Sunday, April 02, 2006

Jewish Education: Chinuch Al Taharas HaKodseh

I finally had an opportunity to read Marvin Schick’s column dealing with the “kids at risk” phenomenon in the Jewish Press yesterday.

I didn’t think I would find anything that I didn’t already know, and for the most part that’s true. But Dr. Schick did an excellent job at pointing out the true source of the problem in a way that Agudath Israel's magazine,the Jewish Observer, failed to do in their recent issue. The JO did acknowledge in one of its articles that the source of the problem is not so much the culture we live in, but rather in a child’s individual problems. And that the various stumbling blocks like the internet were just a means to an end of “opting out” of religious observance, or worse. But the JO’s overall approach seemed to focus more on those “stumbling blocks” as the culprit than they did on the real causes of a child at risk... as though the stumbling blocks were the problem.

Dr. Schick on the other hand was quite clear that the issue was not in the modalities for opting out but in the Yeshiva system itself. That system is in large part responsible for what is happening now. Because instead of trying to bring children into Yiddishkeit which was one of the early hallmarks of the day school movement, they are currently turning good kids away... and for the wrong reasons. And for those that are in the system the threshold of acceptable behavior is so high that all but the most conforming of students become worthy of consideration of expulsion.

Even those who have good behavior patterns can easily fall through the cracks because they cannot “keep up” with the learning standards and goals imposed by the school. If you add it all up... there are a lot of children exposed to the lure of “opting out” of Yiddishkeit. These children’s sense of self worth is virtually destroyed. It is impossible to be successful at anything when there is no self esteem.

I am a product of the early years of the day school movement and I can attest to the type of students that were there. We were drawn from all parts of the Jewish community. The school was as much about Kiruv as it was Torah education. This was indeed the mandate of R. Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz, founder of Torah uMesorah and perhaps the most important figure in the establishment of American Chinuch. The school I attended in Detroit was the first of its kind and a prototype of all day schools in this country. It was founded by Reb Shraga Feilvel’s top students: Rabbi Joseph Elias, Rabbi Sholom Goldstein, and Rabbi Avraham Abba Friedman. There were no minimal religious standards. Many of the parents were non-Frum holocaust survivors or secular American Jews with little or no background. But all of the students were treated with equality and loving kindness. Learning Torah, although obviously the main staple of the classroom was second to the way each student was treated. Every single student was valued and felt successful at their own level. There was no judging one child as superior to another. We students knew who the Masmidim were, who the brilliant ones were... but we all had respect for one another because this is how our Rabbeim treated us. Not every child remained Frum but many of those that came from non-Frum homes flourished and in some cases became great Talmidei Chachamim and in some cases leaders in the Torah world. There was no such thing as a child without self-esteem then... to the best of my knowledge. If there was, it wasn’t because of the school.

It is very telling to read the wonderful story in Dr. Schick’s article about Rav Yitzchok Hutner, who even by the most Charedi of standards was considered one of the Gedolei HaDor of that generation. Here is the pertinent paragraph:

“Thirty years ago, in response to my question whether the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School should admit students from marginally observant homes, Rav Yitzchak Hutner, zt"l, the great rosh yeshiva of Chaim Berlin and a genius in understanding students, responded that he had encouraged such students to go to the movies and even take their parents along because this approach would benefit them and make their transition to fully observant Jews more likely.”

Can anyone imagine a Gadol telling this to a Yeshiva high school today? Lest anyone say that movies are far worse today than they were 30 years ago, I would remind them that R and X rated fare was pretty common by 1976.But this is the mark of a true Gadol. He was a man who did not rely on consensus. He did not jump on any bandwagons so as to be identified with another Gadol. He did not say anything like...”Well the Gadol HaDor (...perhaps R Aharon Kotler or Rav Moshe, in his time...) has spoken.” “I don’t need to know what he said.” “I can just sign on knowing that whatever he said is good enough for me.” No! Rav Hutner was a leader... a Gadol, unlike anyone we have today.

Today, instead of accepting students from varying religious backgrounds and trying to accommodate them, we have edicts that threaten expulsion at the slightest variance of unrealistic and false standards, such as forbidding entry to a day school of children who have internet access in the home.

Chanoch L’Naar Al Pi Darko does not really exist in practice. It exists only as an unpracticed and ill defined concept that is only paid attention to in lip service. And this is in large part what is creating a pool of children at risk. In effect by trying to artificially have a standard of Chinuch Al Pi Taharas HaKodeh (which is an oft heard phrase in RW circles) they have created an institution which produces a radical rejectionist society with exclusionary attitudes about the rest of Torah Jewry.

Perhaps we should thank God that some of these Kids at risk have come home to roost in some of homes of RW Roshei Yeshiva. These are strong words but I can only conclude that had it not permeated the walls of this isolationist community it would have just been whisked away and attributed to children from bad homes... and not their problem. But it has permeated the sanctity of the homes of some of our finest Roshei Yeshiva. And now they have to face the results of the exclusionist attitudes and policies that are so conducive to destroying self esteem.

There is one more paragraph that stands out in Dr. Schick’s article:

“Is it any wonder that today there are more defections from Orthodoxy than there are those whom we are attracting through kiruv?”

If this is true, it is an astonishing fact. With all the Kiruv that goes on in the Jewish world, to say that more people are opting “out” then are opting “in” is frightening.

It is time to stop blaming external causes for our problems and look at ourselves. It’s time to abandon the idea of creating a school Al Tharas HaKodesh. It would be wise to see how the Gemarah uses that phrase. It refers to eating Chulin (non consecrated food) in a state of spiritual purity that does not even apply to it. There were many Jews who decided to keep Chulin isolated from levels of Tumah that only apply to Hekdesh (things consecrated to the Beis HaMikdash). They watched their Chulin so that it would not come into contact with items that could only contaminate Hekdesh. They wanted that level Taharah even though it had absolutely no Halachic application to Chulin. Is this the kind of world we want to produce? People that are so detached from the rest of the world that they seek a level of Kedusha that doesn’t even apply to them?

I recommend that everyone read Dr. Schick’s article carefully and then urge their school boards to reject the elitism that is causing so much damage to Klal Yisroel. Their intentions may be to produce a society Al Taharas HaKodesh but the road that it is really paving is strewn with Jewish souls and leads somewhere else ...not quite so holy.