Back to School: The value of a Jewish education goes beyond dollars and cents

In June thousands of students graduated from Jewish independent primary, middle and high schools. So it’s the perfect time to ask the question: What should a diploma from a Jewish independent school represent? Stated differently, what is the value of a Jewish independent school education?

A common feature of schooling today is that it tends to focus on preparing students for more schooling rather than for broad and meaningful engagement with the world. In spite of the widespread recognition that every child isn’t college bound, we educate as though higher ed is the ideal. It’s almost as if we start with the college professor as our archetype, and work our way backward to the elementary school classroom — with the key difference being which end of the scantron test you’re on (giving or receiving).

Too often students are treated as empty vessels to be filled with subject matter so that they may attain the next level. Middle school is preparation for high school, university, and so on. Dimly, at the end of a very long tunnel, is the light of the “real world.”

A Jewish independent school diploma should be more than an entry pass to the next level of schooling. It should reflect the aims of an educational vision that is primarily concerned with preparing students for meaningful engagement beyond the walls of the classroom.

Additionally, when we enter into conversations concerning the “value proposition” of Jewish day school education, we do well to shift the focus from the financial to the existential, from the cost to the value.

Upon completing their years of study at a Jewish independent school, graduates should feel empowered, compelled and inspired to engage in the following five valuable areas (the five lives of a Jewish independent school graduate):

• Jewish life. From the home to the synagogue, from youth group to Israel, from Hillel to Heeb magazine, our graduates should be proactive, knowledgeable and engaged. In addition to cultivating a personal connection to Judaism and molding a Jewish life that reflects their needs and interests, they should also understand, respect and embrace the fact that the broader Jewish community looks to them for leadership. Personal and communal commitments will necessarily differ for each graduate, but all of our graduates should be consciously and deliberately engaged in Jewish life.

• Spiritual life. After davening on a regular basis, living the rhythms of the Jewish calendar, and participating in limmudei kodesh (study of Jewish texts and topics) our graduates should be spiritually connected. While this spiritual connection may take many forms and guises as it necessarily evolves and matures, our graduates should be spiritually vibrant and engaged human beings. While I often w onder whether our students are “connecting” during tefillah I have no doubt that they will miss the experience of setting aside time in the middle of their daily routine to pause, reflect, refresh and connect. Rather than simply “missing” this context for spiritual exploration, our graduates should find new outlets and ways of connecting once they’ve left our schools.

• Intellectual life. Our graduates should embody the value of Torah lishma (learning for its own sake). They should be curious, open-minded, creative, playful, iconoclastic, imaginative, rigorous and critical in their intellectual lives. They should think not only with their minds, but with their hearts and souls. They should view life as a puzzle, as a work of art, as a gift, and as a challenge; they should bring their vast intellectual and emotional resources to all that they do. They should not accept the status quo, they should wonder aloud, they should journal, blog, draw and paint. They should speak multiple languages, travel and greet the vast storehouses of information with a critical eye.

• Civic Life. In 1866 the Russian Jewish intellectual and poet, Judah Leib Gordon, wrote the following in his poem “Awake My People!”:

 “Be a man abroad and a Jew in your tent.”

Times have changed, and to the great benefit of all involved, the dichotomy between the universal and the particular, between the “human” and the “Jewish” has become a creative dialectic rather than a strict separation. Just as we expect our graduates to explore their Jewish commitments from a place of full humanity, so too do we hope that they will engage in the broader (and often secular) society as Jews.

Citizenship needs to be a key concept in Jewish education. That our graduates will be exemplary citizens, enriching their neighborhoods, communities, cities and ultimately helping to actualize the democratic ideal at the core of our American identity should absolutely be a stated and deliberate aim of Jewish education. Jewish independent schools are particularly well suited for this task because we equip our graduates with the necessary tools and knowledge to bring a Jewish voice to civic discourse. Jewish independent schools contribute and promote diversity by ensuring that a plurality of “Jewish voices” have articulate champions in the broader marketplace of ideas.

• Ethical life. The “human being” is not a neutral entity in Judaism. We are only “human” insofar as we are ethical, or good. This sentiment is expressed in the Yiddish word mensch. While they’re still beneath the shelter of our wings, we have an ethical obligation to socialize our students toward ethical living. It isn’t enough for our graduates to be successful; they need to be, first and foremost, ethical. In the absence of ethics, all the other things we’ve tried to instill become meaningless or even dangerous. If, at graduation, we place our diplomas in the hands of mensches, then we know that we’ve done all that we can to make a positive difference in the world. n

Micah Lapidus is director of Judaic and Hebrew Studies at Davis Academy in Atlanta, Ga. He wrote this piece for, where it first appeared.