Making a mensch

‘When they leave our school at some stage,” says the principal of United Herzlia Schools, Geoff Cohen, of his learners, ‘hopefully they leave as a mensch.”

That last word — mensch — captures something of the cultural diversity that the term ‘Jewish” embraces. It’s not Hebrew. It’s Yiddish, a language dating back to the Middle Ages spoken by Jews in Eastern European countries.

And what Cohen means by mensch, is ‘a person with good values who will make a mark on the broader society they live in and become good citizens of their country. What religious schools try to do today is to teach a set of values that are common to all people. And that’s what we’re trying to do here at Herzlia.

‘We’re not throwing religion down their throats, but we are trying to impart a certain ethos which promotes good morals, good values. That’s the basis on which we stand. Values are to us the most important, so we try to educate not only from a secular side.”

Recently, Herzlia’s head of Jewish studies, Yona Lazarus, attended a moral and ethical leadership conference, held by South Africa’s moral regeneration movement, with a host of other religious representatives, from Muslim to Baha’i. Lazarus argues that the very fact that such a conference was held at all implies a general public dissatisfaction with current social mores, and a desire to see morality re-emphasised in schools.

‘From this conference, it seems clear that secular society is not failing intentionally,” says Lazarus. ‘Society wants to see the restoration of morals and ethics. But I cannot understand how you can do that outside a religious framework, because if it is not connected with a divine definition of what is moral and ethical, then it is subject to whoever’s opinion it is and can change from man to man or culture to culture.”

What the Herzlia’s learners are taught is the ‘divine definition” of morality according to Orthodox Judaism, practising morning prayers and celebrating Jewish festivals. In some ways, fundamental Jewish values are very mainstream, since they are spelt out in the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament in the Bible — contravening most of them could get you arrested most anywhere in the world.

But Orthodox Judasim propounds a further 613 laws, as well as the belief that Jews are the chosen people, singled out from all the nations to harbour and disseminate the commandments as they were handed down to Moses.

Cohen scoffs at the notion that being ‘God’s chosen people” gives Jews an inbuilt sense of superiority and arrogance. ‘Our Torah teaches us that we should be spreading the mitzvot — which are the commandments. And if that’s the duty of the Jewish people, to impart that set of values, then that’s a pretty noble thing. Do we see ourselves as better than anybody else because of it? Absolutely not!”

Herzlia is an open school that also admits non-Jews. Out of the 1 600 learners attending its five pre-primary, three primary, one middle and one high school, about 100 aren’t Jewish. The school has had Muslim learners — something worth mentioning, with the longstanding conflict played out between these faiths in Palestine and Israel.

But the fact of the matter, says Cohen, is that Judaism will always be inextricably linked with Zionism. ‘There are kids in the school who have a particular view on Israel, and that’s fine. There are people living in South Africa who have a particular view on South Africa — that doesn’t mean that they are unpatriotic. They are either on the left or the right. They are entitled to their opinion.

‘Yes, I believe in the state of Israel. We believe that Israel has a place in the world today. And we unashamedly say that. Are we right wing or left wing? I think everybody has a right to their own feelings about this, and we encourage kids to learn about Israel.”

What they try to achieve for their learners is ‘to give them a balanced viewpoint. But when you’re dealing with politics and you’re dealing with years and years of history, it’s difficult to find a solution. Kids question a lot. Debate is a good thing. Do we have all the answers? No. If I had the answer, I’d become the prime minister of Israel and sort the problem out!”

For all the academic successes of which these Jewish schools can boast, Cohen maintains that it’s not about the marks. ”The most important thing any educator can do is to turn their kids into nice people. What else is there? Not everybody can get straight As or straight Bs, and it’s irrelevant, really. I don’t think marks are a really big indicator of how successful kids will be when they leave school. But it’s what they learn at school from a life skills point of view that is as important, if not more important.”

Fast facts: Judaism

  • Judaism was founded about 3 300 years ago when Moses received a divine revelation on Mount Sinai.
  • It was founded by the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses.
  • Judaism has about 13-million followers around the world.
  • Jews don’t believe Jesus was the Messiah. They believe the Messiah will be a person from the family of King David, who will lead the world to unity and peace.
  • Jews believe in one God who created and rules the world.
  • They believe in a code of law (based on the Ten Commandments) that regulates how they worship God and how they treat one another.
  • Their scriptures, the Tankah, are known as the Old Testament by Christians. It comprises three groups of books: the Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim.
  • The Talmud contains stories, laws, medical knowledge and debates about moral choices.
  • Zionism is a national movement for the return of the Jewish people to their homeland and the resumption of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel.

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Ami Kapilevich
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