Present and Future
the youngster according to his way; then, even when he grows old, he shall
not depart from it -- Proverbs
Raise the flames; kindle them until
the flames rise on their own -- opening of this week’s Torah portion (Numbers 8:2)
Last week, at the First
Annual Gershon Jacobson Lecture, former Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau
made a powerful case for the critical role of education in guaranteeing a
Rabbi Lau offered the following fascinating statistic:
Worldwide intermarriage is currently over 72%. In some places
it has reached an astronomical 90%. Ten cities (outside
of Israel) have a substantial lower rate of intermarriage:
Manchester, Toronto, Baltimore, Melbourne, Sydney, Johannesburg,
Cape Town, Antwerp, San Paulo and Monterey. One common denominator
distinguishes these cities from all others: Over 75% of
Jewish children receive a Jewish education. In New York
by contrast, the largest Jewish city in the world, only
12.5% of the Jewish children in attend a Jewish school.
Only 6% of all Jewish children in the United States attend
Jewish Day Schools.
The evidence is clear
and conclusive: Education of the young is the key to preserving spiritual
The audience was deeply
moved by Rabbi Lau’s stirring talk. But the question on everyone’s mind was:
How? How do we change the current state of education? What practical steps
can we take? And who will lead the way?
The purpose of the annual
Gershon Jacobson lecture, which we established in honor of my father, is to
bring to the forefront vital issues of our time, in order to stimulate discussion
and search for solutions to our contemporary challenges.
My father was known for
his keen insight into international and domestic affairs and for his courageous,
independent voice on behalf of moral, social and religious causes. The annual
lecture – amongst other activities of the Gershon Jacobson Jewish Continuity
Foundation we established in his memory – is committed to perpetuate his pioneering
spirit in addressing critical issues of today and tomorrow, informed by the
intimate experience of our rich past.
Newspapers at their best – as demonstrated in his
time by Emile Zola’s J’accuse on the
front page of the Paris daily, L’aurore –
have the power to initiate movements and bring about change;
serve as a voice of conscience, and bring to the forefront
compelling, and often uncomfortable, issues; stand up for
a cause and to serve as its courageous vanguard.
In this spirit, we will
be creating a platform of discussion about various issues – social, religious
and political – challenging us today with the objective of charting a course
for a better future.
We begin this week with the stated topic of education,
with an invitation to all who care about this issue (and
even to those that don’t) to weigh in with their thoughts,
comments, critiques, suggestions and plans. Obviously, it
would be good to hear from educators, psychologists, community
leaders and experts in the field of education. But in truth,
much wisdom can be gleaned from laypeople, regular parents
and common folk (if there is such a thing) – anyone
who is not a so-called expert. Indeed, the “experts”
may be part of the problem, and it is precisely the non-experts
who can offer refreshing ideas and new perspectives which
the existing establishments cannot see.
Half the cure of a problem
is identifying it. Wise questions are half the solution.
Any unsuccessful institution
– in our case, Jewish education which is failing our youth – is flawed in
one or both of two ways: 1) The institution itself is not working. 2) The
target audience it is trying to reach is not interested.
As a framework, let us
break down the problem into several categories, which can actually be seen
as a type of survey, questions that welcome your answers:
First the institutions:
Is the problem
with the institutions themselves? Are they not serving the needs of – or communicating
their services effectively to – the wider population? Or are the existing
institutions simply unequipped to serve the secular Jewish population?
If so, what
types of new institutions need to be created that will attract wider audiences?
Now to the target audience:
Why do most
parents not see Jewish education as a priority?
How do we
make it a major priority?
Which brings us finally
to the education system itself: What exactly is wrong with our educational
systems and methods that simply do not speak to the masses?
For one, many stereotypes, some fed by continuing attitudes,
haunt Judaism. The prevailing opinion is that Judaism, and
religion in general, is archaic, primitive – a throwback
to the past. In one word: Irrelevant to contemporary life.
Even those that feel a need for religion and faith do not
find the need met in existing institutions.
The problem becomes infinitely compounded when you add into the equation
the decelerating cycle of lack of education, and resulting
ignorance and assimilation. In its ruins, we are left with
a vicious cycle of symptoms feeding the root problem, and
Here are some of the most
common problems in – or attitudes to – the current educational system:
Some argue that there is a lack of discipline in our educational
institutions. Citing the verse, He who spares the rod hates his son, but one
who loves him is careful to discipline him (Proverbs 13:24), they advocate
the need to instill fear and respect in our children.
The problem with this approach, of course, is considering
that most Jewish children don’t go to Jewish educational institutions in the
first place, more discipline will not solve the problem of low enrollment.
Even if more discipline may be needed in the existing institutions, this will
hardly help get more children into these schools.
Others therefore argue that the exact opposite is true. Judaism
– and religious education – is plagued with a fear-driven approach, instead
of one infused with love and sensitivity. Fear may work for the short term,
but it does not imbue students with an internal commitment and yes, love for
Religion is preached rather than taught. The perception
is that religion is all about rules and rituals –
logical or not – that must be accepted or else. Many
feel programmed and imposed upon, reinforced by family,
community and peer pressure that keeps people in line. Dogma
also leads to condescension.
Religion often appears divorced from personal relevance,
warm spirituality, psychological introspection and overall character refinement.
Religious people are not necessarily seen as more sensitive, loving and caring.
Which explains why 90% of Americans consider themselves somewhat spiritual,
but only 40% identify with religion.
When you consider the millennia-old history of “religious”
dominance and crusades imposing their authority on the masses,
the distrust of religious dogma is quite understandable.
Many people feel that religion creates divisiveness. True
religion is all about creating unity in this universe. How then is it possible
that religion be experienced as a divisive force? This too is a result of
the profound distortion of religion appearing divorced of spirituality.
Are our children being taught facts and information? Or are
they being empowered with methodology and tools to find happiness and meaning?
Does religious education help cultivate independence and
self-actualization, or does it silence (or annihilate?) our individuality
and induce conformity? Does it teach you to “rise on your own” or to always
be dependent on others?
For life to be lived to its fullest you need passion. For
you to access your innermost resources, you need to feel driven and excited
about your possibilities. Do our religious schools teach us how to find our
passion, our mission – our vision of life?
This is just a beginning.
I would deeply appreciate your comments and suggestions as to other issues
and questions that can be added to this list. Together let us begin a revolution,
by identifying the questions, analyzing the dilemma, and then inevitably we
will begin to recognize the changes that are necessary to be made.
Provocation isn’t always wise. But when it comes to issues that desperately
need attention and repair, to provoke is to evoke, to evoke
a response and a will to create change.
The Hebrew word for education is “chinuch,”
which means both “beginning” and “training.”
Essentially, true education sets the tone for one's entire
life. How that beginning looks and what type of training
we receive defines our entire life. The past is the past
– and results are “in the pudding.” Look
at your own life and you can trace its genesis to your education.
But how that beginning
will look for our children and what type of training they will receive is
not dependent on the past; it is up to us to create change and improve the
entire standard of education.
Today, nothing less than
a revolution is necessary in our education systems. The first step to initiate
any change is: Awareness and the courage to confront our challenges.
This is what we hope to
achieve with this open forum and discussion about education.