Nurturing menschen : King David High School

| August 18, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Marc Falconer

King David High School was established in 1955 in Johannesburg in Gauteng as an Orthodox and Zionist Jewish community school striving to accept every Jewish child, irrespective of financial resources or ability – academic or otherwise.

Part of the mission statement of the school is to “nurture menschen” – not necessarily a phrase every school articulates in quite this way. (And there are many such words that defy translation – Yiddish and Hebrew are ubiquitous in the school and give it something of its untranslatable flavour.) Being a mensch is central to the education that the school offers, and is a difficult concept to define. On one, more easily explainable level, it has to do with being a person of integrity, self-respect, humility, imagination, who is aware of and concerned about the plight of others, with accountability and a strong sense of right and wrong.

The more complex concept of mensch, though, also takes into account the idea of being a role model, of being able to communicate effectively; a person who does not take anything at face value; a critical thinker – the latter two attributes no doubt contributing to the school’s quite astonishing successes, with a list of high-achieving students and past pupils in every field imaginable: business, academia, medicine, the arts, entrepreneurship and so many other provinces. These successes are entirely out of proportion with the size of the school and the community. Having critically engaged pupils who are willing to articulate their uneasiness with slavish obedience and compliant acceptance of rules does, however, make for an interesting and idiosyncratic, perhaps sometimes strained, relationship with school authority.

A journey to another country

As a teacher who has worked in several Christian monastic schools in South Africa, England and New Zealand, it is a unique and fascinating opportunity to explore something of what the ingredients are in the King David recipe for success. I was appointed as head of the school from January 2006, and my first visit was a little like visiting another country – a plain and somewhat motley accumulation of teaching buildings, but a beautiful and distinctive early 1950s Cape Dutch farmhouse, which is now the administration centre of the school, situated in leafy Linksfield and nestled under the looming ridge – the top of which offers one of the best views in Johannesburg.

I was fascinated by this job and intrigued to be involved in a community that, I sensed, valued education more than any other I had been ever part of. To consider this, and as part of my wider orientation, I was sent by the South African Board of Jewish Education to Jerusalem. There I learned that the city was occupied at various times by the Canaanites, the Edomites, the Ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Zealots, the Franks and the Mamluks and the Ottomans. All these cultures have gone, and the Jews, inexplicably, remain. Jerusalem for centuries has been the universal city, and as Montefiore says in his excellent book Jerusalem: The Biography, the city is “capital of two peoples, the shrine of three faiths, the setting for Judgment Day and the battlefield of today’s clash of civilizations… the ‘centre of the world’…”.1

I was, of course, also aware of some of the many persecutions, culminating in the mind-numbing horrors of the Holocaust that Jews have suffered over the almost 4 000 years since Abraham purchased the Cave of Machpelah after the death of his wife Sarah,2 and was set on course to become the father of the nation of Jews (Christians and Muslims, too, as it turns out). One of the reasons I took this job was because I was fascinated to probe the questions of what makes this people so resilient and so successful, and what gives them such a strong sense of identity.

Suffering and significance

For me, though, the real question to do with the Jews has to do with a relatively small group who are taken by God as His own, but arguably suffer more than any other people on earth. What is the purpose of this? Is there some providential plan, or is the Jewish (and, by extension, the whole of humankind’s) catalogue of woes meaningless and purposeless? At least one consequence of all the exiles, wanderings, persecutions, pogroms and genocidal attempts seems to have been to bond a community with ties stronger than blood.

In terms of disproportional influence, it is almost impossible, for example, to calculate the significance of the contributions to the human race of major Jewish thinkers and opinion-makers such as Neils Bohr, Baruch Spinoza, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein and Karl Marx.3 (Marx may or may not have been surprised to find himself in this line-up. His family had converted to Christian Protestantism a generation before his birth to escape anti-Semitic legislation, but his maternal grandfather was a Dutch rabbi and his paternal line had supplied Trier’s rabbis since 1723.) One could mention Jesus, too – although His name is not often heard in the corridors of this school.

