Thick Institutions

In April, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an article paying tribute to Joe Toscano, a firefighter who was his close friend. They met as counselors at Incarnation summer camp. He said that Incarnation Camp was a thick institution, and that it had left its mark on him. Thick institution, what does that mean? Brooks says, “ A thick institution becomes part of a person’s identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart, and soul.” Sounds like Cohen Hillel a school where relationships are at the heart of the school. Teachers help students meet their full potential in a close-knit and caring community.

As our school year comes to a close, I’d like to take a moment to look back at some of the students’ travels. Fifth and sixth graders delved into local history – visiting battlefields in Lexington and sites like the Old South Meeting House in Boston to learn more about how America became its own country and fought for freedom. 8th graders traveled to Washington DC where they walked the monuments, visited Smithsonian museums, and met with a nationally recognized Rabbi who encouraged them to pursue justice, fight for religious freedom, and be proud American Jews. Throughout the year, they connected with peers in Haifa at the Ironi Gimel School and formed friendships through video projects, Snapchat, and WhatsApp. 4th graders urged others to join their Bandage campaign and took to local neighborhoods to raise awareness about the 1.5 million children who perished in the Holocaust. Kindergarteners journeyed to the MFA to see their favorites pieces of art from masters like Van Gogh, Matisse, and Renoir.

Thick institutions according to Brooks are places where members have shared tasks, which often involve members closely watching one another. Learning and play – play and learning happen not just in kindergarten where students built bear caves and learned about hibernation, but also in 7th grade where students shot videos to pose and solve problems such as: how does the distance from my waist to the ground change, as I climb up the slide and then go down? 1st and 2nd graders researched, built, sang, and danced about the biomes that span our Earth before venturing to Franklin Park Zoo to visit some of the animals they studied. 3rd graders debuted an original Ocean movie written and produced independently. 5th and 6th graders studied Jerusalem and used our new green screen to become TV actors who explained facts from different time periods. During Engineering Design Day, our students experimented, invented, failed, and redesigned together working towards success and having fun along the way. Makes you want to be a Cohen Hillel student doesn’t it?

Thick institutions have a different moral ecology. People are members so they can collectively serve the same higher good. Never do I see this more than in the dedication and commitment of our faculty and staff. The work they do each day is sacred because of the degree to which they care about, nurture, and believe in each student. Our faculty raise up each child to meet his/her potential. They guide and push and support and encourage, even when it takes extra effort, extra time, and yes, extra patience on those trying days when we wonder there is a full moon.

Cohen Hillel Academy of the past, or Epstein Hillel School of the future, has its own unique microculture where there is a deep sense of belonging, joy, and pride. Brooks says, “when you meet a member of a thick institution, you know it, and when they meet each other, even decades hence, they know they have something important in common.” I know this to be true; I see this all around me – whether it’s celebrating faculty and staff milestones of 10 years, or incredibly Karen Madorsky’s 45 years of teaching OR in our graduates like Zachary Shwartz and Shane Skikne this year’s first annual Adam Madorsky Alumni Social Justice awardees. Our future is bright as we educate the next generation who will continue to experience the special microculture that is our thick institution up on the hill at Six Community Road. They will know it when they meet thirty years from now and feel that special bond.

I invite you to click here to link to our Ralph Kaplan Community Mosaic video. The video captures many of these sentiments and brings this feeling to life – it’s how we started our year, and it’s fitting to end with it as well.