Family: Ancient Jews knew value of education

ENCINO, Calif., Aug. 3 (JTA) — If you can read this, thank a teacher.

And thank High Priest Joshua ben Gamla, who established the first system of compulsory public education in the first century C.E., arranging, according to the Talmud, for teachers “in every province and in every city.”

As we approach the beginning of the U.S. school year, I am grateful that the Jewish community never seriously jumped aboard the home schooling bandwagon.

I am even more grateful for the caring and committed teachers at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, Calif., where three of my sons are entering fourth, sixth and eighth grades, and at Milken Community High School in Los Angeles, where my oldest is starting his junior year.

In my book, these teachers, like all excellent educators in public, private and parochial schools, combine the patience of Torah scribes, the knowledge of the Sanhedrin and the juggling skills of Middle East peace negotiators.

For seven and a half hours a day, upbeat and always “on,” they teach math and menschlichkeit, history and Hebrew, reading and writing. They are mentors and mavens, advisors and arbitrators, social workers and psychologists. They are revolutionaries who, according to proverbial wisdom, change the world one child at a time.

I’ve witnessed some of these changes.

My oldest son, Zack, 16, once the poster child for “unrealized potential,” has evolved into a motivated and serious student. He credits his strictest teachers, especially in algebra and Hebrew, with motivating his turnaround.

Gabe, 13, can zip through any assignment. But when a teacher engages his interest, I’ve seen him passionately, imaginatively and unstoppably immerse himself in a project, such as creating a three-dimensional diagram of a cell or researching the knights of the Middle Ages.

Jeremy, 11, has learned to channel his endless energy into spirited and often spiritual class discussions. He can contribute on any subject — from the mysterious disappearance of the colony of Roanoke, Va., to Rashi’s commentary on Moses and Pharaoh.

And Danny, 9, who takes all his teachers’ suggestions to heart, has become an avid reader. He methodically and sometimes fanatically tackles whole series of books — from “The Littles” to “The Little House in the Big Woods,” from “The Chronicles of Narnia” to the “Dear America” diaries.

“A good teacher,” Zack says, “knows a student’s strengths and weaknesses. She knows when to push somebody and when to help.”

One Midrash tells us that “Conscientious teachers of small children are destined to sit at the right hand of God.”

Imagine, then, the destiny awaiting conscientious teachers of older children, especially hormonal, omniscient and authority-challenged teens and preteens. Must be nothing short of immortality.

But a cushy afterlife is well-deserved. For the reality is that teaching is possibly the world’s most difficult job.

I know this personally. For five years, when I was single, I taught eighth grade English at Piedmont Middle School in Piedmont, Calif. I remember the long hours — nights, weekends and summers — devoted to preparation and follow-up, the sky-high piles of papers always waiting to be graded, and the 125 or more students each day, with their various learning styles and levels, their various social and emotional needs.

The Jews have always known this. That’s why, long before the advent of teacher unions and vote-conscious politicians, class size mattered. The Talmud tells us that one teacher was deemed sufficient for up to 25 students. For 40 students, an aide was required, and for 50 students, an additional teacher was required.

And that’s why the Jews have always honored teachers, often more than parents themselves. The Talmud exhorts us to “revere a teacher as you would heaven.”

But Americans have not been so quick to comply. In this country, teachers have traditionally been accorded less respect, as well as less compensation, than other professionals.

Additionally, many of today’s teachers, to varying degrees, have to contend with other problems — including burnout, bureaucrats, incompetent and uncaring colleagues, flash-in-the-pan educational fads, difficult working conditions, inadequate textbooks and teaching supplies as well as intrusive and falsely entitled parents.

As a result, according to Education Week magazine, 20 percent of all teachers leave the profession after three years. And the future, the National Education Association reports, portends a severe teacher shortage, with two million new teachers needed by 2006.

But teaching is also the world’s most important job.

We Jews know this. Education is responsible for nothing less than our continued survival. Indeed, since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., though pogroms and persecutions, forced migrations and self-imposed immigrations, education, especially the study of Torah and Jewish texts, has unified and preserved us. And enabled us to become contributing members of whatever society we lived in.

John F. Kennedy also knew this. He once said, “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education.”

So this fall, take the time to graciously thank your children’s teachers. And thank the ancient Jews for instituting compulsory public education. If they had opted for home schooling, we might have perished long ago.

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