Education and Sharing Day, U.S.A., a day of national commemoration designated by each president since Jimmy Carter in 1978, turns 40 this year. Across the country, the milestone is being marked with events and discussions focused on education. Education Day this year occurs on March 27, 2018, corresponding to the 11th of Nissan on the Jewish calendar, the 116th anniversary of birth of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.
Speaking at a gathering for his 75th birthday in 1977, the Rebbe concentrated on the importance of education and announced the coming year as the “Year of Education,” spearheading the establishment of new schools, summer camps, and educational programs. At its culmination, in April of 1978, Congress passed a joint resolution calling upon President Carter to establish a permanent Education Day, noting “the importance of education to the lives of [the country’s] citizens and to the well-being of the Nation.”
Since then, the idea of one day dedicated to thinking about the education of youth in the United States, focusing particularly on the higher meaning of education, has resonated across party lines, a rare unifying space in a sometimes fractured political and societal arena.
Today, President Donald Trump follows the previous six presidents—from Carter to Barack Obama—when he issues his proclamation marking Education and Sharing Day, the second of his presidency. A delegation of Chabad-Lubavitch leaders is expected to meet with the president in the Oval Office for the signing. Since the day’s inception, states, cities, and localities have likewise designated the Rebbe’s birthday as Education Day. This year, for the first time, proclamations or the equivalent have been issued by the governors of all 50 states and the mayor of Washington, D.C., recognizing the day and what it stands for. Some 100 more city and local proclamations, from Alameda, Calif., to Tumwater, Wash., to El Paso, Texas, have been issued.
Education Day is about highlighting the higher purpose of education, with the Rebbe stressing, in 1978, that “the educational system must… pay more attention, indeed the main attention, to the building of character, with emphasis on moral and ethical values… Education must put greater emphasis on the promotion of fundamental human rights and obligations justice and morality, which are the basis of any human society… ”
And thus the need for a specific day, similar to Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, when awareness could be raised for a vital societal institution, in this case, education. Because of education’s pervasive role in shaping the next generation, it would, in fact, bolster other days on the calendar, such as Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.
“Amid the distractions and concerns of our daily existence, it is appropriate that Americans pause to reflect upon the ancient ethical principles and moral values which are the foundation of our character as a nation,” Ronald Reagan noted in his 1982 proclamation for the day. “We seek, and steadfastly pursue, the benefits of education. But education must be more than factual enlightenment—it must enrich the character as well as the mind.”
Fifteen years later Bill Clinton reiterated this same universal idea, noting that American children must have the tools they need to “make the most of their God-given potential,” and be assisted in harnessing the forces of technology so that “those in the most isolated rural towns and those in the poorest inner-city schools” have access to the vast universe of knowledge. “However,” Clinton wrote, “education involves more than books, facts, and homework assignments. Education also concerns the building of character. Character is an anchor of our society, and we should work hard to cultivate it among our young people. If our Nation is to continue to thrive and prosper, we must continue to live up to our ideals.”
It is this idea, and furthering discussions surrounding it, that lies at the heart of Education Day.
Rabbi Avraham Shemtov, national director of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), coordinated the activities surrounding the very first Education Day celebration in Washington, D.C., back in 1978 and will lead the delegation today. His son, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the organization’s executive vice president, continues his father’s work. The younger Shemtov says that the 40th anniversary milestone and the record number of states, counties, cities and towns around the nation officially marking Education Day could not have come at a better time.
“Education Day is all about looking a bit deeper, finding the greater meaning that life brings,” says Shemtov. “If ever there has been a time for that type of effort, it’s now. Education Day can be the vehicle to help this meaning come to the fore. Right now we’re seeing the start of a community conversation, from this country’s leadership to the rank and file.”
How Does One Celebrate Education Day?
At a public talk on his birthday in 1982—that year it was called the National Day of Reflection—the Rebbe highlighted the importance of setting aside time during which to think about and discuss education. More than simply honoring the Rebbe’s life and work dedicated to expanding educational opportunities for everyone—an honor the Rebbe said he accepted not on his own behalf, but on behalf of the entire Lubavitch movement—the Rebbe said he wanted it to spur thought, conversation, and, hopefully, concrete action.
This year, aside from every governor in the nation signing a proclamation, a number of resolutions have been passed on the state legislative level.
“When we talk about educating our kids, we sometimes say that they need a good education to ‘make a better living,’” noted State Rep. Robert Wittenberg (D), who sponsored the Education Day resolution in the Michigan House of Representatives. “But making a better living doesn’t just mean making a bigger paycheck.”
That education is not simply the gaining of skills is not a new concept in American public discourse. George Washington noted it in his famed Farewell Address of 1796, as did Benjamin Franklin when he wrote his Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania [sic]in 1749, which led to the eventual establishment of what is today the University of Pennsylvania.
Writing in On the Education of Youth in America (1788), father of American education Noah Webster outlined that every district should have its own schools, each one run by a reputable and well-informed individual. “Here,” in addition to “the usual branches of learning… the rough manners of the wilderness should be softened, and the principles of virtue and good behaviour inculcated. The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities; and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head.”
It was these American ideals that the Rebbe echoed when he spoke of Education Day, and hoped to inspire around the country. Which is exactly what is happening. During an Alaska Senate Education Committee hearing held last week, senators heard from Rabbi Yosef Greenberg, co-director of Lubavitch Jewish Center of Alaska in Anchorage, and his son Rabbi Mendy Greenberg, co-director of Mat-Su Jewish Center in Wasilla. Testimony also came from Rosemary Lebowitz, a semi-retired school teacher in Hoonah. During her long career, she recalled, she had one student who cheated during an exam. At the time, the school attempted to rectify the problem by dealing with the parents, and they thought they had it fixed. Years later Lebowitz says she made multiple visits to the former student in prison.
