“The Primacy of Jewish Education”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In last week’s parasha, parashat Terumah, we read of the appeal for donations to build the Tabernacle–the portable sanctuary used in the wilderness, also known as the Mishkan. In Exodus 25:1-2, G-d instructs Moses: “Daber el B’nai Yisrael, v’yikchu lee t’rumah, may’eyt kol ish asher yid’venu leebo, tick’chu et t’rumati,” Speak to the children of Israel, that they should take for me an offering, from any person whose heart stirs him, you should take this donation. These donations, which consisted of gold, silver, acacia wood, and onyx stones, were designated for the building and the furnishing of the Tabernacle, which included the ark, the menorah, the table of showbread, the altar, and the other features of the Tabernacle.

In this week’s parasha, parashat Tetzaveh, in Genesis 27:20, there is a second appeal which begins with the words: “V’ata t’zaveh et B’nai Yisrael, v’yikchu ey’leh’cha shehmen zayit zach katit la’ma’or, l’ha’alot ner tamid,” and you should command the children of Israel, that you should take for yourselves pure olive oil that’s pressed for the lighting, in order to ignite the perpetual flame of the menorah. According to tradition, the oil and the light of the menorah represent wisdom and holiness. In effect, the Torah is telling the people that when it comes to building a Tabernacle, furnishing a Temple, or erecting a religious edifice, it’s all voluntary. Donors may contribute as much as their heart’s desire. But when it comes to lighting a menorah, when it comes to the light of wisdom and holiness, when it comes to the light of Jewish education, donors have no choice. Jews must contribute–there is no choice in the matter!

From virtually all vantage points, the Jews of America are experiencing a “Golden Age”–unparalleled in all Jewish history. Not since the 12th and 13th century in Spain, have Jewish people, anywhere in the world, excelled and flourished as have the Jews of contemporary America. And although the Golden Age of Spain is often looked upon as the paradigm of Jewish communal success, by any objective standard, the medieval Jews of the Iberian Peninsula could hardly measure up to the successes of those Jews living today in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

In virtually every field of endeavor–business, medicine, academia, entertainment, and politics–the achievements of American Jewry are unprecedented. Jewish “Baby Boomers” who grew up in awe of, and with reverence for, the vaunted accomplishments of the previous generation of American Jews–Albert Einstein, Dr. Jonas Salk, Louis B. Meyer and David Sarnoff–could hardly imagine that these achievements would be equaled, let alone eclipsed, by a future generation of Jews in America. And yet, a new generation of stars, with stellar achievements, continue to profoundly impact on America and American culture: Henry Kissinger, Steven Spielberg, Alan Greenspan, Barbra Streisand, Joseph Lieberman, Michael Eisner, Michael Dell, Steve Ballmer to name but a few.

Until very recently, four of the eight presidents of Ivy League universities were Jewish. 22% of Nobel prizes in science have been won by a people that represent about 2/10 of 1% of the world’s population, and only 2% of the American population.

Ours is a generation of achievement without precedent in all of Jewish history. And yet, to paraphrase a recent address by one Jewish leader, ours is a generation that is uniquely ignorant without precedent in all Jewish history. America’s Jews are wonderfully educated in the ways of the world, but abysmally ignorant in the ways of our people.

There are Jews today who are thoroughly erudite in the most obscure aspects of astrophysics, Swahili poetry, anthropology, and the most sophisticated economic algorithms, who could not recognize what “Leviticus 24:3” means.

And so, from a Jewish point of view, for all practical purposes, America’s Jews are in severe distress and peril. While our parents prayed for a melting pot, Jewish life in America has become a meltdown. And how sad it is, because with the loss of Jewish values and traditional Jewish training, America’s Jews are losing the magic that in so many ways propelled the exceptional achievements of our people. America’s Jews are losing those values for which we have been renowned for the past 200 years in America: Excellence in education, extreme charitability, stability of marital and family life, and abhorrence of violence. As America’s Jews become further estranged from their traditions, America’s Jews are subtly, but inexorably, losing these special qualities that were once inextricably bound to their Jewish identities.

These are propitious times for America’s Jews to respond to this daunting challenge. American Jewry, who have traditionally rallied behind every important ethical and moral cause, should, for once, rally for themselves, for their own Jewish identities, and for their own Jewish survival. And since Jewish learning is a prerequisite for Jewish living, the proper response is an uninhibited clarion call for Jewish literacy.

Today, 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, these schools have proven to be a most effective means of turning Jewish kids off to Jewish life!

The Midrash Rabba, the legendary interpretation of the Torah in Genesis parashat Toledot, relates that a non-Jewish philosopher, Avnomos Hagardi, a first century contemporary and friend of Rabbi Meir, was approached by the non-Jewish leaders of his generation and asked, “Could you suggest a way to defeat the Jewish people?” Avnomos replied, “L’chu v’chazru al ba’tay chnay’see’ot,” Go to their synagogues, go to the Jewish houses of study, and if you hear the voices of children learning Torah, there’s no way that you can defeat them! Because this was the promise of their forefather, Isaac, who said to them: “Ha’kol, kol Yaacov,” the voice is the voice of Jacob. As long as the voice of Jacob is found in the synagogues and in the houses of study, “ein ha’yadayim y’day Esav,” the hands of Esau cannot prevail.

If we are to survive and flourish, we must resolve to reorder our priorities. We must resolve to support Jewish education to its fullest. We must resolve to make personal sacrifices so that our Jewish educators can live 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 day and age and in this country, the wealthiest Jewish community in all Jewish history, there is still no Jewish communal fund to guarantee a Jewish education for every Jewish child who seeks one. (There’s a Jewish National Fund to plant trees. There must be a mega Jewish Educational Fund to plant Jewish lives!) Furthermore, we must resolve to educate our children and grandchildren to see Jewish education as the foremost calling of our people, and to encourage them to choose a career in Jewish education, and eradicate the sense of stigma and opprobrium that 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 to reach out to ourselves, to insure that casual Jews become passionate Jews, that the passion not be relegated to the Rabbis and to the educators, but that the excitement and thrill involved in the perpetuation of our heritage permeate each of our homes, our schools, and our lives.

The Torah in this week’s portion, Tetzaveh, clearly exhorts the Jewish people: “V’ata t’zaveh,” You shall command! We have no choice in the matter. We have to keep the menorah, the candle, the light of wisdom, of holiness and of Jewish education, burning brightly.

May you be blessed.