There can be no topic in Jewish life about which more articles have been written, organizations formed and meetings held than Jewish continuity. What do we know about ourselves from a historic, social economic, religious and cultural point of view? The answer is that the foremost element of continuity must be education.
Ah, but then we are Jews. Religiously diverse, culturally diverse, economically diverse, spread over all the continents and, above all, educationally fragmented.
The Forward on June 7 published a column titled “The Other Threat,” by editor Jane Eisner, which was a well-researched article that dealt with the growth of the haredi population and raised the question of whether the “unchecked growth of Jewish fundamentalism” is an existential threat to Jewish life in America. It ends with a conclusory statement that reads, “The result is a larger than ever proportion of Jews who, by all accounts, don’t much care about being Jewish.”
At the same time, in the most recent edition of the B’nai B’rith magazine, there is an article about the increase in Hebrew language charter schools. Religious instruction is off limits, open enrollment resulting in black and Hispanic children attending is mandatory, and it is all paid for by the state in which the schools are located. Teachers use Hebrew texts to teach the children, but the Bible cannot be used. A former Florida congressman who is the founder of the schools in Florida “makes no secret of the fact that his main goal ... is to give more kids a Jewish education.” He then asks, “How do you expect to address continuity in America if 92 percent of Jews don’t have Jewish education?” This is a truly pertinent question to which he replies, “The Hebrew charter school has the potential to change that.” Draw your own conclusion.
And now we head west and learn that a Jewish high school, without high tuition costs, is being developed in Phoenix (“High school offers new Jewish education option,” Jewish News, June 14). The plan is for it to partner with a charter school to offer an affordable Jewish education to high school students. The founder of this plan feels that the cost of Jewish education is too high and “that is why American Jews don’t sent their kids to Jewish schools.” Truly, an oversimplification of the problem, but again I say, draw your own conclusion.
Do you now see why the word “fragmented” is used to describe Jewish education in America? Let us be honest, Jewish education is controlled by the organization, the institution, the synagogue or the temple whose philosophy determines what the child will be taught. Bar mitzvah-ing a kid is not giving a kid a Jewish education. Teaching a kid Hebrew is not giving a kid a Jewish education, nor is cutting the cost the principal issue without knowing what is going to be taught.
Without an all-encompassing national Board of Jewish Education, whose members represent all strata of Jewish life and whose function is to define the meaning of Jewish education, to establish a curriculum, to oversee both the teachers and the teaching so that what is taught in Florida is the same as what is taught in Brooklyn, New Jersey and Phoenix, there can be no continuity of Jewish education and, therefore, no continuity of the Jewish community.
Jewish history is not solely that which can be gleaned from the Bible, but the Bible and religion should certainly be a part of Jewish education. Both the children and their parents should be made aware of discrimination, ghettos, pogroms, the immigration that brought their parents or grandparents to this country and the contribution of those immigrants to life in America, such as trade unionism, cooperative housing, Hollywood and the growth of the film industry, as well as the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel and the effect these historical events had on American Jewry.
How much is taught about the works of Sholem Aleichem, other than “Fiddler on the Roof”? Does any class read the stories of I.L. Peretz, Sholem Asch, the Singer brothers (all in translation) or American Jewish authors such as Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and others. (What a textbook “World of Our Fathers” by Irving Howe would make.)
It is without doubt that the Orthodox will never accede to such a concept. The secular aspect of such education would be unacceptable. But as long as Judaism is defined not solely as a religion, but also as a culture, an ethic, a lifestyle and a people, perhaps the nonfundamentalists among us who understand and live the culture, the ethic, the lifestyle and the people can, with knowledge, unite on behalf of continuity.
There is a whole world of Jewish life in America and, if studied, it could become the most unifying element of the Jewish community. In today’s world, however, as long as each organization will insist that it is my way or the highway, meetings will continue to be held, programs will be adopted, and speakers will hold forth, but neighbor will not join neighbor because they belong to different shuls. The fundamentalists will gain strength despite their narrow vision and the rest of the Jewish world will flounder and continue to ask the same questions of itself about Jewish continuity, but will not find the answer.
The answer is a proper Jewish education.
Leon Gildin is an author and a resident of Paradise Valley.