Sunday, February 15, 2015

The debate over public school vs yeshiva education

I have an essay for you. If you don’t live in Israel, you’ve probably not seen it. If you do live in Israel, you may have seen it.

It’s from a weekly mini-magazine called, Torah Tidbits. This small magazine is published each week to give insights into that week’s Torah Portion. This essay comes from last week’s edition. It covers the Torah Portion, Mishpatim (Sh’mot  21:1-24:18). It’s titled, “Mishpatim: ‘Responsibility’” (Torah Tidbits, Number 1124, pp. 20-22, February 13-14, 2015). Its author is Rabbi Dr Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Executive VP Emeritus, The Orthodox Union.

It’s been lightly edited:

I have to thank my dear parents, may they rest in peace, for many things. I must especially thank them for having chosen to provide me with a yeshiva day school education.

This was not an obvious choice back in the 1940’s, for few parents chose the day school option. Indeed, many of their friends advised them against depriving me of a public school education, and the cost of tuition was a great strain on my father’s meagre income. But I remember my mother insisting that she wanted to teach me ‘responsibility’, and her belief was that I would learn it best in a Jewish school.

Looking back on my early school years, I certainly cannot recall any lessons specifically devoted to ‘responsibility’. Learning the Alef-BET [Hebrew alphabet] and then going on to study the fascinating stories of B’reisheit [the first of the five Book of Moses] were certainly interesting and exciting to me. But in those early grades, the concept of responsibility never came up, at least not explicitly.

In the school I attended, Talmud study began in the fifth of sixth grade. It was then that I first heard the word, ‘responsibility’ in the classroom and began to learn what it really meant.

We were introduced to Talmud study with selected passages in the tractates Bava Kama and Bava Metzia. The passages we studied were almost exclusively based upon verses found in this week’s Torah Portion, Mishpatim. And the single dominant theme of [Mishpatim] is unarguably, responsibility.

I look back on my first exposure to Talmud and to Mishpatim as studied through its lenses, and remember the teacher admonishing us, ‘a person is responsible for all of his actions, deliberate or unintentional, purposeful or accidental, awake or asleep’. It was a direct quote from the Talmud, but he emphatically conveyed to us that it was also a formula for life.

And, furthermore, it was a lesson derived from [the Torah Portion] Mishpatim. Read it, even superficially, and you will learn that we are all not only responsible for our own actions, but also for the actions of the animals we own. We are responsible for damage caused by our possessions if we leave them in a place where someone might trip over them and harm himself. We are responsible not only to compensate those whom we have harmed for the damages they suffered, but are also responsible to compensate them for lost employment or for health-care costs that were incurred by whatever harm we caused them.

What a revelation to a ten year-old boy! How many ten year-olds in other educational settings were exposed to these high ethical standards? Certainly not the boys in the park with whom I played stickball, whose parents had not opted for a day school education for them.

Even today, many criticize the curriculum of the type of education that I experienced. They point to the many verses in [Mishpatim] that speak of one ox goring another and question the contemporary relevance of such arcane legalities.

But when I studied about my responsibility for my oxen and the consequences which applied if my ox gored you, or your slave, or your ox, I was living in Brooklyn where I had certainly seen neither oxen nor slaves. But I do not at all recall being troubled by that, nor were any of my classmates.

Rather, we easily internalized the underlying principles of those passages. We understood that all the laws of oxen were relevant even for us Brooklyn Dodger fans. We got the message: each of us is responsible for the well-being of the other, be he a free man or the slave of old. We are not only to take care that we avoid harming another, but we are to take care that our possessions, be they farm animals, pets or mislaid baseball bats, do not endanger those around us.

There was so much more that we learned about responsibility from those elementary, yet strikingly related, Talmud passages. For example, we learned that a priest guilty of a crime was to be held responsible and brought to justice, even if that meant ‘taking him down from the sacrificial altar’. No sacrificial altars in Brooklyn, then or now. But plenty of people in leadership positions try to use their status to avoid responsibility for their actions.

We learned that it was perfectly permissible to borrow objects from our friends and neighbours, but that we were totally responsible to care for those objects. We learned that if those objects were somehow damaged, even if that damage was not due to our negligence, we had to compensate the object’s owner. Yes, we learned to borrow responsibly, but we also learned the importance of lending our possessions to others, especially others less fortunate than ourselves….

And we learned to be responsible for our very words, and to distance ourselves from lies and falsehoods.

All this from a grade school introductory study of Talmud!

How valuable our Torah is as a guide to a truly ethical life, and how fortunate those of us who learned these lessons early in life..!

My Comment:

I had the same experience. Back in the 1950’s, my parents also made the unusual (for the period) decision to send me to a yeshiva day school. In the 1980’s-90’s, I made the same decision for my own children.

Many of my parents’ friends—and, later in life, my own friends—advised that a yeshiva day school education was a bad choice for our children. It just wasn’t good enough. A child, these people insisted, was disadvantaged by not going to public school.

You see, they argued, the yeshiva day school (which took us into and/or through High School) didn’t have the best textbooks, the best labs or the best selection of advanced secular studies. It didn’t have the best teachers. The yeshiva day school would limit a child’s ability to get into the best colleges. The day school wouldn’t prepare a child to deal successfully with a multicultural society, etc.

I went through the day school track. I didn’t suffer. Neither, I think, did my children.

I prefer to think that my children benefitted from their religious, non-public education. Have you seen a public school environment lately? That’s the place you go to learn that you should explore your sexuality with others so you’ll learn which sexual orientation best fits you. You won’t get that in a yeshiva day school.

The public school is the place you go to learn that you can’t judge an act of terror because who’s to say that that person didn’t have a really good reason to kill? You won’t get that in a yeshiva day school.

What you will get in that poor, under-privileged yeshiva day school is different: you’ll learn, as an eleven and twelve year-old, about responsibility. You’ll learn, as a thirteen and fourteen year-old, how to make life-affirming decisions, and about compassion. You'll learn, as a fifteen and sixteen year-old, about capital punishment—what it is and how careful a court must be when judging a capital case.

The yeshiva day school versus public school: there’s no comparison. Indeed, some of today’s finest doctors, dentists, lawyers, judges and scientists came from a yeshiva day school education. Given the tiny number of Americans who have actually passed through the yeshiva day school experience, I’d say that the record of achievement for day school grads is impressive. The yeshiva day school has nothing to be ashamed of.

The public schools, meanwhile, would seem to have a lot to answer for.

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