Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Hidden Dangers of Conformity

Yesterday I had the opportunity to read a book by Moishe Mendlowitz entitled ‘Just One Jew’ published by Feldheim. It is an autobiographical account of Reb Shraga Feivel’s grandson who went Off the Derech (OTD) and then returned. He is currently married, living in Israel, and heavily involved in Kiruv.

His story is fascinating. At first glance it is kind of mind blowing that Reb Shraga Feivel’s grandson could have gone completely OTD the way he did. For well over a decade he lived a life free of any Mitzvah observance. At a very young age he became a very successful entrepreneur. He amassed more money than he knew what to do with. He was living the American dream in ways that only his newly adopted hedonistic ways could provide for him. He even had a serious relationship with a non Jewish woman whom he was considering marrying. If not for a serious accident that altered the course of his life and pointed him back toward full observance who know how he would have ended up.

Long story short - that accident led to series of events and a serious reevaluation of his values that ultimately led him to return to his roots.

The most interesting part of his story to me is how and why he went OTD in the first place. He blamed himself. But the descriptions of the events that turned him off seemed like a textbook example of one of the major failures of religious education. It is ironic that Reb Shraga Feivel’s grandson was in fact a victim of the very system that his grandfather created.

Just to be clear - Reb Sharga Feivel is one of my heroes. I consider him to be the singular most influential Jew of the twentieth century. He was a visionary. No one is more responsible for the Torah observance in the United States – and perhaps even Israel – then he is.

But an idea as bold as creating an American system of Orthodox Jewish Education which is as vast as the one he created - cannot help but have some kinks in it. This was not Reb Shraga Feivel’s fault. I am thoroughly convinced that had he been able to have a ‘hands on’ approach at every single school in his system he would have handled things differently. But he died before he could see the fruits of his labor – let alone be directly involved in them.

Reb Shraga Feivel’s grandson was a typical at risk kid that was completely mishandled by the system. One that had increasingly rigid ‘my way or the highway’ rules and had virtually no tolerance for ‘out of the box’ students. As a result there were some very good students who did not fit the mold and ended up rebelling.

It wasn’t like that in all day schools. The elementary school I attended in Detroit was Reb Shraga Feivel’s pioneer school led by his hand-chosen Mechanchim each a dedicated student of his. They knew what Reb Shraga Feivel wanted. They understood that there are individual differences between students and that they do not all fit exactly into the same mold. I have only the most pleasant memories of my time there in the late fifties.

When I went to Telshe for my first two years of high school I fell victim to the rigid mentality that has become the hallmark of right wing Yeshivas - sameness and uniformity. In my second year there I faced a dilemma that was generated by this mentality. It was similar to one Moishe Mendlowitz faced. It was not an earth shattering dilemma by adult standards. But to a fourteen year old it was pretty traumatic.

I liked my hair a bit on the long side. I did not like the typical very short hairstyle that Yeshiva Bachurim sported. One fine Friday morning my tenth grade Rebbe asked me to get a haircut and not come back to Shiur until I did. That very afternoon I went to the barber at a nearby shopping center and took a short haircut. When I showed up Sunday morning my Rebbe said, ‘Not good enough’.

He sent me on the spot and get a haircut by the campus barber who basically only knew how to shave heads to various degrees. He gave me what was then known as a baldie! The snickers when I returned to Shiur from some of the classmates were pretty hurtful. Of course now-a-days shaving one’s head is quite fashionable, But in the sixties there was no such thing unless you were a Chasid. Most Yeshiva Bachurim did not get baldies. I could not stand looking in the mirror for about the next six weeks. I was humiliated.

But I did not go OTD. I easily could have but fortunately I changed Yeshivos the following year and for eleventh grade I attended Skokie Yeshiva (HTC). My Rebbeim there could not care less how long my hair was. All they cared about was my learning and Shmiros HaMitzvos. The result was that my junior and senior years in Skokie’s high school were far more productive than my freshman and sophomore years in Telshe. I was far more motivated in Skokie than I ever was in Telshe.

Moishe Mendlowitz had an almost identical haircut experience in the Philadelphia Yeshvia. Unfortunately he was not so lucky. That incident among the many others he describes in his book are textbook cases of what not to do with students like him - and me. Moishe slowly started slipping away to the point of becoming completely unobservant.

Fortunately he came back. But I fear that the type of Chinuch that he experienced is still going on. There has been a lot of ink spilled on Kids Risk over the last decade or so. I suppose there has been some progress in trying to change things. But I can’t help but notice the ever increasing reports about young people even from good families (what family could be better than the Mendlowitz family) going OTD.

Some of them are the result of sex abuse or other physical abuse. Some of them are from dysfunctional families. But some of them come from exemplary families where every other child is well adjusted and well integrated into their homogeneous environments. But one of them somehow drops out.

Often the community doesn’t even know it as they are still seen socially in the community. I know of one ‘Yeshiva’ in Israel that deals with kids like this – some of whom are from Chicago. These were teens that no one would ever suspect of being OTD – in some cases even drug users. A friend of mine who had an occasion to visit that ‘Yeshiva’ knowing its purpose was shocked at who he saw there. Young people he knew from Chicago who greeted him as nonchalantly as though they were meeting at a Kiddush in Shul on Shabbos.

The system still seems to be selling these young people short. Noting the cookie cutter look of most Yeshiva students I suspect that the system is as rigid as ever and not changed at all. There seems to be little tolerance for those who do not completely conform. That may work for most students. But it certainly does not work for all for what seems like an increasing number of them. Those ‘square pegs’ are being forced into round holes. For the Moishe Mendlowitzes of the world it is proving disastrous.

I really think that the Rabbinic leaders ought to truly do a thorough re-evaluation of the cookie cutter approach to Chinuch – which I am convinced is still going on. I understand their reasons and goals. They see the uniform approach as a necessary bulwark against the values of the general culture. I disagree with them but I understand them. They have been pretty successful at it but look at the collateral damage. It has contributed to the growth of an entire community of OTDs that is so large that many educators are resigned to the fact that it will persist as an independent community.

The question I must ask is was it worth it? Is all that uniformity necessary? Could the lives of at least some of these dropouts been spared their alternative lifestyle choices with just a little bit less conformity? Will the world of Yeshivos really suffer if they had allow a little more slack and individualism?

I think the answer is obvious. There is no reason to perpetuate the mistakes of the past. I hope that they try and do something about it. They can start by reading Moishe Mendlowitz’s book. Let them read between the lines and not be fooled by his accepting the blame for his slide. Let them instead look in their collective mirrors, and throw away the cookie cutter!