While there are many areas to which a rabbi devotes his or her time, the essential component of every rabbinate is teaching.
The very word “rabbi” is far closer in meaning to “teacher” than to “priest.” That the word for rabbi refers etymologically to teaching indicates the pre-eminent place of learning in Jewish culture. We always have made education our top priority. Synagogue boards today that commit to subsidizing the Jewish education of the community’s children, year after year, are following a long tradition. The Shulchan Aruch, the sixteenth-century codification of Jewish law, requires each community to pay the salary of a teacher to educate its children to read the alef bet.
Education is not exclusively for the young. Jewish learning is a way of life that persists through the years. In fact, we are taught that the Jewish idea of paradise is learning at the feet of the great rabbis in the heavenly academy.
One reason why Jews have felt so comfortable in the United States is because of the parallel cultural value placed on education. More than any other country, Americans value education as a way of life. Ours is one of the only places in the world where high school graduates are expected to continue in full-time study in the liberal arts, separate from technical training. The very idea (needless to say the practical possibility) of a resident college experience is literally foreign to most residents of the planet. The pursuit of a liberal education is directly analogous to the Jewish concept of Torah lishmah, of study for its own sake without practical or pecuniary motive. Jewish and American cultures share this essential value of education as a virtue, as a means of improving our basic humanity, and of making us better Jews or Americans.
In American culture, education was at first considered critical in order to prepare a populace to assume sovereignty as a democracy. In Jewish tradition, education is, at its highest form, a means of worship, an opportunity to engage with and celebrate Torah. Today, both cultures have been influenced by more immediate practical concerns. American education is finding itself falling behind in areas such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the so-called STEM subjects. Necessary adjustments are being made, but often at the expense of the humanities. Jewish education, which is itself a branch of the humanities, also is under siege for its effectiveness in ensuring Jewish identity and continuity.
The burden on Jewish educators has increased as parents can offer less informal education about Jewish living because their own Jewish education is limited and their commitments are varied. But just as we are asking more of Jewish teachers, the available time (in both the broad terms of years and in the numbers of hours per week) that Jewish educators are given to teach has in fact decreased.
The increased burden on Jewish education, coupled with a decreased opportunity to succeed, might be interpreted as “bad news for the Jews.” But the reality is far more complex than that. The reason why we need our teachers to teach more and to help our parents – while parents bring their children for fewer years and fewer hours -is that Judaism has found such a comfortable home in America. It is because our two cultures, the majority host culture and the specific minority culture, are so interchangeable and complementary that we are facing today’s challenges. It is because American culture values education that American Jews do less Jewish education.
We are blessed to live in a society that values the pursuit of knowledge, that sees it as a virtue, something that makes us better and fuller people. That was a wisdom that Judaism always understood. We should embrace our surrounding American culture and appreciate the blessings before us. But at the same time, we need to have a clearer sense of what it is that we expect from the education that we invest in for our children as a Jewish community.
If we know what we want and need from Jewish education and can give our Jewish education foundations the required resources, we will be able to benefit from the legacies of being both Jewish and American.
We need to support our supplementary schools and achieve attainable goals. We are limited in what we can teach at a supplementary religious school, but if we can instill a sense of joy in Jewish celebration, an appreciation of Shabbat, and a basic knowledge of Torah, then we have done so much. If we can teach our children how to read the prayer book, so they can grow up and enter any synagogue in the world and join in, we have provided a passport for the soul that will never expire.
Nothing can explain the feeling of belongingness that you get when you walk into a synagogue on the other side of the world and instantly are a part of that community. You must know what to do in order for that to happen, though. That belongingness then will manifest itself at home as well as when away.
We need to invest in a high school program, like the one at the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies, so that Jewish education can grow with the student beyond the bar/bat mitzvah year, and so that our investments in primary Jewish education can grow.
We need to strengthen our Jewish day schools. Those parents who make the commitment to give their children a bicultural education will find their children grow into mature American Jews, people who will be best prepared to navigate the hybridized culture in which we all live in because they will be equally competent and at home in both cultures.
We need to broadly encourage the Jewish camping experience. The informal and communal setting of summer camp can communicate Judaism on the experiential level in a way that can never be accomplished in the classroom.
We need to send our children to Israel. Experiencing Israel is experiencing the Jewish people in its fullness. Only then can the Jew feel fully at home in America, when you know that your Jewishness is strong and unthreatened by your also being American.
On Saturday night, we can take advantage of Sweet Tastes of Torah, where local rabbis share their love for Torah in Fair Lawn.
Jewish education forms us not only as Jews but as Americans as well. In this nation of immigrants, the specific culture that we bring with us mixes with the majority culture to give us the unique character that helps us reach an element of virtue.
This is why Jewish education matters.