One of the most well-known Jewish values is an unwavering commitment to education. Referred to as the “people of the book,” the Jewish community stands as one of the most highly educated in America. This commitment to education can be traced to the Torah, where each parent is commanded to educate their dhildren.
The remarkable accomplishments of our community, including the many doctors, lawyers, and Nobel Prize laureates it has produced, bear witness to the strong dedication that Judaism places on learning.
Unfortunately, for much of Jewish history in America, Jewish education has been seen as secondary or supplementary to secular education. The Lubavitcher rebbe, of blessed memory, taught that while a general education can go a long way in preparing a child for career success, a Jewish education is critical for a child’s moral and ethical foundation, building a sense of resilience for a grounded and fulfilling life. Jewish education weaves together a tapestry of a millennia-old heritage, replete with traditions, values, and wisdom that provide context, purpose, and meaning to our lives.
What really sets Jewish education apart is its emphasis on middos, translated roughly as “character development.” This encompasses virtues such as being a mensch, giving to tzedakah, visiting the sick, and treating others with kindness. This emphasis on character development is increasingly important in a world filled with unkind and unconscious behavior.
I often compare Jewish education to Noah’s ark. When God commanded Noah to build the ark, the choice of an ark as opposed to a tower or another structure was deliberate. A large vessel with a rock-solid anchor not only offers shelter, but also withstands the fiercest storms.
Moreover, as the floodwaters surge, the ark ascends with the tides. Similarly, a Jewish education offers a framework that enables a child to rise above the societal currents that sweep over our world, elevating them to their fullest potential. Just as the ark’s walls were intended to be used after the flood to rebuild society, so too does a Jewish education instill in our students timeless values and morals that they share with society once they’ve left school and entered the real world.
In my 30-year career as an educator and Chabad House director, I’ve witnessed many young people, after completing their secular education, feeling adrift and unsure of their place in the world. While their education prepared them for economic survival, it left a void in their spiritual identity. A strong Jewish education, begun in early childhood, is the best way I’ve seen to counteract this crisis of purpose in our young people.
By sharing the beauty and depth of our tradition with our children, we are preparing them for life, ensuring they are upstanding human beings and proud scions of the Jewish legacy.
Additionally, the rebbe taught that promoting Jewish education and affiliation is the best way to counteract antisemitism. In a world where disturbing incidents of antisemitism are increasingly common, a strong Jewish education empowers our children to feel pride in their Jewishness. Their strong sense of identity and purpose ensures they will feel secure and ready to face the world as proud Jews.
As we approach the High Holidays of 2023, let us reflect on our role in shaping the destiny of American Jewry. Just as Rosh Hashanah is a time of introspection and renewal, let us renew our commitment to providing a comprehensive Jewish education to our children. By doing so, we ensure that the legacy we pass on is one that echoes through time, bridging the past, present, and future of our vibrant tradition.
Rabbi Mordechai Shain is the director of Lubavitch on the Palisades. For more information, go to www.chabadlubavitch.org.