By Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick
About ten years ago, I had the privilege to serve as a scholar-in-residence for an audience of young, energetic, Jewishly involved, and engaged families. The theme of my presentations, as requested by the shabbaton coordinators, was The Evolving Challenges Confronting 21st Century Day Schools and Effective Parenting. About 50 percent of the presentation was informed by my personal and professional experience in the field and the other 50 percent, through empirical academic research.
When I concluded my presentations, several parents approached me and inquired whether I could carve out time after Shabbat to meet with them. I was most curious about the invitation, which I humbly accepted.
That evening, I entered into an amazing conversation with no less than thirty parents of all ages who wanted to discuss one topic only — why our Jewish day schools and yeshivot don’t devote as must time, energy, and resources to character development and to the teaching of middot, as they do to academics in Judaic and in general studies?
As an experienced educator, this question and challenge was an all too familiar one, peppered with a wide variety of experiences and personal stories of frustration, disappointment, and discontent.
The conversation that ensued did not result in any new insights or solutions, but, it did provide these parents with desperately needed space to express their growing concern and angst regarding the critical importance of character development and the teaching/modeling of good, if not exemplary, middot.
The overwhelming majority of our Jewish day schools and yeshivot do spend disproportionately more time, energy, and resources focusing on academic subject matter than on teaching middos and/or character development. This is not a criticism, but rather an observation, anchored in the belief by many day school leaders that hard-earned tuition dollars are better spent on teaching our students core content subject areas such as language arts, math, science, history, Tanach, Mishnah, Gemara, and kriah (to name a few) as opposed to “soft” courses of study, and that the teaching of middot is a shared partnership between parents and school. But, unfortunately, many parents delegate their responsibility (by default) to the school.
To paraphrase a very vocal parent at that meeting, “Historically, middot have always been taught and modeled at home and it’s the parent’s responsibility to ensure that the child’s middot and character traits are taught and anchored in the home …. Schools should be places of academic teaching, learning, and exploration, not a place to teach children respect and how to behave in public …. That’s the job of parents.”
Whether or not one agrees with these statements (a subject for another article), the reality is that today, more and more yeshivot and Jewish day schools are focusing on student middot, character development, citizenship, and chesed projects with greater frequency and intensity than at any other time in our history. Many yeshiva and day school report cards now include grades for derech ertez, character development, citizenship, and middot. Nevertheless, the question still remains: Do we strive for excellence in these areas to the extent we do academic subjects? Have these efforts been successful? How do we define success and how is it measured?
The purpose of this article is not to respond to all of these aforementioned challenges or to propose prescriptive or definitive responses or solutions to these areas of concern (both of which would require several lengthy dissertations), but rather to challenge all of us — educational leaders, practitioners, teachers, parents, rabbinic leadership, and laity — to begin drilling-down a bit deeper into the question of “is this the best we can do? And if not, what are some of the strategies at our disposal that deserve consideration?
Our youth today (irrespective of community) are by-and-large growing up in a digitized world inundated with the pressures and influences of social media: the toxic long-term effects of selfie and Snapchat obsession and their impact on self-esteem and identity, and, the proliferation of the what’s-in-it-for-me “FOMO” (fear of missing out) phenomenon. These digitized social media realities impact negatively on our children’s character, behavior, and attitudes, against a backdrop of waning family values and increased peer pressure that have a profoundly dramatic impact on our children’s social, emotional, and academic development. They are also symptomatic of the gradual but steady erosion of the “nuclear family,” the increased single parent child rearing phenomenon, the “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” impact of the “Kiddush-club shuffle,” the impact of parents who are living in a pressurized, “time-starved” competitive bubble, and finally, a mental health system that has unfortunately increased its reliance on dispensing medication to our children in order to treat symptoms as opposed to determining underlying causes.
So, in light of these daunting realities, what should be the role and responsibility of our day schools (in partnership with parents) in helping our students develop appropriate social skills, middot, and character skills? How should our yeshiva and day school movements and organizations move this agenda up the curriculum ladder? What are several of the strategies and tactics at our disposal to make this happen?
