I was at a meeting recently of good people who care about day schools and who have done more than their share to help. The discussion centered on how what they do for day schools might be improved. Several participants underscored the obligation to insist on excellence. Like nearly everyone else, I aspire for excellence in our schools and yet the discussion was deeply troubling for me.
This is my thirty-second year as RJJ's president. That isn't all that I do, nor is it all that I have done in more than fifty years of communal service. What differentiates the RJJ experience from all of the rest is that this is a humbling responsibility. When I write or do research or am involved in all kinds of programs, generally my feeling is that I have done my best and have come reasonably close to accomplishing what I set out to do. This is not the case with respect to RJJ. Nearly each day I have had to settle for less than I wanted to accomplish. Nearly each day I have faced the reality that, in one way or another, our schools do not function as well as I would like them to.
The point was made about a dozen years ago by Yoel Unger of Denver, an RJJ alumnus who has served as president of the local Orthodox day school. He remarked that it is inevitable that nearly all yeshivas and day schools are, in a sense, mediocre. That is a sharp word, perhaps too sharp, yet it captures something important about the realities confronting our schools. If we look at them in terms of certain objective standards or when we compare them with other schools, they fall short of the mark.
Excellence? What about just good? What can we expect when nearly forty percent of U.S. day schools have fewer than one-hundred students, when this factor and other realities mean that the typical classroom in a Jewish school has students who are strong and motivated, others who are average and still others who are weak and yet there is but one teacher and one curriculum for these three groupings? What can we expect when the faculty is nearly everywhere greatly underpaid and often not paid on time? What can we expect when dual curriculum schools must get by on funding that would scarcely pay for a single curriculum in public schools? What can we expect when there are no electives, when if there is a library there is rarely a regular librarian, when labs are at best primitive, when the facilities are not properly maintained? What can we expect when in most schools there is no counseling staff, this at a time when societal conditions and what is going on inside too many families and inside the minds of too many children make it imperative that counseling services be a key component of a school's programming?
These realities - and there are others - may make "excellence" a term for a school in utopia. There are, of course, Jewish schools that have electives and well-maintained facilities and provide much else that is missing in the typical day school and yeshiva. Invariably, tuition at these schools is twice or more above what most of our schools charge and three times or more above what most of our schools take in. Invariably, richer schools are the stingiest in providing scholarship assistance for needy families, their attitude being that parents who cannot pay full fare should send their children elsewhere.
I have been humbled by these realities and there is a good deal of pain. There are occasions when I have tried to change and improve what is happening in schools for which I have some responsibility and the experience has been akin to knocking one's head against a stone wall. My batting average would scarcely get me into the lower minor leagues.
Most schools have what can be described as a culture that inhibits change and too often this contributes to the tolerance of incompetence on the management side. There is the failure to return calls or respond to communications or thank contributors or to reach out to people and much else. This, too, has been humbling.
Yet, for all that is deficient and for all that is not what it should/could be, there is another set of realities in our schools which provides rewards. They do not remove what is humbling, difficult and painful; what they do is to make the effort worthwhile.
When we look at our schools and analyze their parts, invariably they come up short. When we look at them in terms of results, the story is different. When we look at the graduates of our Staten Island schools, we see the fruit of our labor. We see young adults - many already with families of their own - who have grown in Judaism and who are giving to our community and to our society. We see many who live in Israel. We see young men and women who are chock full of devotion to Torah and to the Jewish people. I hope that the communities that we serve will see the glory of our achievements.
How do yeshivas and day schools succeed despite their glaring shortcomings? Some of the answer is in the power or mystique of Torah living, its capacity to elevate and bring about outcomes that transcend what might be expected if we just look at the realities. Faculty plays a major part in bringing about these outcomes. We all probably have stories about teachers who weren't all that good or who were burnt out or lazy or uncaring. Far many more are people of talent and devotion who do a good deal more than what their job ordinarily requires of them. These are people who care about their students and their families. Despite being underpaid, they devote extra time to prepare and to reach out. They give love. I am especially mindful of the great contribution to the Jewish people of those Judaic teachers who are graduates of Beth Jacob seminaries. These are women, mostly young, who are at the lowest end of the pay scale and at the top rung of accomplishment.
For all of their limitations, these are the three great achievements of our schools:
- They provide a caring environment that is relatively free of the severe social pathologies that are causing great harm and pain in contemporary life.
- They provide for Jewish commitment into adulthood.
- They provide a learning environment that for all of their deficiencies forges a lasting connection between the student and a commitment to study that is of great benefit after the yeshiva and day school years are concluded.
There is another side of the ledger and while it does not remove the pain or the difficulties, there is reward for our labor.