US Jewish schools must emphasize strengthening traits integral to Jewish identity - opinion

Fostering the values of decency, kindness and empathy are integral values to Jewish identity. Many pluralistic and modern Orthodox schools list menschlichkeit at the top of their mission statements.

Orthodox Jewish children get off a Yeshiva school bus, as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency in parts of Brooklyn in response to a measles outbreak, in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City, US, April 9, 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS/SHANNON STAPLETON)
Orthodox Jewish children get off a Yeshiva school bus, as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency in parts of Brooklyn in response to a measles outbreak, in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City, US, April 9, 2019.
(photo credit: REUTERS/SHANNON STAPLETON)

In its latest census, the Avi Chai Foundation found nearly 1000 Jewish day schools in the United States. This figure represents a 34% jump in the number of schools from the previous 20 years. While retaining different educational pedagogies spanning the religious and ideological spectrum, the one constant among most is an adherence to instilling menschlichkeit (humanity) among students. 

Fostering the values of decency, kindness and empathy are integral values to Jewish identity. Many pluralistic and modern Orthodox schools list menschlichkeit at the top of their mission statements. It is also an ideal that applies to all Jews, regardless of denomination, rendering it a far more palatable point of discussion among administrators, than the potentially contentious issues surrounding hashkafa (worldview and guiding philosophy) and academic instruction. 

Decades ago, encouraging menschlichkeit behavior entailed giving tzedakah (charity), sharing with a classmate, or volunteering at a local soup kitchen. Rallying on behalf of Soviet Jewry and attending ceremonies commemorating the late Martin Luther King Jr. offered valuable lessons in compassion and were helpful exercises in nurturing the emergence of dignified and empathetic Jews.

Yet over time, menschlichkeit has evolved from a particularistic pursuit to one universal in its mission. Increasingly, educators are influenced by cultural moments punctuated by an ideological vision consistent with intersectional dogma. Jewish children are encouraged to accommodate unsavory positions and cooperate with questionable leaders, leaving them unable to distinguish kindness from weakness. 

Incidentally, it was the late Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky (1880-1940), founder of Revisionist Zionism, who presented Jews with the principle of hadar. In its literal definition, hadar is explained as “glory” or “splendor” and was part of a code of behavior encompassing Jabotinsky’s Betar Doctrine. He believed that Jewish strength rested with emulating a life of hadar.

 Jewish private school SAR High School in Riverdale, the Bronx, New York (Illustrative). (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Jewish private school SAR High School in Riverdale, the Bronx, New York (Illustrative). (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

According to its precepts, a Jew must behave courteously, with decency and respect towards others, while remaining devoted to the Jewish people and the land of Israel. Years later, hadar characterized Menachem Begin’s term as Israel’s sixth Prime Minister. While in office, Begin remained wedded to its fundamentals, reacting forcefully when revelations threatening Israel’s existence, including the development of the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq, necessitated action.

Unsurprisingly, hadar’s combination of faith and solidity culminated in Begin signing the 1978 peace treaty with Egypt. His combination of modesty and Jewish pride motivated him to acknowledge the plight of others by facilitating the first rescue of Ethiopian Jews, while insisting on equal rights for Israel’s Arab citizens. 

Most recently, the spirit of hadar was unveiled at an American NBA game when a group of Orthodox Jews in kippot and wearing “Fight Anti Semitism” shirts, sat courtside and bravely faced Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving, who before the match, shared a link to the antisemitic film Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America. Jewish youth centralizing Judaism while publicly condemning antisemitism, shows more Jewish muscle than merely signing petitions asking corporations to sever financial agreements with antisemites.

JABOTINSKY ONCE noted that “were all Jews to act properly, the antisemites probably would hate us anyhow, but it would be a hate mixed with respect, and our situation in the world would be quite different than it is.” 

Hadar encompasses the compassion embedded in menschlichkeit and retains the virtues surrounding Jewish peoplehood. Despite cohering dignity and respect with Jewish character development, there remains a dearth of educational investment in teaching hadar. Instead, students are coached to accept an increasingly expansionist version of menschlichkeit. 

Rumblings of this paradigm shift began years ago when cultural unrest engulfing cities in the summer of 2020 prompted Jewish schools to reorient what makes a “mensch.” While the subtleties differ, Jewish academic establishments retaining distinct religious persuasions, similarly accelerate a trend of secularizing menschlichkeit. What was once a slow disassociation from Jewish identity was now a clear fissure, with many non-orthodox day schools integrating Jewish values through establishing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives.

Progressive ideas

Today, progressive ideas revolving around impacting “the world with courage and compassion” and “diversity statements” precede or replace any mention of Torah learning. For their part, modern Orthodox schools signal support for a universal approach towards menschlichkeit through encouraging student activism on behalf of social justice groups whose platforms align with anti-Zionists. Over the last ten years, hundreds of orthodox youth participated in national walkouts for the organized Black Lives Matter movement and gun control. 

Moreover, by directing instruction away from the lessons in kindness immersed in Jewish text and theology, educators are instead imparting a dubious agenda and generalized approach to fostering affection through Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). In some cases, SEL classes sideline bar mitzvah etiquette lessons, once a required course in most modern orthodox institutions.

It bears mentioning that aesthetics are a cornerstone of hadar. Irrespective of one’s socioeconomic status, hadar touches on the importance of Jews dressing in an elevated and distinguished manner. Complying with this principle, Begin would often be seen wearing formal attire, even as a guest at Camp David, when others donned casual outerwear befitting the cabin environment. Conversely, some modern orthodox institutions are relaxing dress codes, leading to unrefined choices in behavior and clothing outside of school. 

Reframing menschlichkeit into an abstract and benign conviction aggravates the grim situation in which American Jewry finds itself. A report published by Americans Against Antisemitism found that, along with a surge in antisemitic attacks, 97 percent of the documented hate crimes against Jews were committed by members of other minority groups, with 94 percent of the victims between 2018-2022 identifying as Orthodox or hassidic Jews. Teaching friendliness in the absence of fearlessness is leaving the US orthodox community increasingly vulnerable.

Jewish schools must advance the values of goodwill and tolerance for US Jewry with the same fervency they do for others. Rather than inverting menschlichkeit and universalizing its appeal from which committed and kind Jews may emerge, schools must first emphasize Judaism’s particularist part in strengthening traits integral to our identity

The writer is a pro-Israel advocate who resides in New York.