Prof. Paul Socken, distinguished professor emeritus and founder of the Jewish studies program at the University of Waterloo, published an important commentary in The CJN last week (Feb. 20, 2020). Entitled “The poor had to sacrifice everything for education”, Socken pointedly reminds us how deeply rooted in Jewish history, indeed in Jewish life, has been our obligation to ensure that all families have true access to Jewish education.
Socken begins with a Talmudic story about Rabbi Hillel when he nearly froze to death one day listening from the rooftop to the learning in an academy of study. He climbed to the roof because he did not have the entrance fee that day to enter the academy.
Rabbi Hillel, of course, was exceptional in his desire to learn. Most students would not risk their lives for the sake of more study. Socken makes the observation: “One wonders about the others, whose entry was barred due to a lack of funds and who walked away and never returned.”
The observation is fair even if painful. It was perhaps to ensure no student henceforth would be denied entry to the study hall that Yehoshua ben Gamla instituted universal education for Jewish children irrespective of economic circumstances of their respective families.
“Today’s Jewish day school system is the next incarnation of this long tradition of emphasizing education. These schools are an essential bulwark against ignorance of Jewish history culture and religion, especially in a secular, multicultural society. While the cost, in hard-earned dollars, has become almost impossible for most families, the cost of neglecting this vital institution is far higher for the Jewish future.”
“Education has always been a priority of the Jewish people”, Socken writes. And of course, he is correct.
He pleads with us not to fail this generation of children. We – all of us – must strive to bring Jewish education within the financial grasp of all families.
It is the obligation of the entire community to do so. It falls upon us all, not only the leaders and the philanthropists, to make Jewish education affordable.
We urge readers, in the manner that best fits their circumstances, to heed Prof. Socken’s plea and to support this cause.