Tuesday, November 07, 2017

When Will Yeshivos Wake Up?

Intensive Torah study is not for everyone
Miriam Altman offers some words of wisdom after making an observation about the state of Orthodox Jewish education in our day. Specifically about Yeshivos. It was offered in the context of a conversation initiated here a couple of days ago about her son, AY’s decision to attend a public high school for the balance of his high school education: 
I have seen so many families where boys hate, resent, or even stop talking to their parents because they were forced into a yeshiva where they did not belong. They suffer from low self esteem (because they know they are in a flunky yeshiva or at the bottom of their class in a good yeshiva), engage in addictive behavior and hate their families and Hashem. And for what? For not conforming to a system which has never been normative Judaism? Not everyone is able to sit and learn that much and honestly, no one can really afford to. To make that the standard for the community is just wrong.
(For purposes of this essay, I am not including modern Orthodox Yeshivas which are an entirely different issue. I am talking about the more or less mainstream right wing Yeshivos that constitute the vast majority of Yeshivos in America.) 

There is something wrong with the Yeshiva system. I do not mean to say that there is no positive value to it. Of course there is. A Yeshiva education is the sine qua non for perpetuating Judaism. Without it, we can easily fall prey to our culture’s assimilationist environment. That should be obvious to anyone that has been paying attention. Orthodox Jewry which places such a high value on educating its children Jewishly via a Yeshiva education is the only ‘denomination’ that is growing. This is in contradistinction to other denominations which do not emphasize a Jewish education anywhere near as much for their children - if at all – and whose demographic is shrinking.

Nor do I want to minimize the importance and success Yeshivos have had in advancing the notion of Torah study as a primary value in Judaism. Yeshivos have been wildly successful at that. Probably more than the pioneers of the American Yeshiva system ever envisioned they would. But even though there is so much that is so very right about it, clearly there is something very wrong about it, too. And Mrs. Altman describes it all too well.

In past discussions about the value of a secular education, I have always focused on the importance of secular studies as a vehicle to enable Orthodox Jewry to better provide for their families. I have also stressed my own view about the intrinsic value of secular studies as an important discipline in its own right – which is one of the fundamental tenets of the Torah U’Mada Hashkafa.  

But even leaving out those two important features of a secular education there is still a problem with how Yeshivos operate today. This is not only my own observation or that of Mrs. Altman. It is also the observation of many Jewish educators that are in the ‘trenches’. They see what is going on and have commented on it many times. The fact is that there are a lot of students that simply are not able to conform to the current standards and expectations of many mainstream Yeshivos. Yeshivos that require Torah study all day long with the exception of 2 or 3 hours in the late afternoon/early evening cut out of that day for secular studies. If that!

Forcing every single student into this ‘box’ frustrates too many of them. It can all too often cause rebellion. Sometimes to the extent of going completely OTD.  A phenomenon that a few astute Jewish educators have been discussing publicly.

But the problem is not only about students that are intellectually not suited to such rigorous study. Although there are plenty of those in ‘the system’. It includes students that are quite intelligent but simply can’t develop the Cheshek – the desire; and the ‘Zitzfleish’  - the intense drive to put in those hours every single day of their scholastic year. These are bright students that have other interests and strengths which are purposely negated via the Hashkafa of the Yeshiva. Add to this the completion between Yeshivos to outdo each other in Torah study, and you have a prescription for failure by far too many students.

As obvious as this may be - the Yeshiva world seems to be going in the opposite direction. Instead of lightening the burden on their students many Yeshivos are increasing it. Instead of offering differing educational tracks, they are limiting or eliminating the ones they already have. 

What about those students that can’t ‘hack it’? ‘Tough!’ ‘Let them go elsewhere!’ Which in the highly competitive world of Yeshivos usually means a remedial type school or ‘special’ school for mediocre students or worse. Oh… they don’t call their schools ‘Yeshivos for mediocre students’. But we all know that this is what they are. Even those with the best of intentions. How is a student supposed to feel that has been shipped off to a school like that because he could hack the ‘real thing’?

It’s hard to blame a parent of a bright child who is not cut out for the increasing rigors of Yeshiva life for pulling them out the Yeshiva and sending them to a school that does not have that reputation. But instead has a fine reputation as a public school. While that worked for Mrs. Altman, I would not recommend it to others. Which leaves this a serious problem.

What will it take to 'wake up and smell the coffee'?  How many more students will hate, resent, and stop talking to their parents because they were forced into a Yeshiva where they did not belong? How many more students suffering from low self esteem because they know they are in a flunky yeshiva or at the bottom of their class in a good yeshiva? How many students that engage in addictive behavior and hate their families and Hashem.... before Yeshiva educators get serious about changing the paradigm to include mulitple tracks for all students - even the bright ones that are not cut out for full time learning? Students that might in ever other sense be fine examples of Yiddiskeit and yet become turned off from it because of this great lack?