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Heschel school challenges parochialism with social justice award

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Kirkland Lake students paint a mural depicting teachings of the Seven Grandfathers.

Jewish day schools sometimes have a reputation for being parochial or close-minded, removed from other cultures or perspectives.

The Toronto Heschel School wants to counter that narrative and ensure its students are exposed to viewpoints and practices beyond the Jewish community, says head of school Greg Beiles.

To achieve this and potentially find other schools to partner with on social justice initiatives, last year Heschel created a social justice award named the Prize for Teaching Excellence.

The annual prize, awarded in November, is intended for educators anywhere in the world teaching at a school of any denomination or background who demonstrate excellence in inspiring students to engage in social responsibility through lessons rooted in a particular heritage, culture or religion.

READ: IF THE PRICE FOR DAY SCHOOL WERE LOWER, WOULD THEY COME?

“We try to teach our kids that Judaism is a powerful source for doing good. The award was to see who’s doing social justice work drawing from their cultural tradition… whether that’s from a Jewish, Muslim, First Nations, or other perspective,” Beiles said.

First prize went to Erin Buchmann, a teacher at the Kirkland Lake District Composite School in northern Ontario, for a project called the Indigenous Awareness program.

Second place was awarded to Todd Clauer of Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy, a day school in Kansas City, for its Upper School Social Justice Project.

First prize

The Indigenous Awareness program involved students creating art based on the teachings of the Seven Grandfathers, a set of Anishinaabe teachings regarding conduct toward others. The Kirkland Lake students painted a large mural in their school, created an art installation and conveyed the teachings through a play they performed.

The project had a 100 per cent pass rate among the students in Buchmann’s class, which previously had a 50 per cent pass rate. And as a result of the program’s success, the school will expand its aboriginal studies program.

Second prize

Clauer’s Upper School Social Justice Project, conducted in partnership with a local charter school, involved students learning about inequality of access to health care in their community. Some of the topics covered included promoting voter engagement and campaigning for universal childhood education.

The project also involved the Jewish students learning about civil rights in the southern United States alongside inner city African-American students.

Heschel issued an international call for submissions and received entries from schools across Canada, the United States and Israel, including institutions of Jewish, Christian, African-American and First Nations backgrounds.

‘We want students to understand that there are lots of amazing tools within the Jewish tradition for doing good, but other people have tools within their traditions’

Heschel publicized the winners on its website and the website of the Lola Stein Institute (LSI), a teacher training and research initiative that promotes excellence in Jewish education. The award was also publicized in Think magazine, the LSI’s semi-annual publication.

The finalists were evaluated by a panel of judges that included Canadian Senator Nancy Ruth and Henry Kim, director and CEO of the Aga Kahn Museum.

READ: THE CHALLENGE OF THE JEWISH MIDDLE CLASS

“We want our students to understand that Judaism is a source of inspiration for being ethical, global citizens, but also that other people are doing good in the world, and that it’s OK to draw on your cultural heritage to contribute to the world,” Beiles said.

“We want them to understand that there are lots of amazing tools within the Jewish tradition for doing good, but other people have tools within their traditions… It doesn’t have to be Judaism versus universal values.”

Founded in 1996, Heschel is an independent, pluralistic school that teaches social justice based on the philosophy of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.