What’s My Kid Doing in This School

Gershom Gorenberg

While the outrageously dedicated volunteers of Limmud – the grassroots Jewish study festival – bounce me around South Africa, Ha’aretz has gotten around to publishing my article on the dilemma that moderate religious families face in Israel as they seek an education for their children (Hebrew original here, English translation here):

At the gates of the state religious schools, in many places in Israel, two cultures meet. One, religious and modern, turns over its sons and daughters to the other, more insular, to educate them in its stead. The parents live with their children alongside secular families in mixed neighborhoods. A quick glance at a list of the teachers’ phone numbers reveals that many live in settlements or in neighborhoods known as Haredi or Hardali – religiously ultra-Orthodox, politically ultra-nationalist.

The geographic gap reflects a rift in attitudes toward religion and toward the wider world. It expresses itself in how each side relates to secular culture, to non-Jews, to the limits of rabbinic authority, and to the manner of thinking about politics…

My eldest child will be drafted soon. Since he entered kindergarten, I’ve kept a mental list of the “educational” messages he and his sisters have been given in school as if it were impossible to teach someone to be religious without them: The kindergarten teacher who devoted a morning to teaching that “the Tomb of the Patriarchs belongs only to Jews”; the homeroom teacher who spoke daily of approaching redemption and of the new dress she kept in her closet to wear when the messiah comes; the teacher who added psalms to morning prayers to entreat God to stop the “expulsion” of the Gush Katif settlers, and who didn’t understand my complaint that she had injected politics into the classroom.

Read the rest in Hebrew or English, and then come back to South Jerusalem to comment among polite, thoughtful people.

17 thoughts on “What’s My Kid Doing in This School”

  1. Hi Gershom:

    You mention “the homeroom teacher who spoke daily of approaching redemption and of the new dress she kept in her closet to wear when the messiah comes” — could you give your non-Israeli readers a sense of how widespread, and how immediate or urgent, the sense of Messianic expectation is among Israeli Jews in general and haredim in particular?


  2. Gershom wrote the following in a negative way:
    the homeroom teacher who spoke daily of approaching redemption and of the new dress she kept in her closet to wear when the messiah comes

    Belief in the coming of the Mashiach (I mean the real one, not Barak Obama) is a a basic tenet of Judaism (see the RAMBAM, among others) . Of course, you can invent and practice any religion you want, but I don’t think you are being reasonable if you expect other people to change their religious beliefs to accomodate your tastes. You remind me of a Catholic I knew back when I lived in California. He said he was upset that the Catholic church didn’t allow women or married men to be priests. I suggested he start his own “reformed” Catholic church and appoint himself as pope. He didn’t go for that suggestion, apparently still respecting the institution if not its dogmas. All I can say to you is that you should start your own school and teach what you want there. Of course, you would have to recruit other parents in order to fill out enrollment, but I am sorry to have to be the one to tell you that the large majority of Orthodox-practicing Jews are “right-wing”, “nationalist”, supporters of Jewish settlement in Judea/Samaria and all sorts of other “primitive” beliefs that “progressives” like yourselves have problems with. I suggest you get to work now to convert people to your new form of Judaism.

  3. Bravo! You summed it up best with this: “If I don’t do it myself,” I answered, “others will gladly do it for me.”

    The most important part of parenting is paying attention–and that includes undoing some of the nonsense presented to your children in school. My son is now in a dati-leumi-Torani special ed school (none of the teachers live in yishuvim) in Jerusalem; before he was in an excellent public charter school in Marin; before that he was in an excellent public but not charter school in Marin; before that he was in an “inclusive” Jewish day school in Marin, albeit one of the few Orthodox kids there. Kids are like sponges–they’ll pick up stuff from teachers and also from other kids. The parents’ job is to make sure we’re paying attention, and to listen to what your kids tell you, and if they bring home something abhorent, then it’s time for some “home schooling” in addition to what they’re getting in the classroom.

    The real cure for this: a Real School System. Teachers with professional credentials teaching a full day for good wages. Teaching is a very tough profession–lower grades should have no more than 20 students to a classroom, upper grades no more than 30. A school day should run from 8:00 or 8:30 to 4:00 or 4:30, as it does in many advanced countries (Japan and Singapore, for example). It’s ridiculous to have a country full of latch-key kids because the states school gets out at 12:30 or 1:30 (and no, in many places there are no after-school programs for anyone above 1st or 2nd grade).

