The Toronto Heschel School is a relatively small educational institution, as local Jewish schools go, with about 325 students expected to attend next year.
But it’s been growing over the years and, despite its modest size, it has attracted international attention in the education field.
Earlier this month, the Covenant Foundation in New York named Gregory Beiles, Heschel’s head of school, as one of three recipients of this year’s Covenant Award.
Beiles joins Sally Grazi-Shatzkes, a drama therapist at Yeshivah of Flatbush in New York, and Risa Strauss, the education director of the Beth Shalom Synagogue and founding director of Camp Gesher in Columbia, S.C., as this year’s honorees.
“Each of this year’s award recipients is deeply embedded in the work of their respective institutions, each wears multiple hats and each learns and teaches alongside colleagues and faculty members for the betterment of their individual school communities,” said Cheryl Finkel, chair of the board of directors of the Covenant Foundation and a former award recipient.
“We are thrilled to amplify each of their accomplishments and hope they serve as role models to other aspiring Jewish educators.”
Beiles told The CJN that he thinks it’s “fantastic that there’s an organization that wants to honour and support excellence in education.… This is really fertile ground for educational excellence. I feel honoured and privileged.”
Beiles, who has served as head of school for five years, said the Heschel School “is a hard school to describe standing on one foot,” a reference to an ancient story of the competing academies run by Hillel and Shamai. “We integrate a lot of best practices in the educational world.”
Beiles, who also serves as director of the Lola Stein Institute, said Heschel’s approach is “integrative” and “leverages the arts a lot.” It’s also interdisciplinary and it brings elements of Judaism into all sorts of classes, he said.
In one example, Beiles pointed to a “Talmudic clock,” which combines math and artistry to present a visual representation of the hours of daylight in different locations, to accord with the biblical statement that day and night each last 12 hours.
In poetry classes, Rosh Hashanah prayers are studied. Avinu Malkeinu prayer can be looked at as an example of poetic metaphor, he said.
Drama is also big at the school, with youngsters acting out the haggadah in one grade, while another class bases its performance on the content of the first book of Samuel, complete with music, drama and Hebrew dialogue, he said.
Beiles credits his staff for the school’s success. “This is really the result of everybody’s work. We work very collaboratively here,” he said.
Beiles believes Heschel’s educational approach not only prepares students to go on and excel at other schools once they graduate from Grade 8, but that the award will cause other parents and educators to take another look at Heschel and its “cutting edge” approach to education.
The Covenant Foundation sent a film crew to Heschel for two days, no doubt to prepare a video that will be aired at the awards ceremony. That event will take place on Nov. 5-6 at the New York Public Library, which Beiles plans to attend.
In addition to the prestige of the award, Beiles received a cash prize of US$36,000 ($48,000), while the school received an additional US$5,000. How the money will be spent hasn’t been determined yet, Beiles said.
In its news release describing the winners, the Covenant Foundation pointed out that the Heschel school looks to Jewish wisdom to shape teaching methodologies and focuses on tikun olam, daily acts of chesed (kindness) and ethical practices based on the weekly Torah section, which are woven into the school’s daily curriculum.
That fits into the Covenant Foundation’s mission, which is “to strengthen educational endeavours that perpetuate the identity, continuity and heritage of the Jewish people.”