Jewish Day School as Life Itself

As we update Jewish education for the 21st century through initiatives like PJ Library, our legacy institutions have no less potential to help students thrive through relevant Jewish learning. Here, Tikvah Wiener describes a day school that helps students learn through living, a day school that rivals the best of any independent schools, and one that works fully in partnership with other communities’ agencies. The Idea School is an experiment in day school education, one imperative to our future. We’re grateful to be able to learn from her.


Imagine a world where students solve real-world problems and create art that is both deeply and meaningfully about the students themselves and the role they play in the world. Imagine a world where a school is not just about teaching and learning but about building a community.


About seven years ago, I saw a video about such a world. The film focused on the High Tech Schools, a group of amazing public charter schools in San Diego, CA, run by an exceptional educator named Larry Rosenstock. The students were doing what I only imagined to be a possibility. The video featured one class using DNA coding to help animal conservators in Nairobi track elephants, while another was creating an assistive device for a young woman with special needs. Other students were developing graphic design skills, so they could make a comic book.


The educational model the High Tech schools use is called project-based learning (PBL). I was transfixed, wondering what it would look like to build a Jewish high school where learning would be driven by student interests and passions, where inquiry would be at the heart of school, and where the walls between school and community would melt away. The journey from learning about project-based learning to building The Idea School has been my own PBL unit — grounded in my passions as an educator, connected to the Jewish and larger worlds in which I live and which I love, and showing me that the most meaningful type of learning is collaborating with others to solve problems and build a more promising future.


How does a school like this exist and graduate students prepared for college and the real lives ahead of them?


Though I wanted to jump in and build “Jewish High Tech High” right away, I had to be more practical and slowly educate the field and my community about project-based learning. I started with the I.D.E.A. Schools Network, which would train Jewish educators in PBL. Since the Network was formed in 2014 with a grant from the Joshua Venture Group (now Upstart), we’ve trained more than 1,000 Jewish educators, and our signature program, a three-day PBL conference called the Summer Sandbox, draws teachers and administrators from around the country. One of the joys of the past four years has been the opportunity to travel frequently to the High Tech High schools, to learn from Larry and at his Graduate School of Education, and to take numerous groups of Jewish educators for one-day visits.


This September, my dream of creating an interdisciplinary, PBL Jewish high school will be realized when The Idea School opens its doors. Our focus will be on student interests and agency; our desire is to contextualize all learning by de-siloing disciplines; and our aim is to empower students to find deep personal meaning in their Judaism and to become active, engaged citizens.


The stuff that students traditionally do outside of the classroom — extracurricular activities— will be built into the academic program. Also embedded in the program will be real-world and social and emotional skills, such as self-regulation, productivity, collaboration and reflection. Students will be ready for the workplace, and to live a rich, fulfilling life. That The Idea School will integrate Jewish texts, learning and practice into everything we do means students will understand how Judaism informs all areas of their life, giving it purpose and depth.


Though many find the educational model radical and new, to me it seems very Jewish. The emphasis on collaboration and finding meaning in learning, as a group, reminds me of a beit midrash. In fact one of the verses that’s become foundational to the school is “As iron sharpens iron, so one friend sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17), a concept that’s at the heart of hevruta learning. At the core of PBL is the notion that every person is a creator, an idea that’s underscored in the Torah when, in describing how the Mishkan — the Tabernacle — is made, the Book of Exodus references Genesis and God’s creation of the world. We engage in imitatio Dei when we create. Larry Rosenstock talks about PBL and how the act of creation connects head, heart and hand. So true. At The Idea School, we’ll be adding soul, too.


Where we would locate was obviously an important decision on the journey to opening this type of school, as our educational goals needed a place where they could be realized. We’ve been fortunate to find a home at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, NJ.


As anyone who lives in Bergen County will tell you, the JCC is one of our community’s treasures. Situated on a gently rolling hill amid trees and meandering roads, the JCC is a bustling communal hive. It has a preschool, therapeutic nursery, swimming pools, tennis courts, a gym, a highly acclaimed music school, an art studio, a robust Hebrew and Israel education program, a special needs program and adult senior programs. It has an indoor and outdoor garden run in consultation with GrowTorah, a Jewish farming and gardening organization; a Jewish library and a separate Hebrew book library; as well as athletic and other programs for teens.


Once Jordan Shenker, CEO, and Sue Gelsey, COO, of the JCC learned about The Idea School’s educational mission, they felt we would be a perfect match. From their perspective, they weren’t looking for a program that just needed space. They saw that built into the learning model was the ability for students to connect to the real world, and they recognized that the existing JCC programs would provide us with that opportunity. They wanted us to be part of their community, and vice versa.


One of this location’s benefits is that our core values of community, chesed, and PBL can blend together. Often schools plan chesed trips — days where students can visit with the elderly or those with special needs. Our daily schedule will incorporate this meaningful work: The students can help Yosef Gillers of GrowTorah tend the gardens with the seniors, preschoolers and those with special needs, and our students can share their learning with these populations as well. Just seeing all these different populations in the halls, on the way to and from activities, will create a feeling of camaraderie and hone the idea that we’re all part of an intergenerational community of lifelong learners.


And our students will benefit from the JCC’s array of art, drama, dance and music classes, as well as its athletic facilities and workout classes. We’re grateful as a new school to be able to offer students a rich variety of opportunities. We also look forward to the JCC community enjoying what we’ll bring to its site: a Maker Space, a high- and low-tech lab where people can build, create and iterate whatever it is they imagine.


Rather than silo our work away from the broader Northern NJ Jewish community and innovate separately, we have an opportunity to strengthen our community in partnership with the JCC. The collaboration proves one of the tenets of the project-based learning philosophy, as described by John Dewey, one of its original proponents: Education shouldn’t be preparation for life; it should be life itself.