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Posts Tagged ‘Rosh Hashanah sermon’

The Other Side of Victory

            On Kol Nidrei of 5765 (2004), I gave a sermon against the Iraq war.  It was a very political sermon.  Yes, I couched it in terms of Jewish teaching, in particular the teaching about a king having to write a Torah scroll before going to war, implying that the deliberation might change the king’s mind about the necessity for the war.  But it was a political sermon.  I was against a war the Bush administration chose to wage.  It was an election year.  Even though I pointed out that Bush’s opponent in the election, John Kerry, was also wrong in his support for the Iraq war, thus trying to be non-partisan in my critique, a lot of people here were upset by that sermon.

One of you even came into my office to talk about the sermon, and explain why it was NOT the sermon she needed to hear on Kol Nidrei – how that sermon did not fill the spiritual need of that moment.  She was right.  It was a bad sermon.  I admit to you now, almost 9 years later, it was a lousy sermon. Oh, I still agree with the politics of the sermon, but it was not the right sermon for that moment.  Why?  Well, in addition to being a bit too long (it remains the longest sermon I have ever delivered), my whole approach was just plain wrong.  I was opposed to the politics of a particular war.  I had nothing to say about the notion of war itself.

Now I will speak about war.  Not born of any particular war, but born of my experiences this past summer.  As many of you know, I spent the summer travelling this country and Germany, interviewing family members that a little over 2 years ago I did not know even existed.  Those in the United States are all Jewish.  Those in Germany are the products of marriages between Jewish men from my family and a Catholic bride.  That means they are not Jewish.  They suffered, however, from the fact they had a Jewish parent.  The stories of the oppression they witnessed are moving – for sure.  But I found that the stories having the most profound impact on me are their accounts of what it is like to actually live through a war.  America and its allies triumphed in World War II.  But there is another side to victory – a side that I never could begin to understand until now.

For those suffering the consequences of war, its end brings emotional if not physical relief.  When the fighting finally ends, they must feel that better times are about to come; and even if they are not immediate, there is at least a moment of celebration that a period of fear has passed.  So one would think.

It was the end of World War II.  My aunt Charlotte, her mother and her siblings were living in the Sudetenland, having been evacuated to there from their home in Cologne.  This became part of the Russian zone of occupation, so the Red Army moved into the area.  This only triggered a round of atrocities, especially the first day they arrived.  Women were raped.  People were abused.  The conquering victors had arrived.  Margarethe, Charlotte’s mother, had her daughters lay down on the top level of a bunk bed, curl themselves in a small fetal position, and put their thumbs in their mouths to appear as childlike as possible.  The Russian soldiers came into their room, shone their flashlights, saw the children lying there and left.  It was a close call.

There was a song the family knew from the Karnival celebrations in Cologne.  Karnival is a winter festival celebration held every year in Cologne, much like Mardi Gras in New Orleans.  The lyrics said, “when you are homesick, you should travel on foot back to Cologne.”  The family was homesick, so in early summer of 1945 they began a journey on foot back to Cologne.  This part of the Romberg family travelled with another young woman and her two children.  At age 13, Charlotte was the eldest of the children.  Every day they walked.  At night they slept in a different place; sometimes a barn, sometimes a school, sometimes the ground.  They foraged the fields for food or depended on the kindness of strangers they met along the way.

At last they came upon a farmhouse and the farmer’s wife was outside churning butter.  They asked if they could spend the night in the barn and the woman told them “no.”  As they were leaving they met up with a Red Army officer, as the farmhouse had been commandeered to house a group of army officers.  He spoke German and asked them what they wanted.  They told him they just wanted to sleep in the barn for the night, but the farmer’s wife had told them no.  He then forced the farmer’s wife to give them a bedroom in the farmhouse.  One reserved for a Red Army officer.  For the first time in weeks, they slept in a real bed, were able to wash, and to have real meals.  They stayed there for several days.

Charlotte and her family were able to hitch a ride on a Red Army truck headed for Carlsbad.  The driver let them off a bit before there and when he said goodbye, gave them some tins of food for their journey.  They made their way to the border of the American section near the Eger River, but the border was closed and they could not pass.  So they took shelter in a kind of makeshift refugee camp in the ballroom of a guesthouse near the border.  Every day brought the possibility of starvation unless they could successfully forage for food from the farmers’ fields in the vicinity.

