Can a Democratic School Provide a Jewish Education?
By Rachel Cohen Yeshurun

Like other parents today I am concerned about my children’s education. As a high-tech worker I wonder whether the schools of today are preparing children for jobs of the future. As a working parent I rely at least to some extent on the school system to educate my children. I worry about my children's academic, physical, psychological and moral development. As a religious parent, I also worry about their Jewish education. After looking into the various options, I chose to send my son to the Jerusalem Sudbury Democratic School, which not only differs greatly from conventional schools but even from other forms of alternative schooling.  


This article will present the Sudbury school model and investigate its contribution to Jewish education.


Educational Goals and Methods
In this section I will present a short description of the educational aims
and philosophies that underlie the two school models: Jewish and Democratic.

'Democratic' will be used from now on as an abbreviated form of: 'Democratic schools based on the
Sudbury Valley school model'.


The Jewish Educational System
Let's begin by looking at Jewish sources and examining their perception of a good education. The word 'education' in Hebrew, Hinuch has the meaning 'to start' (Rashi Breishit 14,14) or the meaning 'learning' and 'habit' (Rambam's commentary on the Mishna ch.4 tr. 5). Jewish tradition instructs parents, regarding Hinuch, to train their children in the mitzvot, so that they will be able to perform the mitzvoth when they come of age. (various sources inc. Sukkah 2,2).

The Ramban, in his commentary on the verse "v'shinantem l'vanecha – and you should teach your sons and speak of them" (Devarim 6,7) observes that where the Torah talks about commandments, it often emphasizes that the obligation goes beyond the present generation. For example, the verse "It shall be an everlasting statute to you" (Vayikra 3, 17) comes in context of a prohibition and the verse "this is my covenant that you should keep between me and your sons and your children after you" (Breishit 17,10) precedes the commandment to circumcise male sons. Thus, the Ramban sees in the words 'v'shinantem l'vanecha', a charge to teach children the mitzvot to ensure their practice for all time and so asks rhetorically,


"We are instructed that our children shall know the mitzvot, and how will
they know the mitzvot if we do not teach them?" "And you should teach them, your sons..."(Devarim 11,19) The Rishonim interpret this to mean that we should train our children to be occupied with learning Torah. Masechet Kidushin 30a discusses the obligations a father has to his son.


The educational obligations include teaching his son a profession and not only Torah.


From these and other sources too numerous to mention in this article, we can
distill some of the main goals of a Jewish education:

a) Teach children Torah (the actual texts).
b) Get children used to performing mitzvot - including the mitzvah of learning Torah.
c) Prepare children for a profession.


The Jewish formal educational system has its roots in the schools set up by Yehoshuah Ben Gamla. The school's function was primarily to teach Torah;
it seems that 'mitzva training' and teaching a trade were seen as the parent's responsibility.


Remember the name Yehoshua ben Gamla for praise. Were it not for him, the
Torah would have been forgotten by Israel. It used to be that fathers would teach their children, and those children without fathers would not learn Torah. Schools were then set up in Jerusalem based on an interpretation of the verse: 'Torah comes from Zion and the word of G-d from Jerusalem'. But still, those with fathers would bring them up, and those without fathers would not go up. He enacted that local authorities should install teachers of children in every district and town and they should bring in children of ages six and seven to be taught by these teachers.


Rav said to Rav Shmuel Bar Shilat: Do not accept children until the age of six. Then stuff the child with Torah, as you would fatten an ox. If you hit a child for disciplinary purposes, hit him only with a shoelace. If he studies, he studies, if he does not, let him remain in the company of his friends. (Baba Batra 21a) To the words 'let him remain in the company of his friends" Rashi adds "and eventually he will pay attention to the lesson".

Aside from the use of light corporal punishment, the system as it is described, is by today's standards quite liberal. Note the relatively late age at which formal education would begin and the concession to 'late bloomers'.


The Democratic School Model
The Jerusalem Sudbury Democratic School is modeled after the Sudbury Valley school in the U.S. which was founded in 1968. There are over 20 schools of this model operating in the United States and other countries including the 'Kanaf' school in the Golan Heights. Respect, trust, choice and democracy are the core of the school's philosophy. The school accepts children ages 5 to 18 from any religious background. Classes are held only by agreement between students and teachers. The school believes that "the most significant and profound learning takes place when it is initiated and pursued by the learner".


The following quotes are from the school's mission statement: "... The Democratic School model has two basic tenets, educational freedom and democratic governance. In our school, students of all ages are free to decide as individuals how to spend their time, while decisions affecting the school community are made by majority vote. The democratic nature of the school aims to achieve a balance between individual rights and community responsibility."

