As a recently-engaged twenty-something, I’m learning with each passing day the importance of compromise. I don’t always get my way, and sometimes I have to do things I’d rather not for my partner’s sake. But like everyone else, I have my line in the sand when it comes to what I will and will not do.
For me, that line has always been a dog.
Erik, my fiancé, loves dogs, and left his beloved four-legged friend with his parents when he joined me in Mississippi. Ever since, he’s been longing for a canine companion. “I’m sorry,” I’d tell him, “I cannot have a dog in my house. Volunteer at a shelter if you want to, but don’t bring one home. They smell, they shed, and they’re just not for me. It’s my line in the sand.”
For a long while, Erik (begrudgingly, but generally graciously) accepted this, and volunteered at the local animal shelter to get his fix. I would see the way his face lit up when a stranger let him pet their pup, and the way his demeanor changed whenever he talked about getting one. Could having a dog really affect a person that much? I wondered.
On January 25th, 2015, I learned the answer to my questions. Erik and I took home Wally, a dachshund mix from the Animal Rescue Fund of Mississippi, as a foster dog. It was my own little experiment (could I handle a dog in the house? Would it make a drastic difference in Erik’s quality of life?) and our new compromise. I figured hey, if it works out and we adopt, then fabulous…and if it doesn’t, I would be able to say I’d given it a try, we would have done a good deed, and we wouldn’t have to keep him. No harm, no foul.
Almost a month later, Wally is officially our puppy, and I couldn’t imagine life without him. Erik’s happiness has increased…and so has mine. How did I get to this point, you might ask? Well, it was a surprisingly Jewish journey, involving a plethora of Jewish values that I still work hard to embody every day.
When I look at Wally, lounging on his fluffy dog bed, I am first reminded of tza-ar ba-alei chayim, the law against the unnecessary suffering of animals. I am proud that we were able to relieve his suffering by rescuing a shelter dog and giving him a forever home.
When Wally gets excited to see me when I get home, and jumps a little too much or licks a little too fervently, I aim to be erech apayim, slow to anger. When I get territorial about sharing my bedroom with a dog bed or my kitchen with dog food bowls, I channel my nevidut, generosity. And in my small moments of doubt, when I look at the huge responsibility Erik and I have taken on, I channel my inner ometz lev, courage.
The few short weeks we have had Wally have contributed significantly to our shalom bayit, peace in the home. Caring for him has made me think about aspects of my Judaism in a new way. In Pirkei Avot we are told that one mitzvah leads to another…but in this case, as our friend Danny put it: one “mutt-zvah” led to another – from volunteering, to fostering, to adoption.
As a Jewish educator, I often challenge my students to find Judaism in everything, and because of my new Southern rescue pup, I had an amazing opportunity to do just that! Thanks, Wally, and welcome to our family.
This Friday, I will be giving a lecture about my dissertation, Choice Among the Chosen: The School Choice Movement and the American Jewish Community, at Millsaps College.
I haven’t really looked at my dissertation since defending it this past June, but it has been fun to revisit the story – and good motivation to start moving it toward publication. It’s a story worth sharing; here’s just a taste.
I was driven to write about the topic after attending a rally for school choice initiatives at Beren Academy in Houston, Texas. Houston boasts an ever-growing Orthodox Jewish population. I attended the rally with my father, who was a Republican at the time—and remains a Southern Baptist to this day. He had never met an Orthodox Jew, but quickly felt right at home when “Rabbi T.” began speaking.
With a strong Brooklyn accent, the rabbi fired up the crowd by asking: “Who’s a proud American? Who’s a proud Texan?!”
The crowd cheered, and Rabbi T. continued: “We proud Americans like having choice…this is what democracy is all about. We choose our profession, how we lead our lives, what brand to buy at the supermarket, so why shouldn’t we as Jews be able to choose our education and not decide between food or day school tuition?”
My father was nodding in agreement. He asked, “Are these people Jewish? They sound like Republicans to me.”
I looked at him in amazement. “Dad, there are plenty of Jewish Republicans.”
It wasn’t a new thing for me to hear observant Jews espousing rhetoric that reflected Republican values. What was more surprising was the fact they were staunchly arguing for government funding for parochial schools. Historically, the American Jewish community has ardently supported church-state separation. When did that change, and why?
Turns out that some Jews have been advocating government funds for parochial/religious schools for decades – since the early 1960s. The leading advocates for government funds for Jewish schools were Agudath Israel, Torah Umesorah, and the Orthodox Union. For Orthodox lobbying groups, who did not want to send their children to mixed-gender schools, their constitutional right to education trumped Establishment clause concerns. They claimed to need government support because the Jewish community wasn’t funding their institutions.
At the time, Jewish Federations did not want to support Orthodox schools teaching values not held by Jews in the mainstream community. In fact, at one debate, a female American Jewish Congress member threw a subway token at Rabbi Moshe Sherer, president of Agudath Israel, snarkily remarking, “…you must need this for your ride home. That’s all the aid you will get from the liberal Jewish community. It isn’t my responsibility to support your religious choices.”
