Monday, March 9, 2015


A teacher friend of mine once joked that when school leaders type “collaboration” into their phones, it must autocorrect to “competition.” If you are connected to Yeshiva education in any way, you should get this joke (and it may hit too close to home to laugh). Unfortunately, cooperation between schools, and often within schools, is not something we are experts at.

Inter-institutional rivalries are most acutely felt during open house season. The amount of time, money, and other resources that go into planning the school open house is unbelievable. I would imagine that most leaders would love to scale back a bit on the pageantry. Just the ability to redirect some of these assets to other areas could be really helpful. And wouldn’t it be refreshing for schools to recruit based on their actual merits?

To be fair, let’s give competition its due. Kinat soferim (jealousy among scholars) can be a powerful force for good that drives people and institutions to be better. However, we must remember the context: Kinat soferim tarbeh chochma - jealousy among scholars increases wisdom. Competition is meant to maximize learning, not promotional videos or free keychains.

To be fair again, for parents to place their children (and money) in the hands of a school, that institution should do its best to present as professional and thoughtful. Parents deserve to feel confident with their choice, and a proper presentation is key to provide that sense. Most people are also wise enough to know that an impressive video is not a reason to choose a school, and the open houses aren’t the only part of the decision. The open house competition isn’t necessarily influencing where most children end up, but it might for those on the fence.

Either way, it might benefit everyone if schools agreed to reduce the fanfare, agree on a standard open house format, and/or agree to a maximum dollar amount to spend. Truthfully, I might suggest an even more radical idea. Let our community create an objective third-party entity to evaluate the character of various schools and then help parents match their children to the school with the appropriate profile. This plan could really push schools to be better, as student matching would be based on the essence of the school.

Active collaboration is the other piece of the puzzle. As opposed the infinite secular studies market, the market for Jewish educational products is tiny. Little financial opportunity exists for those who could produce cutting edge Torah learning, and we therefore lag behind the rest of the world in regards to innovation (there are other reasons as well, but this is a biggie). One major way to overcome this hurdle is to collaborate. If schools pool resources, compromise, and work together, a viable market might be created for some major curricular and methodological advancement. Another option is for staff from different schools working together to create a set of advanced instructional tools that many schools can use.

We must remember that we are all on the same team. We all want to transmit a Torah lifestyle to the next generation. We want this for all members of our community, irrespective of where each family sends their kids to school. If we truly care for one another in this way, cooperation should be an integral part of the fabric of our school system. Every stakeholder, from parent to faculty to board member should be asking “what is my school doing to build working relationships with other schools?” Collaboration (with healthy competition) could be the key to moving Jewish education forward.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Costume Crisis

As Purim approaches, a sense of desperation is beginning to set in among Jewish role models everywhere. “Last year it was so easy. My wife’s sheitel, a skirt, a pair of fake tefillin, and the cheap laughs just rolled in,” says one educator who chose to remain nameless. “But this year, who am I going to mock?”

Last year, SAR High School permitted two girls to wear tefillin, setting off a firestorm of controversy and inspiring a number of “SAR girl in tefillin” Purim costumes. The incognito ensembles allowed educators to impart lessons in an active manner, serving as material manifestations of insults towards heretics. In the words of one such role-model, “I’m usually only able to verbally ridicule those I disagree with, but now I can mamish teach by example.”

The negative consequences go further. Some are now forced to spend time normally dedicated to learning Torah thinking about a costume. Others have even given up on wearing a costume at all. “If I can’t set an example with what I wear, I’ll have to get doubly drunk this year,” says Rabbi Chaim (Jeremy) Schwartz.* “That way I can really express my love of Hashem for all to see.”

Although the situation seems dire, options seem to exist. Why not dress up like Barry Freundel? “Rabbi Barry Freundel should not be mocked,” Rabbi Schwartz argues. “He is just a good man who fell victim to his yetzer hara. You can’t equate what he did to girls wearing tefillin. Only one of them is true heresy.” Wise words from a man of morals.

Costumes aren’t the only problem; Purim shpiels are in danger as well. Last year’s scripts mocking girls wearing tefillin are no longer relevant. And the situation is dicey. “Without an easy target that everyone can make fun of, students are now going to make fun of others in our school,” says student-activities director Rabbi Noam Farbstein. “We can’t leave our students open to public ridicule.” Sound hypocritical? Not so, says Rabbi F. “We don’t really know the names of the girls who wear tefillin, so it’s not really that bad. It’s almost like they aren’t actual people in our students’ eyes. The boys won’t feel like they are saying real Lashon Hara."

But all hope is not lost. As I write these words, Shalhevet High School of Los Angeles is furiously investigating all leads into potentially scandalous decisions made at SAR in the past few months. According to editor Samantha Silver, “we’ve heard rumors of potential mechitza-removing and Triangle-K eating, but nothing we can confirm at this time.” Such news would be music to the ears of many. “I’m really hoping for something to come up soon,” said a local Rebbetzin. “My children really need to learn the importance of properly placed scorn and contempt. Isn’t that what Purim is all about?”


*All names have been changed for the sake of privacy