Dropping the education ball

Dropping the education ball

This weekend, we celebrate Shavuot, the festival known as z’man matan torateinu – the time of the giving of the Torah. The Torah does not refer to Shavuot in this way, but the chronology it gives for the journey from Egypt to Sinai is strongly suggestive, as Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz notes in his article on page 18.

Because Shavuot, the celebration of Torah, focuses on learning, education – specifically, Jewish education – is a proper topic for this week’s column.

KEEPING THE FAITH: One religious perspective on issues of the day What makes it an urgent column is an e-mail I received a couple of weeks back as a member of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis (NJBR). It informed the community’s rabbis that the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey (JFNNJ) in effect was cutting its last lines of support to Jewish education in the areas of Bergen, Passaic, and Hudson counties that it serves.

Before I go on, let me make this clear. This is my column. No one determines what I write here. I may be the interim editor of The Jewish Standard, but in this space, the voice is mine alone. If there is fallout for what I am about to write, let it fall on my head alone for I alone am responsible.

The e-mail reported that a number of already planned education-related activities for next year have been cancelled, and that education matters would now be handled by a non-educator who already has more than enough to do without this extra burden.

Many of my colleagues and I see this move as just the latest salvo in the federation’s campaign to de-emphasize its role in the ever more expensive and demanding area of Jewish education.

Several years ago, federation could point with pride to its first-class and constantly upgraded Teachers’ Center. The room is still there, but no one updates it and few teachers use it.

Over a decade ago, I wrote in this space that that federation’s Jewish Educational Service (JES) “does an unbelievably wonderful job of trying to keep teachers and principals up-to-date on teaching techniques, available resources, and so forth. It also is very involved in creating a pool of certified teachers.”

That was then. Today, area yeshivot and day schools, congregational schools, and early childhood programs (there were over 100 at one point) cannot turn to the Teachers’ Center’s professional consultants because there are none. They cannot send their professional staffs to JES programs, because, except in name only, there is no JES and the programs are all gone. All the grant money that the JES staff once labored for is gone, too, as is the professional training the federation’s education staff provided to those teachers who wanted to be better educators.

It is all gone now. The programs that remain are on hold; the lone (and highly praised) professional educator on the staff has been shunted aside, judging by the federation’s e-mail message; and the JFNNJ is taking the year off to re-evaluate how best to serve education in this area.

Who is at fault for this travesty?

The buck stops here, with you and me – and with the rest of our community. Frankly, federation cannot spend money it does not have. We can debate whether JFNNJ should allocate its funds differently, but we cannot debate whether it has the funds it needs to meet all of the community’s urgent needs. It does not (which is our fault) and education is one of the places it chooses to cut. Even Solomon would have a hard time deciding which programs must go given the realities.

The Torah tells us (see Leviticus 26:37), “And they shall fall one upon another.” Says the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud tractate Sh’vuot 39a): “When Scripture states, ‘And they shall fall one upon another…,’ this teaches us that all Israel are responsible one for another!”

“Kol Yisrael aray-veen zeh la’zeh.” Everyone in the community is responsible for the morality, the ethics, and the actions of the individuals within that community.

Elsewhere (BT Shabbat 54b), the Talmud teaches us: “Whoever can turn aside his household [from doing wrong] but does not, is seized for the crimes of his household; if he can prevent his fellow citizens from doing wrong, but does not, he is seized for the crimes of his fellow citizens; if he can prevent the whole world from doing wrong, but does not, he is seized for the crimes of the whole world.”

Why would someone be punished for the wrongdoing of others? Why is a community punished for the sins of individuals? Does not the Torah insist that everyone be punished for his or her own sins?

Yes it does. So why the contradiction?

There is no contradiction. In each instance, the community or the neighbor is not being punished for what someone else did, but for what it or he did not do. Specifically, the community or the neighbor failed to exercise a proper, righteous, positive influence over the individual. Warning signs were ignored; heads were stuck in the sand; “this is not my concern” was an oft-hear refrain.

It is their concern. All Jews are responsible one for the other.

In a very real sense, this responsibility begins with the children. Children are empty vessels when they are born, waiting to be filled with knowledge and understanding. Aside from their parents, children acquire that knowledge and understanding in many ways, not the least of which is from the nature of the society around them, and from the nature of the people who make up that society.

That is why Jewish law requires collective, communal responsibility when someone takes the wrong path. It is because the community collectively shared in the upbringing of that person, in the filling-up of that empty vessel.

And that is why Maimonides, in his code of Jewish law, states bluntly: “If it does not employ teachers, it [the community] deserves to be destroyed.”

That is also why Judaism holds teachers in such high regard. In Midrash Rabbah to Lamentations, we read that Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Assi were sent by Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi on an inspection tour of various communities, to see how they handled the education of their children.

“They came to a city and said to the people, ‘Bring us the guardians of the city.’ The people fetched the captain of the guard and the magistrate. The rabbis exclaimed, ‘These are not the guardians of the city! They are its destroyers!'”

I know there are many pulls on the community purse – and they all are important.

Nevertheless, there are no needs more serious, more immediate, more concerned with our survival as a people than guaranteeing a Jewish education for all our children.

If federation is dropping the ball, maybe we need to find another way to pick it up. Whatever happens, this is one ball we cannot allow to roll away.

It is our future we are talking about.