One time, Charlotte’s brother Norbert found a farmer’s cellar filled high with potatoes.  They formed a plan to steal potatoes in which the brothers crept into the cellar with a bag while Charlotte kept watch.  Back in the ball room there was a small oven with a rough surface.  They scratched the potatoes and put them onto the oven to make them more edible.

Finally there was a train organized to take refugees back to their homes in western Germany.  After an overnight in Braunschweig, then another in Hanover, they finally arrived in Cologne in December of 1945. They were home at last in their beloved city – after 6 months of travelling – only to find it almost completely destroyed by allied bombing.  They were placed in a bomb shelter near the Great Cathedral of Cologne.  But in a devastated city there was no work or housing for a widow with 4 children.  They were evacuated to Pivitsheide, where Charlotte stayed for the rest of her childhood.

When a war ends the soldiers look forward to a homecoming.  The victorious side has parades to celebrate the heroics of the young soldiers.  Families are reunited.  Tears of joy are wept.  Old romances are rekindled, new romances are found.  An exciting new life begins for the returnees from the front.  But for Charlotte and her family, there was no homecoming.  There was only a long journey, mostly on foot, the worry of starvation, and the sorrow of seeing the home that that they loved in ruins.

Now a second story.  Doris, age 12 and Ilse, age 10 were not Jewish.  They were technically Catholic.  But because their father, Oskar, was Jewish, their priest, father Vorspel, feared for their safety.  He approached their mother and told her the girls must leave Essen and be hidden.  He had connections to a nunnery in South Germany.  When their mom objected she did not have the money for this, Father Vorspel told her not to worry, he would take care of everything.  So in March of 1943 they went to live with nuns in south Germany.

But after a year and a half, someone travelling from Essen recognized the girls.  Their mother had to fetch them home.  It was not, however, an easy journey.  Fist of all, she was pregnant once again.  Second, a lot of the trip had to be done on foot.  Finally, Doris fell ill with appendicitis and was hospitalized for two weeks.  By the time she was able to travel and they all arrived home, their father Oskar had disappeared.  Although they would not know this for several months, he had been taken to Theresienstadt.

That left a pregnant mother alone in Essen with two young daughters.  Every week mom would inquire after her husband’s whereabouts, but no answers were found.  It was clear, even to German civilians, that the allies were winning the war.  But what this meant was an enduring of ever increasingly brazen bombings of German civilian areas.  In the early morning of March 13, 1945, Essen suffered a heavy bombing by the allies.  The house where Doris, Ilse, and their mom lived was destroyed.  The family made it to the bomb shelter in the basement, but got trapped under the rubble of the building.  There they remained trapped until around 3 in the afternoon.  Of course this meant their house was gone and they had no place to life.  It was fortunate that a theology student gave them space in his apartment.

And finally, a third story.  Maria Jagode was a Catholic orphan raised by nuns in a small convent in a village on the banks of the Rhine River.  As a young woman she became the governess to the two young boys of a Jewish family, Manfred and Ralph.  Their father, Karl, was a quite successful importer of English wool into Germany.  Because his suppliers were English, and the commodity was much sought after in Germany, Karl’s business prospered through the 1930’s long after the Nazis had choked off other Jewish businesses.  But all of that came to an end on Kristalnacht.

Karl was tipped off that the Gestapo was after him, so he left his home in Essen and went into hiding, leaving his wife, two children and Maria Jagode in their living quarters above his business offices.  The only way to the living quarters was a stairway that led from a garden in the back to the second floor.

Kristalnact arrived and the boys, their mother and Maria hid upstairs while listening to the SS destroy the offices below.  They heard the sounds of sledge hammers being taken to desks and type writers.  Then, horrified, they heard the sound of boots tromping up the stairs from the garden to their living quarters.  The Nazis were on the way to destroy the apartment and do who knows what to the inhabitants.  Maria Jagode met them at the door.  She told them she was a Catholic and that the family was to leave Germany shortly, leaving all of the contents of the apartment to her.  She asked them to please leave things alone, so that her property would not be destroyed.  The Nazis turned and left.

