An amazing thing happened at synagogue last week. The rabbi got up to decry the unaffordability of Jewish day school tuition. He asked the congregants to support a new Bergen Country education fund to offset the high costs. Sitting in the shul was one of the candidates for Englewood mayor. After the service, a few people gathered around him to ask about his policies. One person asked what he would do about the planning board. Another lobbied him for a sidewalk. But no one so much as asked him his opinion on a proposed Hebrew charter school in Englewood or his position on school vouchers. Amazing. We can discuss a giant communal funding crisis, brought about by the outrageous real estate taxes we pay in Bergen County with not one dollar going to finance secular education in parochial schools, and the solution, as always, is to milk the Jewish community further rather than press our politicians for simple justice.
Truth regardless of consequences Now is the time for the American Jewish community in general, and the Jews of New Jersey in particular, to organize politically and create a vast movement for change. Our children deserve a values-based education. We should not be penalized for wanting to expose them to a religious tradition that will make them into more moral, more ethical, more responsible citizens. Having vouchers that would go toward the secular side of a day-school education would in no way erode the wall that separates church from state. Sadly, it is usually American Jews who are the most fanatical when it comes to that separation, living as they do in the perpetual fear that any minute America is going to become Christian and force Jesus down our kids’ throats at schools. It ain’t gonna happen, people. All we’re going to do, by not insisting on our rights to have our tax dollars realized as vouchers that finance our children’s secular education in religious schools, is become politically irrelevant as the teachers’ unions continue their hegemony that has led to so many failing New Jersey schools and so many neglected students.
I recognize that many ideas are now being floated to solve the tuition crisis, with a communal fund being the idea of choice. But how absurd is it to go back to the very people who cannot afford tuition in the first place and press them to support a tuition fund? No. There is no long-term solution to the impossibly high cost of Jewish day schools other than our tax money’s being allowed to educate our children. We are not better than any other American citizens, but we are not lesser than them, either. And the fact that we accept this raving injustice speaks volumes about misplaced Jewish political priorities.
There is a reason that Bergen County can lead the United States in the push for school vouchers: It’s that Bergen already does something that many believe violates the church-state divide and yet its legality has been established and its model roundly applauded by its citizens. I speak specifically of Bergen County’s “blue laws,” which, with rare exceptions, shut down stores on Sunday, America’s Sabbath, and are the among the toughest in the nation.
Two weeks ago at our Friday night Shabbat table I was asked by one of our esteemed guests, Gov. Jon Corzine, what I thought of Bergen’s blue laws. The governor is a man of unique humility and sincerity, and I shared with him my belief that since it was greed, reckless spending, and irresponsible borrowing that destroyed our economy, the best way to remedy it would be to give our citizens a day of saving rather than splurging, suffused with family time rather than clogged with traffic. At this my close friend of 18 years, Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, interjected, “But Shmuley, then Bergen County’s retailers lose revenue from all the shoppers who will go elsewhere.” It’s rare that I disagree with Cory. But I countered, “President Bush thought that the answer to 9/11 was to encourage not sacrifice but shopping.” (His exact words, on Sept. 20, 2001, were “Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”) “And the economy didn’t turn out too well with that message, so a more spiritual message is in order.” Here you had the state’s two leading politicians discussing with a rabbi the question of whether New Jersey should continue to honor the Sabbath. Just because something has its origin in religion does not mean that it lacks a compelling secular logic.
Last year my organization, This World: The Values Network, launched a national program called “Turn Friday Night into Family Night” for all American families of every religious, ethnic, and political persuasion to create a weekly family feast. Our public service announcements, featuring leading celebrities endorsing the idea, are already airing on television, courtesy of the Discovery networks. Of the scores of families who have signed up (FridayIsFamily.com), the overwhelming majority are not Jewish. Every responsible parent understands that healthy families require at least one weekly event that isn’t sullied with television.
The notion that a person’s truest self is most revealed in the disposition of his leisure time is anticipated in the Talmud (Eruvin 65b), which declares that a man’s character can be tested in three ways: “be’kiso, be’koso, u’ve’kaaso, Af Be’sahako, “what he spends his money on, what he says when he is intoxicated, and what provokes him into anger,” also, in his “play.” The ancient rabbis further declared that an abuse of leisure leads to sin: “When there is nothing to do, you do what you ought not do.” This is the main argument for having a values-based education. Nearly all the problems we witness with teens and adolescents, from sex to drugs, revolve around a lack of meaning and purpose, and the first responsibility of an education is to teach children that the choices they make in life will determine the content of their characters.
It is time that the great litmus test for Jewish support of politicians be first, their support of Israel, and second, their support of vouchers. And those interested in joining a movement to press New Jersey politicians for school choice should please write to me at email@example.com.