What’s the future of Jewish education in St. Louis?


Imagine if we were to learn today that all the great American universities had been destroyed. Now imagine that it has fallen upon the Jewish community of greater St. Louis to replace that vast culture of learning, that vast lost resource of libraries and knowledge, of intellectual vibrancy and basic research activities that have been instrumental in the creation of medical science, life-saving vaccines, advanced technology, the Internet, the transistor, the entire archive of civilization, and the very platform upon which our nation and our world continues to launch the future of humanity.

In 1945, this report was not an imaginary scenario. It had actually happened. The Shoah had not only murdered six million Jews, but had destroyed every major university of higher Jewish learning, and every elementary and high school of Jewish learning upon the entire continent of Europe. In essence, the Shoah had wiped out 2,000 years of Jewish civilization. It had destroyed Jerusalem within the context of European history.

And in 1945, a sacred obligation fell upon the American Jewish community to rebuild Jerusalem, to reclaim the vast learning and values and legacy of Jewish civilization within the warm and welcoming and safe context of the great American experiment.

Today, Jewish high schools across America have become one of the most powerful forces in the fulfillment of our great American obligation to reclaim the depth and richness of Jewish life and culture within the wonders and unique society that is America. It has fallen to our generation to recreate the wonders of Jerusalem without the barriers of the ghetto walls; to create a Jerusalem that maintains its unique Jewish identity and values; to shape anew Jerusalem’s contribution to America; to teach that knowledge is a source of power, but, more importantly, a source of great human wisdom and values; to teach a compelling vision where the obligations of human beings to seek justice, and to view every human being as having been created in the image of God, powerfully interact and balance within an American context where rights and freedoms often overwhelm our sacred sense of obligation.

In January of 1942, we learned perhaps the most important universal lesson about education and obligations. In the town of Wannsee, Adolf Hitler called a meeting of his high level advisors to plan the murder of every Jew in Europe. As we now know, many of those advisors had Ph.D. or M.D. degrees from some of the finest universities. Yet, they clearly lacked moral vision. We learned in that horrible moment that you can be a Ph.D. and an S.O.B. And we also learned that the world stood idly by, ignoring its obligation to speak and to act.

Pluralistic Jewish day high schools across America offer programs that serve almost every walk of Jewish life. Policies don’t simply accommodate various philosophical Jewish views, instead they embrace them. This distinction is profound, and yes, miraculous. In some schools, Jewish studies courses have fully articulated programs in traditional text study, up to four per day for those who choose, and a multiplicity of programs for those who prefer their Jewish text courses in combination with Jewish arts and culture. In this way, students from Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and secular backgrounds may sojourn together in a context of mutual trust and respect. The real miracle here is that young Jews can trust and respect each other even if they disagree. This leads to old Jews with a serious vision of community. In my view, perhaps the greatest human miracle is the culture of kindness and joy that permeates Jewish high schools. Students understand that their vast knowledge and skills must be used for tikkun, for fixing the world, and for wisdom. These schools ensure that students understand their obligation to invent the world anew and to use their Jewish values and learning to ensure that those new inventions are guided by ethical and moral controls.

To understand the miracles of the future, allow me to once again look at history. In 70 of the Common Era, the Temple in Jerusalem lay in ruins, and the Second Jewish Commonwealth ceased to exist. This was, by all rights, the end of the Jewish people. Yet, as Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan explains, the Jewish people are the masters of adapting to maladaptation. Some visionary geniuses at some point before 70 C.E. understood that Rome would eventually destroy the Jewish State. So, the synagogue was invented as a substitute for the Temple in what became a 2,000-year sojourn in the diaspora. The synagogue kept us whole as a people, culture, and religion.

Contemporary American life presents challenges as potent as those of Rome in 70 C.E. Whereas the physical destruction of the Jewish people is not at issue in America, America’s all-embracing kindness and acceptance is, perhaps, the greatest historic challenge to our spiritual and cultural survival. I believe we may even be at an historic turning point in America in finding an enduring solution to ensuring that Judaism’s unique contribution does not perish upon the rich soil of American freedom and choice.

Just as the synagogue replaced the Temple as the center of Jewish life and history, today, the Jewish day school is emerging as a powerful center for serious Jewish learning and Jewish community within the context of the grand American educational enterprise. Over 200,000 American Jewish children attend a Jewish day elementary or high school. This number alone constitutes an historical paradigm shift in the Jewish community. It is, indeed, a radical shift in how we educate our American children, how we fully adapt and integrate with American life, how we do so without losing our unique identity, contribution, and purpose, and how we fulfill our sacred obligation to rebuilding the vast institutions of Jewish learning destroyed in the Shoah. This radical paradigm shift in how we educate our children allows them to re-imagine and re-invent new Jewish ideas, create new ways for adaptation and integration, and develop new ideas and visions that we today cannot even conceive.

Perhaps the best way to understand the miracle of Jewish schools is to recall the story of Moses and the burning bush. Our rabbis teach us that the bush had been on fire since the beginning of time. Thousands of people had passed by the bush, yet none saw the fire, and if they did, none stopped to wonder or inquire why it burned but did not consume. Moses was not the first to see the bush; yet, he was the first to stop; to recognize the miracle; to wonder; to inquire; and to understand the message. Jewish community day high schools teach our children to find the fire, to stop, to recognize, to wonder, to inquire, to understand, and finally to act upon their unique vision of what the fire means for our own times.

Our rabbis also tell the story of a skeptical Jew who approaches one of our great mystics, a man who can see the future. The skeptic says to the mystic, I want you to prove that you can see the future. I have in my hands a small bird. Is the bird alive or dead?

The mystic understands that if he says the bird is alive, the skeptic will crush the bird in his hands; if he says it is dead, he will let it fly free. The mystic turns to the skeptic with a sad, yet wise look and says, “I am not sure if the bird is alive or dead; but, dear skeptic, of one thing I am completely sure, that the future of this innocent bird is certainly in your hands.” I hope that the Jewish community in St. Louis will help its children see the fire, and in supporting the vision for a Jewish Community Day High School in St. Louis will help its children to fly free.

Dr. Bruce Powell is the Head of School at the New Jewish Community High School in Los Angeles.