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‘Tikkun Olam’ : Transforming the world at Yeshiva College

| June 11, 2015 | 0 Comments

By Denese Bloch

Yeshiva College was founded in 1958 in Berea, Johannesburg.

From inception, a portion of the school day was dedicated to religious learning and the rest of the day to a secular curriculum. Those in charge, however, soon realised that to market itself to the general Jewish community, it was essential for the school to demonstrate that it provided a credible, secular curriculum in addition to its religious studies programme. In 1960, the flourishing school moved to its present premises in Glenhazel, in Johannesburg.

Now, as always, as a religious Jewish school, everything that we do is informed by our ethos and values, which are rooted in our sacred texts.

Respect for religious studies

There are other independent Jewish day schools in South Africa and there are indeed other religious Jewish day schools, but what is unique about Yeshiva College is our constant focus on a balance between the religious and academic avenues of study that we offer. One of our challenges is to equip our learners with the skills needed for both paths of learning. This requires that we constantly balance the needs of these two quite different areas of study, and not to prioritise one at the expense of the other.

We provide a dual curriculum, devoting approximately 30% of our day to religious studies and 70% to secular studies, which we refer to as general studies. We have found that their religious studies afford our learners a unique opportunity for educational growth and exploration and deepen their capacity for critical thinking, problem solving and collaborative learning. A large number of our graduates further their studies at religious learning centres before going on to university.

Academics also important

Nothing distracts us from competing with the top academic schools in the country, and it is thus extremely important to us to attract and retain the best teachers available. The vast majority of our learners pursue tertiary education at local universities (we have alumni in many top positions, both here in South Africa and worldwide), and we are cognisant of the importance of equipping them with all the skills that they require to compete for positions and to succeed in any faculty they might choose.

It was for these reasons, among a number of others, that we decided to offer the assessments provided by the Independent Examinations Board (IEB).1We are also a fully integrated member of ISASA and ensure that we avail ourselves of all that this membership offers. We know that our membership has contributed to the achievement of our learners, both at school and at university thereafter. We have, on a number of occasions, been recognised as a ‘top feeder school’ by the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).2

Making time for more

One of the greatest challenges that we confront at Yeshiva College is a shortage of time. Because of our dual curriculum, we have far less time to devote to academic lessons than do most schools. In addition to our academic and religious focuses, we are committed to our learners having a well-rounded education and school life and therefore want them to play sport, take part in extracurricular activities and have some time to themselves after the school day ends. For this reason, we have chosen not to extend the school day. As it is, we finish later than most schools, closing three times a week at 3:30pm.

Our senior learners are also brought in regularly for extra classes over weekends, and we have a week of school for our Grade 12 learners in the July holidays. Despite this, we still have far less teaching time than we need and this is stressful for teachers.

From culture to caring

In addition to our two academic curricula, Yeshiva College also places great emphasis on sporting and cultural activities. Every year, we participate in (and have achieved awards in both the senior and junior sections) the renowned public speaking competition organised by the South African Guild of Speech & Drama Teachers,3 and we are always oversubscribed in terms of learners who wish to participate.

We offer a variety of sports in both our boys’ and girls’ high schools and encourage both participation and healthy competition. We have had success in various sports festivals, with some of our learners competing at provincial level. In addition to regular sport, we have a very large number of learners who involve themselves in extracurricular activities such as dancing, chess and gymnastics.

One of the areas where we insist that all our learners get involved, is that of community service. The Judaic concept of ‘Tikkun Olam’ – our shared responsibility to help transform the world in which we live – is the foundation of all our outreach initiatives. These programmes take place on our campus, as well as at relevant venues such as hospitals, orphanages and old-age homes. We regularly host children from disadvantaged crèches, nursery and primary schools on our campus, giving our own students the invaluable opportunity of interacting with children from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds.

The very latest in learning

In 2013, Yeshiva College embraced 21st century learning.4We have done extensive research with schools both in South Africa and abroad that had already embraced this mode of education, and we were overwhelmed by their willingness to share what they had learned.

After much research, both locally and internationally, we chose to adopt Microsoft’s Partners in Learning programme.5 We feel confident that mastery of this programme will allow our learners to go into the world after school, able to face any challenges in the future. To support this learning, we have given each Grade 7, 8 and 9 student an iPad and each teacher a laptop. Two of our staff members are responsible for training our teachers and learners in all aspects of 21st century learning and, in particular, the use of their technological tools. Our continuing success was highlighted when one of our Grade 8 learners won an award at the Apple in Education competition6 last year.

Arguably among the best in the world

We believe that it is very important to expose our learners to diverse and enriching experiences. For the last four years, we have been sending learners to the Yeshiva University Model United Nations Debate in New York City in the United States.7 This has afforded them the unique opportunity of meeting learners from all over North America with whom they must research and prepare an argument on a prescribed topic, to debate against other teams. They have to represent a country that is a member of the United Nations, and are excluded from representing their own country. This means that in their research, they have to explore in detail the policies of the foreign country that they are representing in the debate. Our learners come back describing this experience as life-changing.

We are all worth it

Yeshiva College is a community school and, as such, is committed to accepting any learner who subscribes to the values and ethos we endorse, regardless of whether or not they are able to pay school fees. We do not have scholarships to attract learners of superior ability. We finance any child who is a suitable candidate to attend Yeshiva College. The challenge that this presents is obviously a financial one. We have to continually fund raise to compensate for those unable to afford the ever-increasing cost of private education. For religious reasons, we have separate high schools for our boys and girls, and this again adds to our costs.

Responsibilities and rewards

We continue to see, however, that these challenges make Yeshiva College what it is: a holistic, vibrant, warm and energetic environment focused on educating the whole person, nurturing individuality and the leadership qualities of each and every learner – preparing our children for life, its challenges, responsibilities and rewards.

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Category: Featured Articles, Winter 2015

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