Pesach Lerner
Pesach Lerner

We must all teach Judaism, in schools, synagogues and at home

Regarding “Jewish schools must obey the law” I am thankful that Rabbi Eric Yoffie, Past President of the American Reform movement, is so concerned for the education of Hasidic school children. He not only advocates for the agenda of Yaffed, but serves on its Advisory Council — though it claims to represent grassroots alumni of the schools it castigates.

For Rabbi Yoffie, education has been a long-term concern. During his tenure at the helm of the Reform movement, he bemoaned the fact that Reform had produced “the most Jewishly ignorant generation in history.” He instituted new educational programs and a Jewish book club.

His internal criticisms as a Reform leader, though, were far more appropriate and accurately targeted. It was his responsibility to ensure that Reform Temples were producing Jewishly-educated Jews; it is truly not his purview to tell parents in the Hasidic community how they should be educating their children.

But the inappropriateness of his comments runs much deeper than that. Rabbi Yoffie points out that the town of Kiryas Joel, virtually entirely populated by Satmar Hasidim, is the “poorest municipality in all of New York State,” without providing important context. The median age of Kiryas Joel residents is all of 13.8, and two-thirds of residents are under age 25. Across all segments of the New York population, a man in his twenties earns half the income of a man in his forties.

In other words, families in Kiryas Joel fall below the poverty threshold due to their extraordinary youth and family size, averaging nearly six people per household. At that point, the average income of an American household is but a few hundred dollars above the poverty line. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of these parents work in white collar jobs, and as more of the population reaches the age of forty, the percentage of residents earning more than double the national average rises with them.

All of this was omitted by Rabbi Yoffie, in order to insinuate that Hasidic education leaves its graduates unprepared for success. An objective look at the data reveals that this is simply untrue, and based upon a misreading of the data so obvious that one must question whether it was intentional.

And there is, of course, another critical measure of schooling: how well a school prepares a child for responsible and productive adulthood. When it comes to this measure, whether one is measuring crime, drug use, or stability of relationships and families, it seems overwhelmingly likely that a serious advocate for education would prioritize other schools for remedial help.

And so, for that matter, would a serious advocate for Jews and Judaism.

As I mentioned earlier, Rabbi Yoffie was an advocate for education, for both children and adults, as President of the Reform movement. But it is clear that the situation got worse, not better, during and after his term. It is rare to find a child in Reform Temples who can understand elementary Hebrew, save those few raised by Israeli parents. Even their rabbis often hire Israelis to perform the weekly Torah reading. Few, if any, of their rabbis, can decipher a page of Talmud with classic commentaries, unassisted.

Why should it be otherwise? Their rabbinic school curriculum includes more courses on social justice than it does on Jewish texts and tradition. The school system whose education Rabbi Yoffie derides as lacking, and requiring outside intervention, produces students of Bar Mitzvah age more fluent in the classical Jewish sources than are the rabbinical students of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College.

And as Rabbi Yoffie rightly said, but in the wrong context, this lack of scholarship directly tracks lack of involvement by the laity. The vast majority of young adults raised in the Reform movement do not prioritize raising their own children as Jews—over 70% now choose non-Jewish spouses. Since the Census of U.S. Synagogues of 2001, Reform has closed almost 20% of its temples, and many of those still open are teetering with shrinking memberships.

So while Rabbi Yoffie laments a Hasidic educational system that focuses on Torah, Jewish values and Jewish ideals, he would be wiser to look inward towards his own house. The Reform movement is diminishing annually, and it is clear that changing its priorities could help significantly. Instead of focusing on political issues like climate change and racism, supporting groups like Black Lives Matter, it might focus upon the spiritual values that have been the core of Judaism since the dawn of Jewish history. Imagine the benefits if the Reform movement were to launch a national campaign to embolden Jewish learning, teaching the Torah starting with basic Hebrew language skills and advancing towards classical textual studies.

And let’s not forget Israel. How much of Israel’s great history, past and present, is taught in Reform congregations? What percentage of Reform youth (and adults) have even visited Israel even once? How many Reform Jews supported Israel during the recent, unprovoked assault by terrorists, and how many joined groups like J Street, the misnamed Jewish Voice for Peace, and IfNotNow to demand that Jews be yet again ethnically cleansed from Judea? How could it be that 100 Rabbinical and Cantorial students from Hebrew Union College and allied schools would openly condemn Israel’s self-defense, with no notable response from Reform leadership? Rabbi Yoffie, this is where your efforts should be directed!

I suggest that leaving the education of children to their own parents is a basic civil right. Hasidic parents, who choose schools producing productive and involved adults, certainly deserve this privilege. Rabbi Yoffie certainly has much more urgent work to do, much closer to home.

About the Author
Rabbi Pesach Lerner is Executive Vice President Emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel, the parent organization of all Young Israel Orthodox Synagogues. He is President of Coalition for Jewish Values, Founder and Chairman of the Eretz Hakodesh party in the World Zionist Organization, and a member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel
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