On Monday, I had the opportunity to visit the Muslim Community Center Academy, a new Islamic elementary school in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, my old home town. The MCC recently opened in the same building that once housed the Solomon Schechter Day School, the Jewish religious school I attended from second through eighth grade–the place where I first felt a personal connection to Zionism, Israel, and the Hebrew language.
Solomon Schechter closed its doors for two reasons. One is that Chicago’s Jews have slowly migrated outwards, leaving the city and inner suburbs for distant, more affluent areas further north. Some children who once would have attended Solomon Schechter in Skokie now commute to what used to be its sister school in Northbrook.
The second reason is that non-Orthodox Jews–i.e. the majority of the American Jewish population–have long since stopped investing in Jewish education. They will donate to other philanthropic causes, but have far less interest in studying Talmud or practicing Jewish rituals. Holly Rosenberg, Schechter’s principal, once noted with some frustration that Jewish donors were eagerly contributing millions of dollars to the Illinois Holocaust Museum nearby, but were doing little to ensure the continuity of the present-day local Jewish community.
Recently, a group of former Solomon Schechter teachers and parents visited the MCC, the Chicago Tribune reported, to wish the new occupants well. The Jewish visitors wished to show solidarity with the Muslim school, in advance of any xenophobia it might face as bad news filters in from the Middle East.
It seemed a congenial visit, though there was something missing from the Tribune story: namely, any specific mention of Israel.
So I undertook my own visit, walking the hallways where Israeli flags once flew alongside the Stars and Stripes, looking into the classroom where we had built clay models of the Holy Land and memorized the dates of Israel’s wars, hearing the echoes of Hebrew songs and the Zionist anthem, Hatikvah, in the gymnasium.
I wondered whether the happy Muslim children praying in the library might one day be taught to resent the Jewish state.
I had seen that kind of anti-Israel indoctrination in other Muslim communities–not universally by any means, but among enough people to encourage widespread hatred for Israel and resentment of Jews.
In 2009, for example, when anti-Israel activists shouted down former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the University of Chicago, Palestinian kids taunted pro-Israel demonstrators by waving dollar bills and ranting about Hitler.
In Cape Town, I lived in the Muslim community for several years, boarding with a kind Muslim family and then renting a picturesque house in the historic “Malay Quarter,” waking before dawn to the call of the muezzin. I made many friends there, most of whom I am still in contact with today.
Yet I was well aware of the violently anti-Israel rhetoric being preached in some mosques and repeated, often as antisemitism, in the streets.
When we learned the history of Israel at Solomon Schechter, our teachers never disparaged Muslims–though some of the kids traded jokes, probably heard at home, about hapless Arab soldiers. The one time Islam was mentioned to us was in a positive way, in sixth-grade lessons about other religions.
I wonder whether today’s students will imbibe a similar spirit of tolerance, whether tolerance towards Jews will include the Jewish state.
I was greeted warmly by the vice-principal of the school, who showed me around the building. The structure was largely as I remembered it: I even found my old eighth-grade locker.
Shoes lined the hallway outside prayer rooms; elementary Arabic greetings decorated the walls. Boys and girls wore neat uniforms and studied in separate classrooms–unlike the egalitarian ethos at Solomon Schechter, where girls also led religious services.
As we walked around the school, I could not help but smile. The children are cheerful, and the teachers are clearly enthusiastic about their work. The population of the school is as diverse as the Jewish community–perhaps more so: where Russian Jews, Israelis, and South Africans like me once mingled, now there are kids whose parents immigrated from Pakistan, Bosnia, India, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, and other lands.
It seemed, in those settings, indecorous to ask about Israel. But I did not see, in the course of my visit, any sign of politics.
Still, I reflected on how my connection to the ancient Jewish homeland is still marked with so many memories of that school, that particular physical space–the peculiar light of a certain classroom, the way the upright piano (still there!) resounded to Mrs. Epstien’s percussive style as she led American and Israeli folk songs at assembly.
But a pile of bricks is just that, in the end.
The Muslim community did not displace the Jewish community in Skokie–far from it: many religious Jews have remained, and the Orthodox Jewish high school is relocating to Skokie from Chicago.
What has happened is that the non-Orthodox Jewish community invested more in an identity rooted in memories of prejudice and persecution than in an identity rooted in faith, study, practice and left.
I am often asked why many Jews vote liberal, despite Democrats’ ambivalence about Israel and opposition to many traditional Jewish values (or even secular Jewish values like hard work, meritocracy and free enterprise). The explanation lies partly in the story of Skokie–how the community opened a museum but closed a school.
Jews are not unique in that regard: much of Western Christendom is neglecting its old institutions as well.
The irony is that, in the end, without continuing education from one generation to the next, even the memories of persecution fade.
As I left, I pointed out to the vice principal the two trees outside that I personally witnessed being planted by Polish Christians, honored 30 years ago at the school for saving Jews in the Holocaust.
She did not know the story. There was no plaque marking the ceremony.
And, one day, no one to remind them, or us.
Senior Editor-at-Large Joel B. Pollak edits Breitbart California and is the author of the forthcoming ebook, Wacko Birds: The Fall (and Rise) of the Tea Party, available for Amazon Kindle.
Follow Joel on Twitter: @joelpollak