Tu Bishvat,eve of Israeli elections.
About seven years ago a journalist colleague confronted me during a coffee break. “Are you a Neanderthal? How could you support the Shas party?” I invited her to come to Netanya to visit kli rishon some Shas institutions. A few weeks later she took up the gauntlet and came with a photographer to write an article (about Neanderthals?) I took her to the Beit Margolit girl’s elementary school, that had grades 1 to 5; to thriving kindergartens in deprived neighborhoods that were boosting children from the entire religious and non-religious spectrum; to the hessed store of “fellafel Yael”; to Rabbi Moshe ben Moshe’s outreach to marginal youth; to an interview with R. Ovadia Yosef’s daughter Adina BarShalom who founded the Haredi College in Jerusalem. When my journalist friend submitted her article to the Jewish Exponent, they returned it to her and said it was too positive, too glowing to be true, and asked her to rewrite it! She stood her ground and it was published. She doesn’t vote for Shas, but she did change her opinion. “Seeing is not the same as hearing” – is chazal’s phrase describing Moses’ wrath upon seeing Bnai Israel cavorting around the Golden Calf. That goes for positive as well as negative sights.
My oped “AAAs for SHAS” appeared in the Jer. Post on 14bShvat. In researching it I was surprised to discover the wide variety of Shas Members of Knesset. For example, MK Avraham Michaeli graduated a Bnei Akiva yeshiva high school, then Har Etzion (the Gush) hesder, and then Bar-Ilan Law School. He was a captain in the tank corps (most Shas MKs and voters were in the IDF).He is one of three Shas MKs who are immigrants (he is from Georgia FSU, another is from Ethiopia, and a third from Buchara FSU).
…that coming on aliya as a teenager, MK Michaeli acutely understands the problems facing immigrant families. What impresses me is that he does not promise Shas will help in this area in the future; rather he points to achievements already accomplished in his first term as a Knesset member. He got special consideration enacted for teens taking the matriculation exams, obtained additional counseling for immigrant students, prevented the closing of ulpanim and saw to the provision of extra Hebrew tutoring for immigrant pupils.
Why does an AAA (Anglo Ashkenazi academic) support Shas? My main reason is that I have seen that over the past two decades a sea change in Sefardi youth, wrought by the network of Shas schools. An example from my oped:
At a time when many children from Sefardi homes were falling between the cracks and not doing well in school, Shas founded a girls school in Netanya 12 years ago with first graders, adding a grade each year until it had an elementary and high school. Beit Margalit was named after the late wife of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Through intensive instruction by dedicated teachers, this Shas school raised the academic level of the “disadvantaged” pupils so that the school’s average on nationwide elementary school Meitzav exams far exceeds the national average in math, English, Hebrew and science.
What puzzles me is why did Shas succeed where others failed?
One reason for the achievements in the Shas school network is found in the Torah reading the week of the election, in which the Ten Commandments are read. The fifth commandment, honor thy father and mother, is not just a theory of filial piety; it is grounded in the specificity that characterizes Jewish law. The Shas schools apply these halachot, creating an atmosphere of “tough love” where religious discipline fosters a learning atmosphere that is serious and leads to academic achievement and creativity.
This leads me to ruminate on the essence of Kibud Av vEm. There are two diametrically opposed views on the relationship between worship of Hashem and filial piety. Nechama Leibowitz juxtsposes the Sefer Hinuch with Kad Hakemach (R.Behye ben Asher,14th century Aragon,see under Kavod).
Hinuch explains that people should appreciate the good there parents have done for them, and feel hakaras hatov. Since Hashem was a partner with the parents in a person’s coming into this world, this appreciation and hakaras hatov will lead to appreciation and gratitude to Hashem.
In contradistinction, Kad Hakemach starts with the first dibra, „Anochi Hashem Elokecha…” Just as Hashem first commands us to honor Him, as a corollary He commands us to honor parents who are partners with G-d in our creation.
Though it is obviously a two-way interaction, I wonder which approach should be given priority in education? Does teaching children halachos of respect for parents and teachers (e.g.address them respectfully, stand when they enter the room, don’t sit in their chairs) engender respect/love for Hashem, or vice versa, do we emphasize kvod Hashem and from this there will be a spillover effect to children’s behavior towards parents & teachers?
A post-election note: It is worth reading the upbeat J Post oped by R. Dov Lipman of Reishit Yeshiva, Beit Shemesh, who headed the committee overseeing one of the ballot boxes in Beit Shemesh. He concludes:
THE FINAL EXPERIENCE came at the end of the day, when it was time to count the votes. Some of the staff felt so comfortable with the rest of the group that they decided to reveal for whom they voted.
He then explains:
The young male Kadima representative? He voted for Shas. The young female Labor representative? Shas. This taught me in the most glaring and tangible way that externals cannot define the essence of a person; you simply never know what a person truly feels on the inside.
It also revealed to me that there is a searching and yearning for something spiritual and meaningful among the younger generation which manifested itself in these two people, one Sephardi and one Ashkenazi, identifying with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and a religious party.