By: Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, Principal
In my letter to the school community last month, I announced a new initiative of SAR High School, one that I am extremely excited about and consider to be very important: the formation of Machon Siach* at SAR High School. I take this opportunity to elaborate on the theoretical foundations of the Machon and the first steps it will take in 5776.
The concept of the Machon is rooted in three observations that come together to explain the need for such an institute.
1. There are many issues, some strictly curricular and others that extend beyond the classroom, that require careful study, thoughtful deliberation among educators and parents, and a process for developing an educational plan or program. The first, perhaps paradigmatic, example that comes to mind is sexuality and Jewish sexual ethics.
We are raising our students in an open environment in the United States, one that inundates us and our children with explicit and subliminal sexual messaging. We also raise our children in coeducational environments in schools and camps. We know that helping our children develop a healthy, ethical, halakhic ethos on sexual matters is of utmost importance for them and for us as parents and educators. Still, many of us were raised in environments where sexuality was not discussed; when it was raised, rarely was it through the lens of Jewish texts. Five years ago, we embarked on a project to develop a sexual ethics curriculum for our tenth graders. It is an interdisciplinary halakhic curriculum of about 25 sessions that has now been extended to the twelfth grade as well. I consider it a very important part of our program.
My purpose here though is not to discuss the program but rather, the process necessary to develop the program. It is daunting to consider discussing Jewish sexual ethics in a high school setting - daunting for both teachers and students; and teaching it in a Modern Orthodox setting creates its own set of challenges. To do it well - in terms of substance and sensitivity - requires a serious investment of time and energy. Our process: a team of teachers spent the better part of a year researching, studying, deliberating, selecting, filtering, translating, and arranging the content to develop a successful curriculum and a trained staff. This process involved a special sort of “pedagogical Talmud Torah” that teachers engage in using a discourse unique to the world of educators. It involved not only the study of Torah texts, but also figuring out how best to engage students in conversation around those texts, and what interdisciplinary material would be helpful in promoting student engagement. Sexuality was clearly one of the most difficult and most important issues for us to tackle as Jewish educators. We found a way to do the work, it was very rewarding on all fronts, but we were “stealing time” to do it. It became clear to us that there is currently no framework, no structure, no discourse and no time for educators to engage in “pedagogical Torah study” to strengthen our capacities as Jewish educators.
There are many other issues that teachers should engage in this way. Here are some that are on our agenda at SAR right now: how to teach Israel in the 21st century, teaching Gemara to Modern Orthodox students, the impact of the college process on our children, teaching an “ethics” of technology use to our kids, and developing models of religious guidance and living.
These can be divided into two domains: one focused on the classroom and its curriculum, and the other on school culture and student life. Our school and home environments communicate intended and unintended messages about the college process and the use of technology, for example. All too often, we don’t notice what we are communicating because we are simply reproducing the behaviors and messages that are so much part of the background of our lives. But that is not acceptable. We are obligated to unpack these concepts, behaviors and messages and figure out how best to address them. Once again, all of this takes time and energy. Which brings me to the second observation.
2. High school educators - and, I would add, our high school educators in particular - are uniquely situated, given time and space, to develop thoughtful approaches to these matters. Our teachers are situated at the nexus where generations, cultures, theory and practice all meet. Teachers are uniquely positioned to bridge these worlds, and their voices must be cultivated and heard. We seek to develop a local scholarship of teaching - that is, public presentations on Jewish education that are subject to the critique of colleagues upon which others can build.
I often formulate it in terms of a “pet peeve” of mine: university professors spend much of their time doing research and some of their time teaching. High school teachers just teach - or prepare for teaching. There is no expectation, no sense that it could be meaningful and important for them to engage in serious research as well. If some interested and talented teachers would be supported to invest ten to twenty percent of their time doing some of this work, the contribution to Jewish education would be enormous. The developing of such a discourse would just continue to build on itself and grow.
I must emphasize that the nature of educators’ research differs from that of a university professor. It is certainly no less important; but it is an unrecognized and almost non-existent enterprise. In a word, it is a work of “translation”. Here is an example: our network of high schools must teach Israel in all its dimensions. That is a very large task. It is true that high school teachers are not the experts on any single aspect of Israeli life - not its history, its politics, its security, or its challenges as a Jewish and democratic state. However, we are the experts in a very particular field: how to educate high school students. In order to develop best practice in education, scholarship on Israel education must be “translated” for use in school. This is a process that requires an understanding of four components: the particular students in the school, the capacities of the staff, expertise in the content, and insight into the community’s position and self understanding. Engaging these four dimensions first requires the intensive study of content. That is followed by intense deliberation on the content in terms of the three other elements (students, teachers and milieu). The faculty must then “translate” the content into “useful knowledge” for the classroom and the community and then develop a process through which to share the content. This is the process that we engaged in to develop our sexuality curriculum. In each area there is more to do.
This is an exciting and energizing process. It creates a vibrant, constantly growing school community and will allow us to realize the SAR mission in yet a more powerful way. Yet it takes time.
I am not suggesting that we change the paradigm of what it means to be a Modern Orthodox high school teacher - not yet, anyway. I am suggesting that we should support educators in developing a Faculty Beit Midrash focused on teacher learning, research and publishing on issues of Modern Orthodox education, curriculum and culture. Central to those issues is the question of how to shape a community that integrates deep knowledge and understanding of Jewish texts and practice with the opportunities and challenges afforded by (post)modern Western culture, in the spirit of the Grand Conversation.
3. Finally, parents and graduates - This conversation should not be one that is only internal to SAR faculty and students. We deeply believe in the richness of Modern Orthodox life. In order for it to flourish, we must all engage in meaningful learning and dialogue together so that we develop shared vocabulary, a common set of challenges that we talk through together, a communal set of effective practices and strategies. Returning for a moment to the sexual ethics curriculum, while we have taught the program to our students, we have not yet opened it up to dialogue with parents on the topic. While we offer adult education classes on a range of topics, we have yet to seriously try something like this: not just teaching a class but convening serious dialogue around Jewish texts; shared study of text with the goal of developing shared vocabulary, meaning, questions and practice on issues of central importance to the education of our children.
All of these dimensions of Machon Siach will take time to develop and implement. Building an “arm” of SAR High School dedicated to this type of work can serve as an important contribution to SAR and Modern Orthodox education. This year, groups of SAR staff will be working on each of the areas mentioned in this blog. I look forward to updating you in the future with the goals and products towards which they are working.
* A Machon is an institute; Siach is the Hebrew word for conversation, in the spirit of the Grand Conversation.