Naya Lekht
Naya Lekht

The Crisis in Jewish Education

Within Jewish families in North America, one reason to send kids to Jewish day schools, and/or to Jewish youth programs is to avoid anti-Israel bias in the classroom. This strategy, however, has proven to not only be ineffective, but more alarmingly, produced a generation of anti-Zionist Jews, recently called un-Jews by Natan Sharanky and Gil Troy. Likewise, having Israeli parents or joining Israeli youth movements such as tsofim provide little to no real shelter from the dangers of radical leftism, which ushers in anti-Zionism, today’s most potent form of Jew-hatred.

A stark example is graduate of K-12th grade Jewish day-school, Simone Zimmerman, the founder of IfNotNow, a Jewish organization whose goal is to oppose “Israeli occupation.” Zimmerman is but one, although a vivid, example of how Jewish education provides little refuge from an education steeped in Marxist thought. But the phenomenon of Jewish young adults graduating Jewish day schools and joining anti-Israel groups such as J-Street, Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP), IfNotNow (INN), and even Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) has been in the making for decades now. Indeed, Jewish day school graduates are at the helm of anti-Israel and anti-American movements on college campuses. They aren’t just members, they are leaders. How did this happen?

To help answer this question, I turn to a Soviet policy enshrined during the Stalin years: “socialist in content, national in form.” Having formed a nascent Soviet government in 1918, several ethnic minorities (i.e. Jewish, Ukrainian, Uzkeb, Armenian) found themselves under Soviet rule. Government officials had a problem to solve: how to unite all these diverse ethnic minorities under the aegis of a common ideology: communism?

What the central committee devised was ingenious: allow ethnic minorities to speak their native language, publish newspapers and books in their native language, and support the arts of the minorities. The only caveat: the content had to promote socialism. Indeed, in the 1920s and even in the 1930s, there was a burgeoning of Yiddish in the Soviet Union. This is why Jews scanning the globe in 1919 declared the Jewish future not in Palestine or America, but in the Soviet Union! How wrong they were is for another article (antisemitism returned in greater force in the Soviet Union with the murder of Yiddish poets, artists, and writers during Stalin’s last years in power).

In a rather twisted turn of historic events that would make Stalin chuckle, Jewish day schools in North America practice “social justice in content, Jewish in form.” Indeed, all major Jewish groups that oppose the “Israeli occupation” or promote the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement (BDS) have been started by Jews who either graduated Jewish day schools or were involved in Jewish youth groups:

  1. Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP): Founder Julie Ivny joined Hashomer Hatzair, a Jewish youth group focused on social justice and Judaism, when she was in the third grade: “The older teens in the youth group encouraged their waist-high counterparts to think and talk about the world around them, to not ignore the inequality that persisted in Los Angeles’ neighborhoods and schools.” According to the ADL, JVP is a “radical anti-Israel activist group that advocates for a complete economic, cultural and academic boycott of the state of Israel.”
  2. J-Street: Founder Jeremy Ben-Ami completed Hebrew school at Temple Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan, a Reform synagogue in New York. Ben-Ami founded J-Street as a reaction to AIPAC, whose goal is to foster a strong relationship between the United States and Israel. According to J-Street, the “ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory is a major obstacle to the achievement of Israeli-Palestinian peace, is a systemic injustice violating the rights of the Palestinian people, and poses a severe threat to Israel’s long-term future as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people.”
  3. IfNotNow (INN): INN was founded by Simone Zimmerman, a graduate of two Jewish day schools in Los Angeles: Kadima Day School and De Toledo High School. Calling themselves a “movement to end Israel’s occupation,” in 2018, INN held a mourner’s kaddish service for Palestinians killed by the Israeli army in a Gaza airstrike.

This is not a coincidence. This is a pattern. And it comes from Jewish educational institutions that focus not on Judaism and antisemitism specifically, but rather promote anti-racist education, restoring climate justice, and gender and racial inequity: all sanctioned by the following triad:  Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof, Tikkun Olam, and Derech Eretz.

  1. Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof—“Justice, justice shall you pursue…”

This phrase, taken from Deuteronomy 16:18-20, appears in most Jewish schools’ mission statements, at times even emblematized on the front gates of the school. The original text reads: “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that Adonai your God is giving you.” In its entire context, it is an imperative from God that the Jewish people occupy and settle in Eretz Yisroel by appointing magistrates and officials who will “not judge unfairly.” Willfully forgetting the remainder of the passage, Jewish educators apply these words, “justice, justice shall you pursue,” as an ethical permission slip to embrace social justice causes such as racial and gender inequity, inclusivity, and immigration reform, to name a few.

