Choosing the Right Neighbours

There is an article, posted below by Rabbi Ephriam Buchwald that had me engaged in discussion all Shabbat afternoon.  To put my discussion in context, I was in Melbourne, and sharing a shabbat table with experienced Jewish educators. 

Day school Jewish education in Australia is in crisis due to its lack of sustainability.   The cost of sending children, especially for large families of three or more children, to a Jewish day school involves spending anything from $8,000 to $20,000 per child on school fees, plus uniforms, stationery, and extra curricular activities.  This is after-tax dollars, and normal families with regular incomes simply cannot afford to continue to sacrifice basic needs in order to meet the school fee committment.  In WA and Victoria, the State system have dramatically increased teacher salaries (which I agree with, as the profession is one of the most important and undervalued) so the flow on effect for 2009 and beyond will put huge pressure on private school budgets to compete in the market.

I mentioned to my friends that we have one school in Perth.  It has to cater for all our children, and one of the benefits of the school is that all the children have a healthy respect for each other, irrespective of religious standards, shule affiliation, affluance, or place of origin. 

Then I was asked that if I had a choice of school in Melbourne, which I would select for my family.  In discussing an answer I also got the chance to draw some personal observations about two particular schools in Melbourne, being Mt Scopus and Yavneh.  Both have good Jewish studies programs.   Yavneh has a proportion (but far from exclusive) of students from observant homes, which is a dynamic lacking in Mt Scopus.  It was noted that if Mt Scopus had a nucleus of observant students, then the Jewish culture of the school would be far more effective.   In that respect, Melbourne can learn much from Perth.  I detected a great sense of complacency and lack of engagement from some of the Yavneh students at the senior primary level, where the culture places social values ahead of Jewish learning values.

Conversely, there are lessons for Perth to learn from Melbourne.  Top of the list, is that the Governors and Management team of Carmel School need to understand what motivates an observant Jewish family toward education.  Many observant families in Perth send their children to Carmel with the knowledge they will not learn textual based content within the school curriculum itself.  However through the Shule programs, and extra curricular activity, these facilities are supported by the school and are extended for those who demand.   With this said, its time to acknowledge that this in itself is not enough, and more needs to be done to strengthen access to structured Jewish learning.  If Perth is serious about attracting more observant families to the community, then the school must prioritise this issue.  Melbourne is not without its faults in this respect, but it is clearly ahead of Perth in terms of recognising and addressing the resource implications of this issue. 

Rabbi Buchwald sets out what it is that motivates a Jewish family to consider its education options in far better terms.  I hope that the Carmel School board get the opportunity to read this article. 

Choosing the Right Neighbours

In this week’s parasha, we learn that after 23 years of residing in the area of Elonei Mamrei near Hebron Avraham departs and moves south to Gerar. Scripture records the move as follows (Bereshit 20:1): “Va’yee’sa mee’shahm Avraham ar’tzah ha’negev, va’yay’shev bayn Ka’daysh oo’vayn Shur, va’yah’gahr b’Gerar,” Avraham journeyed from there [Elonei Mamrei] toward the south country, and settled between Kadesh and Shur, and sojourned in Gerar.

Since the Torah does not provide a reason, the various commentators search for the cause of Avraham’s move. Rashi, citing the Midrash, suggests that after the destruction of Sodom and Gemorah there were few wayfarers in the area. Avraham, being deeply committed to welcoming guests, moved to a place where there would be more travelers. The Sforno notes that Avraham would have more opportunities to spread his monotheistic faith in this new, more densely populated area.

Other commentators suggest that Avraham felt that it was preferable for him to live in the desert [the Negev] than to live anywhere near the corrupt society of Sodom.

Samson Raphael Hirsch presumes that Avraham, having been informed that he would soon father a child, realized that he needed to be in a proper, more nurturing environment. He therefore moved to a place where there would be more favorable influences.

Our rabbis place great emphasis on the importance of choosing a proper environment when establishing a home. Perhaps the most famous statement concerning this issue is found in the Midrash Tanchuma that is cited by Rashi on Numbers 16:1. Rashi seeks to understand why Datan, Aviram, On ben Pelet and the 250 men from the tribe of Reuben were caught up in the rebellion of Korach and his family. To this the rabbis of the Midrash respond: “Oy la’rasha, v’oy lish’cheno,” Woe to the evil one, woe to his neighbor! Since the tribe of Reuben dwelt in the southern part of the camp of Israel in close proximity to the family of Korach, the Reubenites were drawn into their neighbor’s rebellion.

Elie Wiesel tells a story of the prophet who came to Sodom to call the people to repent. Because of the inhabitants’ well-known reputation for wanton wickedness, no prophet had ever had the temerity to venture into Sodom. At first, the Sodomites were amused by the fact that someone would dare enter their city. But after a while, the amusement wore off and they began to shower the prophet with epithets and pelt him with garbage. But the prophet persisted.

One day, a little boy approached the prophet and asked, “Mr. Prophet, why of all the places on earth did you choose to come to Sodom?” The prophet responded meekly, “When I first came to Sodom, I truly hoped that my words would affect the people and change Sodom.” “But,” said the little boy, “You see that your words have had no effect on the people of Sodom, and instead you have become an object of derision and hate. Why do you continue to prophesy now?” The prophet answered, “When I first came to Sodom, I hoped that I would change the people of Sodom. Now I continue to prophesy in the hope that they will not change me!”

The issue that Avraham faced in choosing a dwelling place in the ancient New East is similar to the issue that many of us face today.

How should we, committed Jews, choose our place of residence? Where should we dwell? It’s nigh impossible to be a tzaddik in Sodom. Surely, there is no more important decision that we can make in our lives than choosing the environment in which we reside and the community in which to raise our children. The environment that we choose must not only be a moral and ethical environment, but also an environment that will be supportive of our own Jewish growth.

When we look for a home, our first priority must not be whether it’s split-level or ranch style, co-op, condo or rental. Our first priority must be whether it will be an environment where we can grow religiously. We must make certain that the local synagogue is one in which we can pray with passion and fervor, led by a rabbi who inspires. We must make certain that the schools are appropriate for our children and that we will be part of a community of like-minded people who are serious about Jewish life and Jewish growth.

Our rabbis frequently teach (Ketubot 110a) that all Jews should preferably dwell in the land of Israel. In fact, some rabbis even suggest that Jews who reside outside of Israel are likened to idol worshipers (Ketubot 110b). Nevertheless, the rabbis rule that those who feel that their Torah study and Jewish lifestyle will be enhanced by living outside of Israel, may do so. In Judaism, there is no such thing as “one-size-fits-all.” There are many factors that must be seriously taken into consideration when making this choices, not only objective considerations, but subjective ones as well. The community in which we choose to live has to speak to us, nurture us and be a proper fit for us.