The school's structure is based on democracy instead of academic achievement. "All decisions about running the school are made, democratically at the weekly School Meeting. Decisions about school rules, expenditures, use of school resources, hiring of staff and other matters affecting school life are discussed, investigated and voted on there. A judicial committee, composed of students and a staff member, handles disciplinary issues."


The school has no predetermined curriculum, and there are no tests, grades or marks. ”The school is a place where children have the freedom and time to explore the world around them; where play, learning and growth are allowed to occur without coercion. Children are not divided up by age; age mixing is an important tenet of the democratic school: Interacting with people of all ages, interests and abilities allows each student to encounter a wide range of information, ideas and attitudes and to develop social skills.


“Democratic schools combine educational freedom with an effective disciplinary structure: Students are free to spend their time in any manner they deem worthy, providing they adhere to the rules of the community..."


The Conflict
In some ways, the educational systems described above seem to be absolutely contradictory. It is not only the methods of education that differ - it is even the goal. The Jewish school model aims to produce students knowledgeable in Torah and mindful of the mitzvot. The Democratic school model does not set out with this objective in mind. A successful Democratic school graduate is one who is ready to take his place as an effective member of society. Even if we stretch things a bit to say that the systems have a common goal to produce self-motivated, knowledgeable, responsible adults, that still would not be a reason to endorse the Democratic model. After all, Judaism shares common goals with many religions and philosophies, but religious Jews consider the Torah and the observance of its mitzvot as the correct path to holiness.

The question remains whether it is possible to reconcile the rabbinic injunctions to 'teach your child' with the Democratic school's motto of 'let them be'.

The Case for Change
Let us look again at the account of Yehoshua Ben Gamla's takana. The Talmud states that if it weren't for the institution of schools in every city of the land, Torah would have been forgotten. The reason given for the takana was that the fatherless children had no one to teach them. I find this reason unsatisfactory; even if some children missed out on an education, why would that end Torah? Were there so many fatherless children in those days? The father to son educational model had been working fine until then, so what happened? Was there another, unstated reason for the takana?

Perhaps it was the injustice of the system- the fatherless not getting an education so undermined basic Jewish values that it rendered the system incapable of transmitting those values. Or maybe even one child not getting a Torah education seemed to the Rabbis a calamity equivalent to an entire nation forgetting the Torah. But the simple answer is probably that the system wasn't working. Times were changing; life in the first century of the Common Era wasn't what it used to be. Jews were fighting each other, foreign powers were poised over Jerusalem, and even the symbol of communal unity, the priesthood, was subject to corruption. (Yehoshua Ben Gamla was one of the Kohanim who bought his priesthood). Schools in which all Jewish children could be indoctrinated in their common religion and culture fit the need of the day. These schools were pioneering; the concept was radical. Compare it to the ancient Greek idea of school - the very word 'school' comes from the Greek 'skhole' meaning leisure. Education in those times was usually for the rich, the ones with slaves to serve them and time to spare - not for poor orphans and common laborers. The Jews were ahead of their time in understanding the need for mass education in order to perpetuate their culture and religion.


Democratic Sudbury schools, too, offer a radical shift from the conventional system, and, like the schools of Rav Yehoshua Ben Gamla, can offer answers to current and pressing problems. It is no secret that today's religious schools are not as successful at transmitting Torah as they purport to be. Too many students graduate with little love for Torah subjects, many throw off their religious life-style as soon as they can. Even amongst the students who don't rebel, the level of knowledge and commitment is not as high as one would expect after so many years of education. More tests, more streaming, more segregation, more hours, and more money - the magic bullet has yet to be found and the search for solutions is ongoing.

Two possible explanations for the failure of this education lie in the incompatibility of the current model with the realities of life in a modern, democratic and open society. Firstly, the explosion of knowledge means that no matter how hard educators struggle to develop broad base curriculums, they still only cover a tiny fraction of the possible avenues of study open to a student today. Consider for example, a child in the Middle Ages. He could become a Torah scholar without ever having read a Rashi, a doctor without ever having looked through a microscope, a mathematician without learning calculus... The body of known knowledge was small and a great deal of it could be learned in school.


This is not the case anymore. Today, to become an expert in a subject, a person may have to invest many, many years of effort. Only a person truly passionate about a subject will make this commitment that will ultimately lead them to proficiency and success in their field. Forcing students to study all sorts of subjects for which they have no ability or inclination, only wastes time they could be investing in what interests them. Secondly, we face a vast free market of ideas. Sorting through these ideas and not blind acceptance is the name of the game today. When information flows freely, when ideas have to compete with each other as products do in a free market, teaching Judaism as a doctrine, in an uncritical way, ceases to be a viable educational solution.

To transmit Torah values into the twenty first century requires a different strategy. This strategy must balance the desire to pass Jewish values on to children with the difficulties of doing so in an increasingly open society. In the next sections, I will examine a few ways in which Democratic schools may achieve that balance.


