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November 24, 2014 | 2nd Kislev 5775

Reform Reflections: Put Religion into Israel's Schools

by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

A number of years ago, a group of high school principals came to visit the United States under the auspices of the American Jewish Committee. The AJC invited 3 rabbis – Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox – to meet with the educators, most of whom were secular, in order to discuss with them Jewish religious life. I was the Reform representative, and when the three of us had finished talking, the principals attacked us with great fury.

Since all of us had spoken about commitment to Torah and Jewish religion, the differences among us were of no importance; we were all religious apologists in their eyes. As secular Jews, they were angry that we did not accept their view that a secular approach to Judaism was every bit as valid as a religious one.

At the time, I was stunned. Had the Jewish people created a Jewish state and rebuilt Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people, so that Jewish children in the “State (secular) school system” could be taught that Jewish religion was useless superstition?

The “State religious school system” does, of course, teach Jewish religion, but I read not long after that a significant number of children in this system do not believe it important that Israel be a democratic state.

The time has come to reform Israel’s balkanized education system. In every democratic country in the world, there are public schools that teach students their national language, the principles of democracy, and the values that their nation cherishes. Private schools exist as well, paid for by parents, with or without government support, but these schools too are required to teach national values and the fundamentals of democracy.

In Israel, however, there are three separate school systems for Jews: secular, religious, and independent (for ultra-Orthodox children). Subject matter is taught in different languages and reflects a variety of values—sometimes anti-democratic, sometimes anti-Zionist, and sometimes anti-Jewish. Nonetheless, the State of Israel continues to support all of these schools, with minimal supervision.
I have a humble suggestion: Let the State of Israel create a core curriculum for all its schools. Its purpose would be to tie all Jews in the Jewish state to each other and to the Jewish people throughout the world, and to strengthen the central symbols and democratic values of the State of Israel. It would be pluralistic and tolerant, but openly and assertively Jewish and rooted in Jewish religious tradition.

It would address religious values and practice in a way that would aspire to transcend ideology and historical circumstance. As a core curriculum, it would occupy only a segment of instruction time, leaving each school system free to teach the remaining subjects in its own way; but the core elements would be required in every Jewish school in Israel, and would be available, in adapted form, for use in Diaspora Jewish schools (which, of course, have their own educational problems).

Would we not agree that Jewish children in Israel should value democracy and be positively inclined toward Jewish religion, Jewish culture, and Jewish peoplehood? If so, then these values must be taught in all Israeli schools.

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