Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism is a multifaceted text that has elicited a flurry of reactions. The very liberal New York Times Book Review printed a scathing appraisal which prompted my desire to read the book. Even in the Times of Israel the reaction to Beinart has been complex and a great deal of it has been negative. Beinart’s view of Zionism’s as having split from its liberal roots is the core message of the text. In my opinion he uses an argument about the Holocaust to overstate his position. Some of the criticism directed at the book comes from survivors, their offspring or what has been referred to as the conservative position that maintains the need to focus on Holocaust history. While not necessarily calling it such, Beinart’s view of the bunker mentality of survivors in particular but the modern Zionist philosophy as a whole, is shortsighted. The limited survey style that he employs to support many of his positions, while acceptable for generating hypotheses and drawing a general perspective about issues, should not be viewed as definitive but as interesting and debatable. His “out of town” understanding is occasionally myopic. I can empathize with his position on some points but I can also take umbrage at a good deal of what he says. That however is not the point of this column.
There was one point in his book that truly struck a chord with me. Beinart writes – “In city after city,” the Jewish communities “have built Holocaust memorials …. The Jewish schools in those cities are often decrepit, mediocre, and unaffordable, but there is no shortage of places to learn how Jews died…“ I believe that there is an unfaltering need for all people to understand what prompts hatred and the consequences of unchecked bigotry. There is hardly another event that comes close to the Holocaust as a measure of this and if done properly teaching about the Holocaust is the best method for getting the message of understanding, tolerance and love across. But Beinart has a great point. We erect monuments to those departed but cannot seem to find it in ourselves to create the proper learning environments for our children. Jewish schools in many cases are, as he says, decrepit, falling apart both in terms of their structure and in their basic educational standards. This is happening everywhere and is not a problem unique to underutilized Reform or Conservative Day Schools. It is rampant in the often over crowded Orthodox schools as well. More importantly, it is not just about money.
In many Jewish schools technology is as much as thirty years behind the times. In some cases fear of technology and misguided notions of how to use it in an appropriate Halachic fashion may drive this antiquated view. In most cases a more simple issue is used as the excuse behind the unacceptable lag – a lack of funds. Similarly texts are old and often very outdated. Beyond the issue of the costs though, is the lack of honest intellectual investment by Boards of schools and the broader Jewish communities they serve. Notions of nutrition and exercise are misguided and even completely ignored in many Day Schools. And, basic tolerance, how to deal with bullies, abusers, even screening potential teachers and support staff to weed out child sexual predators is disregarded, all at the expense of Jewish students. This is not a financial issue but an issue of disregard and laziness.
High school students, even students of public high schools, generally complain about their schools. In this manner Day School students are no different. But, ask students from the Day Schools about their day and what they learned and there is a qualitative difference in the complaints they have about their education. It is not just that their teachers may give too much homework or that they do not get the lesson across well or the bus ride to and from school and the bathroom in school are dangerous places because the bullies tend to have free reign there. These things occur in many different types of schools. Day School students are upset even angry that they are not learning relevancy. The application of their Jewish and religious studies is presented in a context that has virtually no meaning for many of them. Even if they come from families that are devout in their practice of religion and tradition, the education of the topic of Jewish belief and practice is presented in a manner that is foreign, difficult to grasp, and distant. The teachers are untrained because it is cheaper to hire this type of educator. But it is not just the money. Teachers are sometimes hired for their image not their academic skills. In modern Day Schools Hebrew subject teachers from very right wing conservative backgrounds do the teaching. Students have a hard time relating to them and even when they do much of their teachings are rejected by the students as radical. Beinart is correct when he calls this educational approach mediocre.
The truth is that it has been several years since my direct involvement in the Board of a Day School. But there were several truths eight years ago that remain today. In my experience the lack of affordability of Jewish Day Schools is in part due to the high cost of education but also to the high salaries that administrators receive and the often top heavy administrative layers in Day Schools. Teachers and administrators need to be paid and we need to find the best teachers and pay them for their skills. Spending funds on redundant principals and deans should not be condoned. We need to find a better way to attract families to Day Schools. The tuition costs are frightening to virtually all, even those most committed to sending their children for a Jewish education. If costs can be contained and teachers who represent the values that we want our children to learn are imparting these truths to them we have a chance to turn the tide. It is high time that experts develop a plan for this problem before another generation of children loses out on their Jewish education. We can teach true Jewish values, Zionism and tradition along with advanced secular topics in a challenging, satisfying and life-impacting fashion. I invite the experts to invest in this issue.