As if Jewish educators didn’t have enough problems these days, actor Seth Rogen set off a controversy which, along with giving his new Jewish-themed movie undeserved publicity, focused attention on the failures of Jewish facilities to produce students that understand and care about the State of Israel. Rogen set Twitter aflame last week with comments made on the popular “WTF” podcast with host Marc Maron in which he seemed to question Israel’s right to exist. But the collateral damage in what ultimately proved to be a successful ploy to gain publicity for Rogen’s upcoming movie “An American Pickle” was the whole concept of Jewish education.
Rogen’s rant, during which both he and Maron agreed that Israel’s existence “didn’t make sense,” focused on how he felt that he’d “been fed a huge amount of lies about Israel my entire life.” Understandably, it infuriated much of the Jewish world.
The diatribe seemed to be straight out of the playbook of anti-Zionist groups like IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, which falsely assert that young Jews are fed lies about Israel that can only be counteracted by subjecting them to anti-Israel propaganda about it being an “apartheid state.” Rogen’s comments exemplified the contempt for Jewish rights and history that characterizes the attitudes of the woke set that controls so much of popular culture these days.
That’s bad enough, but as we learned the details about Rogen’s background—something about which many of us were blissfully ignorant prior to the last week—the more it appeared that fingers weren’t being pointed to leftist Hollywood culture as they were for the failures of Jewish education in North America.
Rogen was rightly blasted for demonstrating a lack of understanding of history, as well as for arrogantly dismissing the rights of the 7 million Jews living in Israel. But contrary to the assumptions of many of his critics, he actually received a day-school education growing up in Vancouver, Canada. And unlike many American Jews who really do know nothing about Israel, that isn’t true of Rogen. His parents met there while volunteering on a kibbutz and the actor has visited Israel a few times.
Yet anyone who heard the podcast got the impression that Rogen has as much contempt for his old day school and the Zionist summer camp he attended (Habonim Dror), where he apparently disliked the Israeli counselors, as he has for the Jewish state.
Afterwards, Rogen flip-flopped about whether he was joking. He spoke with Jewish Agency head Isaac Herzog and apologized. Later, he insisted that he hadn’t apologized and then told Haaretz that he was a proud Jew, opposed anti-Semitism, supported Israel’s existence and mentioned that his old school wasn’t so bad, even if he now has no use for religion.
It’s not clear whether Rogen was upset at the idea of angering Jews, of being perceived as being unduly influenced by pro-Israel Jews or if he just didn’t want any bad PR on the eve of the release of a movie with a Jewish theme whose primary audience may consist of the very people most offended by his words. Perhaps the correct answer is all of the above.
Rogen’s Jewish bona fides and opinions about Israel are of little interest. What is important is the way his comments seemed to confirm the low opinion most alumni of the various forms of Jewish education offered to kids, particularly during the time he attended, in the United States and Canada have about their experiences.
More clichés about subpar Jewish schools are the last thing that families, teachers and administrators of the beleaguered system need right now. With so many schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and children and parents overwhelmed by the problems associated with enforced makeshift “home-schooling,” Jewish education is not merely suffering along with other aspects of daily living, but is also likely being treated as a lower priority by many families.
And with Jewish institutions being hit hard along with other nonprofits by the economic recession caused by the pandemic, the future for many full-time day schools and synagogue schools appears bleak.
So, if anything, the current situation may make for even poorer Jewish educational experiences that will turn off yet another generation of kids on the values and the greatness of Judaism, Jewish history and Israel.
But rather than crack wise like poster boy Rogen or lament the inexorable advance of assimilation that is already imploding the demographics of non-Orthodox Jewry, it’s time for Jewish parents to seize this singular moment to rededicate themselves to ensuring that their children are not losing out on their heritage.
As difficult as current circumstances may be—with parents and children often working and learning at home at all hours in all rooms—families need to recognize that Jewish education cannot be given short-shrift, and that this moment provides an opportunity as well as formidable challenges.
As hard as it may be to think about anything beyond the struggle to survive both economically and psychologically in the midst of a health crisis, the situation that has thrown so many families together is also one that affords parents a chance to engage with children on Jewish topics that run the gamut.
This doesn’t mean lecturing kids about what Judaism or Israel means to you. Rather, it represents an opportunity to learn together from the host of online resources available in the 21st century. Indeed, family education—the key to success in any Jewish format—has never been easier to pursue. For all of the challenges of life during COVID-19, the time and amenities to devote to Jewish learning and practice are there. All it requires is the effort and commitment.
Jewish and Zionist education has never really been the mind-control propaganda session that Rogen and Israel’s critics make it out to be. While enthusiasm for Israel’s miraculous rebirth and survival is atypical and well-deserved, American Jews have never been shy about talking about both sides of the conflict with the Palestinians—something especially true of the Labor Zionist summer camp that Rogen attended. Empathy for the tragedy of the Palestinians is typical of most Jewish educational and even religious systems. If anything has generally been in short supply, it’s the sort of in-depth learning about Zionist history that would better define to youngsters the justice of Israel’s cause.
While misinformation about the Middle East is commonplace, the main source of falsehoods is the mainstream media, and not the overworked and underfinanced Jewish educational system.
If parents don’t want the next generation to grow up both ignorant and resentful about the inadequate Jewish education they received, then the place to start is at home by demonstrating that learning is as important to the busy heads of the household as it is to children who right now have too much time on their hands. The outcome isn’t dependent on other people or institutions, as important as they may be. The impact of at-home learning activities, coupled with family trips to Israel once they become possible again, is incalculable.
Seth Rogen’s complaints about what he did or didn’t learn about Israel, the Jewish people and the Palestinians when he was young aren’t important. Ensuring that other Jewish children in America won’t grow up without knowing the beauty of living traditions and the glories of their heritage is dependent on their families and their extended communities. If they can’t get that right, then there is no one to blame but themselves.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at @jonathans_tobin.