Back to school – back to basics

Every academic institution will share a common goal as they embark upon a most challenging mission: to provide students with a meaningful and productive education.

STUDENTS AND staff of the Torah Day School 370 (photo credit: David Kapenstein)
STUDENTS AND staff of the Torah Day School 370
(photo credit: David Kapenstein)
Over the next few weeks yeshiva students will return to their houses of study, and schools will open their doors, welcoming their students with open arms and fresh aspirations. Every academic institution, religious and secular alike, will share a common goal as they embark upon a most challenging mission: to provide students with a meaningful and productive education.
Unfortunately, though, most institutions do not spend enough time contemplating the ramifications of a constructive education; if they did they would probably realize that it all begins with questioning the unprincipled affairs transpiring around us on a daily basis.
A few weeks ago a group of children from a religious family vacationing up north were frolicking in a stream that was part of a beautiful memorial established to commemorate the 73 soldiers who perished tragically as a result of a helicopter crash over Kibbutz She’ar Yashuv in 1997.
When people from the kibbutz approached the family and explained to them that what they were doing was disrespectful, the family members responded by saying that religious people do not memorialize through water but through the recital of Psalms and lighting of candles, thereby demeaning the significance of the monument.
Were they referring to the same Psalms which proclaim that “Her [the Torah’s] ways are peaceful and soothing”? How can a religious family that purportedly subscribes to the commandment “love your brother as you love yourself” be so callous, and how can parents encourage such insolent behavior? Perhaps it is this same insolence which spurred a group of haredim to attack a religious soldier from the IDF who was innocently walking through their neighborhood in Jerusalem, as a form of protest. Are these the same religious Jews who emulate the greatest Jewish leader, Moses, who called a Jew a “wicked person” for raising his hand to inflict bodily harm on his fellow man before he had actually committed the act? Last week, when a bus driver had a haredi couple arrested for encouraging a young woman to sit in the back of the bus, thereby segregating men and women (an act which is unlawful), a group of haredim stormed the bus and broke its windows as a form of protest. What prompted a group of haredim who presumably advocate the law of the Torah which states, “the one who kindled the fire [caused damages] shall make restitution,” to behave so recklessly and vandalize public property? Lest we think for a moment that these questions surface only with regard to the behavior of the religious community, here are some more questions to consider.
Why is it that Israelis in all walks of society, religious and nonreligious alike, casually litter the grounds of public parks and recreation areas, shamelessly leaving a trail of garbage and filth? Why is it that so many Israelis have no concept of what it means to be patient and wait your turn in line? Why don’t Israelis have any regard for the noise they make in public places? Why is it that regardless of where you travel in this country, you will find people casually urinating off the sides of the highways with no reticence or regard for decency? There is one solution to all of the above, and it begins with an understanding that many facets of the Israeli community, religious and secular alike, suffer from symptoms of the same condition: a lack of respect for one’s surroundings and for one another.
The commentaries on the Torah explain that all three of our illustrious forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, studied for years in a yeshiva.
What exactly did they learn? There was no written text or codified source of Jewish law at that time. It would appear that they pursued a relationship with God by passionately studying what is casually called “derech eretz.” Derech eretz literally means “the way of the land” but refers to a commitment to enhance ethics, values and sensitivity to mankind. It is clear that the very subject that our forefathers immersed themselves in is the subject which receives the smallest amount of attention in today’s secular and religious educational curricula and classrooms; this is indicative of the fact that we are not really addressing the core of the matter.
I am all in favor of establishing a law requiring all of Israel’s citizens to serve in the army and contribute to society, but shouldn’t we be questioning why it is necessary to resort to law enforcement to convey the importance of one’s responsibility to his land, nation and fellow man in the first place? After all, if these messages are not pedagogically transmitted to our children then there is something seriously wrong with our value system.
Before we issue a law requiring all Israelis to serve in the IDF, let’s pass a law by which any school regardless of denomination or religious conscription that seeks financial aid from the government must first introduce a syllabus of derech eretz.
A board consisting of members representing all spectrums of the Jewish community in Israel will review all of the proposed ideas and develop a mandatory course with the appropriate adjustments according to the sensitivities of each particular community; the religious curriculum may include more sources from the Torah while the secular curriculum may be socially oriented, but both will focus on transmitting the values mentioned above.
Just think of the educational message transmitted by the very fact that educators with different and even opposing views converse as one focusing on infusing common values that will help disseminate the fundamentals of a Jewish nation.
It is imperative that the Education Ministry and the leaders of our country, regardless of the particular community they represent, recognize unilaterally that if you are interested in preserving the Jewish nation you must first declare that back to school means back to basics.
The writer serves as a lecturer for the IDF Rabbinate and Mahane Meshutaf.
He is also an author and lecturer on Israel, religious Zionism and Jewish education.