Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • The Education of Children and Students
To dedicate this lesson

The First Day Of School


Rabbi Berel Wein

The school year opens here in Israel this week and will commence in the United States next week. For the first time in years there are no teacher or student strikes that haunt the opening of schools here in Israel though there is plenty of grumbling about local issues in individual schools. There seems to be a general consensus that the Jewish schools the world over are not appreciated by the student body or their parents. Just as an anecdotal aside without any empiric proof to this matter, I rarely if ever hear complimentary things being said by parents about the education that their children are receiving. Instead they complain about being trapped in a system that has only stark choices, little flexibility for the individual student and that frustrates them more than satisfying them. This is certainly the case here in Israel; it is less true in the United States where Jewish schools come in wider varieties and the system is far less politicized than it is in Israel. The problems facing the schools are well known. Overcrowding n the classroom, lose discipline which leads to violence, burned out teachers, great financial pressures all lead to a sense of helplessness when attempting to improve our educational system. Strong ideological views influence the education being presented to the student. All school systems now also have to deal with special needs children in growing numbers and varieties. And in our world of instant communication and technological wonders it is increasingly difficult to wean children from their play stations and cellular phones even for a few hours a day. So the negative side of the ledger is clear for all to see and ponder upon.

Yet there are many positive signs to the growth of Jewish education the world over. Hose children who attend a Jewish school in America are far more likely not to intermarry, and to support Israel and have a proud attitude towards their faith and people. And attendance at Jewish schools has been constantly rising in the past decades. High tuitions have served as a brake on even greater enrollments in Jewish schools and the effects of the current severe economic downturn on attendance at Jewish schools in the United States has yet to be measured. In Israel the numbers of children receiving a Jewishly traditional education have also increased. The Minister of Education promises to install a program of Jewish education even in the secular school system. Such a program if properly developed and taught will help minimize the religious-secular divide that exits in Israel. The problem of religion in secular Jewry is no longer antagonism toward Jewish tradition and Torah knowledge as much as it is complete ignorance of that knowledge, tradition and its value system. Judaism can agree with the famous slogan of one of America’s premier merchandiser that "an educated consumer is our best customer." The primacy of Jewish education remains the key to Jewish life and its survival and growth.

The charedi schools system is also bound to change, albeit without ever admitting that it is doing so. An elitist education served up to the masses leads to many children at risk and defections from the religious world. Not giving children the basic tools to earn their living later in life, especially in a competitive and highly skilled work place atmosphere is a disservice to those students. Much is made of the opinions of great rabbis of Eastern Europe and Old City Jerusalem of the 1800’s regarding the place of some secular studies in the context of Jewish education. I have often wondered what the opinion of those great men would be in twenty-first century society today. Torah and halachic norms are unchanging but Jewish societies and conditions of life have changed considerably over the last three hundred years. Children are entitled to be educated according to the realities of our present world and not according to imagined circumstances of different centuries and locales. There is a famous Hebrew statement that what wisdom fails to achieve the passage of time will achieve. The Jewish world, now as ever, requires full-time Torah scholars. But not everyone is cut out to be that full-time Torah scholar and thus changes in education will have to be made in order to produce a society that is able to function and be influential in today’s society. The first day of school is a challenge not only to the students, teachers and administrators of our schools but to the society as well. How well we meet that challenge determines our future.
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