Conventional wisdom about the limits and potential of Reform Jewish
education changed forever in 1970, when two pioneering Reform congregations,
Rodeph Sholom of New York City and Temple Beth Am of Miami, answered the call of
parents and teachers and expanded their preschool programs to encompass
elementary grades K–6—thereby establishing the first Reform Jewish day schools.
Through the years, many community leaders followed suit, establishing
Reform day schools throughout North America, many of them operating in
partnership with Reform congregations. Today, more than 5,000 children in the
U.S. and Canada attend 18 independent Reform day schools, where they learn
Judaic and Hebrew studies as well as the standard preschool through middle
school curricula (language, math, science, etc.) offered in public schools. In
addition, they experience “Jewish time” through participating in Friday Kabbalat
Shabbat celebrations and Torah study, preparing for Jewish holidays, engaging in
social action daily, fostering interpersonal relationships grounded in Jewish
values, and traveling to Israel in 8th grade.
They have a lot to teach us.
RJ Magazine Editors:Who in Jewish life would you call your hero
Bari Gold, 5th grade, Temple Beth Am Day School, Pinecrest, FL: To me a hero
is afraid of nothing and fights for freedom. My hero is Deborah, the prophet
after Joshua and the only girl prophet ever to live. All the Israelites looked
up to Joshua, but after he died the Israelites forgot to be loyal to Adonai and
began to bow down to idols. The Israelites also felt scared of the cruel King
Jabin, who looked down on them and treated them like slaves for many years.
Tired of being treated unfairly, Deborah went up to the top of the mountain
known as Mount Tabor and asked Adonai, “Do we really need to be scared of King
Jabin even though we are outnumbered? Can we fight our way out of this?”
She waited and soon came a loud voice: “I will help you, because you have not
forgotten to be loyal. I will send a message to a man named Barak. He will help
you to get the Israeli tribes to fight for freedom. Just remember, when you win
the battle, make sure my people know it was I who helped them win, for they
could not have done it on their own.”
Soon Barak came to Deborah and said, “Tell the Israelites that you will be
fighting in the battle. That will get the men to change their minds about
fighting, because they will hate to know that a woman has more courage than they
Deborah told them, and of course now all the men went to war, proving
themselves worthy in the battle even when they were outnumbered by a humungous
army with chariots and horses. They also began to pray to Adonai instead of
Deborah was the start of having the Israelites believe in themselves.
My other hero is my brother, because he acts the same way. He pushes me to
victory and never gives up.
Max Lewis, 8th grade, The Leo Baeck Day School, Toronto, Ontario:Every
summer, I meet a real, modern-day Jewish hero named Anat Hoffman. Anat is a
faculty member at URJ Camp George (and director of the Israel Religious Action
Center) and she comes with her son Joel, who is around my age and is my very
good friend. She talks to us at camp about how she leads a movement called
“Women of the Wall,” which fights for the rights of women to be able to carry
the Torah, read from it, and pray at the Western Wall as men do. This past
summer she was leading a group of women in a prayer service and carrying a Torah
when the police told her to put it down—and when she wouldn’t, they roughed her
up, snatched the Torah from her arms, and sent her to jail. She was delayed
coming to camp because of being in jail, but she said she will return to the
Wall again and again until women have equal rights, even if it means going
back to prison.
Anat Hoffman reminds me of Rosa Parks, who was not allowed to ride at the
front of the bus because she was black. She knew this was wrong and so she
decided to sit at the front, accepting the insults that she got and even risking
her life. She stood up for what she believed in and did what was right, even
though she was persecuted for her actions.
Benjamin Lee, 7th grade, Pardes Jewish Day School,
Phoenix, AZ: When people think of heroes, they often think of
Superman or Batman. That is not my idea of a hero. To me, a hero is someone who
has shown strength and risen above terrible circumstances. My hero is my
grandmother, Gerty Taussig Meltzer, a survivor of Theresienstadt, Mauthausen,
and Auschwitz. She spent four years as a teenager living through some of the
worst conditions ever known to man. At age 14, she saw her mother, father, and
sister die, and yet she managed to keep her humanity. She worked as a slave
laborer doing many horrific tasks like burying bodies, breaking up huge stones,
and also building wings for the Luftwaffe’s airplanes. To secretly fight Nazism,
she made deliberate defects in the wings to make the Luftwaffe aircraft crash.
In this small act of subversion, she helped stop the murder of many Allied
All during her incarceration, my grandmother and her friends studied secretly
so they would be able to continue their education after the war. She worked hard
to learn English because she planned to come to America and begin life anew. My
grandmother never lost her kind heart or humanity. After she was liberated, she
was alone in the world, but made friends and joined Jewish groups to find an
extended “family.” She worked extremely hard until age 75, when she left her
full-time job and moved to Arizona to be closer to my family and me. Her goal
was to overcome her terrible past and build a family in America and ensure her
children would have a good life. She was successful. Both her children went to
Ivy League schools and are active Jews today.
