Herbert Belkin
Hert Belkin is a historian who lectures and writes on modern Jewish history.

The Shortcomings of Jewish Education in America

The last two hundred years saw major events in the Jewish world. Jews gained citizenship, received secular educations as Jewish enlightenment (Haskalah) spread through Europe and were enthralled by Theodor Herzl’s Zionism as a vision for a Jewish homeland. Most American Jewish parents know about these decisive events, but their children do not. Jewish heroes like Herzl. Weizmann, Ben Gurion and Golda Meir dedicated their lives to the rebirth of Israel. Parents recognize them but their children do not know their stories. The heroics that lifted Jews from the ghettos of Europe to a Jewish homeland are not taught in Hebrew schools, certainly not in public schools; American Jewish children do not learn about modern Jewish history. There is one exception that frames this lapse: the study of the Holocaust. That most inhuman of crimes is taught in public and Hebrew schools and even by organizations dedicated to the subject like Facing History and Ourselves. While the murder of Europe’s Jews is studied in depth, Jewish history, both before and after the Holocaust, is missing from school curricula. Can the context of the Holocaust be fully understood without knowledge of the European anti-Semitism that preceded it?

For American Jews this lack of Jewish history is a loss of their heritage. For the majority of Jewish children, their great-grandparents arrived in this country less than 150 years ago. What kind of life did their Russian ancestors have and why did they leave it? Equally obscured is what happened when their refugee families first arrived in this country? This is not just Jewish history, it is their family’s history and today’s Jewish children know little about it.

With this lapse in American Jewish education, we still expect American children to have close ties – even love – for Israel. We expect that love without teaching about the heroes and events that made the rebirth of Israel possible. This void in historical education makes young American Jew susceptible to the Palestinian propaganda that Israel is the “bully of the Middle East”. Without the knowledge of Israel’s wars of survival and ongoing struggle against Arab terrorism, our children do not have the answers to confront anti-Israel libel. They do not have the historical background and understanding of the inherent right for a Jewish state and to counter the accusation that Israel is a Western colonizer

When American Jewish educators are asked why they do not teach modern Jewish history, the answer is some variant of “we do not have enough time”. They are faced with a range of Jewish subjects that crowd the short Hebrew school day. But the issue of available time must be considered along with academic priorities, a difficult choice. Are the ties our children have with Israel or even with Jewish identity important enough to include modern Jewish history as part of their education? That question has significance when you consider how many Jewish children will attend Hebrew schools in the future if they do not have the history of their heritage that gives them this all-important connection to a Jewish life.

About the Author
Historian Herb Belkin writes and lectures on the epic events of the last two hundred years of Jewish history. His field of study covers Zionism, the Jewish Diaspora and the critical struggle for a Jewish homeland. Herb has taught courses on modern Jewish history at Brandeis, Tufts and Salem State University. He is a columnist for the Jewish Advocate and was a speaker for the Israeli Consulate of New England.