Head of School, Kohelet Yeshiva. Chief Academic Officer, Kohelet Foundation. Fascinated with the Jewish future.
Our Admissions Department sent out this video yesterday as a means of inviting students and parents to our upcoming Open House.
In the hours that have passed since its release we've been inundated with responses and comments via email and social media. Amongst them have been several requests for more information: what was occasion for the talk, what else was said, how did the kids respond, and more. While I really want to respond individually, for the sake of efficiency and expediency, I thought I'd explain it more fully here instead.
First and foremost, the driving force behind this video was the creative tag team of our Director of Admissions, Mrs. Daniella Weprin and film director (and Kohelet alum) Mr. Josh Gold. After months of hard work and input from diverse groups of stakeholders, our Board passed an updated mission statement toward the end of last year, and Daniella and Josh's idea was to bring it to life on camera. My only contribution was an insistence that nothing be staged or scripted. Our school's mission is at the heart of everything we do and one of our goals for this year was to articulate that to our students, our parents, and our community more than ever. As such, I felt strongly that allowing the cameras to "catch us in the act" of articulating our mission would be far more powerful - and far more authentic - than putting on some sort of show.
That's what led to the decision to let the cameras in on our "Town Hall" last week in which we grappled with the question of what Modern Orthodoxy really means. Below is a letter I sent to our parents on Friday of last week explaining in greater detail what it is we did and what I hoped our students took away from it. The letter, in effect, is the story behind the video.
At Town Hall earlier this week we picked up the theme we had begun at orientation by focusing on the core mission of Kohelet Yeshiva High School. The goal of this session was to help students deepen their understanding of the term "Modern Orthodox" - a term which plays a central role in our institutional identification.
I started the program with an exercise that was intentionally provocative. I asked the students to think for a moment about what the term "Modern Orthodox" means to them and then to look at two fictitious profiles I had created and determine whether the people I had described - a 35 year-old mother of four named Robin and a 67 year-old retiree named Jack - were "Modern Orthodox" in their mind. What ensued were rather vigorous debates in small groups both about the term and about the "people." I then asked each group to vote on each of the two profiles and share their consensus with the rest of the school. Predictably, there was significant variation amongst our student body as to which of the two - if either - could properly be called "Modern Orthodox."
After we all listened to each other, I concluded the program by offering a few thoughts of my own. The first thing that I told them was that the exercise that we just went through was one that I really disliked. While it was a valuable teaching tool to get kids thinking deeply about ideas critical to their own self-concept, in the real-world reducing people to labels and defining who is "in" and who is "out" is something we ought to strenuously avoid. After all, people are complex. Each of us is far more than a few lines on a sheet of paper, more than what we wear, more than where we live. And so reducing a person to a two-word appellation - that means different things to different people - often causes more harm than good.
On the other hand, I told them that I did feel that the term Modern Orthodoxy has considerable value, as it's a way of referring to a collection of Torah values which a certain segment of our population find to be particularly powerful, meaningful, and enriching. I noted that from the very outset our people belonged to 12 different shevatim - each of them unique in their strengths and weaknesses, each with unique proclivities and aspirations. At the same time, of course, their shared commitment to the same core beliefs and way of life, allowed their diversity to become an asset rather than a liability.
So too, with us. The school's identification with Modern Orthodoxy doesn't make each of us "Modern Orthodox" and it doesn't have to. It means that we stand for certain values and principles which should give us great pride and instill in us a sense of mission. I noted that to me, Modern Orthodoxy always means "more and not less." It means Torah study that is broad in its reach both in terms of what we study and who we encourage to study it. It means that General Studies and the Arts are not purely utilitarian pursuits that get us into college or land us a job, but they are a critical part of how we relate to God and how we come to understand Him. The same is true with regard to Israel. Whereas most Jews agree that Israel is the place of our history and our heritage, Modern Orthodoxy reflects the belief that it is the place of today and tomorrow as well. That it's not just Eretz Yisrael that has a role in our religious worldview but Medinat Yisrael - with all of its challenges and struggles - as well. And our values with regard to community can similarly be described as "more and not less." We believe strongly in the importance of our local, tight-knit, Orthodox communities. But we also see great value in extending ourselves beyond: into the larger Jewish world, into the broader faith-based community, and into completely secular society as well. Modern Orthodoxy, after all, maintains that we have important ideas and values to convey to others, and that others have invaluable lessons to teach us as well.
Of course this was just the beginning of a conversation which we'll continue here in school and which I encourage you to continue at home as well.