Multiple Models of Schools as Learning Communities

Posted by Zvi Grumet on November 17, 2013
Topics: Day Schools, Teaching Resources & Education

School as a micro-community

I first heard a dramatic expression of this idea in an oral presentation by Yitz Greenberg to participants in a principals’ program conducted by The Lookstein Center and later published (Greenberg, 2006). Greenberg writes:

In the school total environment, the educator can create a community; the Rav calls it a covenantal community. A covenantal community is marked by commitments of love to each other. Here discipline grows as a result of the relationship and is not merely imposed from above. The principal can take the lead in creating a community in which every student is treated like a full member of a covenantal community. The driving force is human dignity and the presence of God. These principles will be expressed in the way the adults listen to a child, in the way students are respected, in the way each person is helped to develop his/her tselem elokim, image of God. If the community created in the day school is a model of Judaism at its best, it can become a very powerful example and inspiration to the students. … (pp. 34-35)

The principal can shape the world of the day school by picking teachers who respect tselem elokim, whether they teach in the Jewish studies department or in the General studies department. Through proper choices of teachers, one increases the possibilities for integration. … The administration can create a covenantal environment in which people are committed in mutual love and to sustain each other. Then the school becomes a place where discipline grows out of a sense of covenant and does not simply serve as a functional tool to keep the students passive or make life easier for the teacher. In a model environment discipline emerges out of a real sense of mission – to create human beings in the image of God within an ideal society. Life in such a total environment is so moving and so meaningful, that when students go into the broader world they will want to make that world resemble the world of their school. … (pp. 46-47)

This is a very important opportunity – to create a society in which you actually shape an entire world. This is the chance to generate a real sense of community, in which the students deeply believe that the authorities really care that they exist. They are convinced that the teachers think about them, their welfare and their world. (p. 47)

Greenberg’s vision is broad, in which he sees the school as a miniature community in which students play a significant role. The very notion of empowering students shifts the balance in the school, and by its nature demands that teachers and the school’s leadership be prepared to learn from the students.

Greenberg’s concept was given body in 1968 in the form of the SAR Academy in Riverdale, NY. As the school developed, the vision was implemented in a variety of ways. Students became responsible for a variety of activities (e.g., they collected and decided where tzedakah should go), students learned the mitzvot of bikur holim and nihum aveilim through doing rather than through books, the school focused heavily on developing a sense of mutual caring and responsibility amongst the student body, students developed relationships with local elderly through visitations, and much more. As the school developed the vision shifted slightly, as energies were invested to strengthen the bonds between the school, the home, and the communities from which the students came.

To many readers none of this will sound particularly distinct, and today there are day schools which have gone way beyond this in their empowerment of students through institutions such as (real) student government, democratic principles, and town hall meetings (Bailey, 2010; 2012; Bonner, 2012; Kislowicz, 2010; Rothner and Hamerman, 2010; Wiener, 2012; Wizenfeld, 2010), but in its day this was considered radical, and the pervasiveness of these practices in many contemporary schools is a testimony to the power of the vision which helped to create it. To that extent, it may be fair to say that this articulation of the school as a community has indeed begun to gain traction in the day school world.

While many of the expressions of Greenberg’s idea (and indeed, Greenberg’s vision itself) are built on the idea of placing the student at the center of our efforts, Jon Levison (2009) suggests re-shifting the focus. Rather than asking the question of “What makes an educated Jew?” he suggests asking, “What makes an ideal Jewish community?” and placing that question at the center of the educational program. Thus he writes:

What if the focus on the educated person, or the educated Jew, overlooks a function of education that is more communal? I do not mean only that individuals are or ought to be members of communities, that they have certain responsibilities to others, and that they derive certain benefits from being in association with others. In education, building school communities is instrumentally valuable for any number of reasons …

However, my aim in this chapter is to consider the possibility that communities are not only instrumentally but also intrinsically valuable; that they are ends rather than or as well as means. What are the educational implications of thinking about communities as ends in themselves, rather than as means to individual fulfilment and flourishing? What happens if, in our construction of visions of Jewish education, we seek to establish not only what is an educated Jew but also what is an ideal Jewish community? (p. 92)

The educational implications of such a shift are subtle but significant. They affect the choice of curriculum and focus, which mitzvot and what kinds of obligations to emphasize, and even the framing of those as we teach them. It affects questions such as the value of personal piety and character, whether they have value if they do not find expression in helping to forge community.

School as an organic part of community

A different articulation of the idea of the school as a learning community looks not to teach its students about the community, but sees the school itself as an organic part of its broader community. This idea has become popular in many small to midsize Jewish communities, both for practical and for ideological reasons. Regardless of the reasons, the integration of the school into communal life transforms the student experience. The school is not the place that they “visit” during their “working” hours, but an inseparable extension of their Jewish communal lives. The school becomes more than a place of their own learning – it becomes a place where they play and experience multiple youth activities (from the recreational to the spiritual), and where their parents go to learn, to pray, and to be involved in Jewish life. Below are a number of diverse examples from across the United States.

