The activities of Am Yisrael Echad in secular schools

I am certainly in favor of exposing secular Jewish children to the various forms of the Jewish religion.

child 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
child 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
On March 25, Haaretz education correspondent Yarden Skop published an article about the activities of the NGO Am Yisrael Ehad (One People of Israel) in secular schools. The title of the article was “A religious organization gives lessons on sex education to secular pupils.” Two days later a Haaretz editorial with the title “Protect Secular Children” referred to this article.
The title of Skop’s article was a little misleading.
Among the numerous activities of Am Yisrael Ehad – one of around 6,000 (!) NGOs active in the national school system, which was established in 1998 to “deepen Jewish values in the Israeli society” – is to run workshops on male-female relations in the spirit of Judaism. In terms of the youths being addressed, all from middle and high schools, this means in fact “no-sex education”: no touching between males and females before marriage, and the requirement for physical separation between boys and girls. This can hardly be called sex education, which in Orthodox Judaism is reserved for couples about to be married.
I have already stated on these pages that I have nothing against NGOs – including NGOs engaged in trying to bring seculars closer to religion (of which, baruch hashem, there is no shortage) – carrying out activities to further their agendas. However, I am very much against such NGOs entering schools where their activities may be viewed as proselytizing in secular schools or advocating heresy in religious schools.
I am certainly in favor of exposing secular Jewish children to the various forms of the Jewish religion (of which Orthodox Judaism is one), just as I am in favor of exposing religious Jewish children to Darwinism, and other scientific and philosophical doctrines that contradict basic religious beliefs.
The problem is that apparently there are headmasters in some secular schools who do not understand the difference between exposing their pupils to religious beliefs and practices (Jewish Orthodox and other) and proselytizing activities, and they consequently allow NGOs like Am Yisrael Ehad to run workshops in their schools with no or little supervision over what they are actually doing. I am sure that headmasters in the national religious sector never consider letting a non-religious NGO enter the threshold of their schools. In fact, most of the 6,000 NGOs operate in the national secular schools, and very few in the national religious schools.
In general it is very sad that for financial reasons schools are forced to allow NGOs to carry out education activities within their frameworks. I am sure that many NGOs do a marvelous job, but there are also many missionaries of one sort or another, who get a foothold in schools where they should not be given access.
But that is a separate issue.
Back to the issue of male-female relations in Judaism, the problem is that the principles of no touching and no sex before marriage leads to many premature marriages, and contradicts one of the basic beliefs of liberal secularism, which is that human beings have an inherent right to expose themselves to a wealth of experiences – physical and spiritual – before making their choices for life.
Another problem is that male-female relations in Orthodox Judaism have much wider implications, which involve various levels of excluding women from the public sphere, and the exclusion of women from many activities of which they are physically capable, just because of their gender.
There is no objection to a community or individuals choosing to live on the basis of these principles, but it is certainly not something that secular parents want their daughters and sons to be exposed to in a tendentious manner, given the fact that in any case we live in a society with too many male-chauvinist characteristics, in which much too frequently women get the wrong end of the stick. Unfortunately, “women’s equality” is an ideal that has not yet been achieved in Israel, and with all due respect the agenda that NGOs like Am Yisrael Ehad advocate is not very helpful, to say the least.
Incidentally, there is no doubt that there is a terrible lacuna in the treatment in the secular school system of the issue of extreme licentiousness surrounding sexual relations in general, and among youngsters in particular. The many reported cases of minors and youths taking sexual advantage of other minors and youths under horrific circumstances, are one of the sour fruits of this situation, and the easy accessibility of pornography online is only one element in the problem.
Am Yisrael Ehad can certainly claim that if the principles that Orthodox Judaism espouses were the norm, the problem wouldn’t exist, or would barely exist. But this reminds me of the sickening statements heard from some quarters in India, in reaction to the recent occurrence of cases of especially brutal mass rapes, some of which ended in the death of the hapless female victims, to the effect that such rapes would not occur if women would simply stay at home.
Women should not have to pay a price in terms of their liberty just because some men are unable or unwilling to control their sexual drives, though women are certainly advised to take the latter fact into account.
Finally I should like to say something about the reaction of the haredi website Kikar HaShabat to the Haaretz editorial of March 27. According to Kikar HaShabat, the title of the editorial was “Protect Secular Children from Judaism.” The words “from Judaism” are a fabrication by Kikar HaShabat, following which haredi talkbackers, taking the fabrication to be fact, accused Haaretz of anti-Semitism.
Nevertheless, Kikar HaShabat did present some lengthy quotes from the editorial, including the sentence “this situation, in which the religious and haredi streams enjoy extensive autonomy, while the general education is exposed to incessant religious intervention – in unacceptable.
Also the secular education – like the religious and haredi education – has the right to be free of influences that are foreign to it.”
Kikar HaShabat interpreted this as a call by the editor “not to enable a little ‘Yiddishkeit’ in the secular schools.” “A little Yiddishkeit” is lighting Sabbath candles, holding the Passover seder, saying Kaddish (if you are willing to praise God for taking your loved ones), and going to synagogue on Yom Kippur. What Am Yisrael Ehad advocates is not “a little Yiddishkeit.”
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.