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Tom Elieff was appointed Head of School in 2008 at Beth Yeshurun Day School in Houston—a Preschool thru Grade Five day school of 350 students. Prior to coming to BYDS, Mr. Elieff served as Head of The Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle, Head of Upper School at St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas, and several administrative positions over fifteen years at Lake Forest Academy in Illinois, concluding his tenure there as Interim Headmaster.

Tom Elieff

It’s an oft-heard subject of complaint among those of us who work in American K-12 schools, in both Jewish day schools and non-sectarian private schools: that beast we call today’s parent. So many are consumeristic, accusatory, hard to please. Is there any room for really promoting core Judaic values? Forget it. School is not about developing humanistic values; it’s about where you go next—to the most highly selective college [or middle or upper school, whichever is next up]. And school is not about what curriculum is published on the website or what you read about in the teacher’s weekly newsletter; it’s about vying to get what you really want—that unique, exclusive curriculum created singularly for your child alone. And if your kid is experiencing social scrapes? No prob—you can always play the bully card and spend the year harassing the teachers and administrators.

I often get the question, because I came to day school headship after nineteen years of administrative positions in two highly selective, independent non-sectarian high schools: Is this intensity a Jewish thing? That’s easy to answer: no. What I’m outlining above is an American attitude—it’s Jews, Christians, atheists…it’s everybody, really. Does this mean we all should just suck it up and slake the thirst of today’s consumers in a way that beats the competition?

Of course not.

This may sound very Seventies to you, but a high-end, liberal arts education is not, ultimately, about making a living; rather, it’s about making a life worth living. While I’m at it, let me pull out a Sixties term—the best of education is about being counter-cultural. This is as true today as it was fifty years ago. Now I come to my thesis: I am convinced that Jewish day schools are actually the best way to combat society’s powerful winds of indulgence, lethargy, high tech stimulation, outlandish expectations, and skittish attention spans.

Let me offer two educational themes I see that are predominant in our day schools from the preschool years and onward (or if they are not now predominant, they certainly have the potential to become easily and firmly implemented in our schools), themes that position our schools to be the best answer to our extrinsically motivated and consumer-oriented culture, themes that make our schools quintessentially counter-cultural. I realize comparisons are taboo, but these are themes that make us a better educational value than the likes of some of the best prep schools that have been around in this country for well over a hundred years. I’m not talking about tradition or spirituality or community—these are seriously important, yes, but they are overused concepts we like to trot out in our marketing materials and public messaging. The two winning educational concepts in which we triumph mightily are these: stamina and leadership.

You might be thinking—what do those terms have to do with academic excellence? Isn’t stamina about athleticism? And isn’t leadership for the gifted and/or popular few—meaning, isn’t leadership about character and personality?

Developing stamina is the most important educational skill and attribute we can be developing in our students—and our schools are best-equipped to deliver the goods. What is stamina? It is the ability to devote stretches of time—within a class period or even over several days and weeks—focused on an academic assignment or school project. Stamina is sticking with something and developing our muscles of patience and self-control. Positive stamina development means learning to stay with a text, quietly, for more minutes today than we were able to spend on it yesterday. Or staying with an art project. Or staying with a parsha discussion.

The concept of stamina is of course not new to educators. The educator most associated with this concept is Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who authored the positive psychology concept of “Flow,” in his ground-breaking research. In today’s noisy, techy environment of flitting visual images coloring the cacophonic avalanche of web info, developing stamina in our students will give our students the best tools to experience academic success.

What makes our Jewish day schools uniquely fit to promote stamina in our students? First of all, our educational mission of general and Judaic studies exposes our students to a verbal culture that is filtered to our students through a complex array of celebrations, traditions, foreign language, foundational literature, prayer, projects, and formalities. As our students move through elementary school and then, we hope, onward to Jewish high school, the Judaic curricular corridor guides our students down more concentrated and overt relationships with text, via the introduction of rabbinical approaches and hevruta methods.

Perhaps more pragmatically, the core characteristic of our Jewish day schools—the very nature of our general/Judaic spectrum of studies—demands that we become schools of depth as opposed to schools of content coverage. Do you ever find yourself saying to a room-full of parents: “We’re a fifty-fifty school”; or, “We’re a seventy-thirty school” [meaning, fifty percent general studies; fifty percent Judaics, etc.]. If you say those things, then stop saying it right now. When you say those things, you are feeding a glass-half-full mindset. Why is it wrong to say we’re fifty-fifty? Because we’re not fifty-fifty; we’re one hundred—one hundred. We are 100% academic all the way through: studying Hebrew language? Studying Torah? That’s all part of a 100-100 school. We are overwhelmingly and powerfully academic. I will submit that our Judaic component, when delivered effectively, offers a more penetrating academic strand of experience for our students than our other subjects, because in Torah studies we are learning foundational literature, and we are inculcating an approach to text and stories that highlights meaning, metaphor, theme, perspective and relevance. These are the ingredients of the best of critical thinking. As for Hebrew language—the research is quite cogent about its brain development value. When you consider the nature of Judaic and Hebrew studies—when you factor in the community-wide environment of this branch of learning—and then you couple this with the depth-not-breadth mandate of our educational structure and mission, we are indeed taking positive steps to grow stamina in ways that render our sister, non-sectarian schools bereft.

Now let’s turn to leadership. In schools, when we talk about leadership, many of us envision kids running for student council positions. Many of our parents certainly see it that way. But in all the ways that we uphold our Jewish mission—opportunities to serve roles as Gabbaim, Torah readers, prayer leaders, actors in so many theatrically-centered productions, service learning Tikkun Olam activities, weekly Tzedakah—we are giving students leadership experience. We put our youngest students on the bima; we allow our students to hold and carry a Torah; we learn and practice rituals that are congregation-wide, cross-generational rituals, involving the elderly as well as our youngest; we ask our children to light candles, pour the grape juice, break the bread, or say the Mourner’s Kaddish. We can all easily brainstorm pages more of what I’m listing here. All these presentational, in-front-of-audience, adult-like roles and responsibilities—almost all of them unique to Jewish day schools—develop leadership effectively because they are all relevant to both past and future. They flow from an historical source of peoplehood, from an historical pattern that navigated wilderness, persecution, and nationhood, and they are meant to propel our students into a future that will solidify their sense of identity, a future that will summon their day school upbringing and ask them to shoulder the responsibility for continuity.

Stamina and leadership—we ignore these unique features at a great opportunity cost. For both the survival and enhancement of our day school mission, we should be communicating these strengths to our parents as often and as prominently as we can. If these concepts were factored into the criteria of a US News-type ranking of private K-12 schools, the Jewish day schools who promulgate them would confidently find themselves at the top.