    And while I, too, am waiting for Moshiach, I understand what I believe was your point—the world needs a lot of tikkun olam before it is ready for Moshiach and to focus on the immediacy of his arrival without recognizing that the world is in no way ready to receive him is a tad bit unrealistic. Instead of buying a new dress and talking daily about his arrival, perhaps the students would be better served by a teacher who talked about how to perfect the world to make it ready for Moshiach.

  4. Aliyah06-
    As you may know, the schoolteacher was not the first to talk about keeping special garments in the closet with which to greet the Mashiach. This was first stated by the revered sage called the Hafetz Haim. He was also famous for his lifetime struggle to get Jews to be careful not to speak “Lashon HaRa”, i.e. slander, gossip, lies, defamation,etc in addition to emphasizing business ethics, so he certainly didn’t see any contradiction between “tikun olam” and being prepared for the imminent arrival of the Mashiach. In fact, by emphasizing how close it might be could ENCOURAGE people to improve themselves and the world, realizing every mitzvah and good deed is accelerating the process, rather than saying that it is far, far in the future and so our efforts to do good are really of no impact in bring the geulah (redemption).

  5. Y. Ben-David–I am familiar with the teachings of the Hafetz Haim; one of the greatest Ravs of his century, he struggled to bring about tikkun olam through adherence to halakha in spirit as well in deed. There is no “contradiction” here but nonethless a teacher who emphasizes ONLY the purchase of clothing for the imminent arrival of Moshiach without also teaching what we must do to bring about Moshiach’s coming is leaving out the most important part of the lesson.

  6. Aliyah06-
    Who says that is ALL she taught? Maybe the rest of the day she taught the kids good midot as well?

  7. Schools – what will kids be exposed to there? What should the goal of a parent be in placing a child for education? At one extreme you have the home-school with total control by one or two adults and at the other the public school where the child is exposed to a large number of other kids and many adults who will have many different beliefs.

    My own preference is for public school because parochial schools tend to perpetuate the us and them concept and don’t leave the child exposed to other ideas without prejudice. My ideal is for the child to reach adulthood with the capability of deciding for him or herself on issues such as religion, not because he or she has been filled with it from long before the ability to know how to reason is obtained.

    I believe in a child’s ability to become a responsible adult with all the help a mother and father can give in the problems to be faced, but no belief is so precious to me that I would want it taken without question.

    So the problem of the behavior of a particular teacher cannot be a problem in a secular public school in the way you’ve described because there isn’t any question of what parts of a religious doctrine are accepted. Frankly, I don’t see how you can ever find a religious school that would not present the difficulty you describe with different parents reacting from various stances.

    My ignorance shows, but is there such a thing as a non-religious public school in Israel? If the state defines itself as Jewish, how can school and state and religion be separated?

  8. It is quite creepy to think that some people actually keep special clothes around just in case the Messiah happens to drop by. This actually reminds me of the of behavior of that Hail-Bop commet cult.

    Isn’t it also just a tad presumptuous to expect that to happen in one’s own lifetime? Maybe I’ll set aside a special wardrobe just for the day I’m elected President of the United States, and while I’m at it, I’ll build a bunker specially designed to resist a giant asteroid if it lands in my back yard.

    In all seriousness, what’s really disturbing about these millinarian beliefs is the way they inherently discount and devalue both the present and future. After all if I knew I were to die in a week, I’d quit my job, tell my boss off, gorge myself on all the worst foods and otherwise behave in ways not necessarily in the long term interests of the rest of the world. Just imagine a large group conducting their whole lives with this kind of mentality. It’s no wonder so many of the ultra-orthodox are chronically unemployed.

  9. Joe, you don’t have the faintest idea about what you are talking about and you obviously don’t know anything about the basic beliefs of Judaism. Belief in the coming of the Mashiach is a core belief of Judaism. HOWEVER that does not mean Jews go around with what you call “millenarian” beliefs , assuming that the “end of days” is just around the corner. In fact, the coming of the Mashiach does NOT mean that suddenly everything is going to okay.
    The Talmud says clearly that the in the Messianic era things will go on they way they do know, except that the Jewish people will be independent and free in their homeland of Eretz Israel. The belief in the coming of the Mashiach gave generations of Jews who were living under almost unbearable persecution the strength to go on living and even transmit to the next generation the beliefs that everything that we are going through, as painful as it may be if of cosmic significance and that eventually the Jewish people and mankind as a whole will be redeemed. That is what belief in the coming of the Mashiach. I can assure you that the teacher Gershom referred to lives her life in a normal manner. By keeping her special suit of clothes ready she is reminding herself (and her students) that everything we do is important and the suffering people go through will pay off in the end.

