School Supplement: Jewish schools look to Torah and tolerance for values

Every day Rabbi Pinchas Lipner faces 320 students at San Francisco's Hebrew Academy and looks to the Torah.

Because Lipner must deal with students from kindergarten through 12th grade, he grapples with an array of disciplinary dilemmas. He finds solutions in Jewish law.

"We have an atmosphere here where students like to study," he said with pride. "They love school and I think it's because the students and teachers have respect for each other."

Respect, so heavily emphasized in the Torah, is equally stressed at the Hebrew Academy as well as the other Jewish schools in the Bay Area.

"We can disagree with each other without losing respect," Lipner said. "And when we have disagreements, we discuss them and try to solve them."

But while honest discussion plays a key role in creating an atmosphere in which both intellect and sociability thrive, Lipner doesn't shy away from rules and regulations either.

"The rules here are strict and concrete," he said. Students guilty of serious offenses are subject to punishments ranging from detention to expulsion.

Lipner believes students need clear, precise guidelines. "It's a gross misconception that kids like chaos. They don't. They need structure. They love the structure."

In Palo Alto, Gerry Elgarten, director of the Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School, encourages students in the school's kindergarten through fifth grade to resolve conflicts through dialogue.

"We really put a premium on kids talking things out," he said.

The school has instituted a peer mediation program in which fifth graders receive instruction in resolving conflicts from a trained teacher. These students hone their skills by dramatizing situations in which peer mediation might be effective.

"I think it's working because in general, the children respect each other and they have learned never to attack someone's weaknesses," Elgarten said.

Rabbi Yisrael Rice, principal of the Yeshiva of the Bay Area in San Rafael, a nursery through eighth-grade school, said the greatest challenge a teacher faces is to educate not only the mind but the soul.

To achieve this, Rice said teachers need to think about a child's behavior and what it might represent before reacting to it.

"There are situations where teachers take [a child's behavior] personally; this can result in a dispute," he said.

"But if a teacher knows what her focus is, then she can view this as an opportunity to mold [the child's] mind and spirit."

Rice tries to avoid meting out punishments. Rather, he prefers to remind a child that he or she risks losing the respect of the teacher if they misbehave.

"Sometimes if a teacher says to a student, `You know, I really disapprove of what you're doing,' that kind of admonishment is often punishment enough."

Revira Singer, who directs the Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito, a kindergarten through eighth-grade school, also hesitates to assign punishments.

Singer, who is new in the Bay Area, said one of her early acts was revising the school's handbook. The manual contained a list of offenses and their designated penalties.

"I removed that section," she explained. "I don't want this to be the atmosphere of the school."

Singer much prefers negotiation. "Children need to have a feeling of control," she said. "They have control when they know their feelings will be heard."

Singer, who has a doctorate in child development, employs a psychologist who meets regularly with the faculty about how to best deal with children's problems.

"We encourage self-control and self- reflection," she said. "Basically we want the kids to handle themselves and be a mensch."

The schools sets "high expectations," she added, "and most of the time the kids live up to them."