Geoffrey Canada is an inspiring educator and activist. If you watch 60 Minutes, listen to This American Life on the radio, or pay attention to American Express commercials, you’ve heard of Canada’s brainchild, the Harlem Children’s Zone, which seeks to use the educational system to “break the cycle of generational poverty” in a small neighborhood in New York. What makes Geoffrey Canada’s vision unique and revolutionary is that he doesn’t focus on helping families break out of poverty. Rather, he accepts that it is almost impossible to pull young and poor parents out of the cycle, but that the chain of poverty can be broken if resources are poured into children. The Harlem Children’s Zone is a cradle-to-college program that starts working with mothers before their children are even born, and works with children from birth through pre-school, elementary school, middle school, high school, and college. Geoffrey Canada believes that the key to a neighborhood’s redemption is its children.
This week is a special Shabbat, called Shabbat HaGadol, a special day that always falls on the Shabbat immediately preceding Pesach. To mark the occasion we read a special haftarah, an excerpt from the book of Malachi. The haftarah parallels the story of redemption from Egypt with a narrative about Messianic redemption, but it’s the final verses that really reminded me of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone.
“I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and awesome day of the Eternal comes,” the text reads. “He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.”
What does it mean, I wondered, that Elijah will “turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents”?
Rashi explains that Elijah will come to make peace in the world. But there’s a catch. Rashi teaches that the redemption of the world relies on the children. They are the ones who will ultimately bear the responsibility of fulfilling the prophetic imperative to make the world a more Godly place.
Geoffrey Canada gets this idea. So does the Talmud (Brakhot 64a), when it teaches that, “Jewish education brings forth peace in the world.” The sages quote the prophet Isaiah (54:13), “Your children shall learn from God, and their peace will be abundant.” But then the Talmudic sages adjust Isaiah: “Al tikrah banekha, Do not read the passage as ‘your children’; Elah bonekha, Rather, call them your builders.”
The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai had a similar idea when he wrote:
A child is a missile into the coming generations
A child is something else again; on a rainy spring day
glimpsing into the Garden of Eden through the fence.
Lest we forget this message, Elijah appears throughout our textual and folk traditions to remind us. Our liturgy welcomes him as we usher a newborn child into the covenant, reserving a seat of honor so that he might remind us of the role this infant will play in repairing our broken world. In one tale, Elijah appears at a wedding to remind a misguided town that they have an obligation to help the poor and to treat every human being with dignity.
Elijah, I would argue, is a vision-driven Jewish educator. There are a lot of complementary and conflicting visions for Jewish education. Some assert that our goal is to provide children with a Jewish identity. Others are content to prepare them for bar or bat mitzvah, or to give them a hearty combination of guilt and pride for fear of assimilation or disaffiliation. These goals are problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that they don’t reach high enough. As modern Reform Jews who believe in our obligation to bring about redemptive change in the world, the paramount goal of Jewish education must be to enable and empower our banim, our children, to be our bonim, our builders. The goal of Jewish education is the redemption of our world.
“A child is a missile into the coming generations,” Amichai wrote. And educating a child is a redemptive act. The best Jewish education is an affirmation of our commitment to justice, to gathering divine sparks as we partner with God to complete creation.
And as our rabbis taught us by juxtaposing Malachi’s Elijah with the celebration of Passover, our commitment to Jewish education is a commitment to freeing our world from the bondage of innumerable and immeasurable Egypts.