Friday, June 17, 2011

Making a Significant Dent

The evolution of the Yeshiva system in America is a tremendous success story. It has turned a story of near universal melting pot assimilation of Jewry into one of growing number of observant Jews. It has created a system where more Jews are learning Torah in more Yeshivos and are therefore more knowledgeable about Judaism than at any time in history. If one looks at the sheer numbers of Jews who are Shomer Shabbos in America today compared to numbers pre- Holocaust it boggles the mind. And those numbers are growing exponentially. All while the numbers in non Orthodox segments seem to be declining.

And yet as noted by the hard statistical numbers, Orthodox Jews are at best about 10% of the total number of Jews. It is also true that within Orthodoxy, many Jews are dropping out – perhaps as many as are ‘dropping in’ via successful outreach. I’m not sure which is greater – those leaving observance or those embracing it. But suffice it to say that we have a major problem. The success story of the Yeshiva system comes at a price. And it is a price that I do not think we have to pay.

The price of success for the Yeshiva in America is in large part due to its strength. Orthodoxy’s growth in numbers has created enough of a critical mass in each of the various Hashkafos to create a widely diverse Yeshiva system.

60 years ago when the American Yeshiva was relatively small and struggling for survival, diversity was a luxury that Orthodoxy could not afford. The pioneering Yeshivos – especially in outlying areas fought for every student they could get. Hashkafos were not an issue. The only issue was attracting students. This meant appealing to parents. Parents in the 50s and 60s - both irreligious and religious - wanted much the same thing for their children. A good secular education, character development, and a positive environment. The more religious a parent was, the more they cared about religious studies. And of course religious studies were never neglected in a Yeshiva.

But now because of our exponential growth we have a religious diversity that has created highly specialized schools that cater to only specific Hashkafos and are designed mostly for children from religious homes.

For Charedim the focus is almost completely on learning Torah, the more Charedi, the less emphasis there is on secular studies. In some cases they completely eschew secular studies. At the other end of the Orthodox spectrum modern Orthodoxy has a far greater emphasis on academics to the point where some schools have reduced the time spent on Torah learning to the barest minimum.

Competition within each segment for the best and brightest student has contributed mightily to the ‘children at risk’ phenomenon. Educators across the specrtrum of Orthodoxy realize this problem and are trying to figure out solutions to it. But what they have not discussed is the fact that the American Yeshiva has forgotten about the assimilated Jew. They have pretty much written him off.

Charedi Yeshivos are almost exclusively populated by observant almost exclusively Charedi students. I believe this is true to a lesser extent even in modern Orthodox schools. Most students come from come from modern Orthodox backgrounds. Very few – if any – come from secular backgrounds.

This leaves the assimilated non observant Jews to either one of the heterodox movements or Orthodox outreach organizations. While Orthodox outreach has been very successful over the last 40 or so years – as a percentage of the whole, they have hardly made a dent in the numbers of Jews who remain assimilated – many of whom are rapidly intermarrying and dropping out of their Jewish identity entirely.

This need not be the case. But Orthodoxy has to change its outreach and educational paradigm in order to make any significant changes. How, one might ask is that possible when there are so many factions that are often at each other’s throats? If we have a common enemy – assimilation – it can be done. Re-introducing quality secular studies programs into all Orthodox schools is a key element in any attempt at change.

How can we convince a Charedi school that eschews secular studies to have it as part of their curriculum? The answer is that not only is it possible but it’s been done. And it’s been done with the blessing of even the most right wing Gedolim of yesteryear. All that is needed is the recognition by today’s rabbinic leadership of the need – much the same way they recognized it when Yeshivos were struggling for students back in the 50s and 60s.

We need a two pronged approach in reaching out to our assimilated brethren.

One is in the way we relate to them which means engaging with them as much as possible socially. I would use the NCSY paradigm as the basis for our interactions. NCSY emphasizes the positive and de-emphasizes the negative.

For example when dealing with Shabbos, we don’t start by teaching the 39 Melachos which are forbidden on Shabbos. And we certainly don’t emphasize any attendant Chumros one or another of us might have picked up in our own lives. We start by inviting a family over for a Shabbos meal and showing them the positive environment of the Shabbos table. The 39 Melachos comes much later once they are ‘hooked’ on observant Judaism via the beauty of the positive side.

The second thing is to create a Yeshiva system that is appealing to the wider Jewish community. This means mandating a secular studies program that competes with or even surpasses the best of the public school system. It means having a program that emphasizes the importance of Torah learning and yet provides the best of secular learning. One that includes many tracks for all kinds of diversity (e.g. background, intelligence, special interests, learning disabilities, etc.) but unites the student body socially.

Character development should be emphasized at all time. It should be full of various enrichment programs for both religious and secular studies. And each teacher should be equipped and mandated to go out into the secular Jewish world and ‘sell’ their product. A product that for which they are a role model.

The argument that Charedi Yeshivos would never do that is false. Lakewood’s prototype Yeshiva high school in Philadelphia once had a top notch secular studies program. They were known for it. In recent years it has declined because the parents (many of whom are graduates of this very yeshiva or one like it) are now demanding more Torah and less secular studies. This is how they have been indoctrinated. Obviously this is not Halacha since the Philadelphia Yeshiva always had a good secular program. Telshe Yeshiva to this day vigorously defends retaining a secular studies program, although it too has diminished its importance.

These two Yeshivos demonstrate that having a good secular studies program need not mean a Yeshiva must change from Charedi to TIDE or TuM. We can still have Hashkafic diversity in Yeshivos without sacrificing the quality of a secular studies program. By the same token a TIDE or TuM Yeshiva needs to sacrifice their Torah learning to achieve excellence in academic studies.

This should be the prototype for all Yeshivos across the spectrum of Orthodoxy. While it may seem like an impossibility, I don’t think it is. If the leadership of all segments of Orthodoxy put their heads together and consider the benefits, it can be done. It will make Yeshivos far more attractive to parents who want to embrace observant Judaism but insist on good academics for their children. And it will have the additional benefit of tackling the ‘Kids at Risk’ phenomenon. This is what a diverse curriculum and student body can do for a child whose greatest strengths are not necessarily in Torah learning.

What about financing? Parents currently are taxed to the hilt – spending ever spare dollar they have on tuition for schools that don’t offer half the things I’m talking about. I don’t have any great answer to this problem. But I would remind people that the Philadelphia Yeshiva had a good secular studies program despite the income levels of its parent body. There are also plenty of wealthy Jews in all denominations that would be willing to put money into a Jewish educational system that works for everybody.

These are just some of my ideas about how we can change the Jewish heart and mind from one of Jewish indifference to one of Jewish pride. This may be a ‘pie in the sky’ idea but I believe that at the very least it should serve as a basis to begin the discussion.