The most delicious compliments of all are those that are least expected. A line in a recent column by Ha’aretz’s Shahar Ilan falls into that category.
Ilan has long been Israel’s most influential anti-chareidi journalist in Israel. No other journalist ever focused on the chareidi community with his laser-like intensity or his unremitting animus.
Two weeks ago, Ilan wrote a scathing column on Israeli youth. Israeli parents, he wrote, have raised a generation ‘’that thinks only that it deserves things, expects everything to be done for them, and does not know how to do things for others." Israeli youth, in his opinion, has no respect for adults and certainly not for their parents. They read nothing, have no idea of what is going on in the country, and could care less.
"Television has taught them that the greatest ambition in life is not a career, nor to have an impact on or change the world, and not even to be important and powerful, but simply to be famous," he writes. They are interested in nothing other than "celebrities."
Israeli parents are guilty of raising children who view them as little more than a transportation company. One survey found that only 58% of teenagers think that youths respect their parents, and Ilan surmises that the majority of those must be religious and Arabs.
He is no more sparing of the education system than of parents. "We have an education system that doesn’t expect anything from the children, and thinks they are allowed to do a lot. Yes, that’s also what the children think, that they’re allowed to do a lot of things." Meanwhile 43% of Israeli youth don’t read books at all. And according to the principal of the prestigious Herzilya Gymnasium, they "don’t know Hebrew."
All this might be forgiven, says Ilan, if only our self-absorbed youth were at least happy. But they aren’t. And as a consequence, they are easy prey for those offering a return to religious observance. (Perhaps this is Ilan’s real gripe.) "Zionism," he acknowledges, "was unable to build a new and updated system of values." As a consequence, "There are those who envy religious education – not the content and values in it – but the fact that it actually instills values."
Grudgingly, Ilan finds himself one of the envious. Religious education is a model. He notes approvingly the creation of the first secular hesder yeshiva. A decade ago, such a thing would have sounded like a joke, writes Ilan. "Today it is a given." He calls for the creation of a whole network of new schools, within the state educational system, that will instill values. And what would the students learn in these schools: "a lot of Bible, a lot of history of the land of Israel and its geography, a lot of Jewish history, and a lot of philosophy."
Ilan is only the latest in the line of sharp critics of Israeli education. Nor is he the first to locate the failures of the educational system in the context of a larger societal breakdown. Three years ago, Maariv editor Amnon Dankner wrote of the terrifying cultural vacuum that increases decade by decade in the school system, just as it grown in society in general."
It is useless, wrote Dankner, to expect discipline or respect for authority from youth when those qualities are antithetical to everything they experience at home, on the street, or view on television. Dankner said explicitly, what Shahar Ilan can only hint at: the source of the ills described is that modern Israeli society has broken with its "magnificent Jewish heritage," and found nothing to substitute in its place.
Dankner and Ilan are right to relate the failures of Israeli education to a vacuum of values. In a society lacking any clearly defined values, the loss of respect for elders and teachers follows inevitably. For if the elder generation has nothing in which it believes and is passionately committed to transmitting, why should the younger generation view it with respect?
The recently proposed reforms for the educational system included having students stand for teachers, as is standard in Torah schools, and dress codes for teachers so that they stop making themselves ridiculous by aping the dress of those whom they are supposed to be teaching. But the outer forms of respect and respectability can achieve little when the inner core is absent.
In a Torah educational system, by contrast, teachers and parents are honored for possessing a body of knowledge and wisdom to which the young aspire.
Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky, zt’l, was once seated on a plane next to Yerucham Meshel, then the secretary-general of the Histadrut. At the end of the flight, Meshel expressed his amazement at the way Reb Yaakov’s son and granddaughter kept coming to talk to him and were so solicitous of his needs. Meshel confessed that he only rarely saw his own children and grandchildren.
Reb Yaakov explained to him, "You believe in Darwin. In your children’s eyes, you are just one generation closer to the apes than they are. But for us, the central event in history was the moment when Hashem spoke to the entire Jewish people at Sinai. . . . My children and grandchildren honor me as being closer to that Revelation. They view me as someone who had contact with spiritual giants beyond their comprehension, and therefore attribute to me a wisdom and spiritual sensitivity that they lack."
Clear proof of the transformative effect of a Torah-based education on secular Israeli kids is now at hand. Two years ago, SHUVU (a nationwide system of schools for children from Russian-speaking families) created its first school for children from secular Israeli families in Kfar Saba. The school opened with 25 students. This year it has 130, and expects at least 250 next year. Flush with that success, SHUVU opened a kindergarten in Holon this year also for secular Israeli children. That kindergarten will become a full school next year, with 200 students already registered.
Among the parents in SHUVU’s Kfar Saba school is Ziv Barnea, one of Israel’s top public relations experts. Desperate for some alternative to the mainstream educational system, he already sent his older child to a local "democracy school." But that proved a disappointment. Not ready to give up on instilling his children with some concrete values, he sent his next daughter to the SHUVU school, and is delighted. He even remarks with pride that she is teaching him the blessings on food.
More on SHUVU’s exciting educational initiative in the future.