Monuments and Moderation

Akiba Hebrew Academy kicked off its 60th anniversary celebrations with a Thanksgiving dinner at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem this year. In attendance were other alumni and their families who have immigrated to Israel, 80% of Akiba’s current eleventh grade class – participants in Akiba’s semester program in Israel, their parents visiting on an organized trip, and miscellaneous members of the Akiba family – former faculty, alumni and friends who are in Israel.

Akiba’s president told us of the multi-million dollar campaign Akiba has undertaken to refurbish the campus in the next few years. This will turn Akiba into a “state-of-the-art” institution with a new gym, new computer wing, a new administrative building, an additional floor of classrooms, upgrading and expanding the current facility to accommodate a larger student population which it will also more easily attract, being a more competitive choice for parents looking for a private school.

As some of the numbers were quoted, I looked around at the alumni I know, many of whom have a hard time paying their bills each month. The president continued speaking of the endowments set aside to subsidize tuition which encourages parents of elementary day school students to continue a Jewish days school education through high school and which offsets the costs of students going to Israel who are required not only to pay Akiba’s tuition while abroad, but also to pay for their Israel program.

I wanted to hear the updates about my alma mater. I like the direction Akiba is going and I as far as I know I think its resources are being managed well and being put to good use. However, I got the sense that the parents of current Akiba students hadn’t a clue of the financial situation of those sitting among them.

I know few American immigrants in Israel who are able to pay their basic expenses without some financial assistance from their family abroad. Nonetheless, most of us have few doubts that the choice we made to raise our families in Israel are worth it. These are based in values we received at Akiba and from the homes and communities in which we were raised.

When asked, we don’t refuse an opportunity to have guests. As we often say in our home, a two and a half bedroom apartment with places to sleep for nine (not including sleeping bags on the floor), “we can always add more water to the soup.”

In appreciation for our hospitality of Akiba’s current eleventh graders who spent a Shabbat in our homes, Akiba paid for the hosting alumni’s Thanksgiving dinners. This did not go unnoticed by many of the Israeli alumni for whom this was a big night out that they may not have afforded themselves otherwise. However, the motivating force behind our open homes are the values we learned at Akiba, and desire to give back to the community for our own experiences as students visiting Israel. Such Shabbat experiences between alumni and students in Israel are another step in Jewish continuity.

I learned such values as a part of my education and from my family. Sitting amid Akiba students, I saw that they know, as I did when I was in their place, how fortunate they are. As they hear of the millions of dollars their parents are spending on a building, be it a school or a synagogue, I wonder what these children internalize from their parents’ example. It is easy to lose perspective and to forget that there are some people who can’t afford a hot meal, that one-third of Israeli children live in poverty – more than any other country in the Western World. I ask myself, “How do we build a multi-million dollar building while not forgetting the values taught within it?”

I think back to my mother’s example: My mother came to America with her immediate family bringing with them only what they could carry after seeing the Nazis march into Prague in 1939. My grandfather went from being the wealthiest man in his village, the owner of the general store with the biggest house on the main square to a cemetery caretaker, grateful for a job that included a house. Growing up, I was never allowed to throw away food or to say I was starving, because I had never truly known hunger. Although these restrictions sound harsh, they helped me to internalize values based on a realistic perspective of the world.

When it was cold at home, I learned to put on a sweater instead of turning up the heat. I would not have minded doing the same at school if it meant that a child in Israel could have a hot meal every day.

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