Impress them upon your children
One of the basic duties of Jewish parents is to provide for the instruction of their children. The obligation to teach one’s children is set forth in the first paragraph of the Sh’ma prayer: “Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children (V’shinan’tam l’vanekha)...” (Deut. 6:6-9). Formal Jewish education as a communal activity was instituted in Israel during the Second Temple period. In the Talmud we read “Then Yehoshua ben Gamla (a high priest during the Second Temple period) came and ordained that there should be established teachers of children in every county and every town. And children should enter [education] when they were six or seven.”
It has always been understood that there is no Jewish life and Jewish future without Jewish education. A literate Jew is simply far more likely to become a committed Jew. Educated Jews are far more likely to draw upon their tradition in making life choices, to participate actively in Jewish life and to want to pass that life on to their children.
There has been much discussion lately, especially in the wake of the Pew study, what interventions we must take to stem the tide of assimilation and apathy. The Jewish community has many powerful tools in its toolbox: summer camps, youth groups, Israel trips, Birthright trips—all very important, but I assert that there is no substitute for a long-term structured formal Jewish educational experiences offered by synagogue religious schools and Jewish day schools. An authentic Jewish education rooted in Jewish texts and tradition is oxygen for the Jewish soul; a gulp here and there, no matter how exciting, will not sustain life - a child needs to breathe it every day. That education will inspire our children to learn and to grow, and as history has shown, all of society, not just the Jewish community, will benefit from such citizens.
Today, our community’s youth are facing challenging and often destructive messages of modern secular culture. It is more important than ever to provide them with support and role models as they move toward adulthood. While Jewish tradition equips us with values that can carry our youth through this time, we often miss the mark when it comes to making Judaism relevant in their lives. As a community, we must fix this. We must give them the tools that mirror the challenges of pending adulthood, preparing them to thrive in their new adult lives, while helping to ensure the resiliency of the entire community. And how do we do this? We know that people learn differently, and that they respond to different educational strategies and settings. King Solomon, the wisest of men, counseled us to “Educate the child according to his ways and then he will not depart from it.” No single model of Jewish education will work for all Jews. Our goal, therefore, should be to promote a wide variety of successful formal and informal Jewish educational options to meet the needs of students and families.
In our own community, I am impressed by the variety and sophistication of what is being offered to our children today. There is something for every child, from infancy to high school. The JCC pre-school exposes our very youngest community members to the basics of Jewish tradition and literacy. Our day schools offer dual curricula of serious Judaic and excellent secular studies. Our synagogue afternoon and Sunday schools employ innovative and effective models for Jewish learning and provide a solid Jewish education to their students. Our youth groups for high and middle school students foster personal growth through informal educational, cultural, and social experiences.
About 25 years ago, the Jewish Federation created Beit Hamidrash, a community high school program for teens in grades 8-12. Beit Hamidrash was created at the request of synagogues and rabbis who were concerned that teenagers were “dropping off” after Bar and Bat Mitzvah. In its 25 years, Beit Hamidrash educated hundreds of young people who have become committed members of the Jewish community. Beit Hamidrash has always served a dual purpose of providing formal education as well as a place for Jewish teens to be together is larger numbers. Over the years, however, we have seen attrition in enrollment from the highest 234 in 205-06 down to 60 students enrolled this year. The reasons for this are numerous: tremendous pressure on high school students to get into best colleges, which leads to busy schedules filled with athletic, volunteer and other activities leaving very little time for Jewish education. At the same time, the growth of youth groups and Madrichim (youth counselors) programs at synagogues has filled the need for social activity in a Jewish setting. Recognizing the changing needs of today’s teenagers, we have made a number of changes in the structure of Beit Hamidrash. But that doesn’t seem to be enough. After consultations with community rabbis, the Jewish Federation has convened a task force charged to examine the state of today’s high school supplementary Jewish education and make recommendations to the Board of Directors as to what directions it should take. I look forward to working with this group of committed educators and community members.
As a Jewish community professional, I have dedicated myself to supporting Jewish education in all its aspects. Nothing would be worse than fighting over the question of what kind of Jewish education-preschool, elementary, high school is “most important” to promoting Jewish continuity. Rather, we should all realize that the Jewish future rests upon its shoulders. We as a community have an awesome responsibility to ensure the continuity of our people. No one will do it for us or instead of us. Education is the key to the Jewish future. V’shinan’tam l’vanekha. Let’s commit to make it happen.