I’ve been associated with Schechter schools for slightly more than three decades, having begun my journey at the then Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union, now Golda Och Academy, as an eleven year old sixth grader. Golda Och herself (May Her Memory Be a Blessing) was my high school Jewish history teacher and her impact, like that of so many other teachers in my life, was profound. She, together with Mr. Jacobson, offered me perspective that has enabled me to experience the ebbs and flows of recent American Jewish history at least in part through the lens of our schools.
The age of Soviet, Jewish emigration in the late 1970’s, when I was in middle school, began my experience of connectedness to Jewish history in the making. My school opened its doors wide to embrace new émigrés fortunate enough to have been able to gain the then coveted permission to leave their native land. While I would later become a student leader within the Soviet Jewry Movement, at the time I felt blessed to get to know my Russian classmates who to me seemed like pioneers, part of something that mattered.
Then came the growth years of the early 1980’s when I was in high school and believed all things were possible. Our own school saw the move to a new, larger building needed to accommodate our burgeoning numbers. We experienced the introduction of computers into our school and felt the hope of expansive possibility. We were exuberant to be part of something that mattered.
Soon recognition within the Jewish community of dwindling numbers of Jews and declining Jewish commitment brought the charge to produce talented Jewish educators able to infuse passion and knowledge into the next generation. As a young rabbinical student, my destiny became intertwined with that of the day school movement. I was actively recruited to complete a doctorate in Jewish Education and courted to embark on a career leading Schechter schools. Education was at the time one of the primary communal answers to growing concerns about apathy and assimilation in the Jewish community. Armed with my ordination and my Ph.D., I was sent out into the trenches of the day schools to participate in work that mattered.
With the onset of the twenty-first century came the beginnings of disillusionment, but by no means despair. Day schools were falling from communal favor for a range of reasons and our work, once extolled, felt to me almost at times marginalized. Sometimes lonely, yet committed to our students and our mission, day school educators reached out to connect with the broader world of education in search of insight. Our schools became stronger educationally, reaching ever higher levels of accomplishment while remaining grounded in our enduring Jewish values and tradition. Although at times at least some of us felt underappreciated, we remained part of something that mattered.
Finally, came 2008 and an economic downturn that has impacted not only Jewish day schools, but most schools – parochial, independent and public. The affordability crisis so often pointed to in the news is not merely a day school challenge, but an education challenge. And what have we found? Amidst challenge stems creativity. Lean budgets have by no means limited educational innovation as we have felt the responsibility to continue to strengthen the quality of our schools while managing our costs. And, despite all the challenges, so many of our schools continue to thrive. More than ever, we know we are part of something that matters.
Rabbi Shira Leibowitz, Ph.D. has been Lower School Principal at Schechter Westchester in White Plains, New York since, 2000. She holds a Ph.D in Education and Rabbinic Ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America as well as a BA from Cornell University. She speaks and writes on educational topics, with particular interest in character and values education. You can follow Rabbi Leibowitz on twitter @shiraleibowitz or on her blog sharingourblessings.wordpress.com.