the eternal search for meaning.”
—Dr. Sandra Ostrowicz Lilienthal, Curriculum Developer and Instructor at The Rose and Jack Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County and 2015 Covenant Award Recipient
“When powerful, new approaches to learning are introduced through digital tools, meaningful disruptions occur along the way… When this happens, new approaches which previously seemed inaccessible, are suddenly within reach.”
—Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, American Museum of Natural History
“The future of Jewish teen engagement can in fact be found in 3D printers, and in text-people, and in service, and outdoor education, and in anything that brings teens into contact with authentic learning experiences and passionate, caring, knowledgeable educators.”
—Charlie Schwartz, Senior Jewish Educator, Director, BIMA & Genesis, Brandeis High School Programs
Portal seems like a particularly apt metaphor for entry points into Jewish life and learning because ultimately we want those experiences to be deeply experiential and transformative. We also want them to be accessible. A portal has no toll; passage is free. At the same time, a portal is particularistic, not a generic entrance. It conveys a sense of magic, ritual, and power. Similarly, we want to convey that Jewish life is rich, layered, and meaningful beyond what is immediately apparent. We want the encounter with Jewish life to take you on a journey that is profound and surprising. And, given that each of us may enter through the same portal but have a completely different experience of what is on the other "side," the possibilities are endless.
— Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director, The Jewish Women’s Archive
"We need a new kind of creativity in the classroom that’s going to reach Jewish kids… If a teacher is imaginative, he or she is going to connect to students’ hearts and souls.”
—Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, Board Member, The Covenant Foundation.
"There are four types of students... The sponge absorbs everything. The funnel brings in on one side lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the lees. The sieve lets out the flour dust and retains the fine flour." —Pirkei Avot 5:15
"There’s a misconception that a venture must depend on large grants from big donors. It makes more sense and it’s more sustainable to test out an idea, and see whether it has the opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives."
— Ariel Beery, founder, PresenTense
I think [creating new Jewish texts] is a really good description of what we’re trying to do. These days we’re increasingly creating products that are intended to be shared on the web. We’ve felt and continue to feel that this medium, and virtual communication as a whole, is being under-tapped for its possibilities for making art.
— Reflections from Sam Ball on the New Jewish Filmmaker Project