Maybe it’s because I turned 55 this summer. Maybe it’s because my youngest graduated from college, and I’m done paying tuitions (I think). Maybe it’s because—how shall I say this—we are not always in full agreement with the choices our three young adult children are making…
Whatever the reason, this is “my year of letter writing.” This is what I’ve decided to do: Write all four of my High Holiday sermons in the form of a Letter to My Children. I’ve certainly never done that before. All four sermons, you say? Four letters? Well yes, I’ve got a lot to say! And I believe that the themes I will touch upon, education, identity, community, and empathy, are relevant to our community in general and these High Holydays in particular.
Point of clarification: when I say “my children” I don’t only mean my own. I really mean “our children” in the broadest collective sense. My sons and daughter… and yours. My message is to our Jewish youth today, for the sake of their future tomorrow. Over the years I’ve always thought of all the students I teach, b’nei mitzvah, confirmation, post-confirmation, as “my kids.” In fact sometimes I would refer to them as such and confuse Debby. This is for all my kids, even if addressed some of the time to my own.
My Dear Children,
If you talk to your grandfather, or anyone of his generation, who grew up the child of immigrants, who grew up during the Depression, who grew up walking to school so he could save the nickel it cost to ride the trolley… education was everything. Your grandfather was told by his father, “bury your head in the books.” He was told “a degree is your passport to a better life.” He was told “without education you are nothing,” and “I want for you what I didn’t have for myself.”
This first letter to you is all about education.
Regretfully, you did not know your great grandparents, save for one. You did not hear firsthand their immigrant saga. You did not imbibe their epic journey to a new land, their monumental struggles, their Yiddish inflections, their fierce pride in their Judaism in the face of endemic anti-Semitism.
You know a bit more about your grandparents’ story, the so called “greatest generation” because they sacrificed so much in the defense of this country, during the Second World War and Korean War, and then returned home to build America into the greatest country in the world. Your grandfathers did this through sheer guts and determination, but also by being given one of the greatest and wisest gifts in American history—the GI Bill. Hundreds of thousands put themselves through school studying during the day and working at night, or studying at night and working during the day… and often while raising families. They cherished their education and venerated the schools that bestowed the skills they would need to succeed.
And they excelled. Let me express a little bit of ethnic pride here. Jewish students were represented all out of proportion in select city high school like the Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant. And the young Jewish graduates that poured out of schools of higher education like City College and Brooklyn College (both of which were attended by your grandfather) were the top engineers, the sharpest lawyers, the most astute accountants, the most gifted teachers, the most brilliant mathematicians, the most daring scientists. They were hungry to succeed, and nothing was handed to them on a silver platter. They wanted to get ahead, for sure, but they also wanted to give back to society by realizing their highest potential.
You are fourth generation Americans. Now, I have a thesis about that, which has preoccupied me for some time. The fourth generation of American Jews has no direct connection to the immigrant experience. You did not spend your childhood, like me, making the monthly trip into Brooklyn from Westchester County, every month and every holiday. You did not hear, over and over again, the stories of coming to America, surviving the Depression, fighting to build a better life. You did not see the tiny home crammed with graduation pictures, from high school, from college, and the copies of the diplomas: the bachelor’s degree, the masters degree, and the doctorate.
As fourth generation American Jews you were born and raised in the comfortable climes of middle to upper middle class suburbia. You were shuttled from one extra-curricular activity to another. You did not need a paying job during the school year. You did not have to leave school early to support your family. Your college tuition was covered. You graduated debt free.
Part of my thesis as it relates to education, is that when you don’t have to fight for something you value it less. You are likely unaware that the children of immigrant Jews like your grandparents were so high achieving that beginning in the 1920’s many of the elite universities in the country instituted quotas to limit the number of Jewish students. Sociologist Jerome Karabel documents that these Jewish quotas at Harvard, Yale and Princeton were not lifted until the 1960s.
Forgive me for saying so, but your generation of American Jews has lost its edge when it comes to education. Asian Americans now comprise the highest achieving ethnic group at Bronx Science and Stuyvesant, the highest cohort of National Merit Scholars and valedictorians. Many are second or third generation Americans and thus have the direct connection to the immigrant generation, not to mention the zealous, demanding parenting as described in the bestselling Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. A generation ago that book would have been Battle Hymn of the Jewish Mother.
Jewish culture venerates learning and celebrates educational achievement. As American Jews have slipped away from their Judaism they have also slipped away from academic excellence. I read a fascinating book over the summer. Permit me a few minutes of historical digression. The book, by social economists Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein, is entitled, The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History. Their thesis is simple and daring: The fate of the Jews is linked to their level of education. When the Temple and the Jewish homeland were destroyed by the Romans in the year 70, Judaism shifted from a small elite of priests offering sacrifices for the masses to a dispersed community of rabbis and lay leaders who demanded participation and accountability from the common man.
