Wednesday, June 12, 2013

What Is the Ideal Jewish Education?

Partial 8th grade class photo from the late fifties
Can you guess who is in the center?
Last night I had the privilege of watching one of my granddaughters graduate from elementary school. What grandparent wouldn’t be proud of that? But for me, it was more than about that. What I witnessed was the near embodiment of my Hashkafos.  Hashkafos that I believe are the Emes of Yiddishkeit.

I know what I am about to say sounds like an advertisement for my granddaughter’s school. But that is not my intent. It is to show that such schools not only exist, but can flourish.

The evening began with the American pledge of allegiance followed by the singing of the national anthem. That was followed with the recital of a psalm. The full house participated which consisted of the students, parents, teachers, administration, the current chairmen of the board, current and former presidents of the school. members of the Vaad HaChinuch, and PTA presidents -  past and present (my wife included  who was honored with presenting diplomas to some of the graduates including our granddaughter).

The presentation lasted about an hour and was almost exclusively led by the students. It ended with the singing of Hatikva.

One of the valedictorians (Boys- Hebrew and English) gave a D’var Torah from Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik on this week’s Parsha, Chukas which begins with the laws of the Para Adumah (red heifer).  Rashi comments that the laws relating to the Para Adumah cannot be understood by the human mind. And then he goes into an explanation of it. Rav Soloveitchik asks about this apparent contradiction in Rashi.

He answered that Rashi’s motive for doing so is the following. Although we may not understand the reasons for many of the Mitzvos, that does not absolve us of trying to do so.We must never be afraid to ask questions. For that is the only way to learn. And answers can sometimes be found in the most unlikely sources. As it says in Tehilim (119:99) Mikol Melamdei Hischalti – from all of my teachers do I become wise.

How wonderful it was to hear a D’var Torah from Rav Soloveitvchik who is rarely if ever quoted by the right wing... where even after his death he was denigrated in a now infamous obituary. This young man who excelled in both Limudei Kodesh and Limudei Chol understood the wisdom of the Rav’s Torah and was not afraid to make reference to him adding Zecher Tzadik L’Vracha (ZTL) to his name.

Many schools actively discourage asking difficult questions. And look negatively at a student who does… stigmatizing him as a near Apikores in some cases. Not this school. They encourage questions.

Lest anyone think this is some sort of left wing Modern Orthodox School, they would be wrong. The principal is a product of this school and yet he attended Lakewood’s branch in Israel post high school - and was a member of the Lakewood Kollel here (The Chicago Community Kollel). Many of the Rebbeim are also product of Lakewood.

One of the longest serving Moros is Rebbetzin Esther Levine, wife of Telshe Rosh Hayeshiva, R’ Avrohom Chaim Levine. So too was the late Rebbetzin Debbie Keller,OBM, first wife of Telshe Rosh Yeshiva, R’ Chaim D. Keller.

And until her retirement, so too was the late Rebbetzin Evelyn Shusterman, OBM, wife of the titular head of Chabad in Chicago, R’ Tzvi (Harold) Shusterman, ZTL.

The Kipa Seruga is well represented by a strong Religious Zionist presence… including at least two Rebbeim one of whom is the 8th grade Rebbe  Not to toot my own horn but my son in law who was a former head counselor for the Religious Zionist Camp Moshava and student in Yeshivas Gush Etzion (Rav Aharon Lichtenstein) is the assistant principal for religious studies. And I would remiss if I did not mention one of the more popular Limudei Kodesh teachers there, my own daughter Tova Chaya (Tovi) who teaches 5th grade girls. The youngest member of the Vaad HaChinuch is another son in law who also heads both NCSY and the CRC.

Torah Im Derech Eretz is an important element of the school – as was mentioned by one of the valedictorians. And Derech Eretz as applied here is about both Midos (character) development and secular subjects. Both are therefore treated very seriously.  

There is no denigration of secular subjects as unimportant nuisances demanded by the state for purposes of accreditation.  Not in this school. As the principal said last night during his charge to the students, the goal of the school is to prepare them for success in the world of Torah and success in the rest of the world. Lest anyone think that Limudei Kodesh suffers because of that, some pretty big Talmidei Chachamim came out of this school. R’ Nosson Tzvi Finkel’s 8th grade class picture still hangs on their wall.

The principal spoke about matters of Emes and Emunah. (Where have I heard those two things mentioned before?) How often are these things ignored or taken for granted in some schools?!  In making his point he referred to the Chicago Blackhawks, a hockey team that is in the Stanley Cup finals against the Boston Bruins.

He told a story about the goal scored by Chicago to win the Stanley Cup in 2010. It was game six and  tied near the end. Chicago’s Patrick Kane who was at an awkward location on the ice took a shot at the net and believed he scored. But that was not obvious to everybody. Where was the puck? It was bouncing around around near the net. They weren’t sure if it went in and bounced out - or never went in at all. 45 seconds passed  before they determined that it actually did go in and declared the Hawks the winner of the Stanley Cup!

During those 45 seconds, only Kane was celebrating. He knew the Emes. But everyone else was clueless waiting for the officials to review the tape. And by everyone, I mean their opponents, the Philadelphia Flyers, the officials, the sold out crowd in the stadium, and the record audience of over 4 million people who were watching the game on TV. They all wanted proof before they would believe the Hawks won.

But not Kane. He was skating around the ice in a celebratory way. He knew he had scored. After that 45 second delay the officials ruled that it did go into the net and that the Chicago Blackhawks had won the Stanley Cup.

What can be learned from this? That just because the entire world is not sure of the Emes, does not mean that those of us who have learned it - should doubt it. Nor does it mean that we have to hide our beliefs. We should follow the example of Patrick Kane and proudly declare the Emes of our beliefs. Someday, when God will eventually reveal His Truths to all of mankind, they too will join us. That at present many still do not should not diminish our own.

I purposely did not mention the name of the school because I do not want to make this an advertisement (…although Chicagoans surely know what school I am talking about). But I just had to speak my mind about my strong beliefs that if all Jewish day schools were like this, we would be living in a far better world than we live in now. Thankfully I am not alone. This school is bursting at the seams and is the largest, fastest growing day school in the city!