Lofty philosophising aside, my concerns on my first morning of orientation in Jerusalem were far more immediate. My first Shabbat in the Holy City saw me stumbling from my hotel room and stabbing impatiently at the buttons for a recalcitrant elevator that simply refused to come to transport me to the dining room for breakfast. And when it eventually did arrive to take me to the ground floor as I hoped, no amount of button pushing allowed it to deviate from its stately progression up to the top of the building and then down – floor by floor. There are few helplessnesses as complete as when technology simply refuses to obey any command and continues with its own actions. Even the panic button seemed to be disabled. It was my first encounter with a pre-programmed Shabbat lift (a bizarre and inexplicable way of bypassing the biblical injunction to do no work on the Sabbath), and made me feel as though I had stepped into the dark machine-dominated world of The Matrix.4

Yichas and nachas

And I have come to learn not only the distinction between yichas and nachas (the former being pride in one’s children’sachievements and the latter the pride one takes in one’s family’s pedigree); how to use (and at times actually be) a noodge and nudnik (both words having to do with being annoying and persistently pestering – sometimes used, for example, in: “I am sorry to be such a noodge/nudnik, but would you mind…”). And chutzpah, although widely used, often has some sense of admiration attached to it. It can also be employed for a serious breach of law or protocol, as well as describing admirable selfconfidence and initiative. Consulting a dictionary will not provide the appropriate gradations.

It can be supposed that every successful school will have a committed teaching staff – which so much research indicates is vital6 – and of which this school can certainly boast. There is, in addition, something distinct about being a community school, which is, of itself, not a sufficient condition for success – but having an invested parent body is, I believe, a necessary condition. It is true that King David parents will seldom let the opportunity of a change in routine go to waste. A missed sports fixture or a less than exemplary teacher is not a minor setback – it’s “chaos”, a “catastrophe”, a “circus”. One is never caught slightly off-guard; one experiences a “heart attack”. And King David children do not suffer common exam nerves; they are at best hysterical. However, in spite of the slightly heightened sensibilities, there is no doubt that parents understand, will support and will invest heavily in their child’s education and success – and I don’t believe a school can maintain a reputation of excellence without this.

A delicate balance

While there may be several other ingredients, perhaps the next most obvious, certainly at King David, is that almost everything in the school is a negotiation: the school uniform, the starting and ending times of the day, the exam timetable (especially if it gets in the way of plans for discounted tickets for holiday travel). And, to be fair, relativity is built into the Jewish psyche. Two rabbis may give entirely contradictory and equally valid rulings on any specific question, depending on the context in which either views the question. The result is that pupils will not easily just accept decisions from on high. One would need to convince the pupil involved, his parents (and on occasion, their lawyer) that there was good and sound reason for the ruling before one could expect acquiescence.

For school management, it is a delicate balance and a great deal of work in establishing a partnership with parents – there is no a priori understanding that everything we do is in the best interests of our pupils. That trust needs to be hard-earned, but once won, makes for the most rewarding teaching and learning experience in the world.

No time for complacency

The dynamic of communal negotiation and parental involvement makes for a vibrant, dynamic and engaged school, constantly exploring, extending and building and never complacent or satisfied. King David is an exacting place to be educated and to work, but it is without question one of the warmest, most stimulating, energising and invigorating environments, constantly evolving and growing – as an institution and for all of those who are part of it. It is a privilege to be a part of this school.

References:
1. Montefiore, S.S. (2012) Jerusalem: The biography. New York: Vintage Books.
2. See, for example: http://biblehub.com/genesis/23-19.htm.
3. See, for example:

http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1922/bohr-bio.html;
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/spinoza/;
http://psychology.about.com/od/sigmundfreud/p/sigmund_freud.htm;
http://www.alberteinstein.info/ and http://www.egs.edu/library/karlmarx/biography/.

4. The Matrix is an “explosive sci-fi adventure” movie made in 1999 and starring Keanu Reeves. (Source: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/).
5. See, for example: http://www.jlaw.com/Commentary/solomon.html.
6. Rusmini, K.A. (n.d.) “The relation of leadership, teachers’ commitment, teachers’ competency, best practices to school effectiveness”.  Available at:
http://www.academia.edu/528152/Relation_of_leadership_teachers_commitment_teachers_competency_best_practices_to_school_effectiveness.

Category: Featured Articles, Spring 2014

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