All education is political. Jewish education should be too.
All education is political — and so it should be.
For some readers, this statement will not feel new. But I imagine for others, it might be rather startling. But consider at their very basic level, education systems are established and supported by governmental entities in order to perpetuate the society in which they are located. The values of a given society are made explicit through the curriculum that its schools teach, the ways in which educators are trained, the location and building of its schools, and the ways students are assessed.
At their very core, schools exist in order to transmit knowledge and skills to younger generations so that they can become good citizens and stewards of the societies in which they live.
So, if it’s true that education is inherently political, then it should follow that all good education includes good civics in a substantive manner and advances a polity for the better.
For 21st century education to be relevant and meaningful, then it must empower our youth to be active and vibrant members of the societies in which they live.
The same holds for Jewish education.
For Jewish education to be meaningful and relevant in today’s political climate, we must commit to applying our tradition and wisdom to the greater society in which we live. This involves bringing together voices that will push us to address the big questions we are all asking ourselves these days.
In other words, Jewish education cannot solely impact people’s “Jewish identities.” If all we are doing is teaching our youth how to be more Jewish, then we are failing to provide them some of Judaism’s greatest wisdom. Our youth and their families must learn and understand how being Jewish can contribute to the discourse and their understanding of the world in which we live.
In today’s political climate, in the weeks leading up to an election where the stakes are high, this is not just a theoretical application of core Jewish values to issues of citizenship. Jewish educators need to be supported in such a manner where they do not avoid educating about certain issues because they are fearful of being labeled partisan. Judaism has core values and core principles, and they are neither red nor blue.
Our students should be taught that “dina d’malkhuta dina” — the law of the land is the law. They should be encouraged to understand that this Jewish value is critical to one’s obligation and responsibilities to the society in which one resides. In a democracy, that means that all citizens should be free to vote, able to vote, and have their vote counted.
Our students should also be taught that political debate and argument are important; they must be encouraged. Our students should also know that all discourse that takes place “l’shem shamayim” — for the sake of the heavens — and in the spirit of Hillel and Shammai’s many disagreements, must occur with civility, respect, and without threat of violence or retribution.
Our students should be taught that even though they are too young to vote, they still have a critical role to play in the world. They should also be presented with adult role models who guide our learners, “al pi darkho” — according to their ways, so that they can become the good citizens they are supposed to become.
Especially now during this pandemic moment, our students must be taught all of this with the utmost consideration of “pikuach nefesh” — saving of lives. In the same way that we are able to affirm without political consideration that our students have a right to a safe education in schools without guns, we can also affirm that part of our collective civic duty today is to create education settings that adhere to and reflect strict social distancing, mask wearing and obedience to crucial health regulations.
Our Jewish educators are heroes not just because they rise every morning and do holy work, but because they often do so by putting themselves ahead of their students. As if their duties this year weren’t enormous already, in this election year we add to their responsibilities the critical one of their civic responsibility.
The stakes are high, because the issues are real. Jewish educators are serving their students, families, and our community when they lean into the most critical political and social issues of our day, even if it’s challenging to do so, with the wisdom and teachings of our great tradition.
David Bryfman, PhD, is CEO of the Jewish Education Project and will be voting in his first national election as an American citizen. He hosts the livecast Adapting: The Future of Jewish Education.
This op-ed originally appeared in The Forward.