Preserving tradition, spirituality at Jewish day schools

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WATERTOWN – The Thursday before the Jewish New Year, the Kindergarten class at JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School buzzed with students creating cards, learning songs and readying for one of the most joyous days of their year.

“Who can find me something in this room that I could use for my Rosh Hashanah celebration?” Brenda Dolan, their lead English-speaking teacher, asked. “Bonus points if you can tell me in Hebrew.”

One student retrieved her an apple (“tapuach” in Hebrew) to dip in honey, which represents the sweetness of the New Year, running this year from Sept. 13 to Sept. 15.

Some Jewish families feel that Jewish day schools like JCDS are an essential means of passing on Jewish cultural heritage and spiritual ideas to the next generation.  In a Jewish day school, the study of Jewish tradition, scripture, prayers, and the Hebrew language are as important as the study of art, science and the humanities.

A 2007 Brandeis University survey of Jewish college students found that those who attended a day school expressed “a greater commitment to the Jewish community, as reflected in their intent to pursue Jewish communal careers.”

The study also found that such students held “a stronger sense of responsibility towards addressing the needs of the larger society” compared to public and private school peers.

“The skills and capacities and habits of mind and heart that students develop in these (K-8) years serve as the foundation for their lives,” said Susie Tanchel, JCDS Head of School. “And that’s why we want to pay attention to their academic growth, to their spiritual growth, to their character growth — because this is where it’s all going on.”

JCDS, which was established in 1995, is one of many day schools that have faced the challenge of affordability.  But George Krupp, founder of the Krupp Fund for the Future – a funding group for Jewish day schools – told the Boston Globe in January that such schools are essential.

“I view day schools as the main producer of Jewish leadership in the United States,” Krupp told the Globe, “but they’ve become unaffordable. The model is unsustainable, especially as it relates to the middle class.”

Unlike many day schools, which cater to students from particular Reform, Orthodox, or Conservative backgrounds, JCDS is not affiliated with any one movement of Judaism and instead emphasizes pluralism in the classroom and in life.

Last year, at JCDS 22 percent identified as Conservative, 22 percent as Orthodox and 30 percent as either Independent or did not identify with a particular movement.

“Students can retain their family traditions and identity and still interact with others who believe differently,” JCDS Communications Manager Miriam Seidman said.

JCDS Spiritual Educator Oren Kaunfer leads students in morning prayer on Sept. 10.
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Admissions Director Josh Langer agreed.

The 187 students, he said, are able to develop comfort and confidence in their identity – especially in middle school – which, ideally, will enable them to carry an “open posture” toward those who have other ideas in a pluralistic society.

Langer said that students learn to not to be defensive about strange ideas by confidently projecting the image that, “’this is who I am, and this is what’s important to me.’”

The school’s pluralism can be seen in how the students respect each other.  The school cafeteria holds four microwaves that cater to various levels of Kosher dietary restrictions, and students will abide by varying levels of orthodoxy depending on the situation.

“We are navigating those differences,” Oren Kaunfer, the spiritual educator at the school, said. “Sometimes we work together, sometimes we honor one way (of doing things).”

If a visiting teacher leads prayers, for example, the students might need to sit separately by gender to honor the teacher’s conservative beliefs.

As the Jewish community welcomes the new year, students at Jewish day schools such as JCDS may pause for prayer or reflection.  But, as Kaunfer pointed out, spirituality is inherently tied into Jewish education through all of the holidays throughout the calendar year.

“There’s a certain innate nature of spirituality in children,” he said. “To be able to connect and harness that – makes them comfortable with that.”

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or @karabettis

Correction: a former version of this article called the school Jewish Community Day School, when the school’s name is JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School.