Moving Away From Standard Curriculums
Chazal relate that Yaakov and Esav both studied at the same Beit Midrash until they were 13 years old. At that time the differences in their characters became apparent and they went their separate ways; Yaakov back to the study hall and Esav to his hunting grounds. In Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch's Torah commentary, he points out that the uniformity of the twin's education despite their differences in character was in contradiction to the great law of education:

"Chanoch la'naar al pi darko - Bring up the lad in accordance with his way, so that when he is grown he will not leave the path" (Mishle 22,6). To quote from Rav Hirsch's commentary: "... To try to bring up a Jacob and an Esau in the same college, make them have the same habits and hobbies, want to teach and educate them in the same way for some studious, sedate, meditative life is the surest way to court disaster."(Breishit 25,27)

Democratic schools believe that as each child has a different nature, to presuppose the best form of teaching him is doomed to failure. The school can help a child learn by providing a safe and stimulating environment, but in the end, it is the child who has to find his own way to overcome the obstacles that are in his path to knowledge. Not only do Sudbury schools steer clear of standardized teaching methods, they do not believe in the existence of a standard curriculum. Standard curriculum is an anathema to a system that believes in the realization of individual talents and interests.

Preventing Bitul Torah
The following idea was related to me as the thoughts of Rav David Avichail on why educators should not force Torah study on children. Rav Avichail is the head of a yeshiva high school in Mitzpe Ramon that practices some of the methods of democratic education:

In Masechet Avodah Zara 19a, we find the passage: "A person does not learn Torah except from the place his heart desires." Rashi adds that the student chooses the chapter to learn and the teacher must comply with the student's wishes. The Midrash stresses that the student also chooses his teacher. When students are allowed to exercise their choice over subject matter, we prevent the Bitul Torah that could result from compelling them to engage in something that is not suitable to their level or nature.

Emphasizing the Home and Environment
In the Talmud tractate Shabbat we read that when a person dies, G-d will ask him a series of questions: Have you carried out your daily business with integrity? Did you set time aside for the study of Torah? Did you fulfill your duty in establishing a family? Did you look forward to Salvation? ...(Shabbat 31a)


The Zohar (Zohar Chadash, Midrash Rut, 89, 72) adds a question to the list: Did you provide the proper education for your children? If he answers that last question affirmatively, G-d closes the case and refuses to hear any complaints against the individual.

Why should the education you give your children be the deed to end all deeds, the action that closes the case? I think that this last question is not an additional question. It is a summary of all the others. First and foremost the proper education for your child consists primarily of your actions: your honesty, your belief in salvation, your commitment to Torah study...


If children see their parents immersed in Torah Study, quoting regularly from Jewish sources, basing important decisions and lifestyle choices on Torah values, could they possibly not be impressed by this belief system? And conversely, if a child is sent to school to study Torah, but at home Torah is not respected, would he not soon pick up on the hypocrisy?

Democratic school philosophy maintains that children will be drawn to learn what they see is relevant and valuable to the adults in their world. Whatever school a child goes to, a parent who wishes to teach a child mitzvot must practice them himself and involve his children in the experience. Furthermore, formal Torah education was never meant to end with the school day, as it is written:
"... And you should drill it into your child, and speak into him, when you sit in your house, when you walk along the way, when you lie down and when you wake up..." (Devarim - 6,7)

Note that the verse above is preceded by the command: "And these words ...shall be upon your heart". The Alshekh comments that this is to convey to us that before we can teach the Torah to our children, we ourselves must be convinced in our own hearts that it constitutes our own way of life.


Instilling a Fear of G-d and Building Character
"And now Israel, what does Hashem your G-d demand from you? Only to fear Hashem your G-d, to walk in all his ways, to love and worship him with all your heart and soul. To keep G-d's commandments and his statutes..."(Devarim 10,12) Chazal (Brachot 32,72) remark that this commandment is worded as if to fear G-d is an easy task (note the word 'only'). Their answer is that for Moshe Rabeinu, being on such a high spiritual level, it's easy. The Rambam in his Moreh Nevuchim (2nd part, chapter 39) gives a different answer. He says that Torah comes easy to 'whole' people, people of even temperament and good behaviour. The violent, lustful and irreverent people find Torah difficult, not because it is difficult, but because of their bad nature.


One of the important objectives of Democratic schooling is to bring out the best in a child's character; to turn out happy, productive, and law abiding citizens. From an early age, children learn about the rule of law and consideration of the rights of individuals against the will of community. School laws, created and enforced democratically and fairly, ensure an order and discipline that is rarely seen in schools today. In an atmosphere of respect and non-coercion, rebelliousness is minimal. The rage, foul language, disrespect and violence often found in conventional schools are typically absent from Democratic schools.

Democratic school students are thus primed to receive Torah and ready to keep mitzvot - exactly one of the important aims of a Jewish education.