The family eventually made it to America.  They tried to keep in contact with the governess who saved them, but it was sporadic.  The boys grew up safely in Chicago.  After serving a tour of duty in the Korean War, Ralph was posted in Germany and found Maria Jagode.  As a small token of thanks, he wanted to go with her to give some help to the nuns who raised her.  She told him that the nuns who raised her used their facilities to hide and transfer Allied pilots who were shot down during the war – a kind of underground railroad.  Ralph went to the town where the convent was to give them some help as well – but it was completely gone.  He went to question the mayor of the village who was reluctant to tell him anything.  Being an American soldier Ralph was required to always be in full uniform, so when he began to press the mayor and put on an official “air,” the mayor caved and told the tale.  The Nazis had found out how the nuns were aiding Allied soldiers, locked all of them in one of the convent buildings and burned it to the ground.

The former Jewish refugee from Germany turned American officer then returned to Essen to find his old home.  It was completely bombed out except for one thing.  The stairway from the garden to the second floor was still standing – a stairway to nowhere – a satiric monument to Maria Jagode and the nuns who raised her.

The receiving of these stories was accompanied by tears, sometimes by the giver, sometimes by me.  After hearing tale after tale of the unintended damage inflicted on the innocents on the other side of our victory, I can no longer accept the notion that there is in any way a thing called “a just war.”  Today we have a term for the experiences of Charlotte, Doris, and the nuns who raised Maria Jagode – collateral damage.  When we march to war drunk on our own self-righteousness,  we are incapable of being “just.”  All war does is inflict pain.  Perhaps there are wars forced upon us.  I am not necessarily an advocate for always “turning the other cheek,” although I believe the world would be a better place with a bit more cheek turning and a lot less knee jerk reacting.  Yes, perhaps there are some wars that are simply not avoidable.  But just?  I have to say no.  You cannot hear the stories from those on the other side of a victory and believe the war is just.

I think Mark Twain said it best when he said this about war: “Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities, war.  He is the only one that gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and calm pulse to exterminate his kind.  He is the only animal that for sordid wages will march out…and help to slaughter strangers of his own species who have done him no harm and with whom he has no quarrel.  And in the intervals between campaigns he washes the blood off his hands and works for the “universal brotherhood of man,” – – with his mouth.”

How about our own tradition?  What does Judaism have to say about war?  We Jews are certainly experienced in having war and violence thrust upon us.  Yet our tradition casts our participation with a deep sense of regret.  In I Chronicles, these are King David’s deathbed words to his son, Solomon, “My son, I wanted to build a house for the name of the Adonai my God.  But the word of Adonai came to me saying, ‘You have shed much blood and fought great battles; you shall not build a house for My name, for you have shed much blood on the earth in My sight.”  No where does God criticize David’s wars as being unnecessary.  Even so, participation in war cannot help but taint the soul.  Why else would many of the fiercest advocates for peace in Israel have been the generals, military leaders.  Who else better understands the moral price paid by participation in war?

I know what many of you are thinking right now.  Our president is contemplating a strike against Syria because Bashar al-Assad has reportedly used chemical weapons against his own civilians.  I do not question that this would be an atrocity.  I do not question that Assad is a dictator slaughtering his own people in a desperate attempt to cling to power.  But I am tired of hearing about “targeted” strikes.  The situation on the ground in Syria is complex.  I have little confidence in our ability only strike a military target and not harm civilians.  And I cannot blithely dismiss those casualties as “collateral damage.”  “But,” you might object, “Do we not have a moral obligation to oppose the use of weapons of mass destruction?”

Indeed, if we were looking for a Jewish text to guide us we might look to the law of din rodef drawn from the Talmud, Sanhedrin 73a.  This law tells us if we see one person pursuing another, threatening to kill them, we are obligated to use all force, including killing them, to prevent the murder.  By this measure we have already failed.  According to a report on Monday by McClatchy News Service, US government published as part of its evidence of Assad’s crime the revelation our intelligence had been monitoring preparations for a gas attack 3 days before it happened.  The questions must then be asked, why did the State Department not warn the rebels?  Why did the administration not do what it did late last year and raise a hue and cry over the possible impending attack?  It is important to know all of this as Maimonides points out that killing the pursuer who can be stopped with lesser means is tantamount to murder.

