Pity the Children of Texas

Sermon delivered June 17, 2011, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block


    Our ancient Rabbis understood the importance of schools.  The Talmud teaches that a synagogue may be turned into a school, but a school may not be turned into a synagogue.  Those are strong words:  The school is the community’s single most important institution.  Some two millennia ago, when our Rabbis ruled on school funding issues, their priorities were clear.  Class sizes were limited to ten pupils!

                The sages reserved their sharpest rebukes for those who would not support community education.  Simeon ben Lakish taught:  “A town without schools is doomed to destruction.”

                Ours is a city with schools, hundreds of them, in a state with thousands.  For the last five months or so, the fate of those schools, their teachers and students, has been in the hands of our elected representatives in Austin.  The result was announced before the Legislature was gaveled into session in January, and the situation has not improved since.   Our public schools will be forced to educate more children with less money.  The “good news” delivered to school districts?  They may increase class sizes and furlough teachers on “non-instructional days.”  Underpaid and maligned, our teachers will face increasingly unmanageable classrooms with fewer in-service days to plan and prepare and to renew their own professional skills.

Make no mistake:  Public education was a Texas step-child even before the current Legislature convened.  Our high school graduation rates are among the lowest in the country.  Too many of our young people are ill-prepared for college or career.  And nobody should wonder why.  Even before this year’s cuts, our legislature was not generous with Texas public schools.   Texas devotes fewer dollars per public school student than all but a handful of other states, with the least dollars available to schools attended by the poorest children.

We Jews are known as “people of the Book.”  Our ancestors exalted learning.  Access to public education has always been one of the secrets to our people’s astounding, historic success in America.  Tonight, I ask that we take a few moments to consider how and why Jewish tradition and Jewish people have made education a priority.

We read in Torah about our ancestor Jacob and his brother Esau, twins, one very different from the other.  Esau is a man of the outdoors.  Jacob, by contrast, is a “tent-dweller.”  Our Rabbis asked the meaning of that phrase, “tent-dweller,” and they said that it referred to the tents of Shem and Ever, the first school on rabbinic record.  Since Jacob later becomes known as Israel, we may say that the Children of Israel have been high on schools since before Israel had children! 

One day, Esau comes in from the fields, famished.  Jacob is home, cooking.  Esau begs for something to eat.  Jacob offers him some stew, in exchange for the birthright.  Esau readily spurns an eternal blessing in exchange for “a mess of pottage.”  Esau thinks only of his needs in the present, forfeiting his own future and that of his children and grandchildren.  By contrast, the heritage of Jacob, valuing education, is a tradition of sacrificing today’s bread for tomorrow’s blessing.

Recently, my son Robert and I read a biography of Chaim Weizmann, the first President of the State of Israel.  The tale begins in the Russian Pale of Settlement, home to hundreds of thousands of impoverished Jews, including the impecunious Weizmanns.  Young Chaim is precocious, both brilliant and eager to learn.  The family and the community spare no expense for Chaim’s education, first in town, and then in larger cities and the capitols of Europe.  While Weizmann’s education began with traditional Torah learning, he went on to study Chemistry.  His contributions to science were tremendous assets to the Allies during both World Wars.  After World War I, with his adopted home of England deeply in his debt, Weizmann appealed to the government, spurring the Balfour Declaration, the international community’s first recognition that the Jews should have our own homeland in Palestine.   Were his community not willing to spend on education, to sacrifice the present for a dream of the future, Weizmann could never have left home, could never have become a chemist, wouldn’t have been of help to the Allies, and the political steps that ultimately led to the creation of a Jewish State might never have been put into motion.

Weizmann grew up with prayers for the coming of a Messiah, who would return the Jewish people to our ancestral home in the Promised Land by an act of God.  As his knowledge grew with schooling, Weizmann came to believe that our people could not wait for messianic redemption; Israel would need to be built with Jewish labor and know-how.  Understanding that modern education would be key to a Jewish State, Weizmann began the process that led to the establishment of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and he personally founded the scientific institute in Rehovot that would one day bear his name. 

Though too few among us know his name today, Chaim Weizmann’s efforts were crucial to the Jewish State that wasn’t established until he was an old man.  David Ben-Gurion demonstrated the gratitude of generations, when he invited Weizmann to come to the new country in 1948 as its first President.  We, too, should give thanks, not only to Weizmann, but to his little Russian village, which pooled its resources to see to the education of all of their children and for the extraordinary education of its most gifted son. 

Jewish settlement of pre-State Palestine was built by rugged pioneers.  Like Esau, they were men and women of the outdoors, who drained swamps and irrigated deserts.  Like Jacob, they hit the books hard and sacrificed for the future.  They developed new technologies for agriculture and industry.  Their scholars – of Torah, yes, and also of medicine and sciences, of humanities and social studies – would travel the globe, dispensing knowledge.  Today, Israel boasts a strong economy and is known by the name of a recent book, “Start-up Nation,” because of the countless inventions and innovations that have become big business in Israel, reaching around the world.  

Toni and I have watched our Israeli nieces benefit from a terrific public school system, and now in public higher education.  And despite inequalities that must be addressed, public education is also the key to the future for Israel’s Arab citizens.  During my last visit to Israel, I sat with a young man who was the first Arab student in Hebrew University’s Executive MBA program.  He told me of his dreams for his people’s future, as citizens of Israel.  Education is essential to the future of any nation, and particularly for a democracy that relies on the wisdom of its entire population.

The ancient Rabbis were wise.  They demanded small class sizes, requiring significant spending on public schools.  They understood that no city, no community, no nation could survive without placing a priority on the education of the next generation.

What makes the United States, and particularly Texas, different in 2011?

Our political system rewards officials who bring quick results, who increase today’s mess of pottage, and punishes those who would provide for tomorrow.  We have saddled our children, and their children, with crippling debt.  We lack the collective will either to raise our taxes or to cut our benefits – and let’s be honest; we would have to do both – to vouchsafe the future. 

Education is a symbol of this problem.  Voters reward politicians who protect their pocketbooks today.  Voters demand benefits for themselves, today, not for our children.  We may say that education is our priority, but few of us vote that way.  In other words, we are the problem in this democracy, all of us.

Language is also a problem. 

If we are eager to provide more for our schools, we will say, “Our children are our future.”  We will proclaim that teachers are treasures of our community.  We will affirm the importance of education.

But what has been the language of our political discourse during the Legislative Session?  “Budget cuts.”  Directing resources to our children’s education has been dismissed as “government spending.”  Our teachers and principals, school nurses and librarians, coaches and counselors have been denigrated as “government workers,” a title that meets with scorn though it should be worn with pride.

The language we use makes a difference.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses sends spies to scout out the Promised Land.  Ten of the twelve bring back a report that the land is filled with giants.  The people are filled with terror, and they refuse to follow Moses’ lead into the land of God’s promise.  Forty years later, in the Book of Joshua, when our people actually enter the land, they face significant challenges and high walls, but no giants.  The motto is hazak v’ematz, “Be strong and courageous!”  Our people march forward fearlessly.

The challenges in our way are real, but they are not giants.

To those who say, “government spending,” let us reply:  “School children are our future.”

To those who say, “government workers,” let us reply:  “Teachers and principals, coaches and counselors, school librarians and nurses, custodians and bus drivers, are the men and women who build our future.”

 To those who say “spending cuts,” let us reply:  “Do not spurn the birthright for a mess of pottage!”