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A classical Jewish education to rekindle the American spirit

Our new school will revive the lost art of training young minds, hearts, and souls in the best that Western civilization has to offer

The statue of Plato by Leonidas Drosis (d. 1880) in front of the Academy of Athens. (Wikimedia)
The statue of Plato by Leonidas Drosis (d. 1880) in front of the Academy of Athens. (Wikimedia)

Since the Hamas attacks of October 7th, the world’s eyes have been fixed on the Jews. Israel’s war against Islamic radicalism is a testing ground for whether the West has the will to confront and defeat its most ruthless enemies even as the widespread assault on Jews on US college campuses has become a symbol of the moral and intellectual confusion that plagues so much of elite American culture.

The roots of antisemitism and anti-Zionism, at home and abroad, are much deeper than simply irrational prejudice against the Jewish people. The Jews represent everything the enemies of the West seek to destroy: the moral code of the Hebrew Bible, which they seek to replace with the religion of wokeness; the culture of meritocracy, which they seek to replace with the “intersectional” paradigm of oppressors and oppressed; and the belief in national sovereignty, which they seek to undermine in the name of top-down UN-style universalism.

As go the Jews, so go America and the West. Perhaps this is an unfair weight – the weight of Western civilization – to put upon so few Jewish shoulders. But God chose the Israelites for a reason and the Jews once again must heed the summons of history.

The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once declared that “To defend a land, you need an army. But to defend freedom, you need education.” The bravery, boldness, and success of the Israeli Defense Force over the past 75 years, and over the past five months, is astounding. Against radical states and vicious terrorist groups bent on wiping Israel from the map, the Jewish nation bravely endures. Yet the larger purpose of the Jewish people is to educate the West: to be a light unto the nations. We are Menorah Jews, whose Creation stories are depicted in vivid color on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, whose ancient Psalms still stir the human soul, whose Hebrew words – “Proclaim liberty throughout the land” – emblazon the Liberty Bell.

The method of instruction focuses on the mastery of grammar, logic, and rhetoric as the foundation of serious thinking.

We all know how broken our secular educational system has become: our worst schools function more like retention centers than teaching centers, and many of our most prestigious private schools now perpetuate a toxic brew of American self-hatred, academic faddism, and an oppressive form of cultural thought-control that looks like Leviticus turned upside down.

We can do better. And Jews can help lead the way.

One of the most promising developments in the renewal of American culture today is the growth of classical schools around the country – some Christian, some secular, all of them devoted to recovering the lost art of training young minds, hearts, and souls in the best that Western civilization has to offer. This fall the Tikvah Fund (the organization we lead) is starting our first Jewish classical school, called Emet Classical Academy.

Lives of liberty and purpose

As our Tikvah colleague, Rabbi Dr. Mitchell Rocklin brilliantly explains, classical education differs from conventional modern education in three crucial ways: content, method, and purpose.

The curriculum is centered on the greatest works of the Western spirit and greatest heroes of Western history – from Homer to Plato, Cicero to Maimonides, Shakespeare to Rembrandt, Jane Austen to George Eliot, Abraham Lincoln to Winston Churchill. The Hebrew Bible, of course, is central to this Western heritage, and the Jewish story is a crucial part – the golden thread – in the providential drama of Western civilization.

The method of instruction focuses on the mastery of grammar, logic, and rhetoric as the foundation of serious thinking, the imitation of great works of art as the basis of creativity, the command of multiple foreign languages as the gateway to culture, and the memorization of poetry and song to create the furnished wardrobe of the mind.

The deepest aim of classical education is to prepare young men and women for lives of liberty and purpose – including the ability to pursue truth, appreciate beauty, and conduct themselves as virtuous citizens. Students educated in the classical tradition can easily learn modern areas of knowledge (like STEM) and practical fields (like law, medicine, and finance). But the ultimate purpose of a classical school is to prepare young men and women for moral and civic leadership, drawing wisdom, strength, and inspiration from the peaks of the past.

Emet Classical Academy will be based in New York City and will grow over the next few years to serve students from 5th to 12th grade. Emet means “truth” in biblical Hebrew, and we chose this name for a reason.

For too long, Western civilization has tried to live without truth. We pretended that the free rein of feelings could replace the disciplined training of the mind; that boys and girls were interchangeable units; that nations could endure without strong cultures and brave armies; that civilizations could flourish without great schools, faithful families, and citadels of high culture; and that our children could flourish by running wild in a TikTok universe that offers decadence-on-demand rather than models of human excellence. Yet even in the darkest days of confusion and crisis, the Jews are Western civilization’s reminder that truth always gets the last word: that Pharoah loses and Moses wins, albeit with long periods of exile in the desert. And the miraculous survival of the Jews – against all rational odds – is a reminder that hope is never lost, that history has meaning, and that renewal is always possible.

Emet Classical Academy will begin as a single, small school in New York City. It will introduce Jewish middle-school and high-school students to the majesty of Western civilization and the providential role of the Jewish people in the moral destiny of mankind. Over time, we hope to build more schools around the country and to continue partnering with many existing Jewish day schools by developing curricula, training teachers, and creating citadels of Jewish classical learning. Yet our larger purpose is deeper: to rekindle the American spirit, to offer Hebraic remedies for the civilizational crisis of our age, to be a Jewish light unto the nations.

Years ago, the great (non-Jewish) historian Paul Johnson captured the meaning of the Jewish people in history:

The Jews were not just innovators. They were also exemplars and epitomizers of the human condition. The Jews were fierce idealists striving for perfection and at the same time fragile men and women yearning for flesh-pots and safety. They wanted to obey God’s impossible law, and they wanted to stay alive too. The dilemma has been recreated in our own time in the shape of Israel, founded to realize a humanitarian ideal, discovering in practice that it must be ruthless simply to survive in a hostile world. But is not this a recurrent problem which affects all human societies? We all want to build Jerusalem. We all drift back towards the Cities of the Plain. It seems to be the role of the Jews to focus and dramatize these common experiences of mankind, and to turn their particular fate into a universal moral.

Over the past few years, the modern world has lived through two revelatory moments: the revelation of wokeness during Covid and the revelation of absolute evil perpetrated on October 7th. History has held a mirror up to our civilizational soul – inviting us to renew our culture by building anew. In this spirit, we hope that the Jewish classical education movement can be a beacon of hope. Against nihilism, Emet will stand for Jewish meaning and purpose. Against resignation and despair, Emet will stand for the Jewish spirit of resilience and creativity. Against educational malpractice, Emet will stand for intellectual excellence. And against the moral confusion that now engulfs us, Emet will stand for Jewish clarity and courage. And it all begins one student, one teacher, and one classroom at a time.

Eric Cohen is CEO of Tikvah and publisher of Mosaic Magazine. He will also serve as chairman of Emet Classical Academy.

Elliott Abrams is the chairman of the Tikvah Fund, as well as chairman of the Vandenberg Coalition and Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC.

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