Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Raising Religious Zionist Children: A Question of Education

So much of what takes place in the Jewish world revolves around education – or the lack thereof. The recent controversy surrounding the "Hilltop Youth" is to me, first and foremost, an education issue. Somehow, teachers, rabbis and educators failed to reach these young people before they abandoned home and school for the "freedom" of the hilltop. At the same time, the growing alienation between Israel and America also relates to education and a failure to properly communicate critical values through both parenting, but also our educational system.

Nowhere does education play a more significant role in the Torah than in the story of the exile and subsequent redemption from Egypt. God tells Moshe explicitly that education must play an essential role in the process of the Redemption and the formation of the Jewish Nation. God tells Moshe that He has hardened Par'oh's heart,
וּלְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר בְּאָזְנֵי בִנְךָ וּבֶן-בִּנְךָ, אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם, וְאֶת-אֹתֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר-שַׂמְתִּי בָם; וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי-אֲנִי ה'. (שמות י', ב')
So that you will tell in the ears of your son and your grandson what I have wrought upon Egypt, and My signs which I have placed upon them; so that you may know that I am the LORD.' (Shemot 10:2)
We are also commanded to teach our children about the story of the Exodus on the night of Pesach – the ultimate educational experience.

But what happens when education is missing? What happens when parents and teachers don't provide the education that our children need and deserve? To answer this question, I share a novel answer to a classic question from the beginning of Sefer Shemot.

At the outset of Shemot, we learn that a new ruler arose to lead Egypt, אשר לא ידע את יוסף – "who did not know Yosef." (Shemot 1:8) This raises the obvious question: How could it be possible for a ruler to arise over Egypt who had never heard of the man who single-handedly saved not only their country, but the entire region from starvation? Rashi suggests that, "he made himself as if he did not know Yosef" – meaning that, like so many world leaders that followed throughout history, Par'oh chose to ignore the past in his desire to persecute the Jews. Yet, that's not the simple meaning of the words. Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor explains simply that he neither "recognized him, nor knew of him." This of course only begs the question: How is this possible?

I found a very simple, compelling answer in a commentary on Chumash called “Meir Einei Yesharim” written by Rabbi Meir Schwartzman, who served for many years as a rabbi and dayyan in Winnipeg, Canada. (You can download the full Sefer on Hebrewbooks.org here.) He explains that it is indeed possible that the new king never heard of Joseph. How is this possible? He suggests that a new Pharaoh would never have heard of Joseph because a previous government erased any memory of Joseph’s existence. Rabbi Schwartzman writes,
When a new party succeeds in wrestling the bridle of government from a rival faction...then it removes from their positions all of those officials that were appointed from the previous government and it appoints only those officials who it trusts to fulfill its demands, and all the laws that were enacted by the previous ministers and legislators are annulled...and even the textbooks in the schools are switched...so that the students do not learn the story of the greatness of this hero or that warrior…
When Marshall [Jozef] Pidulski was exiled from the Polish government (1923-1926), his adversaries removed his picture from the official schoolbooks... and when Hitler arose at the helm of Germany, they revised and printed new school books and encyclopedias... so that in an instant someone who had been a hero and redeemer was transformed into a rebel against his people and country - a liar and a traitor... those who could not be tainted were totally erased from the historical record, as if they had never been born...
This, I believe, is what happened in Egypt. Even though a new king arose over Egypt, nonetheless he did not know of Joseph and had never even heard of him, for the enemies of Pharaoh who ruled when Joseph was young later took control of the government into their hands...and the entire story of Joseph’s greatness and how he saved the nation from famine, all of which was undoubtedly found in the national record... all of this was hidden or intentionally destroyed.
According to Rav Schwartzman, Par'oh never heard of Yosef because a previous government erased him from Egyptian history. How could Egyptian children know about a man if they were never taught? By that very same token, is it really that surprising to see Arabs refuse to acknowledge Israel's right to exist when Jewish history has been erased from their school curriculum?

Here in Israel, Religious Zionist parents assume that our children will not only assimilate our passion for the Land, but that they will also acquire our love for the State – the government and the rule of law – with all of its warts. Yet, the "Hilltop Youth" are teaching us that while we might be channeling our religious fervor to our kids, for some of them, we are failing to communicate the values of democracy, equality and freedom for all crucial to civil society.

By that very same token, while we might believe strongly in the importance of Eretz Yisrael, I am beginning to think that we don’t teach that passion properly, in a source-based manner, especially in the Diaspora where Zionism and Religious Zionism are often not properly emphasized or valued. I remember a number of conversations with parents who sent their children to non-Zionist yeshivot, and then expressed surprise and disappointment when those children returned home with values that did not include a love for the Jewish State. I would often caution parents: "Don’t send your children to a school and expect them not to absorb the school's ideology." It seems so simple and obvious. And yet, so many parents make this very mistake.

In the end, it boils down to education. If it's important enough, we teach it to our children, with love, patience and clarity. If not, we should not be surprised when we recognize that they lack the passion and love for Israel that we hold so dear.