“How Goodly Are Your Tents O’ Jacob”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Balak, we read once again of the non-Jewish prophet, Bilaam, who attempts to curse the Jewish people, but winds up blessing them.

Perhaps the most famous line of Bilaam’s poetry is the verse that opens the daily prayers (Numbers 24:5): “Ma toh’voo oh’ha’leh’cha Yaakov, mish’k’no’techa Yisrael.” How goodly are your tents, O’ Jacob, your dwelling places, O’ Israel. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) notes that Bilaam was moved to say these beautiful words because he saw that the entrances of the Jewish people’s tents were arrayed in such a way that no one could look into their neighbor’s tent.

As we have mentioned in previous studies, these descriptions of ancient Jewish life underscore the fact that Jewish family life was highly structured. Every Jew knew his/her relationship within the family, and everyone had a role. It is this familial and communal structure that shields the Jewish people from those who wish to curse and harm them.

Interestingly, the Targum Jonathan (Aramaic paraphrase of the Torah, attributed by some to Yonasan ben Uziel, the disciple of Hillel) on Numbers 24:5 offers an alternative interpretation. He asks: What did Bilaam see that caused him to say: “How goodly are your tents O Jacob…”? The Targum Jonathon suggests: He saw their schools.

Today, aside from the sanctity of family life, the most critical and compelling aspect concerning the question of Jewish survival in America is the challenge of providing quality Jewish education for our children. It is now absolutely indisputable that, aside from Yeshiva and intensive Day School education, every other form of Jewish training for young people in America has proven to be an unmitigated disaster. I have often said, only half in jest, that if the Jews for Jesus were smart, they would pay to send every Jewish child to an afternoon Hebrew School, because with rare exception, it has proven to be a most effective means of turning off Jewish kids to Jewish life!

But before we pat ourselves too smugly on our shoulders, let us take stock of where our Yeshivot and Day Schools stand and critically evaluate how well we are doing. Frankly, to my mind, the great miracle of Yeshiva and Day School education is that they produce frum (religiously committed) students at all, considering the enormous handicaps under which they operate. Those of us who have made it through the system, and still remained faithful, readily admit that the experience can be, in many instances, a veritable minefield.

Remember, it often takes only a single incompetent teacher to destroy a child’s enthusiasm for Torah for life. And no matter how many other outstanding instructors a student may have before and after, the wound rarely heals. Unfortunately, too many schools have their share of destructive personalities in the classroom.

We must also bear in mind that virtually all schools experience cycles of good and bad times with respect to the quality of their school’s education. I recall my own disbelief when I was told by a young Satmar dropout, who had spent time in the cults, how many Yeshiva boys and girls were involved in his Yoga Ashram. Refusing to accept his testimony, I demanded to be shown personally. Students of every single major Yeshiva in America were present when I visited the Ashram of Swami Satchidananda in Greenwich Village!

Later, through my work at Lincoln Square Synagogue, I was to learn that on the West Side of Manhattan there exists one of the largest networks of Yeshiva dropouts, of all persuasions, from Y.U. to Satmar, some even with Smicha, some Rebbeshe Einiklach (direct descendants of Chassidic leaders), some living with, or married to, mates of all religions, races and creeds.

Of course, not all of this can be attributed to the failure of our schools. Family and friends often play the critical role. But we cannot, dare not, sweep under the carpet, the basic failure of the Jewish community in general (and the Orthodox community as well, and not only the Modern Orthodox, but the so-called Haredi community as well), which has failed to insure superior quality Jewish education for our children.

The truth is that not a few wealthy Baalebatim (lay people) cry poverty when it comes to paying tuition, sapping our institutions of resources they desperately need. The truth is that Rebbeim (master teachers) in the system, especially in large cities, even after ten and fifteen years of service, are often paid much less than a living wage, and often receive no pension, life insurance and limited or no medical coverage. Even when these special coverages are available, it is likely due only to the vision and unprecedented generosity of the late Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Gruss or the Avi Chai Foundation of the late Baal Teshuva, Zalman Chaim Bernstein. The truth is that women teachers in many Yeshivos are often seriously exploited, receiving 1/3 or 1/2 of the already low salary for full-time teaching responsibilities. The truth is that it is not uncommon to find our most effective educators and Talmidei Chachamim (scholars) forced to take on two or three supplemental jobs in order to make ends “barely” meet. It is often these outstanding young people who are burning out the ovens, and standing over the boiling kashering pots, or staying up entire nights supervising the kashering of a luxury hotel kitchen, enabling the frum (religiously committed) community to spend eight or nine stress-free days of sheer delight on Pesach, for which they gratefully pay $1,500-$3,500 per person. The truth is that I once calculated, back in the late 1970s, that at that time, over $50 million was spent by Orthodox New Yorkers each year on Pesach vacations alone, a figure that represented then fully 1/4 of the overall annual budget of all Yeshivot and Day Schools in the New York metropolitan area. (Today, it is well over $150-$200 million).