Sharon, Mass.

Take, for example, Striar Hebrew Academy in Sharon, Mass. This small K-8 school is housed in the local Orthodox synagogue. The school is an integral part of the community, from the faculty to the students. The people one meets in school are likely going to be the same ones one meets in shul, and it is hard to imagine the community surviving without its school. The opening of a new middle school for girls in the same community will likely shake things up in the upper grades at Striar, but in the Orthodox community this is essentially a one-shul, one-school town and those institutions will be mutually supportive.

Raleigh-Durham, NC

Another example is the Lerner School in Raleigh-Durham, NC. This school is the only day school in town, and is therefore deeply integrated into and committed to serving the entire Jewish community. Look at the following statements on the school’s website:

  • We foster a sense that our students and families are part of a larger Jewish community, a community we all must support and that will support us.
  • We strive to meet students at their level, accommodating both gifted students and those with learning differences.
  • We welcome all families and are committed to providing a Jewish education for any family that desires one, regardless of financial resources.
  • We engage multi-generational members of our community in teaching and learning – for example, older students mentor younger ones, and students and community elders engage each other.

The school actively encourages parents to participate in their children’s educational experiences, from attending a model seder to joining in the school’s sukkah. The school is part of a “Jewish campus” meant to centralize many of the Jewish community’s institutions, and makes extensive use of the JCC’s nearby facilities for art, music and physical education, utilizing rather than duplicating existing communal resources. This school is one of a number which have summer camps attached to them, not only to make efficient use of a communal resource but to position the school as a center of year-round Jewish youth activity.


Denver is an example of a mid-size Jewish community. While there are multiple schools in the city, there is one which identifies itself as Modern Orthodox. The school community has spawned a shul on its campus, which helps to create community and attract people into the school. The two institutions share resources and are mutually supportive, and adult-education activities support the educational activities of the students. The shul Rabbi holds a significant position in the school, synagogue programs are designed with the school’s students in mind and builds upon what the students are learning in school. The school has a community farm as well as a day camp, which help to boost the school’s presence in town and make it a more central locus of the community, and the school-synagogue have built a mikvah on campus to further highlight the campus as a center of Jewish life.

Brooklyn, NY

A dramatically different example is the Hannah Senesh (K-8) school in downtown Brooklyn. Brooklyn is hardly a small or mid­size city, and there are more Jewish resources nearby than in any Jewish community outside of Israel. Still, the pluralistic Jewish community of downtown Brooklyn has proven to be fertile ground for the school to position itself as a center of communal learning and activity.

Hannah Senesh recently launched “SmallCity@Senesh” – a community oriented program designed to serve the broader community including those who are not even considering day school education. It includes a variety of components, including Sunday morning programming for early childhood (newborn to pre-school), after-school programming for high school students, community-oriented holiday celebrations, and Hebrew language courses open to the public. In addition to SmallCity@Senesh the school runs a Hebrew camp during the summers, which serves both as a complement to its year-long learning as well as a resource for the general community. The SmallCity@Senesh initiative stands out in that it is not part of a recruitment effort, nor even a direct effort to enrich the learning of the students enrolled in the school, but an expression of the school’s vision as a Jewish learning center for the community.

Despite the community focus of the programming, the presence of these activities in the school sends a powerful, albeit subtle, message to the student body that Jewish learning is not only for school-age children registered by their parents. The importance ofthis message, communicated through action rather than words, cannot be underestimated. (For a fuller description of the program at Hannah Senesh see RAVSAK)

Complementary models

The multiple models of the school as a learning community are not mutually exclusive, rather, the complement each other. The inward-focused processes within a school – particularly when done with a transparency which makes them clear to teachers, students, parents, and lay leadership – help to foster a culture of learning and openness. The external-focused efforts, whether driven by financial concerns, recruitment considerations, or a community-oriented vision, help to generate the sense that learning happens beyond school and into life as a whole.


Bailey, S. (2010). Educating for an ethical Jewish community. Jewish Educational Leadership 8(3).

Bailey, S. (2012). Empowering students: A win-win strategy. Jewish Educational Leadership 10(2).

Bonner, D. (2012). Student empowerment: A student’s perspective. Jewish Educational Leadership 10(2).

Greenberg, Y. (2006). Judaism and modernity: Realigning the two worlds (Ed. Z. Grumet). Ramat Gan, Israel: The Lookstein Center.

Kislowicz, B. (2010). Teaching middot and Jewish values: Concrete ideas. Jewish Educational Leadership 8(3).

Rothner, D. and Hamerman , S. (2010). Areyvut: Teaching Jewish ethics through action. Jewish Educational Leadership 8(3).

Levisohn, J. A. (2009). Community as a Means and an End in Jewish Education, in Jewish Day Schools, Jewish Communities: A Reconsideration (Ed. A. Pomson and H. Dietcher). London: Littman Library.

Wiener, T. (2012). RealSchool: Giving students the reins. Jewish Educational Leadership 10(2).

Wizenfeld, C. (2010). Town hall training. Jewish Educational Leadership 8(3).

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