Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Is Making Your Children ‘Yeshivish’ the Goal?

The current  Yeshivishe 'look' of Bnei Torah
This past Sunday night I attended an elementary school banquet. There were two beloved couples honored. One couple that has contributed much time and effort not only to the school but to many Orthodox organizations. The other couple I will get to in a moment.

After the presentation was made, the wife who also teaches at the school addressed the attendees. What she said resonated with me and it is one reason (of many) that I support that school. She said that this school honors women far more than any other Orthodox institution she has been involved with.

Which brings me to the second set honorees. Both husband and wife are involved in Chinuch at that school. The husband is retiring after over 50 years of teaching Torah there.

The outpouring of affection and  gratitude was overwhelming. That Mechanech - a man who shuns Kavod (honor) spoke after the presentation and was humbled to the point of tears… having accepted this honor only after being convinced that it would benefit the school.

There were people from all Hashkafos there who came - many only because of this man, whose reputation extends beyond the school. People who otherwise have nothing to do with the school, having sent their children elsewhere attended in order to recognize this man’s contributions. It was a truly classy event.

It has become common practice to produce a video of what a school is is all about and show it at banquets like this. In this particular case, we saw various children at the school having fun; praising the school and loving it; saying they will have eternal gratitude to their Rebbeim, teachers, and even the administration for all they have given them.  It is difficult to fully appreciate what was on the screen. You had to have seen it. All I can say is that it made me proud to have been involved with that school for so many years

As I was watching it I wondered what parents there who were not in any way affiliated with the school thought of it. My almost immediate thought was they probably didn’t think much of it. As happy and well adjusted as those children were, this was not a selling point to them. Even with all the attributes the school promotes and instills in their children - the joy, the good Midos, the acts of Chesed, and feelings of gratitude - the reaction on the part of the left was no doubt, “Where are the academics?” And the attitude on the right was, ”Where is the Torah learning?” “Look at the Kipot.” “Look at how they dress.” “Midos development is nice, but this school does not emphasize what is really important.” 

(For purposes of this essay, I am not discussing Chasidic education. Much of what I am about to say, does not really apply to them.) 

This is not to criticize other schools for a lack of Midos development. I’m sure they try to instill that too. Nor am I saying that children in other schools aren’t happy. I'm sure they are. But the primary thing parents in those schools seek is something else. For the left it is about academics. They will choose the school where they perceive academics are the best. And the school that most reflects their left wing Hashkafos.

The same is true for the right – whose growth and strength in numbers is far more significant than the left. I have been told that many community rabbis with Yeshivishe backgrounds when asked for advice about where to send children - although outwardly very supportive of this school - will privately recommend the more Yeshivishe school. They see this school as not Yeshivish. 

They recommend a Yeshivishe school whose values are the same as their own. Values they were indoctrinated with when they were in school. They believe the Torah true way is the Yeshivishe way. A way that emphasizes Torah study to the near exclusion of everything else. A way that shuns virtually all of secular culture.  A way that de-emphasizes other important things, like secular studies.
For the parents that send their children to the Yeshivishe school - the prototype of  prefect Jew is the Yeshiva man - commonly referred to as a Ben Torah. This is someone whose life will be dedicated to Torah study. And even if that Yeshiva man ends up working for a living at some point, he will remain a Ben Torah - realizing that Torah study is still the most important thing a Jewish man can do. They will thus put almost all their energies toward support of schools that emphasize that. Such schools are identified by their black hat Yeshivishe culture (i.e - black velvet Yarmulke, back hat and jacket, white shirt and black pants). A school that does not have this culture - they will see as not having those values.

I am again reminded of a graduation ceremony I attended at a right wing elementary school where the English principal addressed the graduates. He spoke only of his role as a Rebbe and teaching them Torah. (He is also a Rebbe in that school). Not a word about his primary role as the English principal. There was no value at all placed on that, as though it didn’t exist.

Now it’s true that not all right wing schools are exactly the same in this respect. But I do believe that most of them are and that those that aren't - are going in that direction.

How sad it is for me to see how right wing Torah education has evolved in the 21st century. There was a time where even those schools valued secular studies. At least most of them. Some of the biggest Torah personalities of the right attended schools where secular studies are valued. The dress codes were not ‘black hat’ at all. 

If one will look at some of archival pictures from just a few short decades ago (60s and 70s) they will not see many black hats. They will more or less see the kind of ‘look’ on the part of the students that was seen on that video. And somehow those conditions produced, a Rabbi Avrohom Pam, and a Rabbi Yaakov Perlow. Many right wing rabbinic leaders of that era like Rav Yitzchok Hutner valued secular studies, and guided their students along those lines.

It’s too bad that so many parents today whose own parents were raised that way, now feel their way was not ideal. They look at the way the children in the more moderate schools dress and the kind of Kipot some of them wear, and wrongly conclude, “Nebech, so many of those kids will end up Amei Ha’aretz - ignorant of Torah”. “Or worse, lose their Yiddishkeit altogether”. They want their children to be Yeshiva men - Bnei Torah. That is the ideal.

What they fail to realize is that a serious secular studies program does not negate the possibility of becoming a Ben Torah. There are plenty of graduates from this school of all ages that are Bnei Torah of the highest caliber. Nor is there any guarantee that the more right wing Yeshivishe school will necessarily turn your child into a Ben Torah.

They also believe that this will almost certainly keep their children Frum. Personally, I don't think that’s true any longer. Right wing schools certainly have their share of dropouts. 

There is a price to pay for ignoring the future of your children in all ways but one. Are they willing to pay it?  Do they even realize it?

Warning: Please do not use this post to disparage any schools. Those comments will be deleted.