  10. The answer is simple: don’t send them. I admire your writings and I believe that your liberal principles are sincere (though I am among those who believe that religion and liberal morality are utterly incompatible), but the bottom line is that by sending your children to such schools, you are legitimizing, materially supporting, and exposing your children to the teachings of, a fundamentally immoral enterprise.

  11. Shabtai Zvi wasn’t unusual at all–there were also the Frankists and Bar Kochba, to name a couple of the more famous who were mistaken for Moshiach. You can research the rest but it’s a long list.

    How can you assure us of anything with regard to the teacher Gershon referred to? Do you know her? Has your child been taught by her? If not, perhaps you are making assumptions, like your assumption that she is teaching good midot the rest of the day. I can only respond to what is in the article, not what anyone assumes.

    Clif–state schools are “secular” in the sense that they don’t teach religion per se–they teach Torah as history and geography, and Judaism as a cultural inheritance and ethical mandate. This obviously leaves a lot out, which is why so many of us look to TALI or dati leumi or haredit schools, depending on what level of religiosity you want in your kids’ curriculum.

  12. Gershom, I agree that parents should be prepared to challenge messages their kids get in school, or in the streets for that matter. But wouldn’t that be true as well if you sent them to a secular school instead, and have them learn the religious stuff from another source, such as yourself, your wife, your (presumable moderate) synagogue? If the fundamentalist version of Judaism being taught in haredi schools isn’t your religion, or the one you want your kids to adopt, why give yourself and them the additional headache to make them unlearn some of the “message” and attempt to “reeducate” them? Why not get it right the first time?
    Apparently under the system you have in Israel you face the choice of having your kids learn “too little” or “the wrong flavour” of your religion. IMO the first leaves a much better chance to add some of what may be missing than the second does to subtract and/or change what may be wrong, and is therefore, at the very least, the lesser evil.

  13. Aliyah06-
    I have good reason to believe that the teacher DOES teach good midot and doesn’t tell her students to drop everything else and sit and wait for the pending arrival of the Mashiach, because this is what the vast majority of religious Jews do every day. Gershom did NOT say the things that you are attributing to the teacher, he objected to the very fact that they teacher says the Mashiach MAY arrive at any time. You extrapolated out that he was objecting to her saying this and ignoring “tikkun olam”, but Gershom didn’t mention that, you put those words into his mouth. False Messiahs come and go, but the Jewish people has survived all of them (Bar Kochba was NOT a “false Mashiach”, he was a failed Mashiach, becaue the scholars of the time saw that he had the potential characteristics of the Mashiach.) The large majority of Orthodox/religious Jews maintain the balance successfully.

  14. Kol HaKavod,

    Last year at our children “State Religous School” the following event occured. A
    neighbors 3rd grader drew a picture of a dinosor for a reading class and showed it to her young teacher who responded “very nice, but you KNOW there were no such things as dinosors!” The little girl not knowing what to make of her teachers reponce asked her mother what her teacher ment. The confused mother called and asked the teacher what she ment only to get the reponce “you’re the only religious person I know who Believes in dinosors!”

  15. Wow. David Lieberman’s last comment was scary, while David J. Balan’s reminded me of a woman I met last year: US-born — I don’t want to specify where, but let’s say it’s hard to believe she was raised Orthodox there — and graduated from Harvard. She’s now Orthodox and the mom of five, and lives within the Green Line. So far, so good. We got to talking about our teenage kids, and she mentioned that her ninth grader was going to boarding school the following year. Where? I asked. “A yeshiva in [name of settlement],” was her reply.

    I thought about how, being Harvard-educated, she’d probably tried to raise her children in an enlightened home — i.e., she probably believes in dinosaurs — but it’s all for naught if her kids end up attending school with and befriending others’ dinosaur-challenged kids who then peer-pressurize her kids to “go with us to this school in [name of settlement] where this real cool rabbi” reigns, who doubtless whips his teens into a nationalistic fervor, and you know the road from there leads straight to a rooftop in Hebron…

    Anyway, I just discovered SJ after reading Gershom’s op-ed in yesterdays’ Haaretz, and have Accidental Empire on my Amazon wishlist, should anyone reading this want to buy me a Chanukah present! : ) Also, I’m a name freak and am grooving on Mizmor and Misgav. Points for originality: The world has enough Yaels and Noas, don’t you think? Shabat shalom from the Southern Arava…

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