Thankfulness is a basic human virtue

Today’s schools focus on teaching the whole child: heart, soul and mind. There is even a focus on spirituality in our schools. God has finally made it into the curriculum!

Competing for kindness (photo credit: SKETCHPORT)
Competing for kindness
(photo credit: SKETCHPORT)
Thankfulness is a basic human virtue, and a very Jewish one as well. Although the focus of Thanksgiving is often turkey, parades, football and all the other trimmings, the idea behind it is biblical – hakarat hatov. I have always found Thanksgiving to be a time to reflect on what I have to be thankful for. But even as we give thanks, an important part of Thanksgiving is also focusing on what we must strive for next.
Jewish education is something for which we should be thankful. There have never been so many Jewish children receiving a Jewish education in Jewish schools as today. And educators have greater resources than ever before to help them provide a quality, meaningful educational experience to the next generation of Jews. But there is plenty of room to strive for greater success.
Today’s schools focus on teaching the whole child: heart, soul and mind. There is even a focus on spirituality in our schools. God has finally made it into the curriculum!
Education now centers on delivery mechanisms that are both experiential and formal; we have stopped bifurcating students’ lives into outside school and inside school. What was once left to camp and youth groups has begun to make its way into our formal educational institutions. This has made Jewish day school education into a much richer experience.
Our schools need to be palaces of education, places in which we invest so that our children can enjoy smaller class sizes. They should be places where we can examine outcomes and see if – 10 years after they graduate from our institutions – our students are living healthy lifestyles, both physically and spiritually, that embrace our values, norms and mores. If we are not yet succeeding in all those areas, we should be worried.
In order to guarantee a Jewish future, we need to continue improving the education, both general and Jewish, which we provide for our children. A meaningful Jewish education and experience is the only bulwark against the rampant assimilation that besets Diaspora Jewry. It is a critical step in ensuring the eternality of our people. Moreover, ignoring the need and opportunity to grow also shows a lack of gratitude to those who sacrificed so much to build educational institutions over the past generations.
IN GENERAL, we need to ask the questions about meeting the needs of the students and families of the next generation. This means confronting the challenges and opportunities of how to engage the children of LGBTQ families, how to educate about sexuality when at least 3% of our high school population is questioning what that means for them, and relating to the fact that with new fertility options and a higher rate of divorce there will be more single-parent homes. We must be able to respond to that growing reality.
With Ohr Torah Stone being a worldwide Jewish educational network, I realize that is time to facilitate a global conversation between Israeli and Diaspora Jewish educators. We live in a global community, and that must be reflective of the way we approach Jewish education. The fact that our schools have won so many Education Ministry awards in Israel speaks to their excellence, but we also need to look at how Diaspora Jewry educates and learn from their successes. This is why we are sending all of our senior educators to America this year to meet with professors of education as well as with senior leaders in the field. We aim to create a global network of Jewish educators.
Another reason to be immensely thankful is the fact that intense, text-oriented Torah scholarship for women is at an all-time high today. From the time of Sara Schenirer, or the first class in Talmud that Rav Soloveitchik taught to the women at Stern College, until today, there has been continuous growth in this area. I just had the privilege of witnessing one of our female faculty members at Midreshet Lindenbaum making a siyum (“completion”) on Shas (Talmud) while another made a siyum on Tractate Kodashim. In fact, this year there will be a siyum haShas for women at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem. It is amazing what heights have we achieved!
And yet, in this area as well, we must not rest on our laurels. There is still much to do. The Jewish nation is poorer without religious women leaders. Therefore, we must train women scholars and ensure that they can function in halachically (according to Jewish law) appropriate leadership roles.
These are just a few of the challenges we as a society face. But these challenges should not depress us. Rather, on days like Thanksgiving, they remind us that we are people of destiny and not of fate. We have the opportunity to create the future rather than be its victims. We are God’s partners and are thankful for the opportunity to help bring about the prophetic vision: “And all your children shall be taught of the LORD; and great shall be the peace of your children” (Isaiah 54:13).
The writer is president and rosh hayeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, the Modern Orthodox network of 27 institutions that are transforming Jewish life, learning and leadership worldwide.