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GRADE EXPECTATIONS

by Rabbi David Zauderer    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

The name of this week’s Torah portion is "Tzav", which means "command." Most of the Torah’s commandments are introduced with "say" or "speak." The sages explain that the more emphatic term, "command," implies that those who are being commanded are being urged to be especially zealous in performing this mitzvah, and that this exhortation must be repeated constantly to ensure its continuity in future generations.

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The name of this week’s Torah portion is "Tzav", which means "command." Most of the Torah’s commandments are introduced with "say" or "speak." The sages explain that the more emphatic term, "command," implies that those who are being commanded are being urged to be especially zealous in performing this mitzvah, and that this exhortation must be repeated constantly to ensure its continuity in future generations. The sages add that this exhortation is especially relevant to commandments that involve a monetary loss, such as with the elevation-offering mentioned in this verse.

This might seem like a trivial point, but I believe that this one small word, "tzav—command," talks to one of the most perplexing issues facing the American Jewish community today—that of Jewish continuity. As was widely reported in the Jewish press last year, a report on Jewish day school enrollment in the United States showed that virtually all Orthodox school-age children in America attend day schools, but barely 5 percent of non-Orthodox Jewish children do. Strange thing, isn’t it?

A few years ago, when everyone was getting all alarmed by the skyrocketing rate of assimilation and intermarriage amongst Jews in the U.S., Jewish federations and other important institutions commissioned studies to find solutions to the problem and all the studies pretty much agreed that one of the most potent ways of reversing this unfortunate trend was to enroll as many children as possible in Jewish day schools. So what happened?

Why is it that only 5 percent of the general Jewish population has picked up on the idea? Could it be that most Jews disagree with the findings of all those Jewish continuity studies? Has anyone yet come up with a better solution? Why has there been such a weak response to the call that was issued to the general Jewish public to enroll our children in Jewish day schools?

Maybe we need to take our cue from that small word "tzav." The Torah teaches us by using this word, that if we want to teach and impress upon our children Torah values and Jewish identity in a way that we can be sure will continue for future generations, we have to be especially zealous in our exhortation. Anything short of that will not do the trick. And especially when it involves a monetary loss. According to one estimate, even a modest doubling of non-Orthodox enrollment, to 10 percent, would require billions of dollars to build new classrooms and endow scholarships and train new teachers. Not to mention the lure of free public school education for those who don’t have the funds to pay for private school.

When you’re up against all this, it’s simply not enough to publish "studies" about the alarmingly high rates of assimilation and intermarriage. There has to be a "tzav"—a real push, a very determined, all-out effort on the part of all those who feel responsible for the future of our people to get those around us thinking about Jewish day schools.

And, who knows, maybe the "tzav"—the push we need—is coming from the media. I don’t know about you, but every time I read about another sixth-grader coming in to school with a handgun, I wonder how long it’s going to take for us to realize that some of the values out there are just not the same as the kinds of Jewish values our children can get in a Jewish day school environment.

How many Columbines and San Diegos do we have to read about until we start thinking that maybe it’s time that we sent our children to our own Jewish schools?

Now, to be sure, there are many schools out there—both public and private—which don’t have these types of problems occurring on a frequent basis. And, yes, there are some Jewish day schools in which can be found incidences of drugs and other bad types of behavior. But, generally speaking, to the extent that traditional Jewish values are stressed and Torah and mitzvah observance are taught in school, to that extent will there be a decrease in all the different problems one finds in the general population.

Is Jewish day school the answer?

The truth is that even enrolling our children in Jewish day school is not the end-all solution to the continuity problem. I can’t even begin to tell you how many Jewish adults I have come across in the past three years alone who have told me that they attended Jewish day school, and that it was the Jewish day school experience itself that turned them away from Judaism!

Maybe it was a bad teacher, or a feeling conveyed in the school that Judaism was just a bunch of rules, or one of a million other reasons why they were turned off and moved away from Judaism after their Jewish day school experience. And how about all the people whose parents sent them when they were kids to Hebrew school once a week, while all their other friends were playing in the park and having a good time. I have heard many Jews tell me how much they disliked that experience and were turned off because of it.

So, you see, just being in a Jewish day school environment is not always enough to instill a Jewish identity and pride in our children. It really depends on the type of experience the child will have upon attending a particular school.

How do you choose a Jewish day school?

Look for a school where the children are happy. Don’t worry so much about the facilities, worry more about the staff. Do they love teaching? Do they love their students? Will they fill your child with a feeling of awe and delight for Judaism? That’s what you’re looking for in a Jewish school. But if there are more rules than smiles, more honor rolls for grades than for good deeds, more tests than questioning, you’ve found a great private school, but not a great Jewish school.

In truth, the obligation for educating children is the parents’ responsibility. We only hire teachers to help us do our job. We have to take an interest in our children’s schoolwork and communicate with the teachers to reinforce the studies at home. Most importantly, if we are to succeed in instilling in our children a love for Judaism and a pride in their Jewish identity, we must convey to them the message that it is fun, exciting and wonderful to be Jewish and that we ourselves wouldn’t give it up for all the money in the world.

If, in our schools and in our homes, we only show our children the solemn face of Judaism—such as the fasting and long prayer service of Yom Kippur—but we never expose them to the fun and excitement of Purim or Simchat Torah, we might as well quit now. It will never work. But if we give our kids the feeling that being Jewish is great and really worthwhile, then there is at least a hope that our kids will grow up to be proud Jews who will one day bring us true Jewish "nachas—joy," instead of just being, G-d forbid, another statistic in a grim Jewish continuity study.

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Rabbi David Zauderer is a card-carrying member of the Atlanta Scholars Kollel.

You are invited to read more Parshat Tzav & Pekudei articles.

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