Amidst the turbulence of these difficult weeks, I recalled an article written more than 50 years ago by an outstanding twentieth century Jewish thinker, Eliezer Berkovits. In that article, titled “Jewish Education in a World Adrift,” Berkovits pointed to the vital need for Jewish education at a time of “confusion as to basic principles. What is right, what wrong? What is good, what evil?”
The realities of war are harsh; one cannot but be moved by the plight of civilians in a deadly war zone. Yet, that the war in Gaza was precipitated by the brutal murder of 1,200 people and the kidnapping of more than two hundred forty others, the great majority of whom remain in captivity after more than six weeks, seems, stunningly, inconsequential to many “humanitarians.” The world, it appears, is adrift.
Eliezer Berkovits left Germany a few months after Kristallnacht; he was all too familiar with anti-Semitic tropes, nations that ignored the plight of Jews, and the deployment of state power for the industrialized annihilation of millions of Jewish men, women, and children. Writing a generation later, he described the role of Jewish education. It must, he wrote, provide “values and meaning; it has to provide guidance in a time of confusion; it has to teach a way in the midst of chaos.” It should offer children a “vision of the future, without which youth cannot prosper and mature….”
The Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic teachings compiled more than 1800 years ago, notes that humankind began from one couple so that no one should declare “my father is greater than your father.” The dignity of each individual is not necessarily a “self-evident” truth, as demonstrated throughout human history. It is, however, a foundational principle of the Torah. This is the starting point of a rich body of teaching that speaks to leading a life of purpose, and actively participating in shaping the world of which we are part. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, a contemporary of Berkovits: “Judaism stands and falls with the idea of the absolute relevance of human deeds.”
Jewish education equips learners with enduring value-concepts that address questions of right and wrong, good and evil; it provides roots and wings. In a world adrift, there is surely no greater gift that we can provide our children than that of Jewish education. As Eliezer Berkovits observed, such education is not simply about preserving the Jewish heritage, it is about “how to preserve life itself in dignity and meaningfulness.” As Thanksgiving approaches, please join me in expressing appreciation to the thousands of educators at Jewish pre-schools, day schools, and part-time Jewish educational settings who are sharing this gift with our children; thank you as well to the many parents who do so much to further the Jewish education of their children, and to all who support the Jewish education of children through philanthropic investment. BJE is grateful for your partnership.