Why Jewish Education Fails

By Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

For many families – Jewish or gentile – the most obvious means by which the next generation achieves a bright future is by ensuring access to a quality formal education. In practice, however, the means to attain such hopes are more complicated. Education is a fluid exercise of facts and numbers and if one invests the capital – hundreds of thousands (even millions of dollars) in the educational interests of his or her children – there comes a point when wondering if the long-term effects will have any positive moral consequences. And while it is self-evident that education is a noble enterprise worth pursuing, perhaps the best legacy we leave in this world takes place outside the classroom. To be sure, formal education will have little to no value if we avoid the primary influence on our children: Ourselves. A full investment in formal Jewish education for our children, without working on our own self-refinement, will indeed prove to be worthless.

Indeed, for decades, research has shown that parents constantly influence their children in ways that mold personalities and character for the rest of their lives. Take for example a 1987 experiment in which 4- and 5-year-olds were placed in a situation where adult actors expressed verbal anger in an adjacent room (a setup deemed “background anger”). Even in this simulation, the young child subjects were measured as having subsequently exhibited “greater distress” and “increased verbal aggressiveness” in play as a result to being exposed to adults acting at their worst.

The inverse to such a scenario has also been measured. Consider the findings of a parental interaction study with their 1-year-olds. In the 2002 study, positive parental attachment was shown to be a leading factor for infant character development. For instance, if mothers appeared more emotionally available than fathers, then infants reciprocated by paying more attention (“effortful attention”) to their mothers as a result, along with more harmonious relations (“situational compliance”) at 16 months. In a similar 2000 study of older children (fifth graders) and their mothers, “emotion regulation” (also known as “ER,” the ability to control and adapt one’s emotions in a “socially appropriate” manner) was a key factor in the link between attachment and peer relationships (promoting “constructive coping”). Finally, in a 2007 current literature review, researchers from four universities concluded that ER is heavily influenced by the child’s family in three ways: what a child learns from his/her family; the behavior and practices of parents toward their children; and the general emotional atmosphere within the family. In one previously cited example, “background anger,” research indicates that children, and even adolescents, have considerable difficulty with social and emotional adjustment, even if they only witness the conflicts. The study’s authors stated that there was a “firm link between family factors and ER.”

With these dynamics in mind, and considering my own stake as a parent (and educator), I often wonder how my actions influence the world my children (and students) are growing up in. But, at the same time, I try to think bigger, especially because Jewish education is not only going to have a critical role in my children’s lives, but because we are at a perilous time as a culture where the institutions of knowledge and truth are rapidly being destabilized. Taking a narrower view, I wonder if, as a Jewish community, we parents are modeling – to the best of our ability – the Jewish virtues of patience, being slow-to-anger, and being courageous as a routine? Are we engaging in the spiritual and intellectual practices of praying, studying, reflecting, empathizing, and apologizing? Are we showing children that is important to defend those at risk in the classroom and beyond? Are we displaying that being present in the world is not an easy task, and that there a people – immigrants and refugees, let’s say – who need our effortful attention? Are we volunteering to support the homeless and reaching out to help vulnerable children? Are we engaged in adaptive change to improve our character and everyday behavior? When we, as parents, get involved in the broader world, so do our children. And that has a powerful effect on inner character development as well as intellectual growth.

Of course, learning about Hebrew, Jewish ritual, the vitality of Israel, and Jewish identity are deeply valuable lessons. Nevertheless, one can invest in every quality program in these fields but can squander the investment entirely if one’s home is not cultivated in values pertaining to the best of the Jewish experience. If educational priorities are only focused on material objects – food, athletic sponsorships, or the latest tech, for example – then the timeless values that should take precedence elapse into irrelevancy. We must never allow this to happen. If our children pick up on the sense that their parents are committed to working on themselves through community service and embodying their most virtuous selves, then that formal Jewish education will only reinforce and strengthen the lessons that parents provide at home. It is not an easy mandate, but who said Jewish continuity (and living with virtue!) was supposed to be easy.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of twelve books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.