Barbara Sofer

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Speaking Engagements


By Barbara Sofer

October 11, 2017

Reuven and Shimon have a fight in their elementary school classroom. Their teachers don't adjudicate or send them to the principal. Instead they watch the film of what happened and suggest ways to avoid more fighting.

In this school's devotion to radical transparency, every classroom and common space has HD cameras and audio recording devices. Parents can watch their children in real time, and a staff behavioral scientist makes suggestions. If teachers are uncomfortable being recorded, they needn't apply.

In the kindergarten classroom, vessels are made of china and glass instead of the usual plastic. Using breakable dishes helps children develop fine motor skills, a teacher explains. It's a principle of Maria Montessori (1870-1952), the Catholic Italian educator who believed children need to be allowed to learn natural consequences if they drop a glass, and that they will adjust their movements to protect the fragility of their environment.

The school bears the inspired name Lamplighters Yeshivah. Staff members speak of the "Illumination movement"; their belief is that their pupils' souls "are waiting to be kindled, to help them shine." If the phrase sounds familiar, it's indeed the motto of the worldwide outreach of the Lubavitcher Hassidim. Here it's turned inward to the educational process.

The Lamplighters Yeshivah rents two brick homes in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I've come by chance, visiting with my friend Bronya, who has postponed us doing lunch until she picks up grandchildren from school. Two of Bronya's 10 children live in Crown Heights and have opted for this experimental, inspirational school of open classrooms and child-centered education. It's a risk of sorts for parents whose world requires rigorous knowledge of Jewish texts. Of the estimated 10,000 schoolchildren in this community 140 are in Lamplighters.

A portrait of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe, is prominent on the wall, where he looks down on posted daily work plans of each pupil. The teachers, in black kippot and wigs, review the charts and make notes where to help each child (divided by gender after preschool).

"This isn't a revolution, it's a restoration," says a teacher on the Lamplighters website. There's also an active Facebook page.

The co-founder and executive director of Lamplighters is Yocheved Sidof, a graduate of Yeshiva University who was in a doctoral program for clinical psychology at St. John's University when she changed directions, becoming a photographer, filmmaker and educator in the nonprofit sector. Sidof's parents moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, from Iran when she was a toddler and sent her to Chabad schools. Although she is a product of a regimented religious system, she was determined that her oldest son should have a more child-centered environment.

I schmooze with Sidof at the teachers' room square table that's also the brainstorming locus for redesigning conscious learning environments (sounds like your average school, eh?). A teacher is working on engaging lesson plans for his pupils' first lesson of Talmud. Behind us are live-time projections of classrooms where the children are cheerfully cleaning up!

"Creating Lamplighters was one of those 'I have a dream' moments," says Sidof, who deplores fear and control as means of directing classrooms.

Even though she's been a Lubavitcher since toddlerhood, Sidof's Farsi-speaking background has made her what she calls "an insider-outsider," which might explain how she dared to create a school tangential to the mainstream.

When they were married, she and her husband, Yossi Sidof, a businessman, decided to stay in Crown Heights. They had discovered a milieu of like-minded creative contemporaries (the Sidofs are in their mid-30s) who didn't want their children to experience "the pain of the standard system." Also, they felt a commitment to perpetuating the ethos and activism of their rebbe, and were distressed over disenfranchised youth within their community. Lamplighters offers a money-back guarantee that if a kippa falls off a graduate, all the tuition will be refunded. So far – the school is in its eighth year – it hasn't had to refund. Then again, it doesn't have a high school yet.

What happens when Lamplighters pupils move on to a standard high school? "They're behind in texts that have been covered, particularly memorization, but catch up pretty quickly," says Sidof.

Articulate and erudite, Sidof took the lead in creating the school, finding the right staff, developing the curriculum and overcoming skepticism among neighbors. Because the classrooms are relatively small (a class of 27 has three homeroom teachers) and the majority of the families have modest incomes, she also raises funds to subsidize tuition.

Lamplighters has become a national training center for Jewish Montessori schools, and recently Sidof was chosen as one of five school heads to share the school's vision by Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools, the national convening arm of American Jewish day schools. She's also a Wexner Foundation scholar.

Despite the openness, there are a few iron rules. No child is kicked out. The entire school is "safe space." No abuse – no humiliating children nor untoward touching. Emphasis is on producing "mensches" in an environment of decency and independence.

Every child has his/her comfy indoor shoes to feel at home and keep the place clean.

The source of her own empowerment? "My devotion to the mission of the rebbe."

Imagine the rebbe speaking to Maria Montessori. That would be an illuminating conversation we'd all like to hear! Lamplighters may be as close as we get.



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