  1. Tikkun Olam—“Repair the world”

A signature theme of Jewish tradition in North America, somewhere along the way, Jewish educators believed that the goal for the Jewish people was to help repair the world through solving world hunger, campaigning against occupations, ending gender wage gaps, and fighting climate change. However, in its original formulation, “tikkun olam” is achieved through ethical and ritual mitzvot such as keeping the laws of kashrut and observing the Sabbath. Similar to those who invoke “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” piecemeal, tikkun olam, which comes from the Aleinu, a seminal prayer in Jewish liturgy, appears in a passage that extends hope in “You, Adonai our God… to completely cut off all false gods; to repair the world, Your holy empire.” We make a grave error, therefore, in thinking that tikkun olam means embracing a woman’s right to choose, open immigration, or supporting equity of outcome policies.

  1. Derech Eretz—“Way of the Land”

Although the literal translation is “way of the land,” Jewish educators have applied derech eretz to embrace compassion, kindness, and “common decency.” The problem, however, is that compassion and kindness are universal values and to each person mean different things. I once asked my students to define kindness and received disparate responses. To one, kindness was taking something from oneself in order to benefit another person; to another, it was saying kinds words in order to make someone else feel better.

Derech eretz appears in several iterations in rabbinical literature. Take, for example the midrash from Exodus Rabbah  (cite), wherein we are instructed to “refrain from using wood from a fruit-bearing tree to build a house and calls that rule a lesson in derech eretz.” Here, derech eretz is not a commentary on kindness, but rather a frame to help people make better economic and ecological choices.

But, as I once heard among a cohort of Jewish senior educators, at a conference, practicing derech eretz was finding a way to incorporate LGBTQ awareness into the Jewish middle school curriculum.

To return to the dictum “socialist in content, national in form,” Soviet officials relied on this policy in order to unite a society around a shared system of values. In its entirety, the slogan, taken from an essay written by Joseph Stalin in 1934 reads: “The development of cultures national in form and socialist in content is necessary for the purpose of their ultimate fusion into one General Culture, socialist as to form and content, and expressed in one general language” (Marxism and the National-colonial Question). This “one General Culture” was emblematized by the “new Soviet man”—novyj Sovetskii chelovek—an archetype of the Leninist-Marxist ideals. Regardless of the chelovek’s ethnic background, he was a highly conscious individual, hyper aware of his role to oppose private property, the greed of capitalism, and support the worker against the petty bourgeoisie. The policy to conform was a success. Within five to ten years, ethnic minorities touted the Soviet policy line; and within fifteen to twenty years, as was planned, the “national form” had disappeared. By the 1960s, Jewish homes in the Soviet Union saw a 66% decline in spoken Yiddish.

But at least, in the Soviet Union, it was done for a cause, granted a rotten cause. What is the reason—the cause—for Jewish educators to practice “social justice in content, Jewish in form?” Certainly it is not due to external forces, as in the case of the Soviet government that mandated educational policy. In North America, we cannot point to a single leader, a legislative document, or single event that demonstrates a widespread adoption of these principles. What we can do, instead, is look to the triad—tzedek tzedek tirdof, tikkun olam, and derech eretz—and find a common denominator: the removal of God from each of the Jewish ideas. In each invocation of the triad, God is not present. The consequences of an absent God is that man must step in to restore order. Therein lies the problem: the moral compass is thus defined by individuals and not the institutional codex from which the principles emanate. The lack of explicit theological grounding allows for individuals to sanction ideologies and policies they see fit to promote.

And as I conclude, I cannot help but hear the choir of the progressive Jewish community: inclusivity, racial equity, immigration reform, climate change, and women’s rights… what is so terrible here, you bigot? To them I say, you are correct, there is nothing wrong with trying the amend this world. But if you are going to amend it by invoking Jewish liturgy, do so from a holistic place: do not jettison God or give to the public half-spoken truths. Do so from a most honest and most learned place. Give to us the totality of Jewish thought, not sound bites that help to promote your cause.

About the Author
Naya Lekht obtained her PhD in Russian literature from UCLA. Naya writes on Russian-Jewish literature, the Holocaust in the Soviet context, and contemporary anti-Semitism. Most recently, Naya has joined as Director of Education at Club Z Institute.