“This is only to bring up the point of how important these values are,” she explained. “They are important at a young age.”
The Education Day resolution was brought to Alaska’s Senate floor by Sen. Shelley Hughes (R), who spoke of the Rebbe’s legacy, and his life-long dedication “to education and to the youth and this important cornerstone of humanity. As far as education, he felt that it was very important that in addition to academics, Mr. President, that the discussion of morals should also be part, and should not be neglected, and he encouraged Americans to teach and share with the next generation, those values that make good citizens and a strong nation and a better world.”
Noting the bipartisan support for Education Day on the national level, Hughes continued that with the rise in Alaska’s suicide rates, domestic violence and assault problems, “We shouldn’t be veering away with these discussions … this resolution … encourages us to think and recognize that these discussions with our youth are important conversations to have, whether it’s in a public school, a private school, homeschool, whether it’s around our dinner table, whether it’s at our places of worship or whether its just out in our community.”
Following Hughes’ floor speech, Alaska Senate Minority Leader Berta Gardner (D), rose and commended her colleague, adding some of her own thoughts to the discussion at hand.
“There’s one part of it that I think deserves specific mention and that is about the value of instilling a spirit of service in our children,” Gardner said. “That’s a part of it I particularly appreciate—and I think it sometimes goes unnoticed and unsaid—and when we do try to impart that on our kids it’s an ongoing effort and I’d just like to draw people’s attention to it.”
A concurrent Education Day bill in Alaska’s House, sponsored by Democratic State Rep. Harriet Drummond, passed the House with similar respectful, introspective dialogue. Such Education and Sharing Day conversations are taking place across the country.
For the Rebbe, the bedrock of education were the moral values imbued by the knowledge that there is a Creator of the universe to Whom each and every person is responsible. In discussing Education Day and the idea of encouraging young people to grow into responsible citizens and ethical human beings, the Rebbe spoke of the Seven Noahide Laws, the foundation of a civilized society, and ways to facilitate young people reminding themselves of the existence of a Supreme Being, the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, with “an Eye that sees, and an Ear that hears.”
At the same time, the Rebbe understood and appreciated this country’s separation of church and state, and therefore searched for ways to find common ground with those who might have a different opinion. Looking for a way for young people to be able to recognize, on a daily basis, something greater than themselves, the Rebbe called for a Moment of Silence in public schools, a measure ruled constitutional by federal courts and acceptable by school prayer opponents.
The Rebbe encouraged Education Day to be used by everyone to advance the cause of education in the way that they see fit, and in the interests of furthering the cause of justice and morality in this world. Over the years, various presidents have used the annual proclamation to further specific educational programs they supported. In 1991, Pres. George H.W. Bush touted his National Educational Goals, which he hoped the country would reach by the year 2000, noting that “if the application of one’s knowledge and skills is to be truly fruitful and rewarding, it cannot be divorced from high moral purpose.” In 2003 Pres. George W. Bush spoke of the success of his No Child Left Behind Act, saying that “as part of our commitment to our children’s future, we must also teach young Americans to live lives of integrity and purpose, and to realize the importance of loving others and contributing to their communities.”
“In an era where a woman’s education was not valued the same as a man’s, the Rebbe worked to tear down barriers that stood in the way of girls who wanted to learn,” Pres. Barack Obama’s 2015 Education and Sharing Day proclamation states. “He established a Jewish organization for women and directed his teachings of service and scholarship equally to young girls and boys. He was even known to write, ‘There must be a girl!’ on educational materials that depicted only boys.” Noting that there are 62 million girls around the world who should be in school but are not, Obama drew attention to First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative.
Each president has their own vision of educational success and excellence, yet the thread of recognizance of a higher purpose to education runs through each and every proclamation and public statement on the topic. This is reflected at the state and local level as well.
In 1981, the people of Burlington, Vt., unexpectedly elected a young socialist as mayor: Bernie Sanders. Two years later he marked Education Day in his city for the first time, lauding the Rebbe for seeking “out the materially oppressed and disadvantaged, thereby effecting their enfranchisement through education; and by stressing the universal implications of education as a source of continuous creativity through which the human condition is perfected.” The language on Sanders’ proclamation, it is safe to say, was different from, say, Ronald Reagan’s.
Sanders’ roommate at the time was Richard Sugarman, today professor of religion at the University of Vermont and a renowned expert on the thought of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. “I’d say that’s still a good representation of Senator Sanders’ thinking,” says Sugarman. “It was a moral message embodied in practical words, which he sent to a great religious leader.”
Sanders, says Sugarman, saw that the Rebbe, a religious figure, would always pay attention to the material conditions of other people, not only the spiritual. “Bernie was very impressed by that.”
Sugarman recalls hearing that some who saw Sanders’ Education Day proclamation had laughed, but not the Rebbe, who wrote the mayor a thank you letter.
“I sincerely appreciate your thoughtfulness in designating this Education Day in honor of my birthday,” the Rebbe wrote in 1983. “I trust that your action will stimulate greater awareness of the vital importance of education, not only among all your worthy citizens, but also in the State of Vermont.”
The Rebbe believed that if only people would put aside their differences and focus their thoughts and energy towards bettering the education of the next generation, the world would be a better place. Education Day’s 40th anniversary comes at a time when this country needs such focused determination more than ever.