The truth is also that Federation claims of support for Jewish education are terribly misleading. With all the vaunted hype of special funds, and blockbuster grants–the bottom line is that of the $8,000-15,000 it takes to educate a Yeshiva student today–the NY UJA-Federation subsidy amounts to no more than $101.57 per child, per year. In stark contrast, the organized Catholic community of greater New York in the early 1980s subsidized their students to the tune of over $2,500 per child, through Archdiocesan and parish contributions, and through the use of church personnel as teachers and administrators. (Today it is still about $1300 per student.) Many of you are probably familiar with the famous 1990 Council of Jewish Federations’ report documenting the staggering assimilation taking place in the American Jewish Community. But few of you are probably aware of an equally frightening CJF analysis, documenting that Federation contributions to Jewish education as a percentage of their overall budgets, for the years 1987-94, actually declined! Perhaps out of embarrassment, they stopped issuing these public reports in 1989.

The truth is that the majority of our best and brightest young people no longer consider Jewish education as a viable career option. Many who do take the plunge find it difficult to deal with the problem of low professional esteem or discover in short order that they are unable to feed their rapidly expanding families. Several years ago, five long-time New York area principals left Jewish education for business–all in a single year. Furthermore, almost all certified teacher training programs in the country have closed and many of our finest Yeshivos Gedolos, which have become the source of many of our future teachers and leaders, after a few “fat” years, once again find themselves in a desperate financial battle, which will make it extremely difficult or impossible to focus on producing the educators and rabbis that we so desperately need.

The Midrash Rabbah in Parashat Toledot relates:

The leaders of idolatry gathered about Avnomos HaGardi (non Jewish philosopher, contemporary and friend of R. Meir) and said to him: “Advise us, How can we defeat this (Jewish) nation?” He said: “Go inspect all their synagogues and houses of study. If you find children chirping (studying Torah), you can never defeat them, for this is what their father (Isaac) said to them: ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob’–as long as the voice of Jacob (Torah) is found in their synagogues, the hands of Esau cannot prevail; but if not, ‘The hands are the hands of Esau.'”

If we are to survive and flourish, we must resolve to reorder our priorities. What Bilaam recognized 3,300 years ago, we need to recognize today. We must resolve to support Jewish education to its fullest. We must resolve to make personal sacrifices so that our educators can live, not lives of luxury, but lives of less privation. We must resolve to demand from the general Jewish community, the wealthiest cultural group in the U.S., to be forthcoming with serious funding for Jewish education. It is absolutely criminal that in this country, the wealthiest Jewish community in all of Jewish history, there is still no Jewish communal fund to guarantee a Jewish education for every Jewish child in America. (There’s a JNF to plant trees. There must be a mega Jewish Educational Fund to plant Jewish lives! The 5% initiative of George Hanus is a start, but certainly not enough!) We must resolve to educate our own children and grandchildren so that they see Jewish Education as a foremost calling of our people. We must encourage them to choose a career in Jewish education, so that we can eradicate the sense of stigma and opprobrium which is often associated with a career in Jewish education.

Finally, we must resolve to make our first priority reaching out to the already committed, which in some instances means ourselves, to insure that “casual” religious Jews become passionate religious Jews. That passion must not be relegated to the Rabbis and the educators; that excitement and thrill involved in the perpetuation of our heritage must thoroughly permeate our homes, our schools and our lives.

May we merit to see that, as a result of our uncompromising commitment to excellence in education, there shall soon be heard in the hills of Judea and the streets of Jerusalem the sounds of the Bride and Groom, and the heralding of the Messiah soon in our days.

May you be blessed.