An unprecedented gift to the Leo Baeck Day School in Toronto promises to be a “major game-changer” in the way social justice in taught in schools, says head of school Eric Petersiel.
The bequest in the will of Rabbi Arthur Bielfeld, rabbi emeritus of Toronto’s Temple Emanu-El, of “over a million dollars” will allow the Reform day school to write, develop and share curriculum on social justice, Petersiel said.
Rabbi Bielfeld’s “vision is that we will be able to spread social justice education through Jewish eyes, throughout the school system in Canada,” Petersiel said.
The gift, which will provide seed funding for the Leo Baeck Tikkun Project, was announced May 24 at a reception hosted by Leslie and Anna Dan, longtime supporters of the school, the only Reform Jewish day school in Canada, and with 850 students on two campuses, the largest in North America.
The fund, will among other things, be used to hire an educator who will write social justice curriculum that will be tied to Ontario education ministry standards.
“There has always been a strong social justice component [in the school], but it’s always been very hard to tie it to curriculum in a meaningful way that would allow it to spread beyond the walls of the school,” Petersiel said.
The school receives about 300 requests a year from various charities asking the school to raise funds.
“What this [gift] says is that’s not good enough. If we don’t teach our kids the Jewish ‘why’ of our responsibility to the world and do it through their actual education then it won’t change the way they view the world and their responsibility for it.”
The school is designated as an International Baccalaureate (IB) World School, and Petersiel hopes this will enable it to share curriculum with other Jewish schools as well as independent and public schools.
The endowment is the largest donation the school has received in its 42-year history and its first endowment and bequest, he said.
Rabbi Bielfeld, who was instrumental in founding the school, has been active in social justice initiatives throughout his career. In 2012, he was appointed a member of the Order of Canada.
He has been deeply involved in the campaign to end child poverty and a recent initiative that involved students at Leo Baeck, led him to realize the importance of including children.
“All of us [involved in the campaign] came away with a different understanding of the role young people can play if they are properly motivated and educated,” he said.
He envisions the curriculum being developed and tested over 10 years, to learn how best to incorporate Jewish texts and values into social justice education. The school is the ideal place for this experiment, he said.
“Since the program is aimed at the integration of social justice, social change and philanthropy, that has to be discovered in a real-world school setting. I can’t think of any school that is better equipped to handle that mandate than the Leo Baeck school, which was originally established as a liberal Jewish day school.”
Micki Mizrahi, a member of the school’s board and chair of the development committee, says the endowment will give Leo Baeck the opportunity to “do exciting programming that goes beyond the everyday operation of our school.
“Every grade has special projects, but we haven’t been able to put the time and resources to really integrate tikkun olam into the curriculum. This gift is going to allow us to do just that,” she said. “We’re hoping this endowment will change the landscape of philanthropy of our school.”