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September 4, 2015 / 20 Elul, 5775
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Teach American Civics In Every Yeshiva

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Comedians often send fake reporters out into the street to gauge people’s ignorance. They’ll ask: “Do you approve of Vice President Romney’s support for the president?” or “Do you think Obamacare helped secure the country’s borders?”

The responses to those and other inane questions are funny and frightening. If these are the people who vote in national and local elections, then Americans have no one to blame but their fellow citizens for the country’s shortcomings.

As Winston Churchill put it, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

“We seem to have surrendered our power, as citizens, to expect more or, perhaps most essentially, to be the inspiration that we hope to find,” writes attorney and law professor Paula A. Franzese, who adds that “It’s time to snap out of the collective trance of complacency and self-involvement to reclaim the altruism that resides in not just some of us, but all of us. But first it needs to be expected, and then nurtured.”

She and people such as former U.S. Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor are attempting to reintroduce civics to the school curriculum because “We needto be teaching our children and teenagers the essentials of character, responsibility and good government.”

Many blame Americans’ ignorance about government – from the local to the national level – for the partisan gridlock that seems to have affected the country. If “We the People” become disinterested and uninvolved, the country risks losing its constitutional bearings.

Sidney Hillman, an early leader of America’s labor movement (who was descended from a long line of rabbis), commented: “Politics is the science of how who gets what, when and why.”

When a Jewish community attempts to build a synagogue, yeshiva, or mikveh there is almost always community opposition. People oppose community eruvim and their wires – even though they are practically invisible unless you know where to look. They claim an eruv violates their rights by forcing them to reside in a government-approved religious boundary. To resolve these issues, communities need their own civic leaders to engage local officials, to lobby, and even to organize legal action.

Many young Orthodox men and women, to their credit, join and support worthwhile Jewish organizations and causes. Yet they are loath to become involved in communal affairs.

But as the Orthodox Jewish community in America continues to grow, understanding civics becomes all the more important – and the need to add civics to our yeshiva and day school curriculums takes on an ever greater urgency.

(The most obvious rejoinder to that suggestion is that secular studies programs have so few hours allotted to them as it is, and it would be impossible to shoehorn another subject into the school day. But we can do so because our educational system has a built-in dual track, and civics is not necessarily a subject limited to a secular studies department.)

* * * * *

A tremendous civics lesson can be learned from the 400 Orthodox rabbis who marched on Washington on October 6, 1943, three days before Yom Kippur.

Consumed with sorrow and anger over the Holocaust that was raging in Europe, they wanted to present a petition to President Roosevelt asking him to expand the quota limits on Jewish immigration to the United States and to create a government agency devoted to the rescue of European Jewry.

Roosevelt refused to meet with them, quietly leaving the White House through a rear exit. (The group did speak briefly with Vice President Henry Wallace.)

But the publicity from the march was such that Congress began holding hearings on the creation of a rescue agency and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau sent a sharply-worded report to the president detailing how State Department bureaucrats were doing everything possible to derail Jewish immigration to the U.S.

About the Author: Shlomo Z. Mostofsky is a civil court judge in Brooklyn. He served as president of the National Council of Young Israel between 2000 and 2011.


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