Learning Responsibility
Often people mistake obedience for responsibility. For example, when a child
in a conventional school completes his homework - this is not necessarily a sign of responsibility. The child may have complied with the wishes of his teacher, but may not have internalized the necessity for doing that homework. Students in democratic schools learn responsibility by being trusted with matters like school budget, admissions, hiring of staff and most of all with their own time.


"The best preparation for a life of choices is to be given the responsibility, authority and trust to make decisions as early in life and as frequently as possible." (Jerusalem Democratic school mission statement)

Becoming Self-Motivated
Democratic schools believe that children are naturally ambitious and that the challenge as educators is to not squelch this inborn desire for knowledge. "Sudbury
Valley leaves its students be. Period. No Maybes. No exceptions. We help if we can when we are asked. We never get in the way. People come here primarily to learn. And that's what they do, every day, all day." (Back to Basics by Daniel Greenberg)


To this end, children are allowed to struggle with learning, they are allowed to struggle even with boredom. Staff members do not consider it their duty to occupy the children or to make sure that they are always busy. By leaving children alone unless asked to intervene, staff members inculcate the seriousness of learning while maintaining the child's educational choice.

The school never tries to 'make learning fun'. Their viewpoint is that learning some subject may be enjoyable, or it may be a tedious step to some higher goal, but it will only be effective if pursued by choice. This is consistent with the prevailing Jewish attitude, that one must learn Torah even if the way is strewn with obstacles. "...You should labour with Torah ... and the reward is commensurate with the suffering..." (Pirkei Avot 82)


Training for the Adult World
The democratic school philosophy believes that: "People are curious by nature and are born with an intense desire to understand their world and become successful adults" (Jerusalem Democratic school mission statement). Therefore, the school allows each child to discover for himself what his strengths are and to choose a career accordingly. Follow up studies on Democratic school graduates reveal that this approach has extremely good results; Graduates reach a stage of self-awareness at an age when many students their age are still beset by self-doubt and still trying to 'find themselves'.


In Israel, Democratic school graduates do well in the Bagrut exams and go on to the army. Longer term research done on the graduates of Sudbury Valley shows that they continue on to higher education and successful careers in the same numbers as in the general population, but with the difference that they tend to go with more confidence in their chosen direction. In addition, years of critical thinking, decision-making and focused learning, produce mature, responsible and capable workers. To quote Daniel Greenberg, one of the founders of the Sudbury Democratic school: "... So what kind of school is most likely today, at the end of the twentieth century (sic), to prepare a student best for a good career? ...Everyone is writing about it. This is the post industrial age. The age of information. The age of services. The age of imagination, creativity, and entrepreneurialism. The future belongs to people who can stretch their minds to handle, mold, shape, organize, play with new kinds of material, old material, new ideas, old ideas, new facts, old facts. These kinds of activities don't take place in the average school even on an extra-curricular basis. Let alone all day. At Sudbury Valley, these activities are, in a sense, the whole curriculum."(Back To Basics by Daniel Greenberg)

As Democratic school graduates have been shown to be well prepared for the workforce and to succeed in the outside world, a parent can rest assured that
this type of education ensures that the child will be able to support herself and her family.

The beliefs underlying Democratic Sudbury education can be summarized in the following points:
a) Healthy people have a natural desire and capacity to learn.
b) People will not learn what they do not want to learn.
c) People will learn what they want to learn.
That is, for the healthy individual, the desire to learn is a necessary and sufficient condition for true learning. Children will learn, and they will learn what interests them. They will learn what they perceive to be important to them - and not what the parent, or teacher or school tells them is important. In conventional schools, where coercion and manipulation reign, learning can become mechanical, something to do to fulfill an obligation. As this type of learning is devoid of intention, what is learned under these circumstances may be rejected or easily forgotten.

Democratic education compels parents and educators to let go of the illusion that they control children's minds. If Jewish education is about holding on to this illusion, then no, Democratic schools will not provide this type of education. If, on the other hand, Jewish education is about actively promoting Jewish heritage and values in children, then Democratic schools may give parents a fighting chance.

Democratic schools are proactive in their approach to education, but they replace the cries of 'teach them, teach them' with exhortations to 'trust them, trust them'. It is this trust that can produce children who study when they get bored, instead of children who get bored of their studies. It is this tolerance that can produce children who respect themselves and go on to respect others. It is in this atmosphere of freedom that Torah will survive as our children find intrinsic meaning in its words.


May we all merit to raise children occupied in Torah and mitzvot.


The author received her un-democratic Jewish education at Bais Yaakov of Montreal, Canada and made Aliya in 1989. She has been working at NDS since 1996 developing software for the CA head-end and for Interactive TV applications. The author's 7-yearold son attends the Jerusalem Democratic School.