We are currently experiencing a crisis of Jewish education. To lay the facts out as simply as possible:
With all of this being the case, it is instructive to rethink why we have Jewish day school at all. To illustrate, consider the Chinuch that Moreinu V’Rabbineu Rav Soloveitchik received:
In 1913, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik became the Rabbi of Chaslavitch in White Russia. His son Yoshe-Ber, or Berel, later to become “The Rav” was a young boy at the time. Then, as now, Jewish education was of paramount importance, and as such, Berel was sent to learn in the cheder of Reb Baruch Reisberg, a Lubavitcher chosid. (The Rav would often reflect upon the value of his early chassidic education saying that without this exposure to Chassidus he would never have known the difference between one Yom Tov and the next.)
But it soon became apparent to his mother, Rabbanit Pesia, that shortly after the parents had brought their children to the cheder, the Rebbe would tell the boys to put away the Gemaros and take out their Tanya.
She was so bothered by this that she brought the matter to her father-in-law, the great Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, who agreed to test his grandson on what he was learning, so as to ascertain the extent of the problem. Reb Chaim turned to his grandson and asked “what are you learning?”, and as young Berel opened his mouth, the words of the Tanya rolled out with nary a word of Talmud.
Reb Chaim called his son over, and instructed Rav Moshe: “You must take personal charge over Berel’s education.” And so it was, that the Rav’s primary teacher of Talmud for the next 10 years, was his own father, a privilege that he benefited from and spoke about his entire life.
Reb Chaim’s point, is that at it’s core, the obligation Chinuch, of education children, is a personal parental duty. This obligation is described by the Torah in the second paragraph of Shema in our parsha: וְלִמַּדְתֶּם אֹתָם אֶת בְּנֵיכֶם לְדַבֵּר בָּם - “You shall teach these words to your children to speak of them”. Practically, this means that every parent is obligated to ensure that their children are technically proficient in Torah, such that they can (at minimum) perform all of the Mitzvos of the Torah in which they are obligated with consistency and accuracy. Inclusive in this mandatory curriculum is that a child has a correct hierarchy of Torah and life values, that will reflect the way they live, work and participate in society. (ע׳ אגרות משה ח״ח עמ׳ מח - סימן י״ד).
The continuation of the Pasuk commands parents to educate our children בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ בְּבֵיתֶךָ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ בַדֶּרֶךְ - when you are at home and when you are traveling. Reb Yehoshua of Belz explains that this obligation is in the second person. When you are at home, your children should learn with you, so that when you are unavailable, out on the road, they have the skills and motivation to learn themselves. That’s the goal of
So why do we have Jewish day schools? Because not every parent has the time, knowledge and wherewithal to successfully educate their children. To that end, we hire professionals to help us perform this essential and fundamental mitzvah. The obligation of paying tuition to achieve this goal is codified by the Rambam (הלכות תלמוד תורה א:ג). Of course, if a parent can personally provide adequate education to their children, they have no obligation to pay tuition. That being said, I do not know many people today that have the right mix of educational expertise and available time to absolve them of obligation to hire teachers for their children. There are not many Rav Moshe Soloveitchiks around.
Now, Coronovirus has created a situation where the normative infrastructure of Jewish Day Schools is compromised. So where to from here? Currently, both parents and schools are all at a point of hoping and wishing that in-person school works out. But what happens if the hopes in wishes don’t work out? Best case scenario is that only a few teachers are laid off, and our children receive yet another sub-par educational experience. Worst case? Our schools join the growing list of institutions that did not survive COVID-19, leaving parents and communities to figure out Jewish education from scratch for years to come. (My dear friend on college Rabbi Philip Moskowitz addressed the untenability of such a scenario during Kinnos on Tisha B’av morning.)
We need to ensure that none of this comes to pass. To that end, here are a number of suggestions that go beyond hoping and wishing.
Essentially, if schools cannot (any whatever point) meet in-person on-campus, there are a host of conversations that need to be had. Parents, teachers, schools and administrators are going to need to make consessions and work flexibly to ensure that effective Chinuch can occur. The only thing that absolutely must notoccur is that schools go online, and parents withdraw their children or stop payments without deep conversations about how to do this better.
The Tifferes Shlomo writes that והיה עקב תשמעון means that we should listen at the end of time, in these days of עקבתא דמשיחא - the days just before Moshiach arrives. Because any mitzvah, great or small is so precious in the insanity of our world. When Moshiach will come, please God very soon, he will run through our communities with tears in his eyes picking up each and every one of our children, singing with them, dancing with them, and saying “Wow! Baruch Hashem, you managed to hold on to Torah and Yiddishkeit when so many others let go.”
Chevra, let’s hold on just a little while longer. For us, for our teachers and schools and communities. But most importantly, for our children, so that Moshiach will know to pick them up on the way to Yerushalayim.