Jews around the world will gather around tables next week to celebrate the holiday of Passover. But amid the food, the wine and all the rituals of family that bind us together, a question will linger above all of our heads: How much of the seder and what it represents do we actually understand?
The theme of slavery and liberation is, of course, a universal one, and that has enabled many of us to use our festival of freedom as a metaphor for a multitude of righteous causes. That is all well and good, but since the seder is, according to polls, the one ritual of Judaism that more Jews participate in than any other, it is the ideal family-education opportunity.
But if — as is the case for so many of us — the seder is just a chance to catch up, and eat grandma's brisket and kugel, after a few desultory attempts at ritual, then it's more an exercise in appetite than faith.
The truth remains that the majority of American Jews are examples of what the Haggadah calls the "fourth son" — the one who is not even able to ask a question about Pesach. Unfortunately, this includes many who are counted among the "affiliated," as opposed to the growing numbers of the "unaffiliated." For all of the amazing intellectual accomplishments of American Jewry, the fact remains that our collective Jewish literacy rate is astonishingly low.
The truth is, this means that many of us are as clueless as the slaves of Egypt about what it means to be a Jew. It took Moses — our greatest teacher and prophet — to teach those slaves the meaning of freedom. Our task, as individuals and a community, must be to teach ourselves. We must learn again; we must actively choose to be Jews.
The timeless message of Passover should, of course, serve to remind us of the obligation to remember the poor and the disenfranchised. By asking us to understand that it was not just our forebears who were slaves in Egypt, but each and everyone one of us, it instructs us as to our duty to welcome the stranger and never forget that we were once "strangers in a strange land."
But all these lessons must be grounded in a basic knowledge of Jewish heritage that far too many lack. As such, this holiday must also serve as a reminder of the absolute necessity to prioritize Jewish education in our community.
· We must work to ensure that day schools, the best quality Jewish education experience available, are not merely the option for the wealthy because of exorbitant tuition costs. Funding for creating what will effectively serve as a Jewish-education safety net that will make a place in a day school an affordable option for middle-class families must be found.
· We must rededicate ourselves to the cause of making certain that synagogue supplemental Hebrew schools — still the choice of the majority of Jewish families — are dedicated to excellence and not serving to turn off another generation of children.
· We must ensure that every level of Jewish education, including preschools, high schools and adult-education classes, are not an afterthought, but are given the real attention they deserve.
· In particular, the question of salaries and standards of achievement for teachers at all levels — and especially, the oft-neglected preschool and high school grades — must be addressed. We cannot expect institutions that are given the responsibility of educating our children to do the job correctly unless we give them the ability to hire and appropriately compensate the people who will actually carry out this vital task.
With that in mind, the publishers and the staff of the Jewish Exponent wish all of our readers a healthy and happy holiday, a Pesach Sameach!