June 6, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Partnering for Jewish Education

The story is told of the Harvard professor Harry Wolfson, the first to chair a Jewish studies department in the United States, who was asked by a colleague, “What makes you Jews so special?” Wolfson replied, “As far as I know, we are the only people who, when we drop a book on the floor, we pick it up and kiss it.”

This quip carries a deep truth. We see ourselves as the “People of the Book,” and others see us this way as well. Our lives and our identity as Jews are deeply shaped by study—of Torah, of human nature and of God’s world. In just this way, the sefarim, the books in our lives, are precious. When one of them falls, we kiss it as we would our own child. Embedded in this simple practice is a distinctive value that is the source of an overlooked miracle of the Jewish people. As we approach Shavuot, Z’man Matan Torateinu, the celebration of our receiving of the Torah, we must take note of this miraculous achievement: our millenia-old commitment to Jewish education and the Jewish continuity and dynamism which is its result.

To appreciate the miracle, we must understand the mitzvah upon which it is based. Maimonides consistently describes the mitzvah of Torah study as ללמוד תורה וללמדה, to learn Torah and to teach it. That, he says, is what we refer to as Talmud Torah. This, explains Rambam, is rooted in the words ושננתם לבניך, and you should teach these words to your children. The obligation, as simply stated in the verse, is to teach Torah to the next generation. In order to accomplish this, we must first learn it ourselves. In other words, the obligation to study Torah is, in fact, the obligation to transmit the Torah to the next generation. It is in that spirit that each morning from our earliest days, we recite the biblical verse תורה צוה לנו משה מורשה קהילת יעקב. The Torah that Moses taught us should be treated as an inheritance for the community of Jacob. We must preserve it and transmit it with love and care so that our children can transmit it to their children, and they to the next generation, and so it has been for centuries.

Too often, we reduce this obligation to its bare bones. When we attend a shiur or learn the parsha, we are fulfilling the mitzvah of Talmud Torah. Of course this is true. Less often do we note the forces that made that learning possible. Our ability to attend that shiur or learn those verses is in fact the result of a long and arduous communal collaboration. A vast network of values, practices and resources were and are required to turn Torah study and Jewish education into a morasha, the heritage of the “community of Jacob.” In each generation, Torah scholars and community leaders have come together to establish centers of learning. This work is never easy, and each generation has had its challenges. The continuity of the Jewish people since the destruction of the Second Temple is ensured through our unyielding commitment to this enterprise.

Similarly, successful Jewish education extends well beyond the specific Torah that we will learn in a few days on Shavuot. In a 2012 book entitled “The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History: 70-1492,” two economists, Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein, argue that the communal regulation to teach Torah that was established after the destruction of the Second Temple resulted in a uniquely literate community. This regulation caused some families to forego the benefits of their children’s labor in the field in order to provide them time to receive an education. The skills to read and the ability to learn then opened a range of economic possibilities for Jewish children that Botticini and Eckstein trace over the centuries. In 2023, Robert Eisen published “Jews, Judaism, and Success,” in which he argues that Jews became a remarkably successful minority in the Western world because their religion had prepared them to value autonomy, freedom of thought, worldliness and education. Both of these books have their supporters and detractors. Scholarly debates aside, these books say something about the stories that we tell ourselves and the values that we hold dear. Our community believes that Jewish education is at the core of our religious and spiritual growth, our communal cohesiveness and continuity, our economic successes, and our social and cultural contributions.

From the perspective of Jewish education, we live in unique times indeed. Over the last 50 years, we have been blessed to experience an unprecedented expansion of Jewish education both in the United States and in Israel. In our local communities, we support outstanding educational institutions that provide robust formal and informal learning. Our yeshivot are filled with outstanding role models and pedagogues. Maintaining the broad network of yeshivot in our communities requires the sacrifice and deep commitment of parents, lay leaders and educators.

Finally and personally, I am blessed to work in an institution whose lay leadership has invested its heart and soul to ensure dynamic, courageous, caring and action-oriented education for our kids. A spirit of trust, confidence and collaboration shapes every decision that our educational and lay leadership make together. These leaders exhibit the elements that transform the Torah from a sacred text full of holy words into a Morasha Kehillat Ya’akov, the central element of our Jewish heritage.

Walk into SAR, and you are immersed in the love of Torah and mitzvot, for Medinat Yisrael and all human beings, a place of active learning and acts of kindness, an institution where trust and care, integrity and love inform all that we do every single day.

This Shavuot, say thank you to your teachers, the lay leaders, parents and the students whom you see on the street or in shul. Thank them for not only staying the course and ensuring the stable continuity of our Jewish educational system, but also for challenging us to continue to grow and change, to further strengthen Am Yisrael through Torat Chayim v’Ahavat Chesed, living Torah and lovingkindness.

Chag Sameach.


Rabbi Tully Harcsztark is the founding principal of SAR High School and dean of Machon Siach.

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