By Sophia Daniels ‘18
Head of High School Noam Silverman had never worked at a school that went through a process of developing core obligations for the students and faculty to live and work by, but it’s been a central part of his work at Heschel this far.
The idea for the commitments originated during dialogues he had with students and faculty before he started at Heschel. “One of the themes that emerged in all these different conversations I had about the high school was a deep love of the high school … but also a sense of frustration,” he said. He explained that this frustration came from both students and faculty feeling that rules were not enforced and did not matter.
In responding to this issue, Rabbi Noam knew that he did not want to enforce rules with “a larger stick” – stronger consequences was not his goal. “Once you do that, you kind of just reinforce this notion of cat versus mouse,” where teachers are chasing down students to find them breaking the rules and punishing them accordingly, he explained. The joy in the learning, he said, disappears. Instead of stricter rules and punishments, Rabbi Noam wanted to establish concrete moral obligations that would encourage everyone to follow rules on their own. He wanted to develop a number of commitments that would stand as the school’s moral foundation and would apply equally to all members of our community.
Rabbi Noam believes that these commitments “capture the essence of who we are and who we want to be,” making it clear, to those in and out of our community, that this is what we stand for. Rabbi Noam acknowledges that they will not solve everything that needs fixing in our school, but he believes that they will be a strong, clear foundation to begin our work in solving problems we may face in the future.
However, he recognizes that the commitments system are “only going to prove to be successful if it can seep into our culture.” Hence, the posters, which have popped up in every classroom. Teachers have embraced this idea: if you look closely, you can find the commitments in Latin and Hebrew hanging in some classrooms.
While the commitments are not new, their effect and implementation is. While previously, they were simply finding their place in our community, the blurbs have now begun to take a position in the school. With the added external reminders and visuals, Rabbi Noam believes that the commitments will become a more influential part of our lives both in and out of class. The six commitments and their corresponding quotes have also been printed on the back of freshman t-shirts this year, while teachers have begun to integrate them into their classroom rules. While these are helpful reminders of our responsibilities, Rabbi Noam admits that they are not enough.
On the wall in his office hangs multiple lists of ways to use and implement the commitments. He explained that these were ideas faculty came up with last year in an effort to elevate the use of the quotes and their headlines. The ideas include using the commitments in Color War themes as well as having the LQ departments dress up as them for Purim.
Rabbi Noam strongly believes that “the commitments actually capture the essence, the foundational pieces, of who we are as a school because they touch on learning, they touch on honesty and integrity, social justice, pluralism. I think they really capture a lot.”
He also pointed out that Israel, as one of our school’s focuses, is not mentioned in any of the headers, even though it is in one of the longer blurbs from Rabbi Heschel. He says that this was not intentional and a matter of keeping the commitments concise. That said, despite their not being one of the main commitments, Rabbi Noam noted that Israel remains an integral focus of the school’s actions and education.
Rabbi Noam wants the commitments to remind students to try new things, to challenge themselves, to engage in their learning, and to treat others and themselves with respect and kindness. He hopes that this process will continue to grow and develop as we find new ways to embrace Rabbi Heschel’s ideas. As for the future of the commitments, Rabbi Noam said that “we are experimenting with how this is going to influence our culture, and ultimately the ways we treat each other.” He is “not sure how that is going to look, but wants to keep them alive and useful, to anchor our work together.”