Heschel in­au­gu­rates prize for teach­ing so­cial jus­tice

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - News - JODIE SHUPAC jshu­pac@thecjn.ca

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.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

“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.

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

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