Leo Pfeffer, the leading Jewish lawyer who fought against school prayer, fought tooth and nail against the work of those like Sherer. The harder Pfeffer fought against federal and state funds going into these schools, the more motivated the Orthodox community became. The battle grew ugly. Pfeffer and his allies were able to convince the Courts throughout the late 1960s and 1970s to declare all but paltry aid to nonpublic schools unconstitutional. In response, Orthodox Jews and Catholics tried new approaches – namely tax credits and vouchers, which come with very little government oversight.
When evangelical Protestants joined the mix, powerful changes in educational policy occurred, ones that increased economic inequality and decreased racial diversity in the American educational system. The voucher and tax credit approach was eventually deemed constitutional. Orthodox Jews, Catholics, and evangelicals collectively wrought this change, all believing it led to more moral schooling for their children. (Evangelicals were once against government funding for private schools as well, especially since up until the 1960s public schools reflected distinctly Protestant values. Public schools were essentially tools for disseminating their values, but that changed after the Supreme Court outlawed prayer and bible reading at school.)
A lot of people think the Moral Majority grew as a result of Roe v. Wade. But the Moral Majority was formed as a result of the Carter administration trying to withdraw tax exemptions from Christian schools, formed in the wake of des-segregation and secularization of public education. Tax exemptions saved these private schools a tremendous amount of money. If those had been revoked, these many of these schools would have dissolved.
Religious private schools clearly still exist, receive tax exempt status, vouchers, tax credits, and so on – a victory for Sherer and his allies. The amount they receive is no longer paltry, either. Last year, $1,233,200,000 was spent on tuition for approximately 337,000 students attending private schools, and that money essentially comes with no government oversight, allowing schools to teach whatever they want and admit whomever they want. Depending on the state, some of that goes to the nearly 255,000 students enrolled in 861 Jewish day schools. In states like New York, yeshivot receive millions each year for things like mandatory services. In all of these cases, that is money not going to public schools. With charter schools also booming, public schools are ultimately getting fewer resources which in turn, hurts public school students.
This reality is very pronounced here in Mississippi, and certainly in Jackson. Statistics show that a large percentage of Jackson Public School students drop out in ninth grade, and the turnover rate for teachers and administrators is abysmal. Jackson residents who have the means to leave the public school system have plenty of nice private school options from which to choose.
So, what do you think? When it comes to Jewish values, is it more important for Jews to fight against school choice initiatives, advocating for better public education for all? Or should they push for more school choice/voucher and tax credit initiatives, promoting private school options while giving lower and middle income Jewish families more funding to access to an increasingly expensive Jewish day school education?
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The holiday of Shavuot demonstrates a method of gift giving that we may want to deploy when thinking about advancing social justice.
Think about it. What might have happened if instead of the whole counting of the Omer (those 49 days between Passover and Shavuot), and had instead received the Torah on the last night of Passover — perhaps as a gift for the hard work of putting together a Seder and drinking 4 glasses of wine?! That would have been more efficient, right?
There are many commentaries on the purpose of separating the holidays by 49 days. But all of them make it apparent that both the giver and receivers of the Torah needed to be prepared for the giving and accepting of this gift. After all, it seems as though the 49 day delay in the giving of the Torah was not a result of a lack of preparedness on the part of the giver. Rather, it was the receivers who had more preparing to do. When it comes to the giving of Tzedakah, it is not merely the content of the gift that matters, it is the time, place, approach and the people who we intend to help that define whether the opportunity for Tzedakah is ripe. Receiving the Torah prematurely may have resulted in an outcome different than the one we know—the emergence of an independent Jewish people.
Giving Tzedakah, effectively, requires mindfulness—awareness about the material objects that are being exchanged but also about the feelings felt by each person involved. This mindfulness made it possible for the Jews to accept the Torah and make it a defining part of Jewish life moving forward. The receiving of the Torah itself wasn’t an isolated incident. It came with 49 days of preparation, where the desire for the Torah led to extraordinary anticipation. Only when the Israelites themselves demonstrated their desire to receive the Torah was the Torah given to them.
When we think of the many gifts that the Israelites received before the giving of the Torah, they seem to be given by an omniscient and omnipresent God who rescued them from the Egyptians, gave them Manna, split the Red Sea, and so on. However, on Shavuot, we don’t see a God who knows what is best for the Israelites. Instead, we see another face of God – God as partner; God humbly asking the Israelites whether they will accept the Torah. The Torah may have been received differently if it were given by a high and mighty God who had little familiarity with the Israelites. Instead, Moses descended upon the mountain and then God is said to have descended onto the mountain. While it is true that God and the Israelites are not standing on equal footing, we certainly see an attempt to create a more balanced relationship, where God acknowledges the need for a receiver of the Torah, trusts that the Israelites will provide the answer that suits them best and gives them the opportunity to choose their own destiny.
Don’t people living in poverty deserve similar treatment?