But Rabbi Boteach's personal travail has fueled an outrage that clouds his thinking about the underlying raison d'etre of public education. He offers a far too rosy picture of Jewish education, and sadly, employs racist stereotypes and distorted, blood-curdling images of public schools to make his argument.
First, it needs to be said that there is no easy equivalence between attendance at religious school and one's moral character. Parochial schools in America, of all stripes, have a long and shameful history in providing a refuge for those parents who have supported the process of "white flight" from diverse schools. It is well-documented that they have allowed and facilitated the detestable racial, class, and ethnic segregation in American society. As Jews, we especially understand the centrality of social justice to an ethical world, and as such we must face the way religious schools-including Jewish schools-can provide a vehicle to deny our responsibility for moving toward a more just and inclusive community.
Second, honesty demands that we acknowledge that the imperative to provide a fast track toward the Ivy League is every bit as important in the goals of most Jewish schools, and in the minds of parents who send their children to them, as any more laudable ethical pretension. Such schools typically provide an environment that privileges one small group of young people with all the advantages that money can buy.
Of course, Rabbi Boteach's crude depiction of drug addicts and liquor store robbers as the inevitable product of the "dangerous jungles of public schools" is shamefully inaccurate and grotesquely racist. I recall many years ago as a lay chaplain to one of Her Majesty's prisons visiting the Jewish inmates on Passover. I remember trying to convince my mother that in the jail were Jews--strictly Orthodox, hitherto active members of their synagogues--who were now incarcerated for bilking people of their hard-earned money, fraud, theft, even murder. Yes, Rabbi Boteach, religiously socialized Jews commit crimes too. Nor should we forget that some of the most hideous insensitivity and human indifference have been demonstrated by religious Jews in Israel toward their Palestinian neighbors. Perhaps more to the point, however, is the fact that Jewish religious schools have no shortage of the usual ethical and social concerns: cheating among students, aggressively competitive and selfish behavior, drug abuse, or overly materialistic priorities.
My daughter's public schooling made her a better Jew
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Public education embodies a democratic vision of a place that brings together children from all across our diverse society and offers them a common and shared experience. It is easy to see how this noble idea is frequently undermined by wealth, segregated housing, racial separation, and the rest. Yet before we push it aside in the name of free choice, the attitude of "It's my money, and I ought to be able to do with it as I like," and a preference for schools that reflect "my kind of people and values," we need to look around at our fragmenting and increasingly balkanized world. Are there not good reasons to support and protect-both financially and in terms of our own children's participation-an institution that at least maintains a vision of our shared connections and responsibilities.
When I insisted that my own daughter split her own education between Jewish and public it was for this very reason. It seemed to me a moral necessity that as she formed her personality and outlook she should spend time with others whose experience in the world was different from hers. Her interactions and subsequent friendship with Christian, Muslim, and Hindu children, as well African-American, Asian-Americans, gay and lesbian young people, I believe, made her a more sensitive, compassionate and justice-minded individual. Her love and commitment toward Judaism was enriched, not undermined by this experience, and the ethical implications of our faith made far more concrete.
In short, we can have both kinds of education, religious and public. But in the face of the prevailing public policy agenda that has lionized the marketplace and private interest over everything else, we need to resolutely protect those institutions that speak not in the name of a particular group or limited interest, but as the embodiment of our common concern for a caring and inclusive culture.
While I have argued myself that our schools, both public and private, are frequently morally adrift and spiritually dead, this should not be confused with the extraordinary American commitment to the separation of church and state. Jews, for generations, have been staunch supporters of this idea and have benefited from the legally sanctioned determination to ensure that no particular religious tradition could be imposed on children who are not part of any dominant denomination.
As a Jew who grew up in England, I know from personal experience the embarrassment, even shame, that is the result of being educated in a religiously alien environment. Not for nothing have so many American Jews believed passionately in the separation of church and state, regarding it as one of the great pillars of a tolerant pluralistic society.
Sadly, Rabbi Boteach uses his fury at the demand that he be responsible for the wellbeing of other children to engage in a right-wing diatribe about the supposed "assault against God and religion" in American schools and society. As someone who has been around public educators for many years, I know that such accusations have little to do with real attitudes of the majority of teachers and administrators, who are every bit as likely as other American citizens to attend church or other religious institution and believe in a deity.
Rabbi Boteach disingenuously implies that America's religious character is being undermined by godless liberals. Perhaps he has failed to notice that it is not these liberals who presently hold political power and exercise increasing sway over our legal system.
There is indeed a spiritual and moral crisis in this country. But its sources are not to be found in public education, which is an easy scapegoat for a crisis that will not be resolved by paying the tuition bills for Rabbi Boteach's children or providing him or others with vouchers to attend private schools. Any such change would certainly divert precious funds from a system that is already seriously hard-pressed and ensure even greater deprivation for many of the children who depend on it.
No, our moral and spiritual crisis is the manifestation of a society where children are urged by the dominant economic and cultural institutions to pursue a shallow materialism, to seek selfish advantage over others, to care little about growing social inequities, and to celebrate power, status, and violence. Whatever their pious rhetoric, our political leaders are the guardians and guarantors of this system. Public education may mediate our society's cultural values, but it is not the source of the moral crisis they embody. And private religious schools, whether Jewish or any other faith, are almost certainly not the solution Rabbi Boteach makes them out to be.