Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The 5% Solution

For several years now there have been signs posted in front of synagogues basically suggesting that greater consideration needs to be given to our ‘day schools’. According to the powers behind the push, no Jewish child should be denied a Jewish education. While I am a strong proponent of Jewish education I also happen to believe that our day schools are a monumental waste of money.

The Jewish education referred to here is the classic day school programs for primary and secondary education and not post high school advanced seminary or yeshiva training. On the primary level, other than learning how to daven, not much else gets through other than some vague notions of B’reishis with rashi and maybe a few scattered halachot. Most pupils finishing the eighth grade never make it past the first or second books of the pentateuchOn the secondary level the same holds true. Depending on the school, how charedi or how Zionistic it may be will determine their emphasis. Regardless, the knowledge imparted doesn’t justify the tuition. In either case, when you combine two systems; Jewish studies and secular studies, they are both going to fail. It becomes a “loose loose” situation. Secular studies can’t adequately be addressed in the time allotted nor can justice be done to the Jewish studies.

If we strip away the typical physical trappings of a day school student i.e. kippah, tzitzit, and other religious habits, and quiz them on their level of Jewish knowledge, you would be appalled at the dearth of information. As an example, a few years back I asked a flock of students entering the beit knesset late during a hafaskah of kriyat hatorah (which happened to be the Shabbat when we read the aseret hadibrot), what is the fifth commandment, I didn’t get a correct answer. Over the years I have asked many students general information such as who was Moshe Sharett, where does the name Yad V’shem originate from, in what century did Yehudah Halevi live, what did Rashi do for a living beside write phenomenal commentaries, and when were the first and second temple destroyed? Believe it or not the responses were shocking. There are many students who at the high school level haven’t a clue as to the difference between Talmud Bavli and Talmud Yerushalmi. That probably is a good indicator as to their general scope of knowledge for that period. Most students haven’t a clue as to what century was the seder tefillah regularized and by whom. But they know how to daven! They don’t know what they are davening, but they know the right moves! I can’t blame the students because they are overloaded with a very demanding class schedule and to quote the Talmud (at the risk of not being understood) “tofast merubah lo tofastah”. As a side bar I met an Israeli, a shaliach, an av shakool, a couple of days ago, sent here to address high school students on Israel Independence Day to discuss Zionism, Israel and the future of the Jewish people. He was given recommendations as to which schools he could address the students in Hebrew and which ones he would have to speak English. I reviewed the list and was shocked when I noticed on the list a particular Jewish high school, (operating for the past 60 years, claiming to be among the best of the high schools), where he was recommended to address the students in English. Students after having studied in day schools for years couldn’t understand a lecture in Hebrew whereas in a public high school where Hebrew was taught as a foreign language he was encouraged to deliver his lecture in Hebrew. Shocking!

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that for the most part the teachers in both the Jewish and secular departments are part time with minimal if any benefits. Many in fact who could work full time (work in both departments) are denied this in order to avoid the cost of paying benefits. Some are teachers in desperate need of a job, and who aren’t necessarily qualified or certified. Thus, the learning experience, feeble as it is, is further diminished by third rate teachers.

This is not to say that I don’t believe in Jewish education. On the contrary I am a proponent of Jewish education-but not through the existing corrupted form that our day schools have taken. My children, although products of primary day school education went to public high school for their secondary education, never, however seizing to study the Jewish text. Throughout their four years of high school they had Jewish home schooling either by their parents or by additional instructors, depending on the subject. Summers were spent in Israel or Hebrew speaking camps. I believe that there education was far superior to what they could have received in a day school setting. To wit, my daughters will often time comment on the paucity of Jewish knowledge displayed by their friends who attended Jewish day schools from kindergarten through high school.

I have argued for some time that the best education is when you assume personal responsibility. That doesn’t mean being on the board of your school-it means yanking your children out and beginning Jewish home schooling, where you have full and direct input into what your children learn. If you don’t have the nerve to go it alone I suggest you find kindred spirits and do it together with two or three families. You and your children will derive not only much more knowledge, but also satisfaction. For those of you who fear exposing your kids to gentile culture, drugs etc. don’t be concerned. You must learn to trust who and what you are. If you are genuinely committed parents, with solid Jewish values, your children through osmosis will have been infused with those timeless Jewish values. Issues such as chilul Shabbat, dating, drugs and sex will fall by the way side. And if you aren’t sincere your children will pick up on it in a heart beat and no amount of Jewish education will help. You can’t expect to delegate to schools the task of infusing your children with Jewish values-that can only come from the home. If you don’t share in that message no amount of expensive Jewish day school education will help - not even the 5% solution will help.