I simply cannot escape the feeling that launching cruise missile strikes would be an empty gesture to cover up or draw attention away from our failure to take proper measures to prevent this attack before it happened.  I cannot escape the feeling this is more about what policy “looks” good as opposed to real moral considerations.  I cannot escape the feeling of being fed another line about what is just.  All I ask is that before we do anything we consider the real consequences of our actions – not from a policy perspective, but a human perspective.  I want to know what is the next step.   How do we avoid the next trap of war?  And, by the way, we still have not even discussed how an American strike on Syria might pull Israel into greater harm’s way.

So today, on Rosh Hashanah I plead for a change of mindset, a change of heart.  It is time to recognize there is an industry that profits from the proliferation of war, and to pledge that we will no longer buy the weak arguments that have pushed us into constant warfare in the last 60 years.  For if we look at the history of the United States from 1950 until today, we have know more years participating in war than not (I have actually counted).  Even more, consider our millennial children.  They have not known one year without war.  I am tired of it, aren’t you?

Today is known as Yom Hadin, the day of judgment.  We believe this is the day God judges our actions from the past year.  We recite words of prayer saying that “repentance, prayer and charity” will affect God’s decree.  I would like to add one more action to that list.  I pray that we finally heed the words of the prophet Isaiah; that we embrace the day when “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they study war anymore.”  May that day speedily come.  Amen

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Teach the Children

            Tonight I ask your indulgence.  I want to share with you a stream of consciousness I experienced last March.  Where I will begin, will not seem so connected to where I am going to end up, but trust me for a few moments – I promise this will not just be the random wanderings of my aging mind.

In March Audrey and I attended a panel discussion co-sponsored by the Village Square and the Tallahassee Democrat concerning gun issues as they relate to school safety.  The conversation among the panelists ranged from what local schools do to insure school safety, to statistics on gun ownership, to what does the second amendment really mean, to how do we define exactly what IS an assault weapon.  These were all useful topics, I am sure, but it was the clergy member of the panel – Reverend Brant Copeland – pastor of the First Presbyterian Church – who tried to steer the conversation away from the minutia of gun types, or parsing the meaning of the second amendment.  He wanted the panel to engage in a larger conversation about the values we want our community to reflect.  What is the kind of society we really want?  From Pastor Copeland’s perspective, if we could have THAT conversation, then our policies on guns, the 2nd amendment, and school safety measures would become self evident.  I agreed with him and thought he had nailed the problem – at least I thought he had until Audrey and I discussed the event over dinner afterwards.

Audrey has worked in varyious kinds of schools for a long time; often schools that serve deprived populations.   When we lived in Philadelphia she was a school counselor for inner city Catholic schools, and here she works for FSU doing research that takes her into a wide range of schools, including many outside of Leon County.  From my own work with b’nai mitzvah students as well as teaching the Confirmation class, I get insights into many of the Leon County schools.  In a nutshell, our conversation led us to the conclusion that it our system of public education is the incubator for the next Adam Lanza – the young man who committed the mass murders at Stony Brook Elementary School in Connecticut.  Why?  Because our children are not being socialized properly.  Our education system, instead of fostering well adjusted, morally cognizant, independent thinking and creative human beings, is producing an ever increasing population of automatons.

It begins in kindergarten.  When I attended kindergarten, it was all about playing with others, listening to classic children’s stories, doing art projects – often very messy but with great latitude for creativity.  The picture album I have of kindergarten shows a classroom with tables arranged in a rather random, jumbled fashion, lots of toys and art supplies.  We dressed in costumes at Halloween and put on a Christmas play for our parents.  (As an aside, yes, the fact I played Joseph in a Christmas play in 1959 did not seem to harm my Jewish identity)  The only evaluation my parents received was a hand written letter by my teacher at the end of the school year, giving her observations on my growth as a whole person, academically, morally, and creatively.  This was a public school in West Virginia, by the way – not exactly a bastion of liberal or far out educational philosophies.  Our building was a two story brick affair built in 1892 complete with a bell tower.  The bell was rung by pulling on a rope.  In 3rd grade, if I got to school early enough my teacher would let me ring the bell.  But our school ran on educational principles based on plain old commons sense.  Kindergarten was where you got your first taste of the school experience, with a focus on creating a love of coming to school and learning how to get along with others.