My grandmother has changed my way of thinking because whenever I feel unable
to do something, I think about how she has persevered and that gives me
strength. I try to never lose hope when things seem impossible to overcome.
Also, I am always conscious of my actions to make sure they are the ones she
would have done and that they are positive and inspire others.
RJ:Many characters in the Bible often get into trouble. Why?
Jacob Tommey, 6th grade, Brawerman Elementary School, Los
Angeles, CA:All of the Jewish characters make a mistake at one time
or another because the Torah was written to teach Jews how to be better people
in the world. If all of our ancestors did the right thing all the time, there
would be no lessons to be learned. The stories also remind us that we, as human
beings, are not perfect. We have to struggle to learn right from wrong and deal
with the consequences of our actions.
I like the story of Joseph, a young boy who is resented by his brothers and
then rises up to become one of the most powerful people in all of Egypt. Despite
the fact that he was almost killed by his brothers and became an Egyptian slave,
Joseph used his ingenuity and intellect to become second only to the pharaoh of
Egypt. He is also one of the only Jewish heroes that makes amends with his
family. Joseph is different than most Jewish heroes because God usually helps
them all along the way. Joseph relies on his own judgment and ability to make
From this story I learned the importance of being true to myself, following
my passions, and doing what I believe in, despite what others may think. Joseph
had a special gift. He was able to decipher the hidden meaning of dreams and
managed to warn all of Egypt about the upcoming famine. For this, he was made a
powerful Egyptian leader. I also learned the importance of being able to think
through a problem and pay attention to my feelings. Joseph didn’t know whether
to trust his brothers again when they traveled to Egypt to buy grain. He decided
to test their loyalty by falsely accusing his younger brother Benjamin of
stealing a silver cup. Every one of the other brothers offered to take
Benjamin’s place in prison. This led Joseph to realize that his siblings had
changed; they would not betray Benjamin as they had betrayed him. It helped
Joseph get past his anger and hurt. He was able to forgive his brothers and
finally embrace his family once again. From this story, I am reminded of the
powerful connection that family members have to one another, even when there is
a betrayal. I try to live up to all that Joseph did.
Jonathan Bleiberg, 8th grade, Rodeph
Sholom School, New York, NY:The Torah is not solely about people
who do “the right thing,” as this would not be an accurate representation of the
world. As Maimonides said, we have free will; if humanity did not, then the laws
and messages of the Torah would be rendered irrelevant, as one would be
predestined to do what is right or what is wrong. Lacking such a “rule book,”
God could not expect one to do what is right. Thus, the Torah is necessary as a
means to instruct those who do not naturally know “the right thing” to do, and
to aid people in learning how to become righteous.
I most relate to the biblical story of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel,
after which he is given a new name. Commentators interpret it in various ways,
from wrestling with himself to wrestling with his brother Esau. I believe the
message is that one must wrestle with everything in life, from the Torah to
one’s identity, in order to better oneself. This is shown when Jacob was granted
a new name, and therefore a new identity after his struggle.
My family has been defined by struggle. My paternal grandfather immigrated
from Poland to Mexico in the pursuit of economic opportunity and my maternal
grandfather studied intensely for a full year in order to be able to immigrate
to the U.S. from China. Thus, I have learned that one must always struggle and
work hard in order to improve oneself.
Max Lewis: It gives me hope that the Jewish characters in the Bible
are far from perfect, because I often get in trouble too, especially at school
where I am well-known in the principal’s office, or when I’m playing hockey on
the ice. I am a member of a very competitive team and sometimes when a play goes
against us or the referee makes a bad call, my impulses get the better of me and
I lash out or slash my stick on the ice in anger. This results in two minutes
for me in the penalty box, also known as the “sin bin.”
In the Torah, there is a similar story about “anger management.” Moses was
leading the people into the Land of Israel. They were getting thirsty from
wandering in the desert so long and they complained to Moses that they needed
water. When Moses asked God for water, God told him to go tap a rock with his
walking stick. Moses thought that was a pretty lame idea, so instead of tapping
the rock, he smacked it in anger, just like I do with my hockey stick on the
ice! Although water did come out of the rock and the people of Israel were
satisfied, apparently God was not!
Both Moses and I get punished for our out-of-control actions. Moses’
punishment was worse: He was denied entry into the Land of Israel and died
shortly after this incident. This story taught me that even leaders have flaws
in their character, but these are often ones that we can work on in ourselves.
RJ:What do you believe Judaism is trying to tell us about God? Is God important
in your life?
Alex Garnick, 8th grade, The Rashi School, Dedham, MA:God is very important in my life, because every day I grapple with the
concept. Being a student of a Reform Jewish day school I was taught about God
and the Torah, but never was I forced to believe in either. Instead, my teachers
gave me the freedom to make the choice of where I put my faith. Today, I am not
sure what exactly I believe in. Perhaps I do not have enough life experience
simply to define what I believe, or perhaps the idea of God is too great for me
to comprehend. I look at all the miracles on Earth, everything from the start of
the universe to human beings, and think it all seems too perfect to have evolved
by itself, even though I am compelled to believe that it has.
I guess wrestling with God is part of our Jewish nature. “Israel” in Hebrew
means to wrestle with God. Perhaps when Jacob is wrestling God in the Torah, it
is simply a metaphor: He is not physically wrestling with God, but with the
concept of the existence of God. So for now, and perhaps the rest of my life, I
will be fighting it out with God.
Mariel Tivoli, 6th grade, Brawerman Elementary School, Los Angeles, CA: At my
school we chant the Amidah every Monday and Friday. The first paragraph says,
“Eternal God open up my lips so that my mouth may declare your glory.” I believe
this means that God is almighty and we should praise him 24/7. I personally do
not believe in God, but if there is a higher power, I do not think he would want
to be praised every second of every day. If I were him, I would feel it would
just get old after a while.
My belief and my religion differ from each other because although God is not
important to my life, the lessons taught by Judaism are. For example, belonging
to a kehila kedusha (a holy community) means that we need to be kind to
one another. I try to be kind to others by respecting them and being nice to
them even if they are mean to me. I also try to listen to other people’s ideas
even if they are different than my own.
Jack Zucker, 8th grade, The Alfred & Adele
Davis Academy, Atlanta, GA:I do
not believe that God is watching every little thing that we do, ready to reward
and curse us, but if we act as if God is watching, it will help us be better
people. I think that is the reason for God. Bring God into all of your decisions
and decide if He would approve, because if He would not, then most likely it is
not a good personal choice.
RJ:Is the idea of tikkun olam, “repairing the world,” important to you?
Mariel Tivoli: To me, repairing the world means that everyone does
their part to do acts of love and kindness. What most concerns me is animal
cruelty because I love all animals and it kills me inside to see or hear of them
getting hurt. Animals have feelings. They are part of this olam (world),
so if we hurt them we are hurting a being just as we are.
I am a member of the Humane Society of the United States, an organization
that fights against animal cruelty and helps save the lives of many beings. One
night as I watched TV, a commercial came on that showed a bunch of suffering
animals that said things like, “Why did they hurt me?” It broke my heart to see
all those injured animals! I wrote down their number as soon as it popped up and
asked my dad to let me call them. Finally, he said yes. A lovely operator picked
up and told me that in order to become a member I had to pay. I begged my dad to
let me become a member. He gave me his credit card and said, “Sure you can!”
Now every month I send in my own money, which I earn from lemonade stands and
by doing chores. It gives me a feeling of responsibility to care for the
Sterling Dixon, 8th grade, The Rashi School, Dedham, MA:From age five up until now, I have learned that it is very important to try
to do as much as you can for others, as you would want them to do for you.
Repairing the world is another way of making the world a better place for
Over the summer I volunteered at Hebrew Senior Life right across from my
school, helping elderly people that were getting really old. When the school
year started I was so happy to find out that my grade was going to volunteer at
Hebrew Senior Life, because I had more time to spend with the people who live
there. Volunteering helped me understand that the more you help others and
repair the world, the more you can enjoy the world.
RJ: How important is it for all Jews to learn Hebrew?
Madeline Press, 7th grade, Rodeph
Sholom School, New York, NY: Knowledge of Jewish prayer and
synagogue rituals—including all of the necessary Hebrew that is required to
achieve that knowledge—has been much more important to my growth as a member of
the Jewish community than being fluent in conversational Hebrew. It is
tremendously important to me that I can walk into any synagogue in the world and
participate in a service with the local Jewish community. The knowledge of
Jewish history, culture, and values I have gained over the past seven years at
Rodeph Sholom School, more than proficiency in Hebrew language, is what has
helped strengthen my identity as a Jew.
Sterling Dixon: It is very important to have a common language that
every Jewish person knows, because Jews all over the world have different Jewish
views and traditions, and Hebrew connects us all together no matter what. It is
as if we are a big family in which everyone feels comfortable.
Samantha Shinder, 8th grade, The Leo Baeck Day School, Toronto, Ontario: Jews need
to have a common language in order to be connected with one another, but this
common language could be English, one of the most common languages in the world.
