A New Challenge for Jewish Educators

lierBy Betsy S. Stone, Ph.D.

I teach an innovative parent child religious education program for students in 6th and 7th grades. Each class involves big question and Jewish text. We spend a lot of time in discussion and study, and I encourage parents and children to continue their conversations after class.

A few weeks ago, after the Presidential election, our topic was leadership. I asked the families what qualities a leader needs. I didn’t say a good leader; just a leader. They listed predicable qualities: persuasiveness, ability to speak in public, followers, intelligence. And then one child raised his hand and said “leaders have to be good liars.”

There was silence, and then the kids continued with their list. A few minutes later, a father raised his hand, looking troubled.

“A liar? Leaders are good liars?” A generational debate ensued. All of the kids – every one – felt that lying was a quality that was essential for leadership. Adults were horrified. They argued and tried to persuade. But the kids had a proof-text, and they went back to it again and again. Politicians lie to get elected. Politicians are our leaders. Therefore, lying is a important quality of leaders.

I asked the kids if lying was a quality of good leaders, and they pragmatically replied, “of course. You have to get elected. Can’t be a leader if you lose.”

We returned to Jewish text. We looked at Yitro, and wondered if sharing power is a mark of good leadership. We thought about the ways we lead in our families and our communities.

I haven’t been able to get this conversation out of my head since then. What are we teaching our children about our values? Do they think that lying is limited to the political arena, or to those who seek leadership positions? I doubt that. I am afraid that we have taught our children that integrity is for the weak and unambitious.

Betsy S. Stone, Ph.D. is a psychologist who has been active in Jewish Education for over 3 decades. She teaches in her home synagogue, Temple Sinai of Stamford, CT, and at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.