Tuesday, the United Nations released a report compiled by UNICEF on the wellbeing of the world’s children living in developed countries.
Reading the grim results that highlighted the bottom-end listing of British and American children, I was reminded of an incident several years ago at an interfaith retreat in Cambridge, England.
A delightful and enlightened group of scholars, clergy and ordinary folk had gathered at the university to spend a weekend discussing the relative values of Judaism and Christianity in our Hollywood-dominated and reality-TV saturated modern world.
No sooner had the first session started than an elderly Christian woman said, “I do think it is appalling that Jewish children are subjected to that ghastly Bar-mitzvah ritual, or whatever they call it.”
I challenged her. She said “Imagine subjecting little boys and girls to years of studying Hebrew and wasting their youthful energies to learn something for a one-day event!”
I said this was a tradition going back centuries and she snapped, “They should be playing sport!”
What a start for what was meant to be a congenial weekend of Jewish-Christian interplay and reflection. Immediately the Jews in the group had been put on the defensive about an aspect of Jewish life and tradition that unites the otherwise discordant Orthodox and Reform movements. Bar-mitzvah, and more recently Bat-mitzvah, are central to the lives of most Jewish families and to the spiritual and intellectual development of their children.
When the British toddler Jamie Bulger was brutally murdered by a pair of teenagers there was much gnashing of teeth and hand-wringing about the depths to which the youth of the nation had sunk since the end of World War II. Orthodox Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks said on national television that if children observe the Ten Commandments they will never go astray. It seemed a naïve approach at the time, but the UNICEF results raise the question of societal morals and how they affect children.
Jewish family life is unique. Except for a small minority, family is central to the traditions and eating together is an integral part of the process of maturity. In the huge majority of Jewish homes, meals are times for lively discussion and interplay. Because alcohol has a minimal presence in the life of Jews, meals are civilized and often thought-provoking affairs. I would wager that in Muslim, Hindu and Far Eastern homes this is true as well, because the elderly and one’s parents are central to the life of the family.
Jews have been sitting down to Shabbat dinner for thousands of years. The Passover Seder has been an annual feature of life in even the most secular of Jewish homes for centuries, as is the Rosh Hashanah meal and the break of Fast on Yom Kippur. What Jewish child can forget the first time they found the ‘Afikomen’ on Passover night? Who has not decorated a Sukkah or carried a little baby scroll on Simchat Torah? Even my secular Jewish friends and family never forget to light Chanukah candles for the week of that inspiring, ancient festival, nor do they fail to light Yahrzeit candles in honor of the dead.
I remember having a furious argument with a non-Jewish friend while on holiday, when it transpired that she and the friends she had arranged for us to meet at the hotel spent the entire week imbibing in endless gallons of alcohol. When I complained to her that there was more to life than being drunk and swearing in public, she tore into me about my uptight Jewy-Jewy nonsense.
Notwithstanding the hideous press Israel gets in the UK, Jewish children benefit from wonderful, character-building trips to the Holy Land where they work in punishing conditions as volunteers on kibbutzim, in soup kitchens (yes, there are thousands of poor Jews in Israel) and old age communities. Israeli youngsters, male and female, all have to do army service.
In the Diaspora (Jewish communities outside Israel) Jewish children are encouraged to study for Confirmation after their bar or bat mitzvah. Again, this is a goal that builds self-confidence and the discipline to study. How many British children know a second language? Most Jewish children do, because they study Hebrew from the time they are ten or so.
In South Africa, the two schools in which black children have been excelling are those funded and run by the Jewish community, the Mitzvah and MC Weiler. Rabbi Weiler was a Holocaust survivor who devoted his life to bettering the chances of black children in apartheid South Africa. Funds were raised for these schools through the tireless efforts of the Hadassah women.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council UK can rail and rant all it wants about 'Zionazis,' and British Respect Party activist Yvonne Ridley can fulminate about 'that vile little nation,' but it is Israeli charities like ORT and Hadassah that have provided invaluable educational aids to children around the world regardless of their faith. The late ex-Prime Minister of Israel, Golda Meir, wanted to see every child in Africa literate and productive with a career ahead of them. So much for the evils of ‘Zionazis’ condemned by the Muslim websites these days.
British children whose lives are less than pleasant, as described in the UNICEF report, seem to suffer from the evils of alcohol, drugs and delinquency. One of the elements that I believe has contributed to the decline of the wellbeing of children in the USA and UK is the absence of the mother. Women of my generation have put careers first; I do remember my resentment when my mother, a teacher, seemed more interested in the children in her class than in my own academic progress.
Then there is the church. I was disappointed that UNICEF’s findings put American children at the near-bottom of their league table. One of the aspects of American life that does not exist in Britain is the domination of organized religion. Pretty much everyone goes to church, and most Jews go to synagogue. Church activity has helped black children with careers in recent years. Christian Britain is secular and religion is treated with universal contempt by the media, alongside a worship of atheist gurus led by Dr Richard Dawkins. In both countries, one deeply religious and one relentlessly secular, it is regrettable that children are not experiencing wellbeing, according to UNICEF.
In the Jewish model, the entire ethos in which the family evolves is a core factor in the success of Jewish children in society and their relative absence from the world of anti-social behavior, alcohol and drug abuse and early-age sex and pregnancy. To bring pride to one’s family and not to shame them is essential to Jewish life. To read, to be well educated, to stay sober and to dine with one’s elders is almost a religion in itself.
I have had my share of verbal abuse for decades from people who hate Jews and Israel. Perhaps the wider community in Britain, greeted by this appalling result from UNICEF, might look to the Jewish community for guidance instead of wasting so much energy on boycotts of Israel and anti-Semitic epithets.
How sad the rabbi of a central London synagogue, herself a convert from Christianity, recently told the congregation that she and her colleagues can no longer walk down a street in the West End wearing a skullcap without abuse from passersby, car drivers and diners in outdoor cafes.
Those shouting the abuse are more than likely the parents of the bottom-of the-league children in the UNICEF study. Perhaps instead of spewing venom at Jews they might like to start learning what makes good Jewish kids tick and why they lead decent lives.
The UNICEF result is a disgrace and should set British parents thinking. Visiting a synagogue and meeting Jewish parents might be a worthwhile start. Sending their children to Israel for a gap year would also be a valuable exercise, although the Israeli authorities would not tolerate the kind of rowdy drunkenness, violence and promiscuity in which British youth engage at home. This will never happen, because I know to my horror how much most British non-Jews hate Israel, a country for which only the ugliest comments are reserved at ‘polite’ dinner parties.
Learning from other communities is the only way British parents can pull their children out of the hell the UNICEF study has revealed. I would like to see the Jewish community reach out to non-Jews and I would also like to see the British Christian clergy find a way back into the soul of Britain, a country I see sinking into a secular morass of alcohol and vulgarity that can only bring down its children with it if something drastic is not done now.
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