Jews live all over the world and, outside of Israel, not many people know
Still, I feel it is important for Jews to learn Hebrew. When I learned my
Torah portion for my bat mitzvah, the Hebrew words I learned are said to have
come from God, which made me feel I had a spiritual connection to God. And if I
did not know Hebrew, I would not understand the prayers we sing in shul,
which would make them less meaningful.
So while I do not need to know Hebrew to be connected to other Jews, knowing
Hebrew has made me more connected to my Judaism.
RJ:Is technological advancement a positive development for the
Benjamin Lee: Have you ever heard, “There’s an app for that,”
referring to Apple’s application store? I found this to be true when, using my
iPod Touch, I looked up “bar mitzvah” and found many apps that are helping me
learn the Torah. I have learned almost all of Parshat Yitro this way.
Through technology I discovered the date and the boat on which my maternal
great grandfather arrived on Ellis Island. My mother located long-lost third
cousins on Facebook, and we discovered a family tree created by a previously
unknown member of my paternal great-grandfather’s family.
If you were a Jew in an area without a synagogue, you could practice prayers
online and then watch Shabbat services on the web. Now you can “tweet” a prayer
to Twitter’s Western Wall and it will be printed out and placed in the
Kotel. Soon you will be able to see the Dead Sea Scrolls and other
amazing Jewish antiquities digitized online.
With these and other benefits in mind, I believe that in the future Jewish
communities will go solely online. This might not be a bad thing. The more that
Jews such as Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the co-founders of Google, and Larry
Ellison, the founder of Oracle, use computer and internet technology, even more
amazing discoveries and systems will be created.
Technology will keep the Jewish people alive.
RJ: What has the Jewish day school experience been like for you? At times
do you feel somewhat sheltered from the rest of society?
Madeline Press: If anything, my experience has been the opposite. By
design, my school’s program includes a strong secular focus with rigorous
academic standards that equal or exceed those of the other elite private schools
in New York City. Most important, the curriculum focuses on understanding other
cultures, with a particular emphasis on human rights and the experiences of
minority groups in the U.S. and elsewhere. I have studied everything from Dr.
Martin Luther King to poverty to historical examples of religious persecution,
and this year my entire 7th grade class will visit the Deep South, in part to
further this agenda.
I suppose it is possible that, with the wrong focus or the wrong program, an
experience at a religious day school could be isolating. In my case, I can’t
think of a better way to be connected.
Rebecca Greenberg, 7th grade, The Alfred & Adele
Davis Academy, Atlanta, GA:Going to a Jewish day school has definitely separated me from other cultures
and religions. I only learn about my culture, religion, and history. When I was
younger, if you colored a picture with red and green next to each other,
everybody thought you were weird because you were using Christmas colors. I wish
my school had educated us earlier (not just in middle school social studies)
about different religions.
Jack Zucker: In my opinion, it is a good idea to send your kids to
Jewish day school and after to a non-Jewish high school. This way kids can have
the best of both worlds: They will experience living as a Jew around Jews, and
later they will live as a Jew in the larger world.
For now, I love being a part of The Alfred & Adele Davis Academy. My
school has taught me to love being Jewish because it is a major part of me. I
take my religion into many of my thoughts and activities by making sure that the
Jewish community will support my actions, something that Jewish day school has
taught me to do. I ask myself: Will other Jews be okay with my deeds?
Samantha Shinder: Every day when I go to my day school I feel a sense
of belonging. I get comfort knowing that other Jewish students are learning
Hebrew and Jewish culture, participating in the Tikkun Olam Committee, and
celebrating the same holidays that I am.
In the past, Jews were mistreated and even killed for their beliefs. Jewish
people used to have to hide the fact that they were Jewish. I can take pride in
my Jewish identity, just as my family, friends, and teachers do. If I did not
have these experiences at my school I would not be as connected to my Judaism as
I am today.
2011 EDUCATION SUMMIT
Be part of what some Reform leaders are
calling “the most important Jewish educational assembly of this generationn.”
The December 2011 Education Summit, to take place at the URJ Biennial outside Washington,
D.C., is designed to raise the status of Jewish day schools, engage teens and
families in Jewish life, involve all learners irrespective of disability, and,
above all, strengthen every system of Reform Jewish learning. For more
SCHOOLS: THE NEXT STEP
To see a listing of all the Reform day
schools in the U.S. and Canada, watch a short video about day school life,
and/or schedule a visit to one of the schools, visit the Progressive
Association of Reform Day Schools website. A Union for Reform Judaism
affiliate, PARDeS facilitates collaboration and sharing among Reform day school
leaders and works to strengthen Reform day schools throughout North America and