Past Perfect: The first day of school

For the first time in years there are no teacher or student strikes that haunt the opening of schools here, though there is plenty of grumbling about local issues in individual schools.

The school year opened here this week and will commence in the US next week. For the first time in years there are no teacher or student strikes that haunt the opening of schools here, though there is plenty of grumbling about local issues in individual schools. There seems to be a general consensus that Jewish schools the world over are not appreciated by the student body or their parents. Just as an anecdotal aside without any empirical 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; it is less true in the US where Jewish schools come in wider varieties and the system is far less politicized than it is here. The problems facing the schools are well known. Overcrowding in the classroom, loose 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 PlayStations and cellphones even for a few hours a day. So the negative side of the ledger is clear for all to see. Yet there are many positive signs to the growth of Jewish education the world over. Those children who attend a Jewish school in America are far more likely not to intermarry and to support Israel and have a proud attitude toward 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, and the effects of the current severe economic downturn on attendance at Jewish schools has yet to be measured. In Israel the numbers of children receiving a traditional Jewish education have also increased. The education minister 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. The problem of religion in secular Jewry is no longer antagonism toward tradition and Torah knowledge as much as it is complete ignorance of that tradition and its value system. Judaism can agree with the famous slogan of one of America's premier merchandisers 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 haredi school 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 workplace atmosphere, is a disservice to those students. Much is made of the opinions of great rabbis of Eastern Europe and Jerusalem's Old City of the 1800s 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 today. Torah and halachic norms are unchanging, but Jewish societies and conditions of life have changed considerably over the last 300 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 to produce a society that is able to function and be influential today. The first day of school is a challenge not only to the students, teachers and administrators of our schools but to society as well. How well we meet that challenge determines our future. The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator.