CROWN HEIGHTS — In a tradition-bound Brooklyn community where many young boys are immersed in religious study while leaving secular subjects in the dark, one school is working to shine light on a new way forward.
The Lamplighters Yeshivah, a Jewish Montessori school in the heart of the Chabad-Lubavitch community, launched in 2010 to provide an alternative for parents who want their children to learn math and science combined with traditional Jewish subjects.
"I think many religious and especially Hasidic parents today are yearning for their schools to become more updated and advance the ways they educate," said Mimi Hecht, whose son attends preschool at Lamplighters, which melds millennia-old traditions with 21st-century topics and teaching methods.
"To me, Lamplighters Yeshivah does this in a completely informed and inspired way while embracing and implementing all the Hasidic ideals...that would be important to parents in this community."
Lamplighters gets its name from a famous concept in Hasidic thought that says every Hasid is a lamplighter for the rest of the world, guiding others by example.
By building a school just steps from the seat of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic movement, founder Yocheved Sidof, a Crown Heights mother of four, said she hoped to spark the imaginations of Jewish educators visiting from far-flung corners of the world.
“We want to create a model,” Sidof said. “This community needs this, really, really needs this, on many levels. I think the world in general is looking for educational reform, not just the schools in our community. ”
She described the process as equal parts awesome and agonizing.
“If you took a fork and shoved it in your eye, it would probably be less painful,” Sidof said, repeating wisdom passed down to her from a fellow teacher. “I feel like I’ve gone through three chests of silverware.”
Much of that agony would be the same anywhere — from gut-renovating the school building to certifying teachers to collecting tuition, educational management is full of thankless tasks.
But a part of the pain has also been convincing parents in this community that their children will have the same opportunities coming out of Lamplighters as they would if they attended the community’s more traditional and insular yeshivas.
"We’re starting to be recognized by the community — they're coming here to visit," said Lamplighters co-director Rivkah Schack.
Those visitors are treated to the bright, cheery voices of first- and second-grade boys singing prayers on the ground floor while students in the co-ed preschool class upstairs are busy copying Hebrew letters or tracing the outline of the seven continents.
This year, the 44-student school began an intensive teacher-training program, and next year it hopes to add a first- and second-grade class for girls.
"Many people say, 'It’s too beautiful, it’s too free,'" Schack said. "How do you teach children that there are certain things they have to do?'"
The answer, the women said, is finding the part of religious laws and observance that speaks to each child's passion.
"Often from an early age you can see a child that is absolutely connected to math," Schack said. "If a child from a young age is told, 'Don’t pay attention to that, Torah is more important,' you’re missing out on the fact that you can use that to connect the child back to Torah."
Schack's 13-year-old son, for example, struggled to master some of the arcane concepts in the Mishah, a book of detailed Jewish laws, but he applied his passion for engineering to construct graphs and models that helped make the abstract religious concepts more concrete.
Where passion ebbs, science steps in. Every week, students are evaluated on their progress in math and reading in both English and Hebrew. Schack said they are working to establish an equally rigorous set of standards for religious curriculum.
"Has anyone ever written Jewish subject standards? What are the core curriculum standards?" Schack asked. "We’re all so concerned with kids learning Jewish subjects, but we’re flying in the dark."
Parents such as Hecht, who are taking a chance on the new educational model, said they are happy with what they've seen so far.
"We just couldn't imagine our son getting the kind of personal attention anywhere else that I am confident he is receiving at Lamplighters," Hecht said. "We saw that it was a school for all kinds of kids to excel, with a strong commitment to blending the best Montessori ideals with strong Hasidic education."
Sidof said the school matches the religious curricula of its peers, but shines a light where few others bother.
“Our Judaic curriculum is the same. We offer secular curriculum from a young age which other local schools don’t necessarily,” Sidof said.
“The idea is that we give them the education from a young age that can really light them on fire.”