Education as the foundation stone of continuous Jewish identity

Most Jewish educators would agree that education – or to be precise, Jewish education – is the foundation for continuous Jewish identity.

That’s why Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who also happens to be the Minister for Diaspora Affairs, invited 120 principals of Jewish schools from around the world to come to Israel to discuss mutual challenges and to figure how to collectively and individually promote an interest in Jewish education as an insurance policy for Jewish continuity.

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At a reception held at the President’s Residence on Sunday evening, Bennett used his own family as an example.

His parents Myrna and Jim were from San Francisco, far removed from Judaism and radically far left in their politics. They were members of the Peace Corps and ardent fighters for human rights, especially for the equal rights of Afro-Americans. On the latter score, Bennett was very proud of his parents, but he was almost afraid to think of what kind of life he would have led had they stayed in America.

But along came 1967 and the Six Day War, and some spark of Judaism stirred in his parents’ hearts.

All of a sudden this tiny state called Israel, barely 19 years in existence, was under attack. Bennett’s parents spent days glued to their radio and the television set. When it was over, they took the first civilian flight to Israel. What compelled them to do so Bennett could not say, but whatever it was, it turned out to be a life-changing decision. Bennett is now a religiously observant Jew and the head of a rightwing religious party. Without the war, he might have grown up to be a mindless hippie with little or no conscious regard for Judaism.

President Reuven Rivlin told the visiting school principals that throughout history, the Jewish people regarded education as a pre-condition for the existence of a healthy society – a society that learns from the past, applies what it learns to the present and draws conclusions for the future.

“The investment in education for every Jew must begin at the time of their birth and continue into their old age,” he said.

Placing additional emphasis on the importance of education, Rivlin declared: “There will be no Jewish People without good and strong education.”

He charged his guests with the responsibility for the future of the Jewish people, and cited the Lauder Reut School in Bucharest, Romania, as a fine example. Not only has it been at the heart of educating Jewish identity, he said, “but it has become one of the most respected schools in all of Romania.”

TURNING TO the realities in Israel, Rivlin lamented that young people from the different sectors of the population do not grow up together in the same educational frameworks. They have different identities and different ideas about the future of the country.

He said that: “We educate them in different schools, but together with the Education Ministry we are working to bridge the gaps between these groups, to build understanding and to educate them about partnership in society.”

Rivlin – who tends to refer to the different sectors as the four tribes – refers to Diaspora Jewry as the fifth tribe, which he said also has a crucial part to play in teaching about the shared destiny of the Jewish people, who are all responsible for one another.

Bennett also focused on the role of Diaspora Jewry, saying that in the early years of the state, the fundamental identity of Israel was based on the Holocaust, and the Jewish state was a shelter. “But it should not be a shelter for Jews,” he contended. “It’s a home.”

For today’s youth, he noted, the Holocaust doesn’t have the connotations that it did for their parents and grandparents.

Nor for that matter does the Jewish state, which for a hundred years before its existence was the central focus of the Jewish world, with people sending money for the purchase of land, the sustenance of the Jewish population and the setting up of communities. Later during the War of Independence, Jews came from many countries to fight as volunteers.

In those days Israel was weak and relied on the Jewish Diaspora for support.

“Now we are strong and it’s our turn to take care of the Jewish people,” said Bennett.

Israel has two important missions, he said. The first is the security of the nation and defending it from Iranian missiles. The second is the relationship between the Jews of the world and the State of Israel.

Bennett said that there are eight million Jews in the Diaspora, and admitted that Israel doesn’t have all the answers and doesn’t really know how to formulate a proper partnership with its brothers and sisters there.

“How do we insure that your grandchildren and their grandchildren will remain Jewish?” he asked. He then pointed out that no matter where they live in the world, Jews face similar challenges – “so let’s face them together. It can’t just be about history. It also has to be about destiny.”