Ignorance Is Far From Bliss for Israeli Education

ON THE GO

By Masha Leon

Published August 15, 2003, issue of August 15, 2003.

“We have the most profoundly ignorant Jewish population since Sinai,” said Richard Joel, Yeshiva University’s incoming president and the keynote speaker at the July 28 AMIT installation dinner at the Roosevelt Hotel.

Lamenting “Jewish illiteracy,” Joel recalled asking a Jewish audience in the South if they could identify the names of Jesus’ mother and Moses’ mother. Mary was a slam dunk, but Moses’ mother? “A man later came up to me and boasted, ‘I know Moses’ mother’s name; it was Yochabel.’… He’d seen Cecil B. DeMille’s [1956] movie [‘The Ten Commandments’].” Joel explained. “Yochabel was a corruption of Yocheved! Jews need to read their own books.”

Expanding on Joel’s theme, guest speaker Alon Pinkas, Israel’s consul general, stated: “We can talk about the ‘road map,’ the ‘peace map’…. The fact is, our entire future rests on education…. ‘Milk and honey’ are not enough.” Pinkas said that, incredibly, more than 50% “of Israelis aged 16 have not been to Jerusalem! They think the Kotel is on top of a mount…. They don’t know who Ben-Gurion and Herzl were, and neither do their teachers…. The issue is not about budget…. It is about national security…. We will be relegated to Third World status.”

In her inaugural address, AMIT’s new president, Jan Schechter, said: “AMIT [founded in 1925 as Mizrachi and renamed in 1984 as an acronym for Americans for Israel and Torah] is the organization that takes children from dysfunctional, impoverished homes and offers them educational opportunities.” It currently cares for 14,000 children in 55 schools throughout Israel.

* * *

Braving a rainstorm, I raced to UJA-Federation headquarters for the July 22 reception for Stuart Eizenstat’s lecture and signing of his controversial new book “Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave Labor, and the Unfinished Business of World War II.” He, however, was not there as his plane had been turned back because of the storm.

Since the book-signing coincided with a Board of Directors meeting of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, I got a chance to reminisce with conference participant Natan Sharansky, former Soviet refusenik and currently Israel’s minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs. We first met in 1988 in Anaheim, Calif., at a reception held by Random House, the publisher of his book “Fear No Evil.” A far cry from his Soviet imprisonment, the setting was glitzy: The champagne flowed, a chamber orchestra charmed and plates of fist-size chocolate-covered strawberries beckoned. Among the guests were Robert Bernstein, then chairman of Random house; Joni Evans, its trade division head, and ABC’s David Brinkley.

Two weeks later in New York, Sharansky and I met for an interview. He joked about the many interviews being akin to KGB interrogations. I told him he did not have to explain his past. I was familiar with KGB “hospitality,” having witnessed my father’s arrest in Vilna in 1940 by its predecessor, the NKVD, and his subsequent imprisonment with cellmate Menachem Begin (as described in Begin’s book, “White Nights”). After an hour-long interview, Sharansky signed my copy of his book: “To Masha: Jew with Russian name from Jew who had Russian name. You are the first reporter who asked me original questions.”



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