Kindergartens today are often like the ones Audrey observed in Gadsden County last year.  They are sad descendants of my quite happy experience.  The children are ordered into neat rows.  There is little or no play.  The emphasis is on inculcating obedience and cramming a pre-determined set of facts into the children’s heads.  There are 5 year olds having to take spelling tests.  By second grade they look beaten, the love of school, of the experience of learning, is wrung out of them.  This reflects a situation found in schools all over the country.  Schools in deprived areas are more concerned with teaching the children to obey, to toe the line, as opposed to a real education that allows them to think, to create.  Even in schools located in better areas, the emphasis on testing, the pressure by parents to have children reading and doing math at an ever younger age, is forcing educators to carry out educational policies that they admit are against recognized principles of child development.

Teachers now have less and less freedom to formulate how they wish to instruct their children.  All that matters is to score higher on tests that determine the funding fate of the school.  A catch 22 results.  The lower the test scores, the less funding, the harder to supply a meaningful education for the children.  As the budget gets squeezed tighter; art, music, and drama become eliminated from the schools.  That means many children’s fates are doomed before they even start, because for many children it is the arts that provide the spark engaging them in the process of learning.  So we have to wonder, who in the system is really thinking of the best interests of the children?

By now you might be asking, “What does this have to do with school safety?”  My response is that there are no short term answers to preventing violent disasters in schools.  Any policy, any law, any measure including posting guards at the doors, will not be an iron clad guarantee to prevent the next shooting.  A far better use of our resources would be to construct an education system that fosters love of learning, provides basic skills, teaches basic morality, inculcates creativity and creative thinking AND provides an environment where children can play together, be children together and learn to interact with each other in positive, productive ways.  By creating better, more emotionally healthy citizens, we reduce the prospects for the next mass shooting.

Yes, this will take a generation or two, but we need to focus on long term solutions, not short term reactions to the disaster of the moment.  It will be hard, very hard, and it will take resources, but consider the consequences of turning away from our obligations to our children.  Because I truly believe that the only way to create a better Jewish future, a better American future, a better human future, is to spare no expense, no effort to care for the most precious commodity we have – our children.  For me, all other issues are secondary to what we do with our children, to caring for our children in a radically changing world.

Let’s look at the discussion about guns as an example.  To me this whole conversation, about what sort should be legal, about what measures of gun control should be enacted, about who should be armed and when and where should concealed weapons be permitted – well – for me all of this is emblematic of a deeper problem.  They are the symptoms of the disease, not the disease.  The deeper problem is the disservice we do to our children by cheating them out of the education they deserve.  The deeper problem is that troubled children go undetected, not getting the extra attention they need.  The deeper problem is an unhealthy moral attitude.

Do you remember the shootings in Littleton, CO in April of 1999?  On the 110th birthday of Adolf Hitler, two boys, members of an outcast group fascinated with white supremacy, entered Columbine High School and cruelly slaughtered or wounded 40 people.  Police found bombs planted all over the school.  In the aftermath, all the same questions were asked that we heard after the shootings last December at Stony Brook:  How can we increase security at schools?  Why are we not catching the signs of trouble in these students before they explode in violence?  Why are we allowing our children to play violent video and computer games?  Why don’t we have better gun control laws?  And answers came from all of the same sources as this past December.  Politicians, psychologists, the NRA and media pundits all had suggestions – most of them conflicting – as to what to do to stop the violence.  But I believed that it was Pope John Paul II who correctly articulated the core of the problem back in 1999:  “America has to provide its children with a moral vision.”

