By Rabbi Ron Stern
In Morristown, New Jersey, where I grew up, nearly every child in town went to a public school. At our High School I became best friends with "Stitch" Mackenzie. He hailed from an African-American single parent home in the solidly blue collar section of town where small homes with small yards lined the streets. I, on the other hand, lived in a house designed and built by my parents on an immense plot of land where the closest home was barely visible through the trees. Stitch and I might have come from vastly different backgrounds and experienced very different upbringings, yet because of Morristown High School we found each other and all those other differences lost their significance. We became fast friends.
Our High School was a well-funded, effective, jewel of our town that brought almost all the eligible students of every religion, color and ethnicity together for sports, appropriate college preparatory classes for the college bound as well as technical classes for those heading straight to work. Morristown High School enabled me to attend the college of my choice and continue my life in the style that my parents had given me. But most importantly, it enabled Stitch to rise beyond his own roots and attend another publically funded educational institution: Penn State University. Where might Stitch have ended up if our High School wasn’t the quality institution that it was?
For the last 22 years, Los Angeles has been my home. A far cry from the small town where I grew up, but no less a city that has captured my heart and commitment. Los Angeles contains an ethnic diversity that makes Morristown look like a slice of white bread, and that makes for an astoundingly interesting and multi-colored fabric of a city. And yet, this great city lacks something essential for a city of any size that I easily experienced in Morristown, NJ.
It is a sense of shared Civic Responsibility. In Los Angeles, though we are interconnected by a vast network of roads, freeways and even public transportation, there is very little sense from one neighborhood to the next that ultimately the welfare of our entire city rests upon the wellbeing of all of its neighborhoods. Though we elect a common mayor, utilize a common police force and share many resources with citizens of our city throughout this vast region of 470 square miles, essentially, our primary concerns are focused on the few square miles that constitute our own neighborhood. What goes on across town or across the Valley in the various ethnic enclaves is of little concern for us unless, of course, we fear that it may endanger our pristine neighborhoods.
Nowhere is this provincialism more apparent than in the quality of our public schools. While the public schools in Encino, Northridge, Brentwood and West LA are among the best in the district, the schools in Pacoima, Boyle Heights, Hollywood, Van Nuys and Eagle Rock are among the worst. And other than a few “tsk, tsks” we in the wealthier parts of town are ok with that.
Tragically, the Jewish community has embraced this lowest common denominator of civic responsibility with enthusiasm. With some notable exceptions, Jews in our city have opted out of any activism on behalf of our city’s public schools. As a result, we are vastly over represented in proportion to our numbers in the private schools. Where we have chosen to invest in public schools we have devoted our incredible organizing skills and resources to our own neighborhood public schools. Transforming them, as we move into the "good" neighborhoods, into virtual private schools where the principals are responsive to our needs and the teachers are supported and effective.
As I said, there are notable exceptions to this massive opting out of the Jewish community and of Jewish communal institutions. The Eli Broad foundation and the Milken Family Foundation, to name a couple of the better known foundations, with obvious Jewish roots are deeply committed to improving our schools. LAUSD board members Steve Zimmer and Tamar Galatzan, both have connections that extend deeply into the Jewish community. Jews are on the boards of vital organizations such as Para Los Niños and the Fulfillment Fund which was founded by UCLA physician Gary Gitnick. In addition there are thousands of Jewish teachers and administrators who are on the frontlines working throughout our city to bring their commitment and skill to all the children of our city.
However, the efforts of these noble few experience success despite inherent and unavoidable shortcomings. Essentially, the challenge is one of scale. The Fulfillment Fund’s ability to make college a reality for more than 200 high school seniors is incredible, but LAUSD graduates tens of thousands of students each year. When the Milken Family Foundation reaches dozens of teachers with its Educator Awards it is doing wonderful work to recognize the hard efforts of these teachers, but there are thousands of additional teachers who need in-service training and resources to do their jobs more effectively. Only public dollars and publically funded programs and initiatives are able to reach the scale that is needed to affect the quality of education throughout the district.
So, while many Jews as individuals are involved in initiatives that focus on public education throughout our city, there is an absence of activism from Jewish communal institutions. This silence is profoundly unfortunate, because our disengagement from public advocacy for improvements in the quality of education for all of the students of Los Angeles ultimately hurts all of us in this vast, great city. There is no need to point fingers at particular institutions that have remained silent because I don't have enough fingers and it is nearly universal. I want to be clear though that when I say Jewish institutions I really do mean ALL Jewish institutions from synagogues to museums, from the Federation to the Board of Rabbis.
Our organizations must be engaged in serious conversations about how we can mobilize our members and supporters to speak out and demand improvements in our schools from public officials. I know of only two Jewish institutions engaged in advocacy for public education: Temple Isaiah and my own synagogue, Stephen S. Wise Temple. Our work for public education is endorsed by our board despite the fact that we have our own private school system—the two are not mutually exclusive.
Over the course of my work to coordinate the advocacy for public education at my synagogue I have come across a text by the noted Medieval Scholar Moses Maimonides that speaks as much truth today as it did in the 12th century when he wrote it in the Mishneh Torah:
Even regarding the non-Jew, our Sages have commanded us to visit their sick and to bury their dead alongside the Jewish dead, and to feed their poor amongst the Jewish poor, because of ways-of-peace (mipnei darchei shalom). Behold the verse says, “God is good to all and His compassion is on all of his creatures.” (Psalms 145:9) And it says, “Her [the Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness and all of its paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:17)
Maimonides is making three points, quite powerfully, in this text. The first and most obvious is that the peace (read wholeness, wellbeing) of a community depends upon the Jewish community's capacity to provide the essential services of community to all its citizens (public schools were unheard of then, but if they were, rest assured they would have been on Maimonides' list). The second is that inasmuch as we are extensions of God's presence on earth, our embodiment of God's goodness requires that we extend our compassion to all. Finally, Maimonides provides the last text from Proverbs reminding us that the ways of Torah are ways of peace, implying that for us to fulfill the essence of Torah in our actions we must extend its blessings to non-Jews as well as Jews. Torah exists for the entire world, not for the Jews alone. This is a remarkable statement by a sage living in a world where religious stratifications were deep, immutable and sometimes explosive.
Ultimately, the moral argument that Maimonides makes in his time is the same one that must be made in ours. The "ways of peace" require a commitment from the Jewish community for the kind of leadership that will make that peace possible. Peace is not merely the absence of hostility. Peace -- Shalom -- requires a vision of community where the greatest single institution that teaches the values of our community and enables the practitioners of those values to sustain themselves and their families is supported. Public schools are the path to peace for LA and the institutions of the Jewish community must be in the forefront among those pursuing it.