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October 8, 2015 | 25th Tishrei 5776

New Jews III

December 21, 2003
Marc Rosenstein

When I took Education 101 at HUC-JIR, years ago, I was struck by a very interesting phenomenon in the history of Reform Jewish education: the impossibility of transmitting the experience of the revolutionary generation to their descendants. The early reformers were raised and educated, of course, as traditional Jews. Influenced by the spirit of the times, they -- as adults -- went through a process of deciding what of the tradition to retain -- and what to jettison; what was meaningful and what had become obsolete or empty. And they developed an ideology that placed a positive value on that process, making it a centerpiece of Reform Jewish identity. However, their children were not able to experience the same process, for their education, both formal and non-formal, began from the new baseline established by the first generation. A child raised with no exposure to various traditional practices and texts cannot really make a free and rational decision to accept or reject them. Thus Reform practice became a kind of orthodoxy; the revolution could not be reenacted in every generation. Indeed, quite the contrary: a movement grew up, with institutions, practices, prayerbooks, textbooks -- an establishment; and establishments do not like revolutions except for the ones that took place long ago and created the basis for the establishment.

This very same phenomenon can be observed in the history of the Zionist movement and its fulfillment in Israel. The educators who founded the Zionist education system came from traditional backgrounds. They grew up in the Jewish communities of late 19th century Eastern Europe. Moved by the winds of secularism, socialism, and nationalism blowing across Europe, they rejected the Judaism of their upbringing, and became the first New Jews -- deeply knowledgeable in the classical sources, but opting to live a new type of life in a new type of community. Their experience, however, was unique: it could not be reproduced for their pupils. The rich Jewish experience, the traditional community against which they rebelled -- but which was nevertheless part of their identity -- was experienced by the next generation as readings in a school anthology, distant, a bit exotic, a bit ridiculous.

And as with the Reform movement, so too Zionism became an establishment, no longer interested in creating an upheaval in Jewish life and a renewal of Jewish history, but rather in preventing upheavals and in assuring the loyalty of the next generation to the new orthodoxy of Zionist civil religion. The teachers went from being agents of change to being agents of conservation -- and their status, in the eyes of the public and in their own eyes, diminished accordingly. After all, they are no longer the bearers of a radical vision, but rather functionaries of the state, charged with serving the interests of the state (as in any state educational system anywhere): imparting economically useful knowledge, and fostering the character traits required of good citizens in a stable society. They are caught in a constant cross fire between budget cuts, standardized tests and public outcry over the results, and arbitrary directives from the Ministry of Education (e.g., to fly the flag, to intensify teaching of Jewish tradition, to prevent student violence, etc.).

I guess we can't blame anyone for today's teachers' unwillingness or inability to play the role of cultural leaders and public intellectuals. It's not their fault or even "the system's" fault; it is a situation dictated by historical processes. No society can live in a constant state of revolution. That's reality. I just can't completely bring myself to accept it.


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