Present and Future
Educate the youngster according to his way; then, even when he grows old, he shall not depart from it — Proverbs 22:6
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 Jewish future.
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 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 identity.
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:
1) 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?
2) If so, what types of new institutions need to be created that will attract wider audiences?
Now to the target audience:
3) Why do most parents not see Jewish education as a priority?
4) 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 vice versa.
Here are some of the most common problems in – or attitudes to – the current educational system:
1) Fear vs. love
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 the tradition.
2) Dogma vs. relevance
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.
3) Divisiveness vs. unity
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.
4) Knowledge vs. tools
Are our children being taught facts and information? Or are they being empowered with methodology and tools to find happiness and meaning?
5) Conformity vs. individuality
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?
6) Passivity vs. passion
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.