A waiter approaches a customer to take his order. The customer, thinking aloud, says, “Let’s see. This week is the Nine Days, so I have to eat dairy. I’ll take the fish.” The confused waiter goes back to the kitchen and says to the headwaiter, “There’s a strange guy out there. He thinks there are nine days in a week and that fish comes from a cow.”
Hebrew University professor Mike Rosenak told this story to a gathering of Jewish educators in the 1990s in Jerusalem. Mike, who recently passed away, was an outstanding philosopher of Jewish education. He told this mildly amusing joke to make a point of the centrality of Jewish literacy.
The joke requires a level of Jewish knowledge. The “Nine Days” preceding the 9th of Av, the date commemorating various Jewish tragedies and the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE, involve observing certain restrictions, like abstaining from meat, as an expression of national mourning.
It also requires knowing some rudimentary principles of kashrut. With this joke, Mike introduced a framework for Jewish education that transcended the liberal-traditional, secular-religious divides. His framework was “literacy” and “literature”: Without some basic literacy, it is impossible to be an active participant in the creation of “literature.”
Before Sam Israel passed away in 1994, he established the Samis Foundation to support K-12 Jewish education in Washington State and five program areas in the State of Israel: Archaeology; wildlife conservation; “widows and orphans, for those who have lost their provider”; immigrant absorption; and university scholarships for gifted, needy students.
Since inception, we at Samis have been privileged to distribute nearly $70 million, approximately 80 percent, to Jewish education in the Seattle metro area. Most of the funds have gone to day schools, overnight camping, and Israel experiences — intensive, immersive Jewish experiences that optimally convey the richness, timeliness and timelessness of the traditions of our people.
Recently, we at Samis stepped back to ask ourselves some big questions about our work. Would Sam be pleased with us and what we’ve tried to carry out in his name? What is the ideal Jewish community in which we seek to live, and what should educated Jews ideally know and believe, and how should they act? The visionary conversation within Samis is still going on, but I thought I’d take the opportunity JTNews has given me to share some of our thoughts thus far.
The Avi Chai Foundation’s vision is three-fold and resonates with Samis: Literacy, religious purposefulness, and ahavat Yisrael (love of one’s fellow Jew). The joke above illustrates these three elements, which are deeply interrelated.
Besides the obvious requirement of knowing the “what” of the Nine Days (literacy) the Nine Days framework carries along with it other key values and narratives that touch upon “religious purposefulness” and “love of one’s fellow Jew.”
According to Talmud and Midrash, the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred among Jews, the polar opposite of ahavat Yisrael. Our joyous festivals include the challenging words, “because of our sins were we exiled from our land.” Ultimately, we Jews take responsibility for our failures as a nation, which resulted in God destroying His temple as punishment for our sins and booting us from the land He promised to us and our ancestors, a land whose gift was always conditioned on our observance of the covenant and His commandments, including “love your neighbor as yourself.”
But what about Jews who are not knowledgeable or don’t believe in God? Does a vision that emphasizes Jewish literacy and religious purposefulness exclude them? For a foundation committed in practice to Jewish education, it seems absurd to envision a community embracing ignorance as an ideal!
This vision of ahavat Yisrael broadly includes all Jews. It is indeed a “commandment” (religious purposefulness: There is a commander!) for us to treat each other with profound respect, indeed, love. I’m reminded of the Midrash of the four species of the lulav, which compares the four species to four kinds of Jews. The Midrash asks the provocative question of whether God destroys them all because of the deficiencies in the group as a whole. The Midrash answers, “No, rather God binds them all together.”
Rabbi Soloveitchik defined collective Jewish existence in terms of two covenants: Brit goral, a covenant of fate, which binds all Jews due to common ancestry and history; and brit ye’ud, a covenant of ultimate purpose or destiny, commandments, and Torah, which is the reason God chose the Jewish people from all nations.
The three modalities of Jewish education to which Samis has devoted most of its education funding — day schools, overnight camps and Israel Experiences — provide participants with compelling experiences and learning opportunities embracing this three-fold vision. Day schools at their best provide students deep immersion into the classical texts and language of our tradition. Camps provide a 24/7 immersion into a full Jewish communal existence: Eating, playing, sleeping, hiking, all in a Jewish context, with a culminating Shabbat experience every week. Israel experiences immerse participants in perhaps the most intense educational experience of all, in the context of the energy, creativity, the palpable spark of the “beginning of the flowering of our redemption,” experiencing a fuller Jewish existence than can be experienced anywhere else.
May we at the Samis Foundation continue to merit being able to meaningfully support the wonderful day schools and camps in our community and to realize our aspirations for meaningful, purposeful Jewish life in our community.