How the Covid-19 pandemic brought Jewish education back to its parental source

A modern-day miracle unfolds in Orthodoxy as words from Rav Yitzchak Hutner of Chaim Berlin Yeshiva zts"l evolve to our period in isolation.

Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin ,

distance learning
distance learning

Jewish parents are going crazy during the Coronavirus crisis! And they have really scaled Mount Everest! They have to cope with being home, lost work, self-isolation, and taking care of their children's education.

But in fact, they have broken a 2000 year old invisible barrier and that is something of which they should be proud. For Torah-observant parents juggling the schedules of a house full of many children varying in ages, from toddlers to high-schoolers, there are all sorts of methods to stay in touch with teachers, Rebbeim and Morahs, via phone or Zoom, plus having to become "administrators" and "principals" full time. They are the new mechanchim and mechanchot- educators -- of in-home-schooling. But in fact they have re-created a greater connection to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai that we are soon to celebrate on Shavuot, this year on May 29-30, 2020.

Allow me to explain:

It is now 2020, 5780 on the Jewish calendar, and let's briefly retrace our historical steps. In the secular Jewish world most of our brothers and sisters have descended the slippery slopet to secularization, assimilation, intermarriage and even, sadly, atheism and apostasy. All sorts of modern surveys have shown this to be true.

But on the other hand, in the Orthodox Jewish world the opposite is true. Since the Second World War, when European Jewry was decimated by the ravages of the Holocaust with so many great centers of Torah scholarship going up in flames. startomg from 1945, starting slowly with the survival of a handful of Torah sages and skeleton crews of survivors, the Torah world and Orthodoxy have been rebuilt in grand style in America, Israel and some parts of Europe.

Seventy five years since 1945, there are now hundreds of thousands of Orthodox/Haredi/Hasidic/Sefardi boys and girls, young men and young women learning and studying in thousands of varied Yeshivas, Ulpenas, and Bais Yaakov-type schools and seminaries in Israel, America and Europe.
Seventy five years since 1945 there are now hundreds of thousands of Orthodox/Haredi/Hasidic/Sefardi boys and girls, young men and young women learning and studying in thousands of varied Yeshivas, Ulpenas and Bais Yaakov-type schools and seminaries in Israel, America and Europe. They belong to what may be hundreds of thousans of Orthodox families that until the Covid-19 virus came along were schooled in buzzing institutions filled to the brim and bubbling over with the voices of hundreds of thousands of Talmidim and Talmidot, pupils of all ages, delving into and singing the praises of God and enjoying the study of His Torah of all types and of all levels.

For a long time before and after the Holocaust, and especially in the post-Holocaust era, coming as it did during a time, in America, Israel and Europe, of generations lost from Torah who had assimilated or who had been traumatized by the ravages of the assimilationist Haskalah (Enlightenment), Communism, and the destructive genocide of the Holocaust, many parents were too weak to fully transmit Jewish heritage and Torah knowledge on their own. They needed - and supported - Torah institutions to do the job of educating their children for them. So that whatever the home could not do due to extraneous factors not necessarily the fault of parents, in America and Israel, the Jewish Day Schools, Yeshivos, Ulpenas and Bais Yaakovs picked up the batons and filled in the gaps in Jewish children's knowledge of Torah and practice of Judaism.

During this era, and up until the outbreak of the Coronavirus, Jewish educators in institutions of learning reigned supreme. But then along came the Covid-19 outbreak and teachers and schools were both blindsided and sidelined in many ways, as Jewish homes and the Jewish parents running them came to the fore as de facto and even de jure Jewish educational institutions in full force, "Mom and Pop" created parent- run home schooling. Some parents even started to question why they should have to pay tuition to schools, if they, the parents, were now the primary educators. What an amazing turn of events!!

I am in possession of a special out-of-print book by Torah Umesorah: The National Society for Hebrew Day Schools in America, printed in 1970, called "Hebrew Day School Education: An Overview" (edited by Dr. Joseph Kaminetsky, New York) that sheds much light on the topic of this article. The very first chapter (pp. 3-12) is based on a Shiur (lecture) by the famous revered Rav Yitzchak Hutner (1906-1980) one of the greatest Jewish educators of the modern era, and Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Rabbi Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn, New York, USA and Yeshiva Pachad Yitzchak in Har Nof, Jerusalem, Israel (and a branch of Chaim Berline in Sanhedria Murchevet, Jerusalem). The chapter is called "A Shiur in Hilchos Chinuch: A Discourse in the Laws of Education - Clarifying Some Basic Torah Concepts in the Rearing of Jewish School Children" (originally delivered in 1959, published in "The Jewish Parent" [Vol. 11 - No. 3 December 1959] republished in "Hebrew Day School Education" 1970.)

Rav Hutner makes many important points, such as:

(Note: Includes my summaries and quotes from Rav Hutner, each starting with an asterisk, followed by my comments, or intermingled with my commentary, this is only a bare summary, any errors are solely mine.)

* The Talmud (Bava Basra, 21a) records that, contrary to popular belief, Yehoshua be Gamla did NOT introduce "compulsory schooling" among Jews, rather, he set up a system that would substitute or alternate the power of the father to educate his child and give it over to a Melamed-teacher.

* According to the Gemara, if not for Yehoshua ben Gamla's innovation "Torah would have been forgotten from Israel" because from the time of the giving of the Torah by God at Mount Sinai (in 2448 on the Jewish calendar, i.e. 1312 BCE) until the era of Yehoshua Ben Gamla in approximately 70 CE, "he who had a father was taught Torah by his father; he who had no father did not learn Torah." During the Roman occupation and under the lingering influence of the Greek occupation's policy of Hellenization, Jewish Education broke down because most fathers were either unable or unavailable to teach their children Torah.

