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Why Not Uganda?

September 18, 2008

For many of us, the image of Rose Pizem’s fragile smile refuses to fade. Her tragedy, like the case of the Bat Yam mother who drowned her son, have aroused painful conversations as to whether we’re doing enough to give our children the lives they deserve. We suspect we’re not.

We’re right that we’re not, but for the wrong reasons. Even the most decent societies occasionally produce pathologically sick parents. Sadly, horrific stories like these, no matter how vigilant we may become, are to an extent inevitable and unpreventable.

Not so, however, with a much more basic injustice that we’re doing to the young people of this country. That injustice has nothing to do with child abuse or worse, murder. It has to do with the failure of too many to raise their children with a sense that being Israeli ought to be “citizenship with a purpose.” That failure is not inevitable, and now is the time to address it.

THE DAUGHTER of friends of ours, in a well-known elite unit of the army, recently told us a bit about her service. She’s enjoying the work and getting to know her fellow soldiers. She’s liked almost all of her experience.

But not long ago, her commander brought the soldiers – the very best kids the country has to offer – together for a discussion. The commander asked them a question, simply to get a conversation going: “Why not Uganda?” And here, this young woman became visibly upset, as she recalled what had happened after that.

“They had nothing to say,” she said to me, the hint of a tear appearing in the corner of her eye. “Nothing. I’d said what I believed, why I think this country matters, and why it’s important that we’re here, and not somewhere else. And they came up to me and told me that they were envious of me – because unlike them, I’d been brought up and educated to believe in something.”

“I really don’t care what they believe in,” she said after a moment. “I just wish that they believed in something.”

It was, I thought, a telling conversation to have just days before Israel’s schoolchildren returned to class. It’s far too easy to allow ourselves to believe that the fact that the school year got started without a strike points to some sort of success. But the absence of a strike is no cause for celebration – it’s simply an opportunity to get to work.

AND THERE is plenty of work to do. Sadly, there’s nothing unusual about this young woman’s story. Our son had told us something very similar about one of his experiences at the superb mechina he attended between high school and the army. Unlike many of the “gap year” programs that exist here, Avi’s program admitted both religious and non-religious students. They spent that mechina year studying economics, literature, philosophy and Jewish texts. They read Zionist thinkers, debated the tensions between demography and democracy and, toward the end of their program, they spent three weeks hiking from the Golan Heights to Jerusalem. It was, in many ways, Israeli education at its very finest.

But when they began to study Talmud at the beginning of the year, their teacher knew he was up against a pedagogic challenge of no small proportions. The religious kids had been studying Talmud for years. For the most part, the secular kids had almost never seen a page of Talmud.

So he began with questions, not knowledge. He distributed copies of the very first page of the Babylonian Talmud, which discusses the hours when the Shema may be recited. “Pair up,” he told the students, “one student with more background and one student with less. I want you to come back to the group with as many questions about the passage as you possibly can.”

So off went Avi with a friend of his who’d never studied Talmud before. They sat and read, at which point Avi suggested that they start listing their questions. “What’s the Shema?” his partner asked.

“Well,” said Avi, “I’m not sure he means that kind of question. I think he means questions about how the argument unfolds. You know, why does Rabbi X say one thing, and why does Rabbi Y disagree?”

“But what’s the Shema?” his friend asked once again.

At that, Avi suddenly realized that his study partner wasn’t offering a question to be submitted to the group. He was simply asking. An exceptionally talented kid, he’d gone to Israeli schools his entire life and didn’t know something so basic that almost any American Jewish kid getting even a rudimentary Hebrew school education would have considered obvious.

WHY DOES it surprise us that Israeli kids can’t answer the question “Why not Uganda”? Jewishly illiterate, they can’t say anything about the great ideas that have long pulsed through the veins of Jewish life or about what Judaism might have to say about how one lives a life of substance and of meaning. If you know nothing about Judaism, how can you possibly say anything about why the Jews might need a state?

With the new school year under way, it’s time for us to radically recalibrate our standards for success and to ask ourselves what we owe our kids. The fact that school is in session and not on strike says nothing about the education that is, or is not, unfolding inside the classrooms. Ultimately, what we want our children to have had at the end of 13 years (including kindergarten) is an experience in which they’ve reflected on life well lived, what an ideal society might look like and, in this country, what the Jewish tradition might have to say about all that.

Our kids are begging us to help them think. Those conversations about “why not Uganda” and “what’s the Shema” point to a real thirst that many Israeli young people have. Theirs is a generation craving meaning, seeing purpose.

The soldiers serving with our friends’ daughter didn’t disparage her for her strongly held views. Quite the contrary – they told her that they were envious. And when my son’s friend had to make a decision about what to do after high school, the path of least resistance would have been to go straight to the army, or to some other program where he wouldn’t have to confront how much he didn’t know.

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