(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
We sang Hatikva together – all of our students, kindergarten through Gr. 8, teachers and some school leaders, along with a member of Israel’s cabinet. As we finished, Education and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett turned to our students and said that wherever they are in their lives or in the world, they should know that they have a Jewish country, the State of Israel, that cares about them.
It was a powerful moment that I believe strengthened our students’ connection to Israel and reflects the work we do each day at the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan to nurture positive Jewish identity in our students, the future leaders of the American-Jewish community.
Chief Rabbi David Lau condemned Bennett for visiting Schechter Manhattan and in so doing he denigrated us and the critical role we play in sustaining Judaism and the Jewish people. Lau said Bennett should not have visited us because, in his view, at Schechter Manhattan “the education distances Jews from tradition, from the past, and from the future of the Jewish people.”
As Bennett experienced when he visited, this could not be further from the truth. Everything we do at Schechter Manhattan brings our students and their families closer to Jewish tradition and connects them to their shared heritage.
Bennett told me that he came to Schechter Manhattan to learn from us. He said that his priority is strengthening the connections between Jews around the world to each other and to their shared Jewish heritage, and that he thinks he can learn from what we do at Schechter Manhattan to nurture positive Jewish identity in our students.
He spoke to our students and what they told him reflects their deep connections to Judaism.
They made an effort to speak with the minister in Hebrew, reflecting a school cultural norm to speak in Hebrew with those who can.
Our eighth grade students told the education minister that they cannot wait for their trip to Israel this spring, when they will participate in our yearly, two-week tour. They talked about the various aspects of their Jewish studies, and when Bennett asked what they were studying in Talmud, one eighth grade student responded as we would expect, by identifying the main topic of the section she and her classmates are working on now, eidim zommemim, “conspiring witnesses.” Bennett paused a moment, looked around the room, and commented that he was impressed. He had never met an eighth grader who was studying the complex section about conspiring witnesses.
Celebrating Hanukkah this past week at Schechter Manhattan, the strength and depth of Jewish connections our students are making was obvious. We started our days singing the ancient words of Hallel, joyously and proudly. We studied about Hanukkah in our classes. Our elementary school students learned about the customs, rituals and themes of the holiday while the middle school students studied selections from classical texts such as the Talmud, Mishne Torah and the Siddur about the history and practices of Hanukkah, grounding their observance in the sacred texts of the Jewish people.
We came together with parents and friends for a beautiful zimriyah song festival, filled with Israeli favorites, connecting us to the culture and people of Israel.
As is clear from these examples, at Schechter Manhattan we live a vibrant Judaism, marked by dedication to serious engagement and joyous expression; grounded in our holy texts and practices and also situated firmly in the modern world. Bennett saw that too, as he tweeted the day he visited, it was clear to him that Schechter Manhattan is full of love for Judaism and Israel.
At the same time, we respect the diverse Jewish backgrounds, choices and practices that are represented in the families in our community.
We believe the combination of the knowledge and experiences that students are afforded at Schechter Manhattan with the deep respect for each student’s relationship with his or her Jewish identity empowers students to find the Jewish commitments that will be most meaningful to them. And that is what will ensure the future of the Jewish community, young people who have integrated and strong Jewish identities.
Lau’s comments make clear that Schechter Manhattan is more important than ever. In the face of sinat hinam, baseless hatred between Jews, we are teaching our students to love and respect others.
Some, who like Lau, claim that Orthodoxy is the only legitimate version of Judaism, point to the 2013 Pew Research Center study that showed higher levels of assimilation among non-Orthodox Jews in the United States. The Pew findings make Schechter Manhattan’s mission even more critical. In the face of apathy and a sense of disconnect from Jewish heritage, Schechter Manhattan is nurturing positive Jewish identity in our students and within the Jewish community of New York City.
I commend Education Minister Naftali Bennett for seeking to learn from and with different types of Jews, and I am proud of what Schechter Manhattan represents to the larger Jewish world, a committed community of Jews that is enriched and strengthened by our differences.
The writer is the head of the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan.