What Should Students Know, And When?
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What Should Students Know, And When?

Mechon Hadar and Beit Rabban forge partnership to create ‘benchmarks’ for learning about classical Jewish texts.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers trends among youth and millennials, progress and pushback in the Orthodox world, women's issues, the Jewish LGBTQ community and Reform and Conservative Jewish life. She also heads the Investigative Journalism Fund, a special project of the Jewish Week to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting, and 36 Under 36, an annual special issue profiling 36 exceptional young leaders. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

Lisa Exler, director of the Curriculum Project at Mechon Hadar, the non-denominational learning center here, attended Jewish day schools from kindergarten through 12th grade and considers herself a “product” of the Jewish day school system. Today, she’s the parent of two day-school children.

Perhaps because Exler, by her own account, knows the day school world “inside and out, from its strengths to its flaws,” she was recently tapped to steer Mechon Hadar’s new partnership with Beit Rabban Day School on the Upper West Side. The initiative brings the Curriculum Project, a program aimed at creating a set of “benchmarks and standards” for what day school students should learn from classical Jewish texts, to Beit Rabban.

Beit Rabban will serve as the “lab school” for the project, providing what officials hope will be the right educational setting for testing the standards.

“We want to crack the code on Jewish education,” said Rabbi Andrew Davids, Beit Rabban’s head of school.

It won’t be easy, given that day schools vary widely in the kinds of Jewish educations they offer.

“Even as day school education has received increased attention from the Jewish community in recent decades, there’s relatively little consensus on what knowledge day school graduates ought to attain,” said Exler. “The Curriculum Project aims to establish benchmarks of fluency in classical Jewish texts in the early childhood and elementary years.”

Exler will be taking up the post of Jewish studies director at Beit Rabban for the next two years to get the project off the ground.

“From across the denominational spectrum, no one has taken serious responsibility for creating targets in knowledge based on grade level,” said Rabbi Ethan Tucker, co-founder of Mechon Hadar, who has worked extensively with Exler on the new initiative. Mechon Hadar runs an adult yeshiva and an independent minyan project. Exler is married to another of the founders, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer.

“At Hadar we feel strongly that the future of Judaism depends on Jewish students with basic fluency in the language and texts of our tradition.”

Rabbi Tucker explained that the project moves away from the “general pursuit of positive Jewish identity” that has dominated focus in day schools in recent years.

“There’s a certain attitude that if a student walks away from a day school education feeling positive about Judaism, that’s enough,” said Tucker. “But we think that overlooks the bread and butter of a Jewish education.”

He used an analogy to elucidate the point.

“Think of a child learning French,” said Tucker. “Yes, there’s a component of loving French, but the teacher’s goal should be that her students walk away able to speak French. We want students to walk away from a day school education not just loving Judaism, but being well-versed and fluent in classical texts.”

Though the project is a first, Beit Rabban and Mechon Hadar have collaborated many times previously. For the past three years, full-time fellows at Mechon Hadar spent two afternoons a week at Beit Rabban working with students and teachers to create a “Beit Midrash atmosphere” in the classroom. Both institutions are intentionally non-denominational and stress the primacy of text.

“The partnership is an organic outgrowth of our previous collaborations,” said Rabbi Davids. “I hope that the shared assets of the two institutions creates a natural synergy.”

Those “assets” include location.

“The critical mass we have on the Upper West side allows us to attempt something that wouldn’t otherwise be possible,” said Rabbi Davids.

He went on to explain the project’s three-step process.

“The first step is a scan of the field. Lisa will come and get a good sense of what is working, and what is not. Next comes creativity and innovation — finding creative ways to implement the techniques that do work. And finally, we hope to use the results of our ‘lab test’ to help other educators in the field.”

Sharing the results with other day schools will provide a challenge, said Exler. She explained that many schools believe the educational standards they already have set in place are sufficient.

“There’s no prediction of which schools will be most eager to adopt the effective standards we will hopefully discover,” said Exler. When asked if she thinks Orthodox day schools will embrace the new system, Exler said she’s “very curious, but can’t predict what will happen.”

The real challenge, according to Rabbi Davids, is not marketing the results of the project, but having children embrace the new standards.

“Rabbinic texts and biblical texts were initially written for an elite, adult community,” he said. “To create a pathway for children and young adults to immerse themselves in this world, and feel a sense of ownership is the real challenge.”

“Success will be when standards of knowledge and fluency transcend ideology,” said Rabbi Tucker. “We want everyone to sign on to the notion that ignorance is not an ideology.”

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