Moral vision – yes!  And our own Jewish tradition, what we do here in Temple Israel can help provide moral vision.  The Hebrew word for ethics, for morality is musar.  The word means so much more than ethics, however.  The meaning of musar is a combination of “morality,” “instruction,” and “discipline.”  It appears 50 times just in the book of Proverbs.  We learn the essence of the word in the very first chapter, “My son, hear the instruction (musar) of your father.  Do not forsake the Torah of your mother.”  As is the typical structure in Proverbs, each element in the first part of the verse has a corresponding element in the second.  Here, musar is the equivalent of Torah.  The moral instruction manual for Jews is the Torah.  I could give a detailed sermon on all the aspects of Torah morality, but let me default to a summary given by Rabbi Hillel.  The essence of Torah is to treat everybody else as you wish to be treated.  The rest is a filling in of the details.  The Jewish approach to living our morality through our actions is the example we can offer America today.  It is our potential contribution to an American moral vision.

And our country desperately needs this.  Today, in an America that celebrates instant individual gratification more than ever before, we need a moral vision.  Today, in an America whose family structures are changing as never before, we need to a moral vision.  Today in an America that is becoming more ethnically diverse than ever before, we need a moral vision.  Today, in an America that is ever more divided and partisan, we need a moral vision.

But, we also need to understand the new America.  I looked over a number of studies from the 2000 census as well as the 2010 census.  There are interesting trends we need to think about.  The percentage of single parent households is now well over 1 fourth of all families.  The number of interracial families is rising.  The number of same sex couples with children is rising.  People are marrying later and having children later.  There are more adopted children representing a more diverse international population.  Within a few decades, America will be a majority minority country.  That means less white Americans than all the other ethnicities combined.  About 50 % of all marriages end in divorce.  Depending on your perspective, one may or may not lament some of these statistics.  Are they the signs of moral decline, or as just the new reality of a shifting world?  To all of these demographic shifts I add one more reality; which I actually do lament – the increasing isolation of individuals from community as we become more infatuated and engrossed with our various electronic devices.

How do we start to construct a moral vision for America?  First must come an acceptance of the ever increasing diversity that makes up our country.  Whether it is ethnically, racially, religiously, sexually – let’s realize that the great strength and real beauty of this country has been its ability to absorb and create a great salad bowl for diversity.  Along with accepting diversity is the recognition of responsibility to the community.  We might all be different, but we have obligations to each other.  The single greatest excess in this country is the focus on the self.  We are too self absorbed, too disconnected from real human contact.  I love my computer but it is not a substitute for human to human interaction.  No matter how many friends I have on Facebook, they cannot replace the joy of being with real, live people in a vibrant community.  Computers make it too easy to communicate only with those who occupy our personal ideological silos.  So part of the moral vision must be fostering actual human community, and a sense of our obligations to that community.  It is Pirkei Avot that teaches us “al tifros min ha tzibur,” “do not separate yourself from the community.

However, obligations to the community do not come at the expense of individual dignity.  Every person has the right to develop into the best possible version of his or her self.  So our moral vision for America must balance our responsibility to the community with our rights as individuals.  Accompanying individual responsibility is the need to be active contributors to society.  Our moral vision must not encourage sloth, but build a love of learning, work, creativity, and pride in real achievement.  Finally, this moral vision must do away with the notion that being poor is some kind of moral or personal flaw.  That particular perversion of the Protestant work ethic needs to be excised from American thought.

Now enter the schools.  Where else can children be exposed to all the benefits of technology while in a community that does not sacrifice human contact?  Where else can young minds be stimulated with ideas, with exposure to the arts, to music, to the rich cultural diversity of this country?  Where else can children learn to just play well together – so that they end up playing well together as adults?  Where else can children learn the skills they will need to be contributing members of society while achieving a sense of personal dignity?

The question is how to create schools that will achieve this.  Well, they already exist, and at least one is present right here in Tallahassee – the school of Arts and Sciences.  A significant number of children from this congregation are fortunate enough to attend SAS, and as I work with children for either b’nei mitzvah training or listen to them in Confirmation class, I constantly see the results of a loving and creative learning environment.  My lament is this:  why cannot every child have the same opportunity?  Rather than pour money into countless wasteful programs, I believe no expense should be spared to create schools of excellence in every community.

Part of these resources needs to be for what some school officials call “resource officers.”  These are trained professionals, outside of and in addition to guidance counselors, who can spot the troubled, outcast child, and work with him or her.  This professional would be engaged with families, attentive to domestic difficulties, and provide resources to parents.  The guidance counselors present in many schools are far too few and overburdened to provide these services to their school’s population.

