Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Jewish Education: USA vs. Israel

By Shmuel Sackett

This article will appear in the Aug. 24th edition of The Queens Jewish Link
Israel's school system has received a bad reputation. In my travels across the United States I have had many parents confide in me that that they would make Aliyah but are worried about their children's education. Dozens have even told me how their local Rabbonim told them to stay away from the Israeli educational system. This article is my response to those claims.
Let me begin by saying that we are not perfect. We have had our failures and our missed opportunities but focusing on these cases is like an alien who lands in a hospital. His report back home to Planet X is that everybody on earth is sick and dying. That is simply not the case.

Overall, the Israeli educational system beats American schools hands down. Let's examine it by the three major sectors of religious society: Secular (unaffiliated), Dati (modern Orthodox) and Haredi (including the "Yeshivish" crowd). Normally, I hate these labels but they are necessary for this article.

What kind of Jewish education does an unaffiliated, secular Jewish kid receive in America? The answer is one word: Nothing. He learns absolutely zero about his heritage, his people, his holidays and his culture. His entire academic career is limited to subjects such as math, science, history, reading comprehension and other assorted general studies. By the time he finishes 12th grade and is ready to enter university, he knows biology, has read Shakespeare, knows all about the Civil War and may even speak Spanish. Ask him when Purim is, where you put a Mezuzah and where the Bet Ha'Mikdash stood (and will once again stand very soon!) and he will have no idea at all. On the Israeli side, secular kids attend what is called "Mamlachti" (public) schools. The general studies education is on a super high level (just check out the Israeli hi-tech companies if you don't believe me) and while Jewish studies are weak they definitely have a basic-level knowledge of who they are and where they came from. They come to school a few days before Purim (not Halloween) in full costume, they are off on Chanukah (not Christmas), they make New Year's cards for Rosh Ha'Shanah (not January 1st) and much more. The score is therefore Israel – 1, USA – 0.

How about the Dati/Modern world? This is the world that I grew up in and know very well. For elementary school, I went to a modern Yeshiva in NY, called Yeshiva of Central Queens (YCQ). My high school (YHSQ) was similar. My education in those schools was solid and I appreciated the fact that the Jewish studies teachers in YCQ all spoke in Hebrew. This gave me a rock-solid foundation to be able to speak Hebrew very well and integrate quickly into Israeli society when I made Aliyah. But that was a long time ago. What is happening today? What level are these schools on in 2012? I am not talking about any particular school. I am referring to all of the "Modern Orthodox" world. Ask yourself these questions: By the time your son graduates 12th grade is he still learning Gemara with ArtScroll? How well does your 12th grade daughter know Tanach? Halacha? Be honest with your answer. In order to compare, let's not take the geniuses who excel. Let's take your average high school kid in a Modern Yeshiva day school in America and put him/her against an average high school kid from a "Mamlachti Dati Torani" (religious, Torah based public school) in Israel. I guarantee you the Israeli kid wins 9 out of 10 times in Torah subjects from Mishna and Gemara, to Tefilla and Halacha, to Hashkafa and Jewish history.

Trust me that I know what I'm talking about. I have spoken in 500 Jewish communities in America, Canada and England. I have spoken to tens of thousands of people and see what is happening. The focus today in the Modern Yeshiva day schools in America is getting a top score on the SAT's and being accepted into a good university. Generally, the kids who stay strong in their Jewish observance and learning are the ones who spend a year learning in Israel. Without this extra year, they would have been much weaker and far less serious in their Yiddishkeit. Therefore, when comparing "apples-to-apples"; the Modern/Dati schools in Israel vs the Modern/Dati schools in America, the score goes to 2-0 in favor of Israel.

For our final analysis, let's take a look at the more serious Yeshivot; the "black hat" world referred to as either Haredi, Chassidish or Yeshivish. (Did I tell you how I hate those labels? Oh yes, I wrote that already. Moving right along, then). A child in this world goes through 12 years of serious Torah learning and then much more after that. Many people would consider these Yeshivot as a tie between America and Israel. Both are strong and both are serious. A 17 year old young man from Bnei Brak is very capable in his Torah learning but so is a 17 year old young man from Lakewood. So do we have a tie? I am afraid not and here's why; With all due respect to the Lakewood talmid, the Bnei Brak fellow is far stronger in his knowledge of Hebrew. This allows him to learn much better without struggling through a "foreign" language. He picks up original seforim and not the Feldheim translation. Furthermore, he is blessed with the bracha of the great Tanna Eliezer Ha'Kappar (a close friend of Rabbi Yehuda Ha'Nasi) who said; "There is no Torah like the Torah of Eretz Yisrael and no wisdom like the wisdom of Eretz Yisrael." Therefore, while the Lakewood talmid is undoubtedly a serious bochur, he cannot compete with the average bochur from Bnei Brak, Har Nof or Yitzhar. Final score: Israel – 3, USA – 0.

In addition to these 3 examples I must state that all Israeli schools, secular and religious, have classes 6 days per week. True, the school day is shorter than what I was used to in New York but all parents have the option of amazing extra-curricular activities (called "chugim") that have terrific educational and recreational value. Kids can study more Torah, learn how to play an instrument, master the art of swimming or learn how to defend themselves in the martial arts. While these activities all cost extra they do not even come close to the ridiculous amount of money being charged by today's schools in America. Between what Israeli schools charge plus books, trips and extra activities, the average Israeli parent spends no more than 25% of what he/she would have spent on that same child in New York, LA or Chicago.

There is much more to say and write on this subject but this is an article, not a thesis. The few points stated above are key in understanding a very important part in our life: Jewish Education. To a religious parent, educating a child in the right way and giving him/her the right tools is one of the most vital things. We live for our children and they are everything to us. Making sure they receive a solid Jewish education is priority #1 as it should be!

My point is simple: Come Home! There are many reasons why you must do this but this coming Monday, August 27th is the first reason – It is the first day of school in Israel! The summer is over. Forget about Labor Day weekend. Your children need to get back to school and Israel is the place for that to happen. If not for yourselves, come home for your kids. Start working on this today!


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Anonymous said...

Excellent article, though I would like to make a few comments, specifically about the Modern Orthodox schools.

My daughter a 9th grade Olah Chadasha, having a graduated an American Day School, had no trouble adjusting to the limudei kodesh curriculum of her new school. In her old school she was in an advanced Gemara Class, in her new school, Gemara is not even an option.

The secular curriculum in her new school is on a lower level than in her old school in the US. Her math class is a joke, science is easy, and the English class (with all native english speakers) is on a very low level.

NONETHELESS, the environment of her new school, the values taught, the community it creates, is something that does not exist in the American Modern Orthodox system. In American Yeshiva High Schools, there are more social pressures, a strong focus on fashion and appearances. While here in Israel ALL the girls wear the same (cheap) uniform shirts.

Life in Israel is conducive to better values being instilled in our children. That's enough for me!