Zebulun, Issachar and the Importance of Jewish Education

Vayehi By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Dec 25, 2004 / 5765 | Torah Commentary | Conservative Judaism

The enterprise of Jewish education, on which the future of the Jewish people rests, has always been a partnership between educators and patrons. The transmission of culture cannot be done on the cheap. The founders of rabbinic Judaism in Roman Palestine knew this truism as do educators and philanthropists in contemporary America. Witness a remarkable midrash on our parashah that rings with undiminished relevance.

The first six of Jacob’s parting words on his deathbed are delivered to the six sons of Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun and Issachar. The order seems to follow the sequence of their birth, except for the last two. Leah bore Issachar before Zebulun (Genesis 30:16–20). It is precisely this exception to the pattern that caught the eye of the midrash. What prompted Jacob to speak of Zebulun first? He envisioned a division of labor. The tribe of Issachar would one day be sedentary, devoting itself wholly to the study of Torah. From its midst would spring the teachers, scholars and judges who would imbue society with the spirit of Torah. Hence, Jacob lavishes praise on Issachar. In contrast, Zebulun is depicted as mercantile and mobile, a rank of a lower order in a culture of learning. And yet, Jacob speaks of them first because their wealth is earmarked to support the studies of Issachar. The merchants of Zebulun are the silent partners, the great enablers that ensure the transmission of Judaism. Without adequate funding, the study of Torah soon withers.

A life of the mind needs a measure of sustenance. At the end of his life, Moses offers the same tribute: “Rejoice, O Zebulun, on your journeys, and Issachar, in your tents” (Deuteronomy 33:18). Not only does Zebulun come first again, but, he is to derive his satisfaction from the knowledge that Issachar can dwell in the tents of Torah because of Zebulun’s steadfast largess. To facilitate the pursuit of Torah is equal to studying it (B’reishit Rabba 98:12).

In this 150th year since the founding of the Breslau Seminary, the spiritual forerunner of JTS, and the 350th anniversary of the arrival of Jews in North America, The Jewish Theological Seminary is driven by a passionate vision to help refashion American Jewry on many fronts into a vast and vibrant learning community. With ethnicity in decline and unfettered individual autonomy on the rise, it is only the infectious power of our sacred texts that can inspire Jews to participate in and perpetuate Judaism’s ancient quest for God’s nearness. At JTS, that quest translates into a religious culture based on faith coupled with enlightenment, a community tethered to respect for diversity and piety steeped in tolerance. Fundamentalism must not be the only wellspring for passion.

To disseminate that vision, we have led in the founding of a Schechter high school in Manhattan, a Ramah camp in Georgia, and a graduate school of Jewish education at JTS, which with its 125 students is the largest by far in North America. Some 7,500 young people attend our Ramah camps each summer. Last summer United Synagogue Youth (USY) and Ramah, sent 650 youngsters to Israel, while this year, a record number of 55 are in Nativ, USY’s year–long Israeli post–high school program. Another 60 college graduates are currently studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, jointly run by the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism (USCJ) and JTS. Indeed, a spirit of collaboration has brought the USCJ and JTS together to join forces on a wide range of educational endeavors.

According to the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000–2001, 29 percent of the children receiving formal Jewish education, do so now in day schools. I estimate that one quarter of this unprecedented number comes from the Conservative Movement, with some 25,000 students in community schools, which are primarily founded, funded and attended by Conservative Jews, and another 25,000 in the Movement’s 70 Solomon Schechter Schools, not to mention the myriads enrolled in Orthodox day schools. To support this vital venue of Jewish education, JTS is hard at work on a comprehensive Bible curriculum for the Schechter system, and is heading up a commission funded by the AVI CHAI Foundation, to set standards and benchmarks for all non–Orthodox day schools.

Still, 70 percent of our children are enrolled in congregational schools. For them, JTS is developing a new comprehensive curriculum, predicated on the latest research in the field of cognitive learning. Equally noteworthy, is the recently announced grant of nearly $1.8 million, by UJA Federation of New York, for a pioneering venture by JTS and Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. The venture is dedicated to collaboratively delivering in–service training for the development of senior personnel for Conservative and Reform Movement congregational schools. At the same time, JTS is vigorously pushing a Hebrew immersion program for pre–school children, a population consistently overlooked by Jewish educators. A grant by the Covenant Foundation enabled us to take this promising initiative nationwide to more than 4,000 pre–school children in year one.

No single educational venue offers a panacea. The settings for serious Jewish education that I have described here constitute an interlocking network in which the parts reinforce each other. The objective is to expose our youngsters to as many of them as possible, including USY, which is still the Jewish youth movement with the most gravitas.

There is no more serious impediment to this agenda than the pervasive dearth of competent educators. To address it has become the overriding mission of our William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education. Numbers make a difference. A trickle of well trained and a host of ill–equipped graduates can hardly be expected to deliver quality Jewish education on a grand scale. At commencement last May, JTS graduated a record number of 120 rabbis and cantors, educators and academics, lay and professional leaders–to–be, of whom 31 received MAs in Jewish education, and one EdD. JTS is the only Jewish institution in the country to award the EdD, which is the coveted coinage of the educational realm. The overall record enrollment of 670 students at JTS this year also attests to our determination to relieve the personnel crisis. Nearly one–quarter of our rabbinical and cantorial students, now pursue MAs in Jewish education, while studying for ordination or investiture. And, a growing number of students from our List College and The Graduate School are gravitating each year toward jobs in Jewish education.

In sum, JTS today stands at the forefront of the challenge to cultivate for conviction. Long a preeminent center for the academic study of Judaism, JTS has also become a dynamic powerhouse for Jewish education at all levels. Issachar is well, but hampered by the insufficiency of Zebulun. My hope at year’s end is that the merit of this extraordinary record of service in the cause of Torah will inspire others to add their names to the honor role of Zebulun.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Vayehi are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.