This coming December, our high school will host a Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM) Makeathon. As a capstone to their four-year experience in our engineering and entrepreneurship (E2) program, our seniors will utilize the skills they have developed in design, engineering, product fabrication, collaboration and creativity to improve the lives of local individuals with disabilities in a very concrete way. Each team of four students will be partnered with a local person with disabilities (known in the TOM organization as a “Need-Knower”), seek to understand a challenge that person faces in conducting daily life and work together with the Need-Knower in our makerspaces to design and fabricate a new product that will be useful in overcoming this challenge.
What most appeals to us—and to the other day schools and yeshivot that have expressed interest in joining the TOM network—about this type of event is that it embodies the singular combination that defines our mission: academic innovation, strong moral character and the enactment of Jewish values to improve the world. This combination represents not only a moral imperative, but a strategic opportunity as well—in a world dominated by news of childhood anxiety, bullying and exclusion, schools that develop reputations as genuine bastions of respect and inclusivity and as incubators of empathy and ethical conscience can truly distinguish themselves in a crowded marketplace.
Particularly in the New York area, parents are blessed with an array of outstanding schooling options for their children. For some families, that means selecting from among an array of yeshivot; for others, it may mean a difficult choice between a Jewish day school and a top local public or independent school. In such an environment, even a strong academic program or gifted role models in limudei kodesh, while necessary, may not be sufficient in enabling a school to make a cogent case for itself.
So how do we stand out? When so many institutions offer excellence in the core area of general academics, how can a school inspire parents not only to invest Jewish education, but to commit to the particular form of Jewish education that school offers? The key is to establish an environment that features an explicit emphasis on moral responsibility, as well as a unique programmatic focus beyond the core scholastic program. That is, our schools must cultivate a culture of radical menschlichkeit, as well as one or more buzz-worthy programs that are related to an academic discipline but sufficiently extraordinary to be truly differentiating.
This is why our school is so excited about the TOM Makeathon. On the surface, it will highlight our E2 program and be an engaging application of our students’ technical and collaborative skills. But on a deeper level, the event will be emblematic of the ideals of the community that we aspire to establish: one in which the commitment to innovation and excellence is unwavering; the creative pursuit of opportunity is relentless; and every single member embodies respect, rejects exclusivity, and embraces the need to be actively engaged in improving the world.
This is the distinctive moral heritage that Jewish educational institutions have brought to the world, and it is also the strategic key to a thriving future for day schools amidst many other appealing educational options.
By Michael Kay, PhD
Michael Kay is head of school of Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, a K-12 Jewish day school with campuses in Hartsdale and White Plains, New York.