On Rosh Hashanah morning, the Rabbi noticed little Adam staring up at the large plaque that hung in the foyer of the synagogue. It was covered with names, and small flags were mounted on either side.
The seven-year old had been staring at the plaque for some time, so the Rabbi walked up, stood beside the boy.
Still focused on the plaque Adam asked. “Rabbi, what is this?” “Well, it’s a memorial to all the young men and women who died in the service.”
Soberly, they stood together, staring at the large plaque. Little Adam’s voice was barely audible when he asked: “Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur service?” (Jewish humor)
The truth in this joke is that much of our “service” (hebrew: Avodah) relates to sacrifice, death and transferring to our youth guilt and victimhood from the past. You might be surprised to learn that it is traditional for children to begin their study of the Torah, not with the wonderful stories of Genesis but rather with the sacrifices of Leviticus.
Rabbi Assi said: Why do young children commence with [the Book of] ‘The Law of Priests, and not with [the Book of] Genesis? – Surely it is because young children are pure, and the sacrifices are pure; so let the pure come and engage in the study of the pure. (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3)
It also has been suggested that Jewish learning began here to teach from the outset that life involves sacrifice. One contemporary writer suggests, “In sacrifice, we could for a fleeting moment imagine our own death and yet go on living… No other form of worship can so effectively liberate a person from the fear of living in the shadow of death.” [i]
I am dubious of these contemporary writers and doubt that the experience of an animal being butchered and burnt is liberating. I have no doubt that exposing a child to animal sacrifice is anything but liberating. Animal sacrifice is in inextricably connected to human sacrifice, fear and guilt and should be used with care when it comes to child rearing.. especially at the kindergarten (cheder) level.
With regard to an emphasis on the “They died in Service” mentality, it’s ironic (or is it?) that the word Holocaust comes from the Greek ὁλόκαυστος holókaustos: hólos, “whole” and kaustós, “burnt” and is ultimately a Leviticus term for a wholly burnt offering.
Although I am sure that your child’s Hebrew School or Hebrew Day School does not follow Rabbi Assi’s pedagogical approach and may not even teach Leviticus, it seems to me that too much of Jewish Education carries his baggage. When Jewish education is not focused on Holocaust studies and anti-semitism, it focuses on pro-Israel studies that force-feed the purity of our cause to children at as young and pure an age as possible.
Back in 2007, two prominent sociologists Steven M. Cohen and Ari Kelman published a study named “Beyond Distancing,” which “found a consistent increase in alienation in each younger generation, with middle-aged Jews less attached to Israel than older Jews, and younger Jews less attached than middle-aged Jews. (See: The Jewish Daily Forward: Attachment to Israel Declining Among Young American Jews). These findings where complimented by the more recent PEW survey of Jews in America.
Alex Pomson, senior researcher at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at Hebrew University did a study of Hebrew Day School students based on multiple interviews and found that a one-sided approach to Israel Studies was not preparing our youth for the college campus and actually creating distance rather than closeness to Israel.
Here are some examples of the interview responses Pomson based his study on:
For instance, “Mike” (a pseudonym), who attends an Orthodox school, said he felt a strong and unwavering commitment to Israel as “the foundation of my existence.” But he also acknowledged that he believed he has been “spoon fed propaganda” about the Jewish state by his teachers over the years.
“It’s too late for me,” he said wistfully, at the tender age of 16, in terms of changing his mind about Israeli policies. He and several other students who spoke almost robotically about their views sounded like their connection to Israel was a mile wide and a few inches deep.
“Naomi,” another student at an Orthodox school, said she was reluctant to talk about Israel and was not sure she would call herself a Zionist but plans to spend a post-high school year in the Jewish state.
(In general, the students were vague and uncomfortable when asked to define “Zionism,” and whether they considered themselves “Zionists.” Clearly, the terms have taken on negative baggage; one teacher at a conference session geared to high school educators noted that it was “painful to watch these day school students who can’t define one of most simple values of the Jewish community,” adding: “And I’m sure the students in our school would answer the same way.”)
See: Students Seen ‘Suspicious’ Of Israel Education – Study released at national day school conference February 8, 2011 and, Day Schools Need New Israel Ed Approach, editorial; Gary Rosenblatt February 16, 2011 [ii]
“The challenging conclusion,” he [Pomson] said at a plenary of the three-day conference, is that students are “suspicious” of what they hear from adults and “distance themselves from what they hear in the classroom.” And a frequent criticism is that the schools and teachers are “biased,” These findings indicate it may be more effective to present students with information on both sides of an issue — particularly one as complex as Israel — and let them form their own opinion rather than shielding them from criticism or being perceived as forcing on them the “correct” response.
I just returned from the AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee) policy conference and was struck by the diversity of the speakers, presenters and performers. I attended a breakout session on “Civilian Coexistence” in Israel which featured an entire panel identified with the Israeli left,
As reported in the JTA
The room of about 100 people was warm and welcoming. Ali Waked, an Arab Israeli who heads Merchavim, a dialogue group, drew applause when he said, “I want to be a first-class citizen of the state of Israel, with keeping my Arab and Palestinian identity.”
He discussed discrimination against Arabs in Israel. “When 20-25 percent of citizens are uncomfortable, it should be a warning,” he said. No one contradicted him; instead, there were vigorous nods.
Another speaker was Yarden Leal from the Peres Center for Peace. I met with her later in the week and she confirmed how pleasantly surprised she and her fellow panelists were by the genuinely warm and supportive reception from AIPAC attendees. As a longtime (and liberal) AIPAC member, I can tell you that this has always been the case. I wonder if J Street hosts such a diverse spectrum of panelists…..
That’s not to say, that there wasn’t a lot of one-sided propaganda and a prime minister who defamed all critics of Israel’s policies who support a boycott, as anti-Semites, but there was still, and always has been, a healthy exposure to policy makers from all over the political spectrum at AIPAC. I believe that the best approach to pro-Israel advocacy is to emphasize the complexity of the issues and situation, not the purity of the pro-Israel position.
We can’t sacrifice the truth to fear, persecution anxiety, guilt or ideological or rhetorical purity…. especially when it comes to educating our children.
[i] (see Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary intro to Leviticus by Baruch Levine p. 586 and How to Look Death in the Eyes: Freud and Bataille by Liran Razinsky for a treatment of such contemporary writers, including Hegel and Heidegger..)