* Learning Torah from one's father is as natural as deriving life from one's father/parent. This cannot be done successfully "professionally" and just as the beis-abba (father's house) is like a mother-like matrix that gives physical life and spiritual education to the child, likewise must a teacher of Torah not view him or herself as a "professional" but rather as a Mother and Father to the child transmitting Life=Torah.

* Rav Hutner: "Now, there came a time when the spiritual structure of the beis-abba (Jewish home) suffered deterioration. The father's house somehow lost its fundamental power of effective vitality in bringing up Jewish children...Then came Yehoshua ben Gamla and instituted the system of child-schooling. That is, he transformed the pattern of Jewish upbringing from tinokos shel beis-avhan to tinokos shel beis-rabban - from that of the young pupils in their father's home-house to the young pupils in the Rebbe's school-house."

* There are two core ways of transmitting the Torah: Individually, from father to son, and generationally, the transmitting of the Torah to all future generations known as "Mattan-Torah of Neshamos (the revelation of the Torah to the as-yet-unborn souls of all the Jews in future generations)", based on verses in the Torah such as "I (God) enter this bris (covenant) ...with they who are standing here with us today before the Lord your God as well as with those who are not here today (Deuteronomy 29:13-14)." This latter type of transmission means that the chain of transmission can never be broken because it will be maintained by God Himself, and that makes the role of the Rebbeim and Morahs, the teachers, paramount when they stand in for the parents who cannot, or do not, educate.

* A Melamed (Jewish Educator) who teaches the children of those lacking in Torah knowledge (such as an am ha'aretz-unlearned person), says Rav Hutner: "is considered in the eyes of the codified law 'as the lips of Hakadosh Baruch Hu (God) Himself,' as the prophet Yirmiyahu has said: 'If you can extract that which is precious from that which is dross you will be as my very own lips.' (Jeremiah 15:18)"

* Rav Hutner: "Mattan-Torah of Neshamos is directly related to the lips of Hakadosh Baruch Hu Himself exclusively. Thus if a melamed is successful in extracting that which is precious (Torah) from that which is dross (ignorance of Torah) and in bridging the gap of the 'missing link' in the chain of generations, it is indicative that he has struck the right chord in Mattan-Torah of Neshamos. That is why the lips of one who teaches Torah to the son of an am-ha-aretz are like the lips of Hakadosh Baruch Hu Himself."

How do Rav Hutner's words apply to our generation?

Rav Hutner said the above in the 1950s and it remained relevant through the 1970s and 1980s to Jewish Educators in America at a time when Jewish Day Schools, Yeshivas and girls' schools like Bais Yaakov were being pioneered and established. It was a time of rebuilding in many ways. Holocaust survivors who clung to their Orthodoxy were busy rebuilding their lives, working, building businesses, marrying and raising families, but they also supported the building of educational institutions and hiring staff to teach in those schools. For assimilated Jews it was also a time of reawakening as many enrolled their children in Jewish Day Schools all across North America and in Israel they sent their children to Israeli national religious and haredi schools, yeshivas and ulpenas. It was during this era that Rav Hutner's message was delivered and was proven to be prophetically correct!

For the last four months of the school year, that parents have become the primary educators once again as the teachers have moved into the background.
Starting in around March 2020 and continuing into the present, especially in the New York-New Jersey area all educational institutions were shut by order of the authorities for the rest of the school year. In Israel they have started reopening some grades. That means that for the last four months of the school year, that parents have become the primary educators once again as the teachers have moved into the background.

Sure, teachers are connecting with pupils via telephone or Zoom for an hour or two, maybe longer in some cases, but it is the Moms and Pops, the Abbas and Immas, the Tatties and Mamas, who are doing all the coordination, supervision, management, and much teaching, in a word they are EDUCATING their own children for now, and it may well also be during the months of July and August as it is doubtful that all regular camping facilities will be reopening.

So now the power of the Bais Abba, the father's house has come into its own. The decades of sacrificing blood sweat and tears for school and teachers has swung the balance full force from the Bais Rabhan, the teacher's school house, to the Bais Abhan, the father's, and mother's, schoolhouse.

Jewish Education today is proving itself during this great Coronavirus war. We see that all the decades and years that our great-grandparents, grandparents, and us as parents put into the Chinuch (Education) of our children by entrusting our children to the Rebbeim, Morahs, Mechanchim and teachers, as per the guidelines of Yehoshua Ben Gamla from Talmudic times for 2000 years ago has paid off. Now we are tasting what it is like to go back to true Jewish Chinuch with the primacy of the Jewish home of Mothers and Fathers as the main vehicle of teaching Torah and learning how to practice Judaism to children and even grandchildren in some cases.

The Mattan Torah of Neshamos, whereby it is God who transmits Torah to all generations at all times, is now in accord and in harmony with the regular Mattan Torah of the transmission of Torah from Father to Son and from one older generation to another younger generation.

One can say that the Covid-19 pandemic that has forced us into isolation has taught us that parents, the Bais Avhan, are at a minimum the equal partners of the Yeshivas, Ulpenas, other religious schools and their teachers, the Bais Rabhan - or have even surpassed them regaining their primary role in the education of their most precious children.

Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin is president and founder of the Jewish Professionals Institute. An alumnus of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin and Teachers College, Columbia University, he has dedicated his life to Jewish outreach and education, served for 7 years as full-time director of Sinai Heritage Centers in Manhattan and 3 as an AJOP trustee, .among many oher endeavors.