The Limits of Jewish Education

Rabbi Bernie Fox

Tzara’as is an affliction of the skin generally characterized by the appearance of a bright white discoloration.   Contraction of tzara’as renders a person tamey - impure.   The degree of impurity that is ascribed to the person depends upon the severity of the disease.   In its most intense  manifestation, the afflicted person is banished from the community until the condition subsides.

The Torah explains that tzara’as is not contracted as a result of a virus or bacterial infection.   It is a consequence of moral and ethical failures.  Primary among those failings is lashon ha’ra – speaking negatively of others – even if the negative characterization is accurate and truthful.

Maimonides explains that lashon ha’ra has three victims:  the person who is vilified, the speaker who disparages another, and the one who listens to the defamation.   He adds that the listener is harmed the most.   Now, it seems that Maimonides is speaking on a practical level.   On a practical level, all of the parties in the dynamic are damaged by lashon ha’ra.

It is obvious that the vilified party has been harmed.   His reputation has been attacked and damaged.   But it is worthwhile to consider the damage caused to the other two parties in the dynamic – the speaker and listener.  We will come back to this issue in a few minutes.

A recent national survey of parents reveals that they have mixed feelings regarding their children’s Jewish day schools and high schools.   For all schools participating in the survey, on average, less than 50% of the parents reported that they are enthusiastic supporters, likely to recommend their school to others.  The survey also suggests that, on average, 15% can be expected to discourage others from enrolling their children.

An even more interesting aspect of the survey is what it suggests about the core cause of this lack of enthusiasm or dissatisfaction.   The survey results suggest that the core, dominant determinant of parent enthusiasm or dissatisfaction is their appraisal of the school’s effectiveness in promoting Jewish development.   This suggests that the most important reason more than 50% of parents are less than enthusiastic about their children's school is that they feel it has not provided impactful and inspiring Jewish education.

I think that our parents have good reason to be alarmed and concerned. They are observing behaviors and attitudes that give them reason to wonder whether their children will remain committed to observance and Jewish life.   They are looking to their schools to respond to their concerns and to rescue their children.

I do not know all of the specific behaviors that concern parents but I can provide one example.   In recent years much attention has been given to the phenomenon of Half-Shabbos.  Half-Shabbos is a term used to describe the practice of observing Shabbos with the exception of using one's mobile  phone.   Apparently, nationally, a growing number of otherwise observant Jewish teens and pre-teens will not or cannot resist texting or calling friends on Shabbos.

I agree with the parents with whom I have discussed this issue.  Our schools must respond to this development.   We must better communicate to our students the importance of Shabbos observance.   We must more effectively explain to them  why Half-Shabbos is not good enough.   Our job as educators is to be aware of emerging trends among our students.   We must understand their attitudes and be adaptive in the manner in which we teach, communicate, and work with our young people.

We will continue to improve and increase the effectiveness of our schools.   But I strongly suspect that our schools are fundamentally ill-suited to succeed in the task that they have been assigned.   We expect our schools to Jewishly educate and inspire our young people. I think that for our schools to succeed, they need help.   We need broader participation in the process of education and inspiration.

Let me explain.   One article discussing Half-Shabbos included a wealth of material from interviews with young people.   As you might expect, some justified their behavior by minimizing it or disputing the Shabbos violation.   However, others did not deny that their use of their digital devices violated Shabbos.   These young people merely observed that no one is completely observant.   Their parents and many other adults around them compromise in their observance.   These young people asserted that they only differ from the adults in where they compromise.

One of the parents with whom I work expressed the issue to me as follows: "Our children are watching us.   They are observing you and me – all of us.   We are all role models. Their observations of the adults around them inform their conclusions regarding observance and contribute to shaping their attitudes towards Torah."

Okay, so we can all pitch-in to inspire our children by modeling the values and behaviors that we hope to nurture.   What else can do?

Surrounding the First World War, America experienced a tremendous wave of Jewish immigration from Europe.   These immigrant families had a troubling experience.   Many succeeded in transplanting their Torah observance to this new continent and society. However,  far fewer succeeded in transmitting their commitment to their children.   

Rav Moshe Feinstein Zt"l suggested that this lost generation of Jews was not compromised because of their parents' lack of commitment.   These parents made heroic sacrifices to be observant.   This generation was lost because of the "k'vetch".   The mother put kosher meat on the table but kvetched over the expense.   The father did not work on Shabbos but he bemoaned the lost income.   The message communicated to the children was not that observance is worthy of the greatest sacrifice.   It was that there is no joy in observance.   It is only an experience of sacrifice.   

If we are to inspire our children, it is not enough to provide them with a Jewish education.   We must communicate to them our joy and our love for that education and for living Jewishly.  If our conversation is only about the tuition crisis, the trials and tribulations of car pool, the imposition of attending the school’s fundraisers, and the k’vetch, then what message are we communicating?  If we aspire for our children to find joy in their Jewish experience in and out of school, then we must express our joy.

Finally, I will share with you an insight from a parent that is relevant to both inspiring our children and to the teaching from Maimonides with which I opened.   It is a sad story.  I have heard it too many times. But it deserves to be told. 

A mother came to me and bemoaned her children's abandonment of observance.   She and her husband had made tremendous sacrifices to provide their children with the finest Jewish education available. The children attended day school from kindergarten through middle school and then continued on to yeshiva high school.   After high school, all of her children studied in Israel.   But none remained observant.   

But then she made the most remarkable and difficult comment.   She said to me that to a great extent she and her husband are responsible for her children's abandonment of observance. She explained, that she and her husband constantly bemoaned the shortcomings of their synagogue. They were consistently critical of their Orthodox community and its members.   They focused on all of the shortcoming that they observed.   She said her children are good listeners.   They have no desire to be part of the deeply flawed faith-community described by their parents.

So who is harmed by lashon ha’ra?   The victim can recover.   The speaker reinforces his own negativity but his malignant perspective was in place even before he expressed it in words.  But the listener does not even appreciate that he has been poisoned.   His outlook on the world and on his community has been tainted and corrupted though the noxious affect of these reports.   He is an innocent whose outlook is poisoned by the speaker.  

The bottom line is that we shape the perspectives of others through the messages that we communicate to them.  As the mother, whose story I just described observed, this is especially true regarding the messages that we transmit to our children.

If our children are to be inspired by the education we provide, then they must believe in their schools' capacity to inspire.   Whether they have this faith in their schools will be determined by their experiences but also by the messages that we communicate as parents and community members.    

If school, parents, and community cannot see one another as partners in the enterprise of Torah education, then it will only be left for us to apportion the blame for a lost generation.   If we can engage one another as partners,  then I am confident we will inspire our young people to be committed, enthusiastic and G-d fearing young men and women.  

Thank you and Good Shabbos.