By Noa Maltzman
The week before I started as a Machon Kaplan intern, I was having a conversation with my mom about education and graduation. It began with my mom saying that she thought it was silly that next year she would have to go to my sister Mica’s eighth grade graduation. She thought it was weird that schools even celebrate graduating from eighth grade. So I pointed out that she went to my fifth grade graduation: “Did you find that silly?” My mom replied, “Yes! Because Dad and I knew you were going to graduate from fifth grade, just like we know Mica will graduate from eighth grade and from high school, and that both of you will graduate from college.” We ended the conversation there. That my parents assumed I’d make it through high school and college wasn’t much of a surprise to me.
In my first few weeks as an intern at The Peace Alliance, I have already realized that what my mom told me is not a given for everyone: I am fortunate to be a part of a family where we can safely assume that a college degree is affordable and attainable. Of course, I already knew before starting my internship that only about 40% of working aged Americans hold a college degree. What I didn’t know was that one reason some people don’t make it to college is because sometimes existing law can make it very challenging for students to afford a college education.
I first learned this when I started my internship and was assigned the task of creating a two-page fact sheet on H.R. 2521, the REAL Act of 2015. The Restoring Education and Learning Act of 2015 is a bill to restore Pell Grant eligibility for federal and state incarcerated individuals (Pell Grants are federal grants, up to $5,500, that are given to undergraduate students to help them finance their college educations).
Since 1994, incarcerated individuals have not been eligible for Pell Grants and the number of prison college education programs has drastically decreased because of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Supporters of the REAL Act point to research that shows inmates with access to college education and degrees are less likely to commit more crimes when they are released and are better able to contribute to their communities.
Since the earliest days of Judaism, learning and teaching have been important values. One of the 613 commandments in the Torah orders us “to learn Torah and teach it” (Deuteronomy 6:7). We even have a prayer that one is meant to say before learning Torah: Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, asher kid’shanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu la’asok b’divrei Torah. We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who calls us to holiness through mitzvot, commanding us to engage in the study of Torah.
These examples of how our tradition urges us to go and learn might be specific to learning Torah, but I think we can translate them to modern times, and more broadly interpret them to illustrate the value of education and learning in a society. I believe now that it is our duty as members of the Jewish community to follow those that came before us and urged us to go and learn: Let’s work to make it possible for everyone — even those incarcerated—to have access to education and opportunities to learn.
Noa Maltzman is a rising sophomore at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. She is a 2015 Machon Kaplan participant, and interned at the The Peace Alliance.