From SAR Principal Rabbi Binyamin Krauss:
Dear Gershon and Jeff,
So let me get this straight- the current schools are bad and expensive. Kids don't feel engaged- they told you so. And they don't like tests. You are going to build a new school. What will it stand for?
Learning- The kids will learn what they want. Will there be a curriculum? Will there be any expectations, in terms of skills, on your graduates? How will those expectations be assessed? In the survey you referenced, less than 30% of respondents were interested in learning Tanach or Gemara, and less than 40% were interested in history or science. Less than 25% were interested in literature. Will these courses be absent in your school? Will they be optional? Over 60% of the respondents felt that critical thinking is taught in their current schools, yet you make the claim that your school will be different as it will focus on critical thinking? Does that add up?
Commitment- Will tefilla be optional or mandatory? Will there be a dress code? Kippot? Tzitzit? For the boys and the girls, just the boys, or neither? What is your plan for inspiring a passion for yiddishkeit? Will all of your graduates be committed to observance? Will none of them text on shabbos? Will you accept students from families with varying levels of commitment? How will you balance the 21st century need for individualism and choice with a commitment to religion which sometimes requires blind faith, surrender, obedience, and individual sacrifice?
Cost- how will you attract quality teachers? Will the compensation you offer be competitive? Will the co-curricular activities that allow kids to follow their passions, make choices among a broad variety of options, be available? Will they cost extra? Will you be able to offer foreign language courses that will allow these kids to compete in the global economy? Will you have the facilities to allow kids to whose passions are not "traditional" to find themselves? Will you offer STEM for those future engineers among our kids? Will the additional focus on psychology, business, and film (as per the interests of the survey respondents) come at no additional cost? Will all of what you will offer be included in the cost of tuition or will you pursue outside funding to make it happen?
Clientele- you say that you are open to everything, and would open a separate school or a coed school, and a range of different outlooks. Have you thought about what you will do when all agree that they want the cheaper school, but otherwise have different and mutually exclusive demands for how that school will look- in terms of many of the questions that the modern/centrist orthodox community today do not agree about?
Gershon and Jeff- I truly admire your passion and your desire to make Jewish education better, in terms of cost and quality. I admire your commitment and your ability to implement your vision with the founding of Yeshivat heatid and WTA, and the AJE project to help others follow your lead. I truly hope that all of these initiatives will be successful, and that the legacy schools will learn from your ideas, with regard to blended learning and other efficiencies. Time will tell whether it is possible to offer high quality education for half the price. I am skeptical. But your hearts are in the right place and I hope that this will all be good for the broader community.
Yet your recent letter to all 7th grade parents, in my opinion, lacks a dose of humility, candor, reflection, and respect for the legacy schools, and I find that sad. You raise important issues including commitment to observance and passion for Torah learning, blended and project based learning needs, and different kinds of assessments. But to claim, on the basis of one year of the existence of a pre school and first grade in Teaneck, that you have now identified the solution to all of the challenges of yeshiva day schools, and that you can implement it for half the price, is presumptuous, and unimpressive. Unfortunately, critiquing is easier than doing, and the easiest part of any construction project is ripping up the existing structures. Much more challenging is building the new in ways that work.
A lot of thought has gone into developing thoughtful and observant students, making tefilla meaningful, and engaging kids in their learning through technology, project based learning, and other models. Some initiatives have worked. Some less so. A glance at lookjed, the list-serve facilitated by the Lookstein Center at Bar Ilan with membership of over 3000 educators, will reveal some of the thoughtful ideas out there that are being tried, in real schools, with real kids. There is always more to be done. If you have ideas, beyond identifying the problems and promising solutions without outlining them, please share them. And if you think that your vision can only be actualized in a new institution, then create one, and let us learn. But your letter sounds like a good campaign speech, with hollow promises that lack details, and are sure to disappoint. Your blending of the issues of cost with the issues of engagement, commitment, and passion feel like you are simply trying to push a lot of buttons to reach the widest audience possible, and then promise all that you will save them.
I encourage you, in addition to surveying kids, as you have done, to speak with educators, and learn from their generations of experience, their successes and their failures. Maybe you can learn something from them, and they can learn and be challenged by you.
Rabbi Binyamin Krauss
Principal, SAR Academy