If one looks at the countries with the most successful school systems; schools that achieve the best outcomes for their students, there are some commonalities American schools need to adopt.  These two countries are South Korea and Finland.  In some ways they are radically different from each other – yet two key elements are the same.  First, all education begins with the teacher.  These countries pay teachers on a level that attracts the best and brightest to the profession.  Teachers in many parts of America (I include Florida) are underpaid.  The Democrat recently reported that starting teacher salaries are now around 35 K.  After 15 years a teacher will make 40 K.  Am I alone in asking what bright young teacher would be motivated to stay in teaching 15 years only to earn 5 K more?  I am appalled by how little we value teaching as a profession.  As a result, too many of our teachers are mediocrities who cannot even speak proper English.  Audrey heard one last year tell her class, “Let’s sound out the word air-o-plane” actually breaking the word into 3 syllables!  Let’s elevate the teaching profession AND provide means to remove non performing teachers, instead of protecting mediocrity and buying young teachers in bulk on the cheap.  Second, every child learns the same material.  No child in the United States should be held hostage educationally by the whims of ignorant local school boards.  The school board of Kansas should not have the right to deny science and the state of Texas should not have the right to edit history.  Third, full programs of art, music and drama should be part of every school’s curriculum.  Often children having difficulties with standard subjects find their key to learning in the arts.

I know what you are thinking – these are pipe dreams and we do not have the money to make them happen.  To that I have two answers.  First, the money to educate is already in our system.  We have just prioritized badly.  Second, we need not wait for politicians to wake up and make changes.  We can begin to do this ourselves.  How?  We can actively lobby for education reform, locally and at the state.  We can become involved in local schools as mentors, as volunteers – offering our time to help care for our children.  Think you do not have time?  Think you are too busy?  Well, in Philadelphia, center city professionals dedicate part of their day to tutoring inner city children who need academic help.  A few years back I saw a wonderful picture of a 6 year old African American boy sitting on the desk of a prominent center city lawyer – each with a reading primer in hand.  In Yonkers, a number of policemen have taken special training and tutor elementary school children after regular hours.  The purpose is manifold.  Not only do the kids get academic help, they learn that these uniformed figures are people to be trusted.  At the same time the policemen are on the alert for children who seem troubled, and cue the teacher or principle to their needs.

The real question is this: how willing are we to get involved in caring for our children?  Here is why I decided to speak about this tonight, our tradition, Jewish tradition, does not shirk from our obligations to our children, or to their education.  The Talmud teaches, “Reish Lakish said, ‘The world endures only for the sake of the breath of school children.’”  Think about that.  Reish Lakish believes God keeps things going because of the hope each new generation of children represents.  But another rabbi, Rav Papa objected and asked this question, “What about mine and yours?”  Reish Lakish then replied, “Breath in which there is sin is not like breath in which there is no sin.”  We adults are already tainted with prejudice, with bad habits, with rigid perspective.  Untainted children represent our chance to repent and get it right – if only we teach them.  Reish Lakish then continues, “School children may not be made to neglect their studies even for the building of the Temple.”  Remember that the studies being referred to include religious and moral studies.  The rabbi is saying that even the grandeur of the Temple, takes a back seat to the hope a new generation of children represents.  Their education trumps everything, even constructing the most prominent religious structure of their day.

Twice a day a Jew prays the words v’shinantam levanecha, “teach them to your children.”  “Them” is the words of Torah.  They are words of history.  They are words of morality.  They are words of hope.  They are words law.  They are words of righteousness.  They are words of desire.  They are words of prayer.  Join with me now as we pray for our children.

Adapted from Berachot 17a

May you live to see your world fulfilled,

May your instruction prepare you for your future,

And may you trust ingenerations past and yet to be.

May your heart ponderand achieve understanding,

And your words be filled with insight.

May songs of praise ever be uponyour tongue

Andyour vision be on astraight path before you.

May your eyes shine with the light of holy words

And your face reflect the brightness of the heavens.

May your lips speak wisdom,

And your fulfillment be in righteousness

As you run wholeheartedly to seek the will of God.

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