Wednesday, March 23, 2011

We moved. Our blog is now at http://avichai.org/blog/

AVI CHAI has a new blog, check it out at http://avichai.org/blog/ !

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Letter on Charter Schools

Dr. Elliot Prager, Principal of the Moriah School in Englewood, NJ, recently sent out this letter to the school's parents about the Shalom Charter School.


Dear Moriah Parents,

During one of last week’s First Grade Chagigat Ha’Siddur celebrations, a parent leaned over to me and whispered: “I wonder if the Charter School will be able to match this.” Much has been written and spoken about this new educational initiative and it is not my intention to repeat the many reasons for choosing a Moriah education over this alternative, nor is it my desire to criticize anyone opting for a charter school education. But, as I sat through each of the Siddur celebrations it occurred to me that there is one overriding factor which has not been sufficiently emphasized in making the “case” for a yeshiva education.

Aside from the sheer breadth and depth of Jewish knowledge, aside from the daily immersion in living Jewishly (not just Hebraically) and the critical element of sharing in that daily Jewish life with one’s peers, a yeshiva education like that experienced in Moriah is the source of a child’s emotional-affective relationship with Judaism, second only, perhaps, to what s/he experiences in the home. The Charter School cannot possibly envelop the child with the Jewish warmth and joy that is felt in our school day in and day out. It isn’t only about a Siddur celebration here or a Chumash ceremony there, as moving as those moments are. It is about the continual shared experience of midot (traditional Jewish values imbedded in our sacred texts), of daily, weekly and monthly rituals, of the cycle of the Jewish year, of Jewish music and celebration, of Ahavat Ha’Shem, Ahavat Torah and Ahavat Ha’Aretz – which ultimately make the greatest impact on a child’s Jewish heart and mind. It is the JEWISH NESHAMA which is tapped, mined and nurtured at Moriah more than any other resource. And, faced as we are today with the powerful forces in the larger society which continually erode the fabric of Jewish life and weaken the substance of our children’s Jewish identity, it is the battle for the heart and emotions of our children which is the most critical battle of all. No amount of Hebrew immersion and no supplemental, after-school program or tutor can provide the rich soil in which our children’s Jewish hearts are nurtured.

Not for a second do I minimize the enormous financial burden which a yeshiva education entails. That is why one of the cornerstones of Moriah’s mission is the commitment to enable families in need to send their children to our school. And not for a moment do I criticize any family who decides that the Shalom Academy is the only alternative which they can provide for their children. As others have stated, better a Charter School that provides a Jewish child with a solid grounding in the Hebrew language than a regular public school, devoid of any connection with the Jewish people. But, before making that choice, it is imperative for a family to understand that a Charter School is not and cannot be a substitute for a yeshiva education.

The great 20th century Jewish poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik captured it best when he wrote: “The Bet Midrash (the Jewish house of study) is the incubator of our people’s soul.” That “soul,” the nefesh of the Jewish people, can only be created in a holistic Jewish environment which envelops the child every day and in every way. Yes, it may require sacrifices, but when it comes to the Jewish neshama and hearts of our children we all must stand together and declare: “Hineni – Here We Are!”

Dr. Elliot Prager, Principal


Yossi Prager, Executive Director of The AVI CHAI Foundation’s North American office, Op-Ed on Jewish Charter Schools can be found in the Jewish Standard.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Day School or Camp

There has been lots of press and discussion about the recent letters from Ma’ayanot and the Torah Academy of Bergen County informing parents that they will be jeopardizing financial aid if they send their 10th-12th graders to summer programs, including Israel trips. This will be the case even if the summer program is paid for by grandparents, though presumably not if the camps provide a full scholarship.

As leader of an organization supporting both the day school and summer camping fields, I have mixed feelings about this policy and ultimately would suggest a change. From a Jewish education and socialization perspective, Jewish summer camps are not the equivalent of vacations for kids. Rather, they are critical sources of Jewish experiential education that complement the formal education offered in day schools. Camps are the equivalent of educational magic or sleight of hand: kids focus on fun and friends, while they almost unknowingly soak in the Jewish values, rituals, ideals and joy that permeate camp through song, activities and bunk conversation. In most Orthodox camps and many others, there is also formal text study daily. The spirits and souls of Ma’ayanot and TABC students need summer camp.

At the same time, without a day school education, camp would have little to complement. Core Jewish knowledge, skills and curiosity come from the daily rhythm and classes of a day school. And day schools survive on tuition. Scholarships are necessary to ensure that Jewish children are not shut out of day schools for financial reasons. But scholarship dollars are not monopoly money; they have to be fundraised by the schools’ lay and professional leaders, mostly from other parents in the school. (As I have previously noted, it was not always this way: schools always were and should again become a community responsibility.) Scholarship families who send their children to summer camp are essentially compelling others to pay for their children’s summer camp experience.

How to balance the competing needs? I would distinguish the basic summer camp experience from an Israel trip. Every Jewish child should be entitled to one session of overnight camp every summer, even if that increases the need for day school scholarship. (Camps should also provide scholarships as needed.) We should recognize that families on financial aid still contribute toward school tuition, at great personal sacrifice. At some point, at the end of 10th grade or 11th grade, campers become staff, and the issue of paying for summer camp becomes moot. Israel trips are a different story. They, too, are incredibly valuable educational experiences. But they are far more expensive than one session of camp, and most Orthodox students will be spending a gap year in Israel just a couple of years later. Summer Israel experiences should be paid for by parents who can afford it, not by others in the community through financial aid dollars.
What does this mean for Ma’ayanot and TABC? I urge them to modify their policy, so that 10th graders – who are still likely to be campers – have the opportunity for one month of local overnight summer camp.

More important than the specific policy adopted is the understanding of the two principles clashing here: 1) the extraordinary educational value of Jewish summer camp and 2) the reality that day school scholarships are not currently an abstract “community expense” but an increased fundraising challenge for school leaders. If both principles are borne in mind, reasonable people will be able to disagree about the appropriate policy with mutual respect.

I’ll be interested to see how the conversation continues in the blogosphere and welcome your thoughts