How many of you have a heroic story of an ancestor, or ancestors, braving the difficulties of living in a land of oppression, only to find hope and promise by moving to America? One of the most famous, prolific Progressive rabbis of the contemporary era, Jacob Neusner, once wrote an article in the Washington Post declaring America the true Promised Land for the Jews today. My own family had a similar view, as my great-grandfather Abraham Bloch moved from Iwye, in contemporary Belarus, to Cleveland, where he started a profitable cafeteria, and integrated his family into the American way of life.
This archetypal story of escape from oppression to freedom, proliferation, and success is central to the Jewish narrative. In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we read that it was baked into the ancient Israelite identity, in that they were required to report to the Temple and repeat the following every year:
“The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to יהוה, the God of our ancestors, and יהוה heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. יהוה freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand…bringing us to this place and giving us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
The echo of this ancient formula shines through in my family’s own story, and I’m sure in many of yours. Leaving a land of oppression for a land of promise, a land of milk and honey, is precisely how I understood my family’s relationship to America. As I’ve gotten older, and especially in recent years, I’ve come to understand how my family’s prosperity in this country has relied upon the displacement and subjugation of other peoples, namely the Native population and Africans who were forcibly enslaved, but I am still grateful for my own family’s ability to thrive here, and to avoid the calamities that struck the distant family members who did not make it out of Eastern Europe.
But I realize that this narrative, too, is one of a certain form of American Jew. Yet, many do not feel similarly and, instead of seeing America as an opportunity for a new way of living, have remained separated and insulated from the promise America can offer. In this past Sunday’s New York Times, a piece ran that laid bare one of the ways in which many of our Jewish siblings in New York have maintained this insularity. Hasidic Yeshivot, the schools in which children of the various hasidic sects are educated, have purposefully failed to educate their children in the fundamentals of English, Math, Science. In 2019, every child from these schools who took a state mandated test in English or Math failed, in spite of the schools having received 375 million dollars in state educational funds that year.
In these communities, part of the identity cultivated amongst the population is to still see themselves as needing to remain completely separated from their surrounding culture due to a mistrust of the non-Jewish population, and a sense of ongoing persecution. This is not without some truth, as most of the 34 antisemitic attacks that occurred in Brooklyn last year were, in fact, against Hasidic Jews. I do not, though, think this merits a carte blanche for keeping children illiterate and unable to function in wider society as a form of protection or cultural preservation.
I believe that the idea that providing secular education will somehow undermine the Hasidic way of life is overstated by those who hold power in the community as a way of maintaining said power, not as a way of maintaining continuity of their tradition. To be sure, an educated population is more likely to question and push back against fundamentalist belief structures, but that does not mean that all of the aspects of the culture and traditions will also be deserted. It simply means that the current hierarchical power structures may be less able to maintain their iron grip upon the population, which, in my view, is a good thing for everyone.
A step in the right direction was taken by our state government on Tuesday to begin enforcing minimum requirements for private schools with regard to secular education, but it is only a first step, and one whose consequences are still unclear. We, individually, can help make change as well. As we begin our trek into the new year of 5783, I ask that you consider what you might be able to contribute
to help our Jewish siblings. There are two organizations in particular doing wonderful work in this area. One, Footsteps, has many volunteer opportunities as well as ongoing programs that help people raised in Ultra-Orthodox communities attempting to build new lives outside of their birth communities. You can learn more about them at footstepsorg.org.
Another is YAFFED, Young Advocates for Fair Education, which has been one of the primary drivers behind the regulations passed this week. Their founder, Naftuli Moster, grew up in these yeshivot, and has devoted his adult life to making sure other children from his community do not have the same experiences he had. More information is available about them at yaffed.org. Please take a moment to see how you, too, can help with this ongoing struggle.
All Jews from all places and all backgrounds are, according to our tradition, guarantors for each other. This is partially based on our shared history and story - we are, according to this week’s portion, all descendants of those oppressed and immiserated in Egypt. Let us make sure that we never allow oppression or immiseration to be committed in the name of Torah, and instead, teach our children well, that misery is fleeting, that they can pick their own dreams, and that through their dreams build themselves and everyone, a Land of Milk and Honey.