By Rabbi Levi Greenberg

Back to school is always a time filled with excitement, the dawn of the new school year turning a new page and signalling endless possibilities. While in that sense this year is no different, the start of this new school year is undoubtedly at the same time filled with apprehension. 

Everything we knew until now about the mechanics of education has been upended, and this Monday is going to be one of many firsts in education: for the students, faculty and parents. Online education, as we will spend the first two months, is still a fairly new vista for most El Pasoans, and the knowledge that everything can change overnight doesn’t make it any easier.

Rabbi Levi Greenberg

These past few months have been transformative on many levels, and we must salute the people who spent the summer months working round the clock to ensure the educational system continues functioning during these extraordinary times. 

In conversations with educators, parents and students I have come to realize that together with the reassessment of school instruction itself, there is a powerful soul searching going on. Especially in the wake of the first anniversary of the Aug. 3 mass shooting in El Paso, many are rethinking what education is really about.

Knowledge can be whatever we want it to be. It can be a powerful agent for positive change, but unfortunately it can do a great deal of harm as well. Literature and the written word can convey the loftiest of insights and teachings, but can also promulgate hatred and terror. Arithmetic can be used to tally up charity donations or to swindle and cheat the less fortunate. In the right hands, medical knowledge can be used to save and extend lives, in the wrong ones it can be used to efficiently terminate. Scientific discovery can enhance our length and quality of life, or produce tools to destroy civilization itself.

For over 40 years the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, spoke incessantly of the crucial need for our educational system to have a soul. His inspiring philosophy on public education, delivered in his public talks and extensive correspondence, was recently anthologized by Professor Philip Wexler in the book “Social Vision.”

Children are not computers to be fed information, the Rebbe taught. They are humans endowed with a conscience and a mutual responsibility for their families, communities and the world at large. As parents and educators, we cannot simply equip our children with the tools to embark on successful careers, we must teach them how to choose right over wrong and good over evil. To live lives of service and higher purpose.

To this end the Rebbe was a strong advocate for public schools beginning the day with a “moment of silence.” When school children reflect silently at the beginning of the school day on the purpose of education, it has an indelible impact on their moral and ethical perspective in life, with far reaching results. 

To ensure educators do not advance their personal religious beliefs in the public school classroom, parents inform their children of what values and ideas to reflect on during that minute — another golden opportunity to foster parental involvement in their children’s moral and ethical education.

Today, a “moment of silence” is mandated in over 20 states including Texas. The Rebbe explained that, when implemented meaningfully, this moment of silence can have a transformative effect on our youth and change the course of history.

While most schools in town already begin the day with a moment of silence, now that children are attending school virtually from home, we have the opportunity to work on making this moment of silence more meaningful. Parents are more involved in the details of their children’s education than ever before and now is a good time to have meaningful conversations with them of what they should be thinking about during the moment of silence.

I know the early morning hours in every household are hectic and no one is looking for more chores. But I encourage parents to have a conversation with their children and ensure they are afforded the opportunity to reflect silently for a minute on something meaningful for their family.

By starting the formal school day in a way that allows the soul of education to flourish, together we can not only get through this difficult period in a healthy and hearty manner, but in a way that can positively change our entire community, and in that way the world.

Levi Greenberg is associate rabbi at Chabad Lubavitch in El Paso.

Cover photo by Lance Cpl. Tabitha Bartley, courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps.