In 1899, Mark Twain penned a famous essay entitled "Concerning the Jews." Twain wrote:
The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?
Twain's question can undoubtedly be answered on many levels, from G-d's promise to the Jewish people to the ways in which Jews have manifested their unique identity and mission. This week's Torah portion, Vayeira, which contains some of the most difficult narratives in the Bible, offers an additional answer. In last week's portion, Abraham pleads with G-d for a child to fulfill the promise that Abraham and Sarah will be the progenitors of a great nation. In this week's reading, that plea is answered: In her old age, Sarah gives birth to Isaac, through whom the promise of peoplehood will be fulfilled. And then... G-d calls upon Abraham to offer up his cherished son as a sacrifice.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that these trials of barrenness and sacrifice are meant to underscore the value of children in our tradition. He writes:
We cherish what we wait for and what we most risk losing. Life is full of wonders. The birth of a child is a miracle. Yet, precisely because these things are natural, we take them for granted.... Throughout history Jews were called on to treasure children. Our entire value system is built on it. Our citadels are schools, our passion, education and our greatest heroes, teachers. The Seder service on Passover opens with questions asked by a child. On the first day of the New Year, we read not about the creation of the universe but about the birth of a child - Isaac to Sarah, Samuel to Hannah. Ours is a supremely child-centered faith.
In recent weeks, I've had the privilege of visiting our Jewish Day Schools. Solomon Schechter Day School and the New England Jewish Academy are indeed our citadels: both offer a rigorous secular education fully infused by Jewish values and practice. I was impressed by innovative initiatives in both schools. Schechter's early childhood program features child-centered learning in a rich sensory environment where teachers observe and support students' curiosity. At NEJA, Lower Division students have launched their own newspaper as part of an innovative curriculum that stimulates proficiency and a love for writing. At both schools, secular and scientific concepts like climate change and fermentation are explored through the Jewish lenses of prayer and Torah study - and a love of Israel is nurtured every day through academic study and personal interactions with our Shinshinim (Israeli Young Emissaries, a Federation program).
Jewish Day Schools are a vital investment in our communal future, and our Federation is committed to keeping them strong. A significant portion of our allocable dollars are allocated to education, including our Day Schools, synagogue schools and other supplemental initiatives, including our Israeli Young Emissaries. This investment is paying off. Local graduates are regularly accepted to prestigious institutions like MIT, Columbia and Brandeis, and most important, our children are growing up to be knowledgeable, proud Jews and communal leaders.
President and CEO
Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford