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By BERNIE BELLAN
Earlier this year I previewed Jason Marantz’s upcoming talks at this year’s Limmud, held March 14 and 15 at the Gray Academy.
In my article then I noted that “Jason has fashioned quite a career as an educator. He has been Headteacher (principal) at a London Jewish primary school and is currently Chief Executive of the London School of Jewish Studies.”


Now 40 years old, Marantz exudes the kind of honest enjoyment of life that made him an extremely popular figure, especially among Jewish youth, for the many years that he served both as a Y.M.H.A. and Camp Massad counselor; the director of Camp Massad; and finally, a teacher at Margaret Park School in the Hebrew Bilingual Program.
His decision to go to England for what he thought would be a one-year term as a teacher in 1999, however, subsequently translated into Marantz’s decision to establish roots in that county and become one of the most sought-after educators in the field of Jewish education, not only in England, but other countries in Europe as well.
Attendees at Marantz’s two sessions at Limmud were treated to the kind of exuberant creativity that he displayed as a youth in Winnipeg, but this time his message was of great immediate significance when it comes to understanding the challenges facing Jewish education.
The titles of Marantz’s two presentations were, respectively: “Keeping it Real: The Future of Jewish Education” and “The Only Jew in Hogwarts”. Lest you think that the second session was entirely frivolous, I actually found it to be amazingly powerful, as Marantz demonstrated how it is possible to combine the teaching of what, at first glance, would seem to be a secular subject -  in this case, the Harry Potter story, with overtly Jewish themes. I found myself so impressed by the degree of scholarship that Marantz brought to his subject matter which, he explained, was in large part motivated by his reading the Harry Potter stories to his eight-year-old daughter, Ellie, that I took out my iPhone and started filming parts of his lecture.
(I’ve since posted that video montage online on the jewishpostandnews.ca website, so that others might be able to witness the imaginative techniques that a gifted educator such as Marantz is able to marshal when it comes to inspiring Jewish students with an appreciation of their heritage.)
Throughout his two talks Jason Marantz stuck to his theme that, in order to continue to attract and retain students within a Jewish school system, we need to shed many of the old ideas that may have held sway for years, but have become increasingly irrelevant as younger parents find themselves less interested in supporting Jewish schools for their own sake.

Here is a review of what Marantz had to say:
He began his morning lecture about the future of Jewish education by providing an overview of the current situation as it exists with respect to Jewish schools in England.
“There are over 100 Jewish schools in England,” Marantz noted. (According to the 2011 English census, there are 263,000 Jews in England, of whom approximately two-thirds live in the London area.)
Almost as astounding as the number of schools, moreover, is the percentage of elementary school-age children who are Jewish and who receive some form of Jewish education in London. According to Marantz, that figure is “70 percent”. By way of comparison, here are the comparable figures for Toronto, which has a Jewish population over 200,000: “According to Daniel Held, executive director of UJA Federation’s Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education, about 32 per cent of school-aged children in the Jewish community attend day schools in Toronto.” (Canadian Jewish News article by Paul Lungen – another former Winnipegger, Sept. 2, 2014).
(My own analysis of enrolments in the various Winnipeg educational institutions that offer some sort of Jewish education determined that we’re actually doing a pretty good job here in Winnipeg of attracting Jewish students to one or another of the schools that provide some form of Jewish education. According to Rory Paul, Head of School at the Gray Academy, that school has traditionally aimed to attract approximately one-third of Jewish school-age children in Winnipeg. While there was a substantial drop in enrolment at that school this past school year – 90 students altogether, reducing the size of the total student body in K-12 from 600 to 510, I showed that the actual size of Winnipeg’s Jewish population has been decreasing – not increasing, [despite what the Jewish Federation may have been telling us]. That fact, moreover, combined with the increased attendance at Brock Corydon School this past year, led me to conclude that the percentage of Jewish elementary school students receiving some sort of Jewish education here is well over 60 percent, substantially higher than Toronto’s, for instance.)
Still, London, England, provides a model of how it is possible to attract a much higher proportion of Jewish students to Jewish schools – and Jason Marantz has played no small part in the success of the London Jewish school system. As Chief Executive of the London School of Jewish Studies, a school that trains Jewish teachers for the Jewish school system, Marantz says his school produces from 30-40 teachers a year for the Jewish school system, yet there is still a need for a great many more Jewish studies teachers in England.
Why, though, is it so important to have a vibrant Jewish school system, Marantz asked rhetorically? To answer that question, he produced a quote from the former Chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks: “To defend a land, you need an army. But to defend freedom, you need education. You need families and schools to ensure that your ideals are passed on to the next generation and never lost, or despaired of, or obscured.”
Adding to that sentiment, Marantz said you need Jewish schools to provide: “continuity, community, and identity”.
He also quoted from a sign he once saw posted in a Rhode Island school that offered this description of its role: “purpose, community, and meaning.” (Hey, these are all great quotes that anyone can use in giving a talk about the future of education – not just Jewish education.)
But, what’s so important about Jewish education, per se? Again, quoting from another source, Marantz used this line from the late filmmaker Sam Wanamaker:
“The key to the future lies in the past.”
If kids nowadays are going to retain any Jewish identity at all, Marantz suggested, we need to ask ourselves some basic questions:
“Do kids have the skills to feel comfortable in a prayer service?”
“Can they understand and speak about Israel?”
“Are they able to perform Jewish rituals?”
“Can they speak about God in a comfortable way?”

