A school ahead of its time: How The Toronto Heschel School has inspired 25 years of innovative Jewish education

The following is sponsored content from The Toronto Heschel School.

It has been 25 years since the inception of The Toronto Heschel School, a Jewish day school inspired by the forward-thinking values of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Rabbi Heschel was one of America’s leading Jewish theologians, professors, and activists. He saw Judaism as a unifying force among Jews and believed in human dignity, leading to his participation in the civil rights movement.

With his name at the forefront of The Toronto Heschel School, its teachers role model social action and responsibility, alongside values of integrity, mutual respect, and environmental stewardship.

The school was the first of its kind to be designated a Platinum EcoSchool, reflecting its dedication to the environment. Tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of repairing the world, is central to student learning.

Through a Jewish lens, caring for the world involves caring for others. The value of derekh eretz (respect to others) is woven throughout Heschel’s programs. Teachers instil its message by making midot (ethical practices) part of daily learning in every grade.

Of special importance is the spiritual capacity to be amazed and curious. Students are inspired to see the world with awe and wonder. 

The students’ journey begins with kindergarten classes, where English and Hebrew teachers work together to deliver innovative learning. In subsequent grades, Hebrew infuses an arts-based interdisciplinary curriculum, which is built on a research-based teaching methodology that draws from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Our graduates have spent their formative years learning not just facts and figures to file away, but a true ability to be creative, critical thinking mensches who are adept at problem solving and are ready to meet whatever challenges are thrown at them in this chaotic world.  

Jacob Mausberg (class of 2016), the winner of a Schulich Leader Scholarship currently studying Math and Computer Science at University of Waterloo, reflected on his experiences at the school:

“Heschel helped stretch my thinking to creatively make connections across disciplines and see things from multiple perspectives. It enriched my worldview and fostered a more sophisticated and nuanced approach to learning and experiencing the world, all while insisting on the Jewish imperative to make the world a better place.”

The enlightened values and innovative educational approach of The Toronto Heschel School may have seemed unusual in 1996—but they are simpatico with what many Jewish parents are seeking for their children today.

Children aged 18 months to six years and their parents are invited to attend The Toronto Heschel School‘s Early Years Chanukah Party on Sunday, Nov. 28 at 10 a.m.  Registration is required at this link.

Want more insights? Here’s a perspective from the Head of School:

Education for the next generation: Using academic disciplines to teach children how to think
by Greg Beiles

Given the rapid rate of change in society today, it is hard to determine what our children will need to know to be successful in the future. The things our students have learned in the past may not be useful for navigating the years to come. What we can anticipate is that our children will have to be good thinkers and, especially, good learners.

They will need to be capable of analyzing problems and new situations. Their generation will need to develop well-considered innovative solutions for the many changing situations they will encounter. We don’t know what “stuff” they need to know, but we do know they’ll need to be smart, mentally agile, and creative.

Greg Beiles (Head of School—The Toronto Heschel School)

There is a need to reconceive the role traditional school subjects play in our children’s education. At The Toronto Heschel School, these subjects are valued not as a means to convey certain information, but as vehicles for developing specific ways of thinking, for honing cognitive abilities, and for nurturing habits of mind. Instead of math or science or language or music being a matter of “stuff” deposited in the minds of our children, we can appreciate these classes as “disciplines,” as ways of training our minds towards particular ends. Since we do not know what specific information our children will need, our best recourse is to teach them what we do know in ways that sharpen their minds for the future.

For example, the Scientific Revolution (1550–1700) was primarily a revolution in thinking, not in information. The discipline of science involves asking authentic questions, developing hypotheses, designing and conducting experiments, and reaching provisional conclusions that lead to more questions. The scientific method imbues students with curiosity and confidence and gives them practice in analyzing dilemmas they are sure to encounter as they grow. At Heschel, instead of looking up known facts, students learn to think like scientists.

Similarly, in social science and history classes, students should examine primary sources and discover how historical knowledge is constructed, learning to ask critical questions, link their ideas to other knowledge, and ground their conjectures with evidence. The arts are also key disciplines that train students in flexible and creative ways of thinking, as well as offering us ways to express thoughts, feelings, and ideas that might otherwise remain buried. Innovation depends largely on skills honed through the arts.

The Judaic “subjects” must also be understood as “disciplines” and ways of thinking, and not only as “Jewish content” that we can use to teach children how to be “good Jews” or how to perform at b’nai mitzvah ceremonies. Jewish disciplines, such as Chumash and Talmud, engender excellent memory skills and cognitive training. The intellectual skill achieved by Jewish scholars is inherent in textual analysis as well as in decoding strands of an argument, distinguishing competing commentaries, and correlating sources. It is no accident that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jewish students who were deeply trained in Torah and Talmud took so easily to the study of law, medicine, and science.

As we move through the 21st century, we see that “ways of thinking” or “habits of heart and mind” are becoming the central goals of education. Some of these “ways of thinking” are best nurtured through the traditional disciplines, while other “habits of heart and mind” are nurtured through the cognitively rigorous and ethically essential Jewish ways of thinking and being.

We hope our children seek to meet the challenge of rapid societal change with their hearts and minds wide open. Academic disciplines—both universal and Jewish—offer the most reliable framework for this important pursuit.

Children aged 18 months to six years and their parents are invited to attend The Toronto Heschel School‘s Early Years Chanukah Party on Sunday, Nov. 28 at 10 a.m.  Registration is required at this link.