Recently, in an nprEd article, “Nonacademic Skills Are Key To Success. But What Should We Call Them?” the author, Anya Kamenetz, wrote that more than ever before, people in education and in the workforce agree on the importance of learning “stuff” other than academics. This “stuff” is often labeled soft skills, and includes non-cognitive traits and habits, social and emotional skills, growth mindset, 21st century skills, grit, and character.
I’m proud that at Hillel, for at least the past 10 years, we have been discussing the importance of these skills, which prepare our children for the world they will inherit. And I’m proud that we’ve adapted our curriculum and building to reflect the importance of teaching these skills, alongside the reading, writing and math that are also essential. Many schools, both private and public, have struggled to embrace this other “stuff!” Hillel has been an early adopter and a leader in this conversation.
What struck me, when reading the article, was the section about the soft skill called “character.” In writing about character education, Kamenetz references the network of KIPP charter schools in New York City that emphasize seven “character strengths.” I was taken by a statement from an official at the school who was quoted in the article: “We’re not religious, we’re not talking about ethics, we’re not going to give any kind of doctrine about right from wrong.”
Several years ago, I attended a meeting of local Independent School Heads. One of the topics included character education. I remember my reaction when a local Head commented that the school had formed a committee to decide what character traits to adopt, and how the committee had to meet for months to arrive at an agreement. It appears that when character is a soft skill, it requires a committee to decide what character means, and that it can leave out ethics and a notion of right from wrong.
At Hillel, our experience is different. Character is not a soft skill. Character is a strong value, woven into the fabric of our Jewish tradition and embedded in the school’s core Jewish values. We do not need a committee to decide what character means or which traits to adopt. Our Torah, our texts, centuries of rabbinic discourse, God, these all inform our understanding of character and provide a blueprint for behavior. We know what we must do.
It is clear to me that a Jewish day school education, and a Hillel education in particular, should be obvious for Jewish parents. I understand the debate among Jewish parents who truly believe in public education. I am a supporter of excellent public schools. For Jewish families I just strongly believe the Jewish education is so essential that day school should be the choice.
So, to the more than 20 percent of parents in the community who pay to send their children to elite private schools that are not Jewish – I ask you: why are you paying more than the cost of a Hillel education to send your children to one of these schools? If it is for the ivy-covered buildings, Hogwarts-like libraries and cafeterias, massive indoor sporting facilities, or the propinquity, I urge you to reconsider.
If you seek an education for your children that is “farther along the 21st-century educational journey” than its peers, according to another school leader in the community, and a school where character is not decided by committee but imbued in children by a deep and meaningful Jewish education, then step foot into Hillel. See what our school is truly about, and observe our wonderful, warm learning environment first-hand. Perhaps you will discover what we have always known – and save your hard-earned money as well!