Monday, November 04, 2013

Vision-Driven Institutions: Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan

In 2007, I wrote on this blog about the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Israel. At the time, I expressed my skepticism about my ability to turn this into a regular feature, but here I am, just six short years later, with a description of another innovative institution, the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan. I wrote this piece as part of my coursework for the executive doctoral program at the Davidson School of Education. This is not a comprehensive discussion of the institution, but a description of just one element of the program, and the institutional leader who created it.

Dr. Steven Lorch is the founding headmaster of the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, a K-8 Jewish Day School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that is currently in its 18th year. I taught at Schechter Manhattan for three years. I loved its team-teaching approach (every class is led by two teachers, both fluent in Hebrew, who share responsibility for all areas of the curriculum), its constructivist philosophy, and its focus on menschlichkeit [kindness and empathy] as a core component of the institution. Yet, no aspect of my work there has influenced me more thoroughly than the experience of leading daily worship and teaching its tefilah [prayer] curriculum. At both Central Synagogue and Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, the two institutions I have served since leaving Schechter Manhattan, I have attempted to adapt the Schechter prayer curriculum to suit the needs of a Reform Jewish supplementary school setting. This sketch focuses solely on this aspect of Dr. Lorch’s work: His role as the creator of the Schechter Manhattan tefilah curriculum.


In Dr. Lorch’s estimation, “children emerge from this program with several invaluable assets” that clearly distinguish them from the graduates of other Jewish schools. First and foremost, the majority of students “consider themselves to have a personal relationship with God. They are comfortable and fearless about engaging in God talk.” At the same time, students “have an evolving notion of God and of the relationship between God and human beings and between God and the Jewish people.” And, perhaps most importantly, “they are reflective about their awareness of that evolving understanding.” In other words, not only does their relationship with God become more sophisticated as they grow older, they are also able to articulate their perspectives on that process. Simultaneously, “they know the words and nusach [prayer liturgy and the associated melodies] as well as they can be known [and] they are comfortable functioning as leaders of different kinds in various tefilah settings.” While Dr. Lorch acknowledges that there are other schools where students graduate with some of these skills and characteristics, he isn’t aware of another school where this happens as consistently and comprehensively.

The success of the tefilah curriculum is predicated on cultivating in the students “a facility with engaging regularly with questions of ultimate value.” Dr. Lorch considers this something that children do spontaneously. “If it’s encouraged, it flourishes, and children grow to have great spiritual lives in which they are regularly thinking about important issues and connecting their experiences, their lives, and their concerns to these questions.” However, in his opinion, adults usually view such questions negatively, and after a while, children “get the message and stop doing it.” This was his experience as a child, and as a result, he judges himself to be as a less spiritual person than he might otherwise have become.

Responding to his dissatisfaction with his own spiritual education has been a primary motivation to develop a curriculum in which children are engaged by adults in theological discourse. “I can’t turn the clock back and turn myself into a six-year-old. I can do it with 18 children in the first grade class every year. Had I gone to Schechter Manhattan, I would be a different person. I would be a different Jew. I would have a different relationship with God.”

Although Schechter Manhattan is the fourth school he has headed, Dr. Lorch did not make tefilah a central focus of his work in the first three. “The first,” he says, “was a pluralistic school and therefore it was easy to avoid tefilah … the whole community sort of … galvanized their combined efforts to make tefilah too hard to do, so we didn’t do it really. And the second one, it was an Orthodox-in-name-only community school in Australia where everything was lip service anyway … so it made sense for tefilah to be lip service too.” It was as the head of a religious high school in Jerusalem that he first began to ponder the role of tefilah in the school setting. There, the students were “questioning and challenging and demanding [from school worship services] something more meaningful than what they had encountered for nine years of elementary school … or in their home community.” The students’ perception of prayer was that it was “not something that spoke to them, not something … that was worth their time and effort … and after a month or two, I came to the increasing realization that they were bringing to the surface an issue that I had managed to keep suppressed in my own tefilah experience for 40 years. I said [to myself], ‘Wow! I’ve never done anything about the fact that tefilah means nothing to me.’”

Nevertheless, it was not until he became the founding headmaster of Schechter Manhattan, an elementary school, that he saw the opportunity to design a prayer curriculum that would positively influence the spiritual lives of its students. His concern with elementary age students is predicated on his view (which he attributes to James Fowler) that faith development goes through a linear progression of stages, and that “if you don’t develop the particular positive qualities of a particular stage, and you skip over that stage, you will struggle to recover the lost ground of the missed opportunity. You’re supposed to have a phase of na├»ve awareness, appreciation and awe, miss out on that, pay the price forever after.” For Dr. Lorch, by the time students are in high school it is already too late for them to develop this kind of spiritual sensibility. “The way I like to think about is backward planning from the portrait of the ideal graduate. I spent over fifteen years in three different schools on three different continents receiving badly prepared high school freshmen. So I knew that the entering 9th grade student I wanted to produce was different.”

Dr. Lorch is quick to identify Dr. Saul Wachs as his primary influence for the design of the curriculum. “Everything I’ve done in tefilah is an adaptation of his approach. His was the big idea, mine has been just little tweaks of his big idea: You ask the kids provocative spiritual questions, and you engage with them in philosophical or quasi-philosophical discourse.” He refers to Dr. Wachs as a “visionary,” observing that “the work that he did was trailblazing” and unprecedented. He recalls reading Dr. Wachs’ dissertation, and being amazed by how little could have been derived from the literature review.

