Rabbi Harcsztark is the Founding Principal of SAR High School and Dean of Machon Siach honoring the memory of Belda Kaufman Lindenbaum z”l, a research arm of SAR High School. He previously served as Rabbi of Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, New Jersey, and as the Associate Principal of Judaic Studies at SAR Academy. He was a Fellow at the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization at NYU Law School in 2010-11. He is the recipient of the 2017 Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.

Leaders Must Ask: What Do Our Kids Need to Know Right Now?

“What do our kids need to know right now?” This question has been central to our work over the past few months. I will share two examples. 

Waging a Just War Justly 

After the atrocities of October 7, the world expressed outrage at the barbarism and butchery of Hamas against innocent civilians. We knew even then that it would take but a few days until the tide would turn and the criticism would be leveled at Israel and the IDF for the intensity of its response. 

And so it was. As Israel began its air raids, I envisioned the things that would be written and said. What, I asked myself, do our students need to know at this time? What issues will arise for our alumni on campus and, by extension, what voices will echo in our own and our high school students’ heads as we read the criticisms of Israel and the IDF that are sure to come from media and governments around the world?

While I pondered these questions, I took a few days to sharpen my understanding of the IDF Code of Ethics. As high school educators, when something needs attention, we must figure out what to tell our students, whether or not it is our area of expertise. Or, more accurately, that is our area of expertise: what to say to high school students when something must be said.  

To better understand the IDF Code, I learned what I could from Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. I also consulted with Moshe Halbertal, one author of Ruach Tzahal, the IDF Code. I then took twelve minutes at one of our schoolwide tefillot to share the basic principles of the Laws of Armed Conflict: necessity, distinctiveness, and proportionality. In those few minutes, we, as a school, were developing a shared language about the IDF’s commitment to the ethics of war. 

We are deeply loyal to the State of Israel and the IDF, but we always need to make sure that our loyalty is informed. We must ensure that we and our students understand the ethical principles that guide the IDF and the expectations that they—and all of us—carry. When we share those principles as a school, we build shared values and culture. We strengthen our collective support for Medinat Yisrael as we root it in principled, knowledgeable loyalty.

That very day, October 17, a missile hit near the Al-Ahli Hospital. We feared that it was an IDF strike and experienced a degree of relief when Israel and the U.S. shared evidence that it was a misfired missile from Palestinian Islamic Jihad. For me, the same question returned: What must we, the educators, say to our students? The next day, in the same schoolwide tefillah slot, I explained how the Torah teaches the importance of valuing life even in the context of war. 

This is the idea in brief: the latter segment of Parshat Shoftim teaches the protocols of war. The unit begins with the drafting of soldiers and the list of those who are exempt from the draft. The Torah describes a Milhemet Reshut (an optional war) and a Milhemet Mitzvah (a mandatory war). The beginning of Parshat Ki Teitzei talks about captives at the end of the war. In the middle, there is an unusual ritual of the ’eglah ’arufah, which is performed when a body is found between cities without clear cause. The elders of the city must ask for atonement (kapparah) and state that they were not actively involved in the death, which raises a glaring question: why is this unit of text placed within a unit on war protocols?

In the midst of teaching about war, the Torah teaches the value of human life. Psychologists describe that in war, because it is not natural for one person to kill another, the mind dehumanizes the enemy. Killing causes people to become desensitized to the value of life, making it difficult to remember that every innocent life is of infinite value. The Torah, in the midst of its teaching on war, reminds the society, and each individual within the society, to focus on the value of every human life.

It is vital to make this point out loud to our students. The death of human beings is catastrophic. Judaism is life affirming at its core and sees every human as created in the image of God. While we are permitted to and must destroy our enemies, we must always feel the loss of human beings who do not deserve to die. If we neglect to state our values, students can easily forget those values or not know that every civilian life is of infinite value even in a time of war.

Developing Shared Vocabulary and Understanding 

As teachers and administrators, we recognize that a communal vocabulary—terms and definitions we articulate clearly for one another—is the foundation on which we build our students’ educations. Especially in a world that promotes distorted misrepresentations, we must maintain this shared language in order to build both shared culture and shared values, allowing us to move forward with our ethical sensibilities intact. We ask what our students need to know right now; we, as educators, learn and deliberate; then we gather our students and share with them the ideas that we would like to hold as a community.

This approach has informed our classroom teaching as well. As we watched our college campuses morally implode, I began to think about our teaching of modern Israel. Over the last seven years, our team invested time and energy, and collaborated with experts, to develop a curriculum that explored the historical events, the military tactics, the personal stories and the psychological impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We also include other complex issues in modern Israeli society such as the secular/religious divide, Mizrachi/Ashkenazi divisions, and the status of Israeli Arabs. The concept of differing narratives informs the curriculum for all of these issues.

Since October 7, we have adapted our curriculum. I have long been opposed to the military analogies for Israel advocacy: We have to arm our students to defend Israel against the attacks of others. I have now come around. For the foreseeable future, I think that those analogies hold. Today, we must fight on the curricular front as well.

We have just added a new segment to our Zionism curricula, one that arms our students with the capacity to defend the IDF against spurious, fashionable criticisms. We and our students need a conceptual framework that ensures our commitments and values in a post-truth world where facts and concepts don’t matter, a world where words like “genocide,” “colonialism” and “apartheid” are used as loose analogies rather than with the precision and weight that such terms demand.

In this new world, our students must be able to respond, both to the voices in their heads and the voices of others, with ethical, moral, and historical clarity. They must learn how to reject the triad, the now lazily accepted charges of colonialism, apartheid, and genocide. Sadly, our students must learn the precise definitions of these terms so that they know why these terms do not describe the State of Israel. We recently piloted a three-pronged curriculum that concentrates on 1) the use and the misuse of these terms, 2) the basic elements of Ruach Tzahal, the IDf ethical code, and 3) the parameters of free speech and antisemitism.

These are dark times. But in the midst of these difficulties, our children are experiencing a revitalized sense of Jewish pride. Asking “What do our kids need to know now?” can help ensure that they have the Jewish confidence to stand up with strength, moral clarity, and conviction.