Sunday, December 17, 2017

Yeshiva is Not for Everyone

Not for Everyone
Shortly after he Agudah convention, I happened to speak to a friend of mine who is a Rebbe in a mainstream Charedi yeshiva. He was asked to speak at one of the convention. It’s too bad that he wasn’t the keynote speaker. Because his message was one that resonated with me. It is a message that should be heeded by Torah U’Mesorah whose rabbinic leaders determine educational policy for all of their member day schools and high schools. Heeded as well by the Roshei Yeshiva of all major Yeshivos. A message that Centrists like me have been preaching for many years. It is a simple message. Which is: 

Not everyone belongs in a Yeshiva.

For the Charedi world that might seem quite radical - even blasphemous!. For Centrists like me, it is nothing more than common sense. It is also common sense to those who adhere to the Hashkafa of Torah Im Derech Eretz.  And even many Charedi Gedolim of the not too distant past, like Rav Yitzchok Hutner and Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz.

There may be rabbis in the right wing educational hierarchy that might actually agree with my friend. But if they do, they are far away from doing anything about it. Furthermore  there is a competitive environment among Right wing Yeshivos and High schools that exacerbates the problem by constantly raising their standards of accomplishment in Torah study, making study at the top Yeshivos extremely demanding. So demanding that even some very bright students can’t keep up. So demanding that only the very best of the best students remains unstressed by it. 

When the competition gets that stiff, what happens to those students that are not top tier? Which is probably most of them. Many of those will look at the top tier and realize they will never reach that level and become discouraged. The stress alone can make a nervous wreck out of anyone. Let alone someone that cannot handle the full ‘workload’ that many of the tip schools require of their students.

And yet what card carrying right wing parent doesn’t want to end his sons to the ‘Harvard’ or ‘Yale’ of Yeshiva highs schools.  The schools with those kinds of reputations are the ones that create that kind of pressure in their students. They call it Ameilus (the diligent hard work by which the Torah knowledge can be attained). I call it a prescription for failure for most students. Many of whom might turn away from Judaism altogether. Some overtly. Some secretly by just going through the motions.

At the other end of the spectrum there are some students that simply do not have what it takes to study Torah at high levels. Either they don’t have the mental acuity to study at those levels or are unmotivated - never attaining enough interest in it even if they are very bright. Their interests and abilities lie elsewhere. By forcing them to be in a highly competitive environment that they have little interest in, they are clearly not serving God at their optimal level.

And yet there is no infrastructure to deal with this in the Yeshiva world of the right.  There are few if any schools that have  programs that will allow these young people to pursue their own interests and talents towards their Avodas Hashem – serving God. Instead they are all indoctrinated to see Torah study as the only way to serve God at a high level. Anything else takes a far second place to that. So far that they are not worth pursuing at all. Certainly not in any Yeshiva worthy of the name.

All of the above applies to Yeshiva  day schools and high schools. The more Torah study they have -  and the less secular studies they have - the more those schools are valued.  What happens to studnets after going trough that system depends on how inspired or disillusioned the students are. 

Those that succeed in those high pressure high schools are the elite of the Torah world and will do well in a post high school Yeshiva Gedola and later on in Kollel. Those that have not done well and thus become are disillusioned are in danger of going OTD. 

Those in the middle – which I believe is the vast majority of Yeshiva students – will probably follow the path outlined for them by their high school teachers and mentors and go on to study full time in a Yeshiva and later in a Kollel. All at the expense of serving God best with their God Given talents that have been ignored or downplayed by their Rebbeim in high school.

Not everyone should follow this path. I have been preaching this forever. Not everyone should be directed into full time learning at the expense of his other talents. Instead of negating those talents and not offering any alternative programs for them, they ought to be developing programs where they will continue learning Torah at a high level but at the same time encourage them to follow their natural talents. Yeshivos should accommodate that by providing programs and mentors that will encourage them to do that instead of discouraging them.

In many ways institutions like Touro have responded to that challenge. A lot of right wing Yeshiva students are taking advantage of that. But there has been push back against that by some right wing Roshei yeshiva that denigrate that as second class citizenry for Jews. That only full time Torah students are first class.  

Which means that the current paradigm of stiff competition among High schools will probably increase with a trend to eliminate secular studies altogether – to make room for the extra Torah study. Which will make those schools top schools.  

That will only make matters worse. The denigration of secular studies is at the very least the subliminal if not overt message from so many Rebbeim that mentor their students. The less secular studies there are, the less other abilities and talents will be realized and followed. That can only lead to tragic results.

Which is why I am happy to hear that there are Mechanchim like my friend. He that does not blind himself to reality and has the courage to speak out publicly. Which resonated with fellow Mechanchim at the Agudah convention that heard him. But – because of the fear of losing the approval of their schools hierarchy and perhaps even their jobs, they have kept quiet about it. 

It would be nice if there was an organized  grass roots movement among Mechanchim to try and reverse this trend before things get even worse than they are now.