The authors write:
Rabbi and scholars transformed Judaism into a religion whose main norm required every Jewish man to read and to the study the Torah in Hebrew himself and, even more radically, to send his sons from the age of six or seven to primary school or synagogue to learn to do the same. In the world of universal illiteracy, as it was at the beginning of the first millennium, this was an absolutely revolutionary transformation. At that time, no other religion had a similar norm as a membership requirement for its followers, and no state or empire had anything like laws imposing compulsory education or universal literacy for its citizens.
The authors go on to explain an intriguing phenomenon. While the Jews remained primarily farmers in an agrarian society under Rome their numbers drastically declined. As they point out, in this rural economy educating the children as Judaism requires is a cost but brings no economic benefits because literacy does not make a farmer "more productive or wealthier." What we don’t like to talk about is that sizable numbers of Jews opted out of Judaism in the first centuries of the Common Era, when our population dropped from 5.5 million circa the year 65 to roughly 1.2 million circa 650.
Then the Jewish world radically changed again with the conquest of the Muslims. Their vast empire saw the rapid growth of urban centers, and the establishment of new industries and commerce. These changes vastly increased the demand for skilled and literate occupations. The Jews answered the call and filled the void. In the next two and half centuries 75% of the world’s Jews, in Mesopotamia and Persia, left agriculture and moved to cities and towns. The Chosen Few argues that the literacy and education skills of the Jews gave them such an advantage and incentive that as Jews spread throughout North Africa, Spain, and Christian Europe that they put a premium on advanced education and networking.
The authors conclude,
The rabbis and scholars who transformed Judaism into a religion of literacy during the first centuries of the millennium could not have foreseen the profound impact of their decision to make every Jewish man capable of reading and studying…. an apparently odd choice of religious norm-the enforcement of literacy in a mostly illiterate, agrarian world… turned out to be the lever of Jewish economic success and intellectual prominence in the subsequent centuries up to today.
So much for the history lesson… My question to our children today is: Do you have the hunger for learning that distinguished your forbears? Do you have the passion for wisdom that defined your culture? Do you have the commitment to Jewish literacy? Do you have the commitment to general literacy? Is your thirst for knowledge or for some other drink? Is your appetite for understanding or for some other pursuit?
You’re into making money, so let’s talk about that for a second. Level of education still matters. There is a direct correlation between educational attainment and lifetime earnings. Today a high school dropout cannot expect to make a million dollars during their entire working career. A high school graduate can expect to earn $1.4 million. A college graduate: nearly double that, $2.4 million. A master’s degree holder, add another half million. A doctorate- it jumps to $3.5. And the highest of all, a professional degree… lifetime earnings of $4.2 million dollars.
Your secular education matters. And your religious education matters. In part because of the connection I just talked about. Studying Judaism instills a love of learning. And in part because religious learning does something secular learning cannot do, or at least cannot do fully—teach you how to be how to be a mensch.
This past May our youngest son Noam remembers that we sat in the rain as he graduated from Rutgers (magna cum laude I will add). He didn’t really pay attention to the commencement speaker, a recently retired NJ Supreme Court Justice, in part because she went on too long after saying she would not go on too long. But I reminded him of one thing that I found worthwhile. She recalls that when she got her first exam back from the Catholic school she attended (which she aced), her teacher, a nun, wrote on her test: "Good job. Be smart. Be good."
Love learning because it sharpens your mind, and your heart. Cherish your secular and religious education because it makes you a more informed citizen, and a more compassionate one. Strive for academic excellence not because of the awards it will bring but the insights it will bestow.
There’s a classic teaching in our tradition which lists some of the dearest ethical commandments of Judaism and then remarkably concludes with the expression v’talmud torah c’neged kulam, “but the study of Torah is the greatest of them all.”
Why does the Talmud say that study is the greatest? The sages reply: because it leads to all the rest of the commandments… to learning them and observing them.
So on this Rosh Hashanah I say to you, my children, and all the young people here: don’t stop learning. Don’t drop out after bar/bat mitzvah. Don’t stop after confirmation. Pledge yourself to lifelong learning as a Jew. Need a good book? Just ask me.
Don’t stop learning in your secular studies. Excel in high school, shine in college, pursue the advanced degree… and then keep learning in your profession and in general. Your education is not a burden; it is a privilege. And your great grandparents, the ones who did not have the opportunity you have, were right. It is a passport to a better life, in more ways than one.
Your great grandfather told your grandfather to bury his head in the books. He did so… and think about how we benefit from that to this day.
So I will conclude this first letter by wishing you on this Rosh Hashanah not only a shana tova u’metukah, a good and sweet new year, but a shana tova v’haskalah, a good and educational new year.