What is the best gift you have ever received?
Most would agree that great gifts are long-lasting, meaningful, and personalized.
Based on these criteria, my answer to this question is easy: the best gift I ever received was my 12 years of Jewish day school education. When my parents decided to send me to a Jewish day school, they invested in the understanding that this learning would guide me throughout my lifetime, shaping my identity and values, and nourishing my distinct soul.
The advantageous attributes of a Jewish day school education are innumerable, however, below are what I believe to be the top five features of this lifelong gift:
When you matriculate into a Jewish day school, you enter a vibrant community that is so strong, it actually resembles a family. Within every tier of a day school ecosystem, relationships are at the forefront. And the truth is, bonds form with ease in a climate where everyone is in alignment with the shared goal of a robust and meaningful Jewish education centered around Jewish values and ethics.
Thinking back on my own experience as a Hillel Day School student, my parents' closest friends consistently stemmed from within the school community. I have countless memories of Shabbat dinners, Rosh Hashana meals, and Passover seders with my Hillel peers. Each memory shares the same underlying thread: children - day school students - proudly leading the ritual practices alongside their parents. When I eventually moved to college, my Jewish day school family became the base of my new home on campus as I lived with my close friends from Hillel Day School and the Frankel Jewish Academy for all four years.
- Identity Formation
If community represents the gift given to a family, identity formation captures the personal experience felt by the child. The beauty of a Jewish day school is that identity is often formed in two simultaneous planes of existence: there is the impact in the present moment and the foundation that is built for each child’s future. In other words, in school, a child will experience the sweetness of Jewish holidays and learn to chant different Tefillot. They will also learn who they are and where they came from. While children experience the joy that comes with these moments, they are also growing the muscle memory they will draw on decades later when they take their own children to services. As children get older, the focus encompasses developing the tools to navigate identity boundaries and meaning-making skills. This shift equips students to grapple with harder life dilemmas, allowing them to learn to fashion and affirm their own Jewish identities through the application of their knowledge.
At Hillel, we intentionally support the growth of both these skill sets through our developmentally appropriate Judaics curriculum. As students transition to middle school, the curricular content increasingly problematizes Jewish values against relevant real-life experiences, thereby allowing students to prepare for the nuanced challenges that life inevitably brings.
- First-Rate Education
In a dual curriculum day school, time is the greatest commodity and necessitates that every aspect of a child’s learning is high quality and integrated. This means that the school’s pedagogic philosophy and curricula must remain at the forefront of educational movements and progressions, such as the Orton Gillingham Method. Having a robust professional development budget - an advantage of many Jewish day schools - allows teachers to receive ample training to maximize learning in the classroom. It is also commonplace for Jewish day schools to hold the practice of conducting curricular audits in order to receive recommendations from leading experts in the field.
At Hillel, we are particularly proud of our Judaics Studies program, which focuses on content-specific Judaic skills while recognizing that most academic skills are, in fact, universal. For this reason, our Judaic Studies classes also teach integrated skills, such as reading, grammar, and critical thinking, in order to complement the skill sets acquired in other classes.
Through all of these endeavors, the unique learning profile of each day school student becomes clear, thereby allowing teachers to best differentiate to their needs.
- Values-Based Worldview
In a Jewish day school, the ultimate goal of the Jewish learning is to cultivate the deeper neshamot (souls) of our students. While content is important, we are driven to mine the content for its meaning, as it is the pathway to a deeper existence in God’s world. Thus, we give tzedakah both because it is a mitzvah and because it elevates the Kedusha (holiness) in our relationship with fellow humans.
When students learn the inner workings of Jewish texts and traditions, they learn to excavate and recognize the values that have stood at the foundation of our Jewish community across history. And as children become older, they learn to integrate these values into who they are and how they choose to carry themselves in this world.
Every adult knows that dilemmas in life are inevitable and every society has its own set of precepts that it lives by. It is the Jewish day school student, however, who learns to pause and reflect: what might Moshe do at this moment? How would Rabbi Hillel act? What is the Jewish way to navigate this conflict and how will my values inform my actions?
Deep Jewish learning imbues young adults with the confidence to proudly live out their values, knowing that their thinking rests on two thousand years of history.
The natural result of a person feeling rooted in their community, confident in their Jewish identity, equipped with the cognitive tools to know how to learn, and driven by a set of Jewish values is leadership. Jewish day school graduates often find themselves stepping into the leadership spotlight simply because the tools these arenas demand are second nature within their skillset. Day school students are accustomed to developing close relationships with mentors, feel comfortable collaborating, regularly utilize their critical thinking skills, and learn to view intellectual discourse not as confrontation but as a key tenant of Jewish thought.
When I look at my fellow Hillel Day School and Frankel Jewish Academy alumni, it is remarkable to see how many individuals sought out careers of leadership. And, perhaps even more telling, is the number of those who have remained committed to making Jewish communities across the globe more vibrant, whether through their professional lives or their volunteer work.
When I reflect on these top five qualities, I feel grateful that my parents valued my learning so much that they entrusted me with the wisdom of our heritage and I feel equally proud to watch my own two daughters attend Hillel Day School.