Jews hold education sacred, and for good reason. An educated citizenry is a necessary precondition for any democracy. Similarly, for Jews of the rabbinic era — characterized by, among other things, a devolution of authority to local rabbinic leaders — education and learning have become a necessary precondition for engagement in the full kaleidoscope of Jewish life.
Pirkei Avot states that the world of Judaism rests on three pillars: Torah (study), Avodah (worship), Gemilut Chasadim (acts of loving kindness). In Deuteronomy (6:7) we are commanded to “teach them diligently.” Following these teachings, Jews have prioritized studying and learning down through the generations. Therefore, it is no surprise that they have been disproportionately engaged in building the institutions of education and in promoting teaching as a professional craft. This is true for the range of educational institutions that Jews have supported: from the Yiddish folk schools of the early 20th century to the Jewish day schools that now exist in many cities and, significantly, the public education system.
Three of the past four presidents of the American Federation of Teachers were Jews: Albert Shanker, the iconic 1960s union president; his successor, Sandra Feldman, and the current AFT president, Randi Weingarten. Moreover, Jews are leading the policy debate around public education; this past February, the Forward profiled four of these leaders. And now that our public education system is under threat, it is not surprising that Jews across the country are fighting to protect public schools.
A new network of grassroots Jewish social justice organizations has emerged to mobilize around this issue. Public schools are coming under the budget-cutting blade as never before. Cities like Chicago and Philadelphia and states like North Carolina are targeting public education with school closings and mass layoffs. Jewish activists are living their faith, speaking up to demand that education be kept as a right for all.
Max Socol, co-founder of the Raleigh-based Carolina Jews for Justice, has organized weekly gatherings in front of the North Carolina state House to protest the defunding of the public school system. “Education is a core Jewish value,” he said. “We believe a robust public education system is an absolute requirement for a just society.”
Some of these groups have taken a defensive posture, mobilizing in response to budget cuts and school closings, and asking what will happen to children. In Chicago, for example, the group Jews in Solidarity and Action for Schools came together with alumni of Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, to demonstrate against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposed closing of 49 schools for the 2013–14 year.