Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Vision Thing

Chicago is undergoing some big changes now. Two premier institutions are trying to define or redifine themselves. One of them is Hannah Sacks Beis Yaakov and the other is the Hebrew Theological College – Skokie Yeshiva.

I was informed by a widely respected Mechanech this past Shabbos that Hanna Sacks Beis Yaakov is changing.

Hanna Sacks was not always a Beis Yaakov. It was once called Hanna Sacks Girls High School. It changed its name to Bais Yaakov many years ago because of another more right wing Beis Yaakov that opened here. They wanted to compete for the same students. Over the years this has moved the school more to the right than most parents were comfortable with. While they did at first try to accommodate parents who were interested better academics by instituting a college prep academic environment it never fully realized its potential because parents on the right were opposed to going too far in that direction.

There has always been an internal ideological struggle between right and left wing parents in the school. In my view this was detrimental to the school. It didn’t succeed at either level. The right wing school was a natural draw for the right. The co-ed school was a reluctant option to those on the left.

Hanna Sacks is a communal school that accepts students from the entire Orthodox spectrum in Chicago. But as the years have gone by and it edged to the right, it lost students. For the right there is no such thing as ‘too Frum’. And for the left who are might send to Hanna Sacks because they are generally opposed to co-ed schools, they still felt that it was the lesser of two ‘evils’ to send to the co-ed school. This year’s freshman class at Hanna Sacks is about half the size it usually is.

The school has now suddenly changed Hashkafos. It has a new vision. The principal has left the school and there is now an interim principal - promoted temporarily from her position as assistant principal. The Hashkafos will now probably be what I would define as Centrist. Among other changes, I expect that Yom Ha’atzmaut will now probably be observed in some meaningful way. I applaud them and wish them much success. My advice is to stay the course and make sure that this policy change is well advertised.

Skokie Yeshiva (HTC) is in a bit of turmoil now - what I would term a state of flux. They have recently changed Roshei Yeshiva. They have lost two very popular Machanchim, one through an untimely death and another who has left for another position out of town. Enrollment is on a general downward trend, if I understand correctly.

They too are now trying to redefine themselves as a more Centrist Yeshiva. I have been told by a source that Yeshiva University was approached by Skokie for a possible affiliation - and were turned down. But the news isn’t all bad. They just hired a young and very charismatic Mashgiach.

Another big thing that is hurting them now is a lack of funding. They are in pretty bad financial shape from what I am told. But the Yeshiva should not give up. They are now going through now is a very painful correction phase. They need to tough it out.

But toughing it out is not enough. It will not help them to just bear the burden of change. They need vision. And they need a president who can provide it. Dr. Jerold Isenberg the current chancellor may be the one to do it. His Hashkafos are the right ones. But his hands have been tied over the years. He needs to be given the chance to provide vision and leadership by being made president, a position left unfilled since Rabbi Don Well left over 20 years ago.

This new vision must be conveyed to the Jewish public. This is an essential element that is missing form the school. Skokie Yeshiva has the potential to rise to great heights. They can be a world class Yeshiva and college if they are determined and committed. Chicago has schools on both the right and the left for both boys and girls. What it doesn’t have- beyond eighth grade - is a school that represents the center.

When I say center - I do not mean some arbitrary or mathematical midpoint between right and left. I am talking about a school whose Centrist ideals – the Shvil HaZahav - are seen as the best way to practice Judaism. A school whose leaders believe that this is what God wants from His people. L’Chatchila, not B’Dieved.

A Centrist school should be characterized by moderation and tolerance instead of extremism and exclusivity. It should value Torah learning first but place a high value on secular studies. In theory it should be able to compete with both Lakwood and Harvard.

There should be an emphasis on character develpoment - where midos Bein Adam L’Chaveiro are as emphasized as Midos Bein Adam L’Makom.

There should be recognition and respect of Gedolei Yisroel from every segment of the Torah world - right to left - agree or not.

And there should be recognition of the value of State of Israel.

All this assumes an enabling budget - which they do not currently have. But I firmly believe the money is there. Those with the ability to provide it simply need to be convinced.

Update: I have been informed that Hanna Sacks Bais Yaakov will apparently retain its current name. It should also be noted that the changes I mentioned in Hanna Sacks are based on discussions I had with informed but unofficial sources. But one thing is certain. Changes are taking place along the lines I mentioned.