Okay, so he delineated the challenges facing Jewish educators. As for providing some suggestions how to meet those challenges, here is what Marantz had to say:
“We need to teach skills and knowledge in a rigorous way – that’s still fun.” We have to make sure that the standards set in our Jewish schools are at the highest level possible in the teaching of non-Jewish subjects. (Marantz noted that, of the top five state-funded high schools in all of England, three are Jewish.)
Also, “we need to answer questions and encourage them regularly,” he said.
Finally, “we need to focus on relevance as opposed to just engagement.”

Yet, very often the tendency within Jewish schools has been to relegate the “Jewish” component of the education to a second-class status in comparison with secular studies. Marantz was critical of that approach, saying that “Jewish education cannot feel like an extra or poorer cousin” to secular studies.
He suggested that educators send home homework time tables to parents “setting out how much time students should spend on Hebrew, as well as English studies. There should always be a balance, Marantz says.
When it comes to encouraging questions, Marantz suggested educators shouldn’t be afraid to tackle the kinds of questions that very young children are bound to ask, such as: “Who are God’s parents? Can God fly?’ He added that, within the next two months, his school will have a website established to answer exactly those sorts of questions by a “range of experts”.
Turning to the subject of “relevance and engagement as opposed to just engagement”, here’s an example provided by Marantz: “During Sukkot, talk about the concept of homelessness and what it feels like to have to pick up and move.”
Continuing on the theme of relevance, Marantz gave this example of “integrating” Jewish curriculum with the secular curriculum: He suggests taking students to the British Museum and teaching Jewish history at the same time as students are exposed to such ancient cultures as Greek and Egyptian.
Marantz told a story how fractured the teaching of Jewish and secular subjects can be when it comes to molding young minds. One day, he said, he encountered a young student in the hall of the school where he was the headteacher, and asked that student what he was learning these days. The student replied that he was learning all about Ancient Egypt in History.
Marantz then asked him what he was learning in Jewish studies. The student responded that he was learning all about “Eretz Mitzrayim” and the story of Passover. When Marantz asked the student whether he knew where “Eretz Mitzrayim” was, the boy didn’t have a clue that it was Egypt.

In a question and answer session following his talk, Marantz delved head on into some of the challenges facing Jewish educators specifically in Winnipeg. He suggested that Jewish schools everywhere “work together and sell the idea of going to a Jewish school” period, rather than competing with one another. I asked him what he would do to keep Jewish youths engaged after their bar and bat mitzvahs, when there is traditionally a mass departure to the public school system.
Marantz responded that “youth groups” are essential, and that schools need to work with them to keep Jewish kids engaged.
Turning to the question of fees, Marantz noted that, in the United Kingdom, Jewish schools (along with all other parochial schools) are not allowed to charge fees. “There’s a lot of interference on the part of the government in the education system in England,” he explained. As a result, the Jewish school system there relies  upon donations from parents and others. (To be fair, Marantz didn’t necessarily suggest that Jewish schools here adopt that system. He just threw it out there as a possibility and an illustration of how something that might be considered impossible here is actually quite successful elsewhere.)
Finally, Marantz noted that he had given a talk at the Gray Academy both to students and teachers on the Friday preceding Limmud. He said he wanted to give “a shout out to Gray Academy” and what he perceived to be “its great sense of spirituality” when he visited the Shabbat Assembly. It should also be noted that at one point during his talk, Marantz asked for a show of hands from those in attendance as to how many were themselves involved in the education system. Not surprisingly, many hands were raised – surely an indication that educators themselves are always eager to learn new ideas.
(By the way, I asked (tongue-in-cheek), Jason’s father, Howard, who was in attendance, along with Jason’s mother Bonnie, and sister Kara, whether it would be possible to “lose” Jason’s passport, so that he might not be able to leave Canada. As much as Jason Marantz has proven to be a highly valued addition to England’s Jewish community, what an asset he would be if he were to move back to Winnipeg. We can dream, can’t we?)