Adam Winston
Inspired every day by self-taught saints

Jewish Education in Crisis: Kindling our Future

I once interviewed for a job at a Jewish day school that would have had me teaching Judaic Studies. The interview seemed to be going well, and I honestly felt that I had as good a chance as any other applicant. Towards the tail end of the conversation, however, the headmaster asked me to describe my hashkafah – my Jewish worldview, we’ll call it. I told him very truthfully that I am moved very much by the teachings of the chassidic masters, those disciples of the Baal Shem Tov and their disciples after them who encourage a passionate Judaism that is thoroughly felt in the heart. Furthermore, I admitted, I use their messages often, whenever and wherever I speak. Words from the heart enter the heart, so I would be wasting my time if I didn’t do that. After a brief pause on the other end of the line, I was informed that “I would be the only teacher at the school that had such an inclination.” Sounds like you need me, I thought to myself. I did not get the job.

It doesn’t matter where this school is located, because this story could have been told almost anywhere. All around the Jewish world, in schools catering to all ages – from Kindergarten on up – a disease of homogeneity and complacency spreads like wildfire. Teachers on the job for decades – unbound by the secular world’s requirements of continued professional development – teach the same curriculum in the same drawling tone, like Charlie Brown’s teacher with a yarmulke. They keep teaching our kids about Vashti’s measles and the Yavanim, the terrifying Greek villians of the Chanukah story that they are legitimately convinced lurk everywhere. I’ve never heard a kid in day school come home and talk about how Purim teaches us that Hashem has a plan for all of us. That each of our lives is a megillah. I’ve never heard a Jewish kid talk about how she learned in school that on Chanukah, we light the candles by the window so that we can, on this occasion, share our light with the rest of the world. It happens in some schools. But not often enough.

The Torah tells us that Eliezer was the elder of Avraham’s house, that he was master over all of Avraham’s possessions. The Torah then relates how Avraham made Eliezer swear an oath that he would abide by Avraham’s instructions regarding the task of finding Yitzchak a suitable bride. The masters teach us that the message is clear: when it came to his wealth, Avraham trusted Eliezer implicitly. But when it came to the task of building the future of the Jewish people, no amount of trust would be enough. A solemn oath must be taken. Due diligence was the order of the day (Be’er Mayim Chaim, Parshas Chayei Sarah). Yet in so many of our affairs, we take the opposite approach. A guy says he’s a shochet? We believe him. But if he says he’s a wealth manager? We need a list of references. The training and suitability of our Jewish educators should keep us up at night. It happens in some schools. But not often enough.

Rav Kook warned us many years ago that to fail to harken to the yearnings of the generation risks losing the generation. Social Justice is not a non-Jewish invention. It is the Jewish soul of young Jews attempting to fulfill their Creation in the image of Hashem. Crabby rebbes who scoff at the holiness of these young souls insult the Torah and sell it short. The Piaseczno Rebbe taught us as much. The beauty of a life of closeness to Hashem and the cultivation of a self-vision within the child as a great young soul with a purpose in life are the charges of a Jewish educator. A static Jewish education when juxtaposed with a dynamic outside world full of opportunities is a recipe for failure. And by cultivating a de facto tenure system within Jewish day schools, the hopes of shocking the system into a spiritual revitalization are sadly on hold.

When a Jewish soldier lies in the trenches – war paint on his face and mud caked on his boots – he must view himself not as a random teenager who somehow ended up in a scenario beyond his character. Instead, Rav Kook teaches, he should view himself as the spiritual descendant of Yehoshua, forging a path for the glory of Hashem in this world, by the sword when absolutely necessary. Why should the kid sitting in school not imagine he is learning in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever? Look at their esteemed alumni. Do you suppose Yaakov was learning that Vashti had pimples and that Greeks are hiding under the bed? Or do you think they imparted to him the hidden message that Hashem whispers to every Jewish heart? It’s the voice that reminds you of the oath your soul took at birth, to be righteous and not evil (Niddah 30b). The joy that Sarah felt when her precious baby boy was born after decades of prayers and tears. It’s the sweat and determination that drove Yaakov for fourteen long years in Lavan’s house just to marry the woman he loved. The grit and determination of Moshe and Aharon to stand up to the emperor of the largest kingdom in the world. The joy and laughter and songs of freedom. If our kids don’t leave school with those messages, what are we sending them for?

Words that leave from the heart enter the heart. My message to my fellow teachers is this: we have a sacred obligation to inspire our students. It starts with inspiring ourselves. If you have undertaken this holy work, then do yourself a favor and learn again. Learn what you love. Innovate and update your curricula with new content that lights a fire in your heart. Write new words of Torah for your Shabbos table. Because the secret is this: words that leave the heart enter the heart – not just the heart of the listener, but the heart of the speaker as well (Noam Elimelech, Toldos).

About the Author
Rabbi Adam Winston grew up in Richmond, VA, and received a B.A. in Arabic Literature from the Ohio State University. He lived in Israel for seven years, served in the IDF, received semicha from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, and has been working and teaching as a rabbi for over five years. He also attends the University of Richmond School of Law, and lives in Richmond, VA, with his wife and children.
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