First and foremost, it is essential that character development, citizenship, and middot be accorded the same standards of importance as other academic subject areas. To this end, it is imperative for school leadership to instruct and inspire faculty, parents, and staff to integrate character growth and development into all as aspects of the school environment.
Some of the “low-hanging fruit” at a school’s disposal may include:
- offering teachers and students a confluence of intensive and extensive formal and experiential teaching and learning experiences through integrated biblical and Talmudic text study relating to units on Jewish values, derech eretz, middot, and chesed;
- the public display of signage (throughout the school) with inspiring quotes which promote, encourage, and celebrate good character, Jewish values, and middot (in Hebrew and in English)
- competitive student citizenship awards via public (communal and institutional) recognition programs and assemblies;
- student leadership training programs and student volunteer leadership opportunities during school time and weekends (i.e., helping to distribute food and supplies or clean up after natural disasters)
- student volunteer visits and participation at local hospitals, nursing homes, foster care homes, food pantries, and soup kitchens—especially around the chaggim.
- inviting role model personalities as guest speakers to the school who have positively impacted the lives of those less fortunate;
- “Middah of the Week” programs that promote a specific middah or Jewish value on a weekly basis throughout the year;
- mandatory parent workshops and seminars on topics relating to effective parenting, modeling, discipline, child development, and the use (or misuse) of technology;
- student essay contests, art contests, and student filmmaking projects that use Jewish values, leadership, middot, or derech eretz as central themes. If warranted these projects should be showcased publicly in the school and school community;
- adopting the Digital Citizenship Project (com), which has proven to greatly enhance our understanding regarding the use and impact of technology on student behavior, social interaction, and academics,
- student leadership shabbatonim, retreats, and summits, which inspire and celebrate the centrality of Jewish values and leadership;
- holding every member to the school’s faculty and staff accountable to demonstrate and exhibit exemplary middot, leadership, and character through appropriate language, speech, dress, attitude, and modeling.
In order for any one of these initiatives or projects to be effective, there must be an unswerving commitment (on the part of faculty, administration, and board) to create, promote, and celebrate excellence in character development, citizenship, and derech eretz. This commitment must be an integral part of a school’s mission statement and value proposition. It cannot be minimized or compromised. Jewish values and citizenship must permeate every aspect of the school’s culture and must become an integral part of the student’s holistic schooling experience in the classroom, hallways, lunchroom, gym, and public places during school trips and public assemblies.
Beyond these institutional commitments (on the individual school level), we must spark an educational and communal “revolution” that promotes, supports, demands, and celebrates Jewish values and citizenship in our institutions. It must permeate the air we breathe, the classrooms we staff, and the homes in which our students reside. We can no longer afford to kick the can down the road. We are losing precious time, energy, and resources, and above all we are losing any leverage we may have while our students are still within reach, in our schools.
Finally, in order to create this long overdue “revolution” we will need a major paradigm shift in our Jewish educational policies and priorities. We must demand that the teaching and modeling of Jewish values, character, leadership, citizenship, and middot are embodied in every aspect of the school’s curriculum. It must not be an appendage to other curricular subjects or limited to a daily 45 minute mussar shmuz. It will require the training and retraining of educational administrative and instructional leadership, the creation of nurturing school environments that embody character development, and the education of parents regarding the critical importance of character development and their role in making it happen in the home, at the supermarket, in shul, and in school.
Now is the time to act. We cannot afford to lose another generation of children who are growing up in an environment completely devoid of middot, derech eretz, and respect lest we prepare ourselves for a generation that will one day blame us for not providing them with the guidance, support, and leadership they so desperately require and deserve.
The rest is commentary.
Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick is the principal of the Hebrew Academy Community School in Margate, Florida. He has served in a variety of senior Jewish educational leadership posts including head of school, organizational consultant, and executive coach. He is the author of Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness (Brown Books, 2011).