The ‘H’ in Jewish education

Money has a way of dominating issues. This is true of politics and presidential elections, and it’s also true of Jewish education. Just say the words “Jewish education,” and the first word you’ll typically hear is “unaffordable.”

For many years now, this problem has been at the top of the communal agenda: How to make Jewish education more affordable.

But while the issue of affordability is certainly huge, it has taken attention away from an equally important issue, which is the quality of the education itself.

It is precisely this issue of quality that was honored at the annual Milken Family Foundation awards luncheon on Dec. 13 at the Luxe Hotel in Bel Air. 

In partnership with BJE—Builders of Jewish Education, the Foundation gave Jewish Educator Awards (JEA) of $15,000 each to four Jewish day school educators: Mary Itri from Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School; Lidia Turner from Saperstein Middle School of Milken Community High School; Rabbi Baruch Kupfer, head of school at Maimonides Academy, and Rabbi Usher Klein, a ninth-grade yeshiva rebbe at Mesivta Birkas Yitzchok.

I attend hundreds of Jewish events every year, and I can tell you I don’t recall too many where I see black-hatted Jews having lunch with Reform Jews while celebrating Jewish education.

But that’s the point of rewarding quality: It is independent of denomination.

BJE Executive Director Gil Graff alluded to that when he gave the award to Rabbi Klein and spoke of the value of excellence, whether in studying technology or in studying Talmud.

The fact that so many denominations were represented at the luncheon made the event itself an educational experience. How often does a member of Stephen S. Wise Temple get to hear words of Torah from an ultra-Orthodox rabbi from Pico-Robertson?

And how often do ultra-Orthodox Jews get to hear from educators like Turner, who uses music to engage students in learning Hebrew, or Itri, who weaves in the Jewish values of modesty when directing her school’s spring musical?

There was an attitude of genuine open-mindedness at the event, reflected in the words of Milken Family Foundation Executive Vice President Richard Sandler, who spoke of the importance of emulating the high standards of the diverse honorees, and preserving the heritage that gives meaning to Jewish identity.

It’s in that spirit of open-mindedness and striving for meaning that I want to throw in my two cents about something I think is too often missing in Jewish education — something that presents a great opportunity for every denomination.

This is the H word: History.

My simple question is this: Are we doing a good enough job of teaching Jewish history to our kids?

I don’t mean biblical history, where Adam succumbs to temptation and Abraham almost sacrifices his son and Moses splits the Red Sea and Joseph fights with his brothers and King David does some questionable acts. This biblical history is full of great moral lessons and is crucial to our Jewish identity.

But there’s more to the great Jewish story than biblical history — there’s the history of historians, which also holds great wisdom and meaning.

This is the history where Maimonides engages with Greek philosophy and Muslim scholars; where false Messiahs like Shabbtai Zvi rock the Jewish world; where the advent of the Chasidic movement creates a major rift with the talmudic school of the Vilna Gaon; and where different ideologies compete for the Zionist soul.

This is also the history of prominent Jews making major contributions to humanity, Jews like Sigmund Freud, Sarah Bernhardt, Albert Einstein and Isaiah Berlin.

In short, this is the secular master story of the Jews, where our flaws are exposed along with our accomplishments.

It’s a master story that doesn’t compete with the moral lessons of the Bible, but adds the critical dimensions of cultural knowledge and peoplehood. How great it would be if Jewish students today learned more about the journeys, stories and struggles of their ancestors, whether they came from Morocco, Poland or Persia.

The Milken Family Foundation and the BJE are perfectly positioned to strengthen this aspect of Jewish education.

Maybe at next year’s luncheon, we will see a fifth award: The Jewish History Award, given to the school that has done the most to teach the history of the Jews to our kids.

It’s a history that is messy, complicated and endlessly fascinating, not unlike our own community today.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at