Our Sages identify the first mitzvah in the Torah as the establishment of Pesach. But the most repeated mitzvah in our tradition – Torah, liturgy, study hall – is to teach the word of God to our children. It is an obligation incumbent upon parents in specific and upon the community in general. This commitment to educating our young (and continuing our own educations throughout life) makes the value of learning one of the most identifiable traits of Jewish identity.
“The more Torah, the more life,” says the Talmud. But the realities of suburban living in America have reduced the amount of life we devote to Torah. Our Religious School, which used to meet three days a week, now meets only two, albeit for a similar amount of time. The demands on day schools for general academic excellence result in more attention paid to general studies than to Judaic studies. And the increasing percentage of households without school-aged children has led us to question the relative emphasis we place on religious education.
Over the past two years, we have seen the benefit of a serious and innovative approach to our Religious School by our Director of Education and Youth, Benjy Cohen. While many of you have groused at his insistence that children arrive on time, ready to learn, the overall result has been nothing less than astonishing. His ability to integrate formal and informal learning experiences (especially for our teens) has paid remarkable dividends. The majority of the children in this congregation will be educated by our supplemental school. Our loss of Benjy at the end of this school year means the bar for his successor will be high. The search committee is aiming to meet or exceed his extraordinary record.
The success of our Religious School is not matched by our student count at local day schools. At one time, Agudas Achim students made up the majority of students at Gesher, and a significant percentage of them continued to Charles E. Smith. These days, our students do not constitute even a plurality; in fact, the absolute number of our students at Gesher has dropped each year, and those who continue at Charles E. Smith have dwindled to a few. Cost, distance and public school excellence have contributed to this decline, as well as concerns about matters internal. However, only ongoing devotion by the kinds of families attracted to our congregation will allow Gesher to thrive and remind Smith that it serves Northern Virginia as well as Maryland and DC.
I have long had a fantasy of closing our Religious school for a year and providing families with a home-school curriculum. In order to reenter at grade level, students would have to demonstrate proficiency gained by their parents’ instruction. Don’t panic – it won’t happen. But pretend it will and give to your children and the children you know the benefit of your desire to see them educated when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down and when you arise. We will continue to provide them with what they need to know. You provide them with why.