Schechter Manhattan opened in 1996 with a single kindergarten class. At the outset, Dr. Lorch didn’t have clear goals for the prayer curriculum, but rather an impression of “what tefilah discourse would look like, sound like and feel like.” In contrast with other Jewish studies areas, “where we were just feeling around in the dark all the time, tefilah was the one place where we had a mostly illuminated path right from the first day.” Dr. Lorch describes the development of the tefilah curriculum as akin to reading or mathematics, where they had both a clear sense of the kind of pedagogy they wanted to employ and the content they wanted the students to encounter. “I had a sense of the importance of punctilious recitation of the text and of singing the nusach. I had a sense that kids need to have ingrained in them, imprinted on them, the pillars of tefilah, namely, kabbalat ol malchut shamayim [submission to God’s will] and bakashah [petition].” Dr. Lorch explains that in prayer “you remind yourself that you truly and deeply believe that you are God’s subject and you stand in a subservient relation to God, and nevertheless you have the power to put forward your personal and communal requests to God in a paradoxical and incomprehensible juxtaposition of those two ideas. Everything else is commentary.” To emphasize the centrality of these two “pillars” would necessitate teaching the prayers in a definite sequence, prioritizing teaching the shema and the middle section of the amidah.

Dr. Lorch emphatically affirms that developing the curriculum was a collaborative and eclectic process that took a period of several years. “I didn’t know much about elementary education. I was supported all along the way by the teachers who were implementing it.” For example, during the first days of kindergarten, the prayer service consists solely of a single line of the shema. Shortly afterward, the students add the prayers of the amidah, one at a time. Over the course of their years in the school, they gradually add more prayers and flesh out the texts of the ones they already have. In kindergarten, there is one communal siddur created on giant pieces of posterboard, and beginning in 1st grade, each student has a looseleaf binder for a siddur. Dr. Lorch takes credit for none of these elements. “From a conversation with Sandra [the founding early childhood director] and the teachers that we decided a big chunk of text is not really appropriate [for young children] and to keep to one-liners as much as possible. I think that I probably imported the idea of the loose-leaf siddur from something I learned from Steve Brown in Ramah Poconos in the summer of ’68. Elisa [a classroom teacher] jumped in and became my thought-partner in a number of ways, in particular turning [the curriculum] into a balance of activity-based and discussion-based work.”

A key component of the curriculum is a daily “tefilah question,” in which teachers guide the students to explore the meaning of the words they are saying. Dr. Lorch credits his familiarity and facility with classical Jewish texts as making him particularly well suited to the design of such questions. Yet, he sees these questions as akin to ones that might be asked in any text study involving close reading and deep inquiry. Therefore, even though the purpose of the curriculum is to engage the children in spiritual exploration, it is not predicated on the teacher being him or herself on a spiritual quest. Dr. Lorch notes that he has “come to realize that that is desirable, because if you can have that person functioning as a role model in addition being a teacher, it is preferable -- but it is not essential. The essential part is just good constructivist teaching skills and instincts. All the provocative questions are right there for them, so what works for teaching any other part of the curriculum works for this, as long as the teacher is prepared to expose herself or himself to contending with whatever the consequences of opening the question are.”

To my surprise, despite his assertion that Schechter Manhattan has a transformative effect on the spiritual lives of its students, Dr. Lorch does not have any evidence about the long-term impact and he isn’t actually concerned with finding out. “I don’t know that 4 years later it remains a live, living and evolving part of them. I don’t worry about that My calling as a Jewish educator is to hand my students off to the next Jewish educational setting, in as great a shape as possible to take advantage of the best from what that setting has to offer. And if the next runner in the relay race maintains the lead from when I’ve handed off the baton, perfect. And if he trips and falls, he trips and falls. If he drops the baton, he drops the baton. If I were to try to influence it from here, I would be taking my eye off the ball here.” Nevertheless, Dr. Lorch identifies a “responsibility to communicate with parents and students my expectations that [the students] will continue after 8th grade in an appropriate Jewish educational setting and to facilitate creating those connections, those next steps to Jewish institutions.” He also affirms that such connections need not be a Jewish day school, citing as examples such organizations as Prozdor [a supplementary Hebrew High School run by JTS], Camp Ramah or HaZamir chorale.”

It is, in fact, precisely because Dr. Lorch believes his work has had little influence beyond his own institution and its graduates that he does not describe himself, the tefilah curriculum, or his school as “visionary.” He contrasts himself with Deborah Meier, who he describes as shaping the transformation of the “American high school from BenStein in Ferris Bueller to learning to use your mind.” For him, vision is defined both by the “radical break from the current or previous reality and the scope of the impact. It is [both] having the idea that makes the difference, something the world needs, and being able to disseminate the idea, to see your way clear to translating the idea in a way that will capture the world by storm … I would say [tefilah] is an innovative curriculum, it is a groundbreaking, trail-blazing, pushing out the frontiers of our knowledge of the field … But I have done nothing, or next to nothing, to extend the reach of [the tefilah curriculum] beyond one little school.” While he would be delighted to see others implement this curriculum, he adds with a smile, “I’m not really built for the missionary role, proselytizing to the rest of the Jewish educational world … to see the error of their ways.”

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