Just like we can count on the seasons of the year and the Jewish holidays to come around, we can count on every new education minister to be shocked by the state of Jewish knowledge possessed by students in the secular education system. The shock is immediately followed by an urge to do something. And so, by next year, Gideon Sa’ar’s students will be learning about their Jewish and Zionist heritage in the framework of a special class. He promises us that our future generations will know what a Shemoneh
Esrei Prayer is and who were our sages, and why Pirkei Avot are important.
Yet even if we assume that this new curriculum will be drafted, approved, and budgeted, thereby making it to the slow and cumbersome system Sa’ar is in charge of, it will make no significant contribution to deepening students’ familiarity with Judaism: It will be yet another boring, forced, and predictable class. It will include more annoying memorization of texts that have no connection to the life of students. In short, it will be needless and futile.
I have no doubt that it’s appropriate and preferable for secular children to know where they came from and where they’re headed, that Jewish holidays are more than a shopping spree, and that their heritage is not summed by the sporadic lighting of candles. But what should they know? Should it be prayer texts, or fundamental values that can become part of their lives even without these prayers?
I propose, to Gideon Sa’ar and to those concerned about the Jewish knowledge of students, a different type of Jewish studies. In the absences of a catchier secular name, perhaps we should call it “Social Judaism.”
A secular child does not need to be able to recite some prayer in order to perform an act of mercy and understand the value it’s premised on. This child and his or her classmates can recycle bottles and donate to charity. Their class can volunteer to pack food packages for the needy and learn that “all the Jewish people are responsible for each other” or that “your city’s poor take priority.”
These children and their school can practice – without incurring any expense without needing anything with the exception of plenty of goodwill – respect for the elderly by planting a small garden near an old-age club.
Creating better people
National and wholly- secular schools are developing, through local initiative, nice programs for helping others and giving back to the community: Here they hold a bazaar for charity, there they collect canned food for the benefit of a non-profit organization, elsewhere they take the children out to work in agriculture – with their own hands – in order to dedicate it to charity, and somewhere else they raid the children’s ward at hospitals and show the kids a good time.
All of the above and another 1,000 creative ways to teach involvement and generosity can (and in my view should) be added to a Jewish studies curriculum that creates practical significance based on abstract values.
Because only if these values – charity and mercy, helping others and mutual respect – will be learned through hands-on practice, via constant action, they have a chance of becoming a part of the perception of students. If they remain texts on paper, they will remain inexplicable and meaningless like trigonometry formulae or yet another boring civics class where we learn how the government machine works, yet we don’t learn how to operate it ourselves through the power of our citizenship.
Social Judaism – if someone will show interest in it – can have an integral and organic place at secular schools, rather than a forced episode once a week. Annual trips don’t have to include a visit to a shopping mall in another city; instead they can incorporate experiential learning of the daily lives of our forefathers.
Jewish holidays do not need to remain in the notebook when they can become Passover or Tu B’Shvat Seders at school that are held here and there with great success. Meanwhile, the annals of Jewish heritage are not supposed to be a collection of wise statements uttered by sages who died a long time ago; instead, we can start with “love they neighbor as you love thyself” and translate this difficult and demanding kind of love into practice in the lives of individuals who are part of a group and a community.
Perhaps this will not create a large group of worshippers, but it will certainly create a group of young people who encounter the old-new values of social justice, tolerance, and the supreme duty to be better people – also because of their Jewishness.