Public Education in San Antonio

Sermon given Yom Kippur Day, October 11, 1997, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Anybody hungry?

Anybody have a headache?

Well, then, I’m fixin’ to add insult to injury. Today’s sermon is about a sin.

Sin, in Judaism, is not a personal, individual matter. Rather, atonement it is a communal affair; forgiveness, a congregational concern. Our confession is plural. We repent al het shehatanu lefanecha, for the sins that we have committed against you; we, not I. Ashamnu, bagadnu: All are guilty of the entire alphabetical litany of sins; we, not I.

Today, we are tainted with sin. All in San Antonio share a collective failing. Everyone is indicted, we and those who have gone before us. We have been guilty for decades, not just this year, or for a few cycles of years.

We have sinned before the Lord, for we have failed God’s children. We have not provided adequate public education to equip San Antonio’s children for the future.

We have sinned before the Lord, for we have flouted God’s teaching that all are created equal. Is not the education of a child on the south side, the east side, and the west side of our city worth every penny that is dedicated to a child’s education on the north side of this very same community?

We have sinned before the Lord, for we have failed the parents. In many parts of this town, the hard-earned tax dollars of hard-working parents do not buy a sufficient public education for their children.

We have sinned before the Lord, for we have failed our own future. God has promised us a better day to come. We must be God’s partners to make it so. Yes, there are excellent schools and fine, dedicated teachers. In general, though, we have not maintained schools that produce the well-educated work force that our business community needs to withstand military base closures and changing times. We do not offer the excellence in education required to attract new people to San Antonio, to help us build a brighter future right here.

Public education is not, of course, an exclusively Jewish issue. Yet learning is a traditional Jewish concern. We call ourselves “the people of the Book,” indicating the high value we place on education. Our ancestors pursued knowledge even in the Middle Ages, when a good education did not enhance a person’s economic achievements. In the modern world, many Jews have acheived great success, and made significant contributions to civilization, largely because Judaism emphasizes education.

Today, most in our Jewish community do assure educational excellence for our own children. If we are financially able, we are thankful for the opportunity to live in better school districts or to send our children to private schools. We are also grateful that the Jonathan Netanyahu Academy makes a Jewish day school option affordable for any Jewish family. This concern for the education of our own is approved by no less a rabbi than Maimonides. In the Mishnah Torah, he insisted that parents find the very best instruction available for their children.

In the same chapter, though, Maimonides wrote that our concern must extend beyond our own. He required that every city and each town establish a school for all of its children, or it should cease to exist. As Jews in San Antonio, we are encouraged to seek educational excellence for our own children. We are also commanded to assure fine learning opportunities for all.

Some have proposed school choice and vouchers as solutions for families who live in poor school districts. Under this plan, parents are authorized to send their children to a private school, or to a public school of their choosing, not necessarily in their own district. Public money would then be allocated to the chosen school, and taken away from the rejected school in the family’s district.

These alternatives pose two problems for us, from a Jewish perspective. First, vouchers could direct public funds to religious schools, violating the separation of church and state, which we treasure. Second, by taking funds away from the public school in their own community, parents who seek the best for their own children would diminish the education of others. While observing Maimonides’ instruction to ensure excellence for their own, they would violate his charge to provide for all.

In 1993, though, the late Congressman Frank Tejeda convincingly urged a group of Jewish community leaders not to reject vouchers and school choice too quickly. He acknowledged our reservations, but begged us to consider the needs of parents who are eager to secure a better future for their children. Many families in his part of San Antonio are not blessed with the ability to move to a better school district or to pay for private school. If we oppose vouchers and school choice, we may restrict their right to follow Maimonides’ instruction to seek the best for their own. For too many in our community, vouchers and school choice may be the only way.

Our position on these issues seems to be unclear, with good and Jewish justifications on both sides. We may try to seek a balanced resolution, as some have. Sad, though, that our options seem to be only these.

Who would propose vouchers, if there were not poor school districts?

Who would need school choice, if the neighborhood public school were excellent?

Shall we firmly embrace a solution that would, at best, benefit only a few? Let us instead commit ourselves to the creation of a new educational system for San Antonio, or at least a new funding system. Let public education in Bexar County reflect our Jewish value of education, and our faith that every child is created equal to every other child.

The child in Edgewood is equal to the child in North East.

The child in Harlandale deserves the same educational resources as the child in Northside.

The child who lives in the San Antonio Independent School District, two blocks from my own home, is worthy of instruction every bit as good as that available to the child who lives next door to my home, in the Alamo Heights Independent School District.

Perhaps I am dreaming. But Yom Kippur is a day for dreams, for visions of our highest aspirations. At the new year, we believe that we can change. On Yom Kippur, we pledge ourselves to achieve a better future. Today, we have faith that the world can truly be repaired.

Tomorrow, we must get to work.

Let our voices be like those of the ancient prophets, demanding that the shameful system be overthrown. Then, we may begin to be forgiven.

Let our prayers reach up to the Lord for guidance, for help, and for endurance. Then, may God reach toward us, assuring us of Divine participation in our pursuit of a brighter future.

Let the work of our hands reflect the principles we preach. Then, may our repentance be received.

We may all engage in some of that hands-on effort on Mitzvah Day, which will be observed next April 19. On that one day, we shall call on the efforts of every single member of this congregation, men, women, and children, young and old alike. Our mitzvah-making will be directed at one school, as we forge a partnership with Loma Park Elementary School in the Edgewood School District.

At Loma Park, we shall work to improve the physical appearance of the edifice and strengthen the educational resources available within it. We shall interact with neighborhood families, and begin to make relationships between dramatically different communities. We shall provide health screenings, and give blood side by side with area residents.

Already, our Pre-Confirmation Class is collecting coats and sweaters in our Temple’s Oppenheimer Lobby. Our students wish to help Loma Park families keep warm this winter, before we come to them in person in the spring.

Mitzvah Day will be but one day. We are but one congregation. Loma Park Elementary is but one school. Yet, we are not alone. Others, too, have begun to acknowledge our collective failing, to recognize that public education in San Antonio is badly in need of repair.

Witness the recent bond election, in which San Antonio Independent School District voters overwhelmingly cast their ballots in favor of the future. Witness the attention that our business community is beginning to give to the educational needs of our poorer school districts. Witness the interest in public education that has begun to emerge in the local press. We can have an impact. We do have partners. The future of public education in our city will be better than the past.

Today, through our hunger and our headaches, we acknowledge our collective sin. Tomorrow, the work of repentance begins.

Let us focus even greater attention on the plight of our public schools.

Let us prioritize the education of every child in our community, while still seeing that our own children have the best instruction available.

Let us make a personal difference, as we forge a relationship with Loma Park Elementary School on Mitzvah Day.

May our efforts be pleasing in God’s sight, in our own eyes, and in the view of our community. May we be blessed as partners in fulfilling God’s promise of a better day to come.

Amen.

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