Tuesday, October 2, 2007

An open letter to the teachers and principals of the Modern Orthodox school system

A young man with whom I had the pleasure of meeting while working on an educational program a short while ago, asked that I share this with the community of Jewish educators.

I welcome your reaction to it.

Mo'adim Le-Simcha!

This past summer I was a counselor on a prominent Israel touring program for eleventh graders. Most of the participants hailed from the New York metropolitan area where they attend a variety of Modern Orthodox schools. I am writing to you because I was deeply disturbed at the complete apathy of these professedly Modern Orthodox teenagers towards their religion and its values. To them, Halakhah was a burden to be thrown off at the turn of the counselor's back, or even in front of him, spitefully. Besides for the typical Zionism espoused by Jews of their background, these teens had no sense of Jewish mission, responsibility, or experience.

Not only did they not want to daven, many of them did not even know how. Tzitzit were not worn. Tzniut and shemirat negiah were non-existent. It is almost laughable that in just a few years many of these same kids will be deciding between various one-year yeshivot in Israel, because now they can hardly be distinguished as Jews, save for the few that wear kipot on a consistent basis. Finally, and some would consider most distressing, was the severe lack of midot and derech eretz displayed by so many of my campers in so many different venues. This disrespect was directed not only towards their counselors, but towards the staff and property of the hotels and sites we visited. One look at the squalor left on the bus for the drivers to clean up would be telling enough in this respect.

An anecdote is quoted in the name of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, to justify, as it were, the Modern Orthodox lifestyle. This story has a group of Haredi youngsters hesitate to help out a non-religious merchant whose car had gotten stuck, based on a discussion from a relevant gemara. “Children of that age from our camp would not have known the gemara,” wrote Rav Lichtenstein, “but they would have helped him.” I cannot know for sure, but sometimes I found myself thinking that my kids would neither help the driver nor know the gemara.

Where does Modern Orthodox education go wrong? Why does Judaism have to be a “winter sport,” all religious conscience shedding with the good weather? What is it that nine months in Israel can do that we can't do in twelve years? Unfortunately, I can't say I have the answers to these questions. However, there are two topics that I think were missing in my education (a mere two years ago) and, from my conversations and sessions with them, sorely missing from the education of my campers.

The first issue is that of “the why.” Any grade-schooler knows that the first class of a good history course is “why do we learn history?” Is there a similar “why do we learn gemara” lesson built into the Talmud curriculum? Or, for that matter, is there ever a “why be Jewish” session given to a group that is largely disinterested in Judaism? How can a sixteen-year-old with the ever-present distractions of modern culture be expected to sit down and learn hours of ancient texts on a daily basis, without understanding or feeling the importance and excitement of what he or she is doing?

Secondly, there is little to no exposure to our hashkafa. Yes, we are modern: secular subjects are taught, the arts and humanities are valued. Yes, we are orthodox: Torah is taught, Halacha is enforced. But is there any attempt at teaching and explaining the synthesis of the two? The same goes for Religious Zionism. Instead of teaching students medieval Jewish philosophy, why don't we expose them to the names and schools of thought on which their entire lifestyle is based. The few of my campers who had heard of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik knew nothing about him. Every mamlachti dati high school student in Israel is at least familiar with seminal works such as Kol Dodi Dophek and the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. Why can't we do the same?

I do not intend to imply that we will be able to imbue every single student with eagerness and enthusiasm by appealing to their intellects. The occupants of the school system come from such varied backgrounds and levels of religiosity that it would be nearly impossible to design a curriculum that will cater to everybody's religious needs. But we must at least give them a chance. A chance to see what lies behind our religion, instead of just showing them the sometimes dry and difficult exterior. A chance to see that being frum should not be something exclusive to those who have spent a year in Israel, and maybe giving them a little taste of what the Israel experience has to offer.

When Bnei Yisrael accepted the Torah unconditionally, it was only after having been witness to the hand of God in the Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Sea. And even then, they sinned. How much more so must we work to show the Bnei and Bnot Yisrael of today the Godliness that is all around them, so that they too can accept the Torah.

Julian Horowitz


  1. This is an extremely loaded question. I wonder to what degree anyone really would want to seriously discuss the possible reasons for what Julian observed. Let me mention just one. I sense that this program is a co-ed program. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein in a question answer session with day school principals, made his opposition to co-ed schools clear. I wonder which posek any of these programs rely upon to run co-ed non-kiruv programs. This is especially important in light of the atmosphere that Julian describes, which is more the rule than the exception on these programs. I wonder whether parents really understand what goes on during these programs and what their reaction would be if they knew. I wonder whether Yeshiva high schools have the courage to tackle this issue head-on. There are of course many other issues, but I hope I can lead to some cheshbon hanefesh from all of us with my comments.


  2. This is a shocking and sad story. It simply reinforces the need to raise our families in Eretz Yisrael so our kids can experience their heritage firsthand on a daily basis. L'Shalom, Daniel

  3. I am not an educator or a New Yorker. I moved to Israel a long time ago. But I have seen these kids on the camp trips. They are dressed to kill. They probably got their own car together with their driver's license. The modern in their orthodoxy is American culture. Movies and pop stars are their idols. Halacha is a required school subject that just interferes.Their parents have money or else they couldnt afford to send them to Jewish day schools. paents complain if they make a mess in the hotel on the family ski vacation. I doubt it. Or how many of the fathers regularly open a Gemara or other text (if the father lives at home). Dont fool yourself. Israeli mamlachti dati also know next to nothing and a year program in Israel for these kids often justs gets them in trouble. Materialism and Religious values have never gone well together.

  4. I was about to make a comment if the lack of respect for property and people was a sign of being spoiled above anything else, and then I read the preceeding comment.

  5. Chaim,
    Sadly, many of the yeshivot in Israel also do a terrible job. It's really a combination of factors that leads to a child's dedication to Torah and a Halakhic lifestyle (or lack thereof): parents, friends, schooling, teachers, but also inner motivation as well. Some people are simply born smarter and more spiritual than others.
    Anyway, my two cents: we should probably ask ourselves not only "Why are we losing our children?" but also, "What did we do right for so many generations that kept children in the fold?" You know, childen aren't stupid and they see very often when a parent or teacher may not fully believe in something they're preaching. I'm not sure what the answer to your question is, but I have a feeling that your concern is proof enough that your own children will probably turn out ok.