Monday, February 03, 2014

Outreach - A Challenge to Jewish Educators

Holy Warrior - R' Avrohom Abba Freedman by Gary Torgow
There is a commandment in the Torah (Devarim31:12) that requires us to gather men, women, and children together and listen to the words of the Torah. It is to be read by the king of Israel once every seven years on Sukkos following the Shmitta Year. This is called Hakhel.

Rav Nosson Adler (the Rebbe of the Chasam Sofer) makes the following point. The Torah commands us to bring our young children to this reading despite the fact that they may distract you from hearing every word. The message of the Torah is that the Chinuch of putting your child in this environment is more important than the Torah reading itself.

As many people have pointed out from time to time (including me), we are in unprecedented times in terms of Torah study. There are more people learning in Yeshivos now than at any time in history. And it is the ‘Torah learners’ that are having the big families. That’s one reason why Orthodox Jewry is its fastest growing segment.

But as I always say, success like this comes at a price. The more obvious part of the price is the poverty that has resulted by sacrificing secular studies. Which has in turn caused a diminished earning capacity among increasing numbers of Orthodox Jews. But that is only part of the cost. The second and lesser known cost is in terms of reaching out to other Jews.

One may dispute that by pointing out all of the successful outreach being done by Chabad, Aish HaTorah, Or Sameach, NCSY, and many other fine organizations. Indeed. They have reached out to probably tens of thousands of Jews with little to no religious background who were hungry for a little Yiddishkeit in their lives and found it in the good works of these organizations.

But the biggest and best outreach that was once common in Jewish education no longer exists: the religious elementary day school. Yes, there are more of these around today that ever before. But our successes in numbers combined with the move to the right and the increased competition by these schools to be known for their excellence has rendered the system closed to students of little to no background.

This has caused several problems. One of the more obvious ones is that a lot of these schools seek only the best and the brightest. That leaves a lot of students who may not measure up to those high standards looking for alternatives. And no one wants to be known for being second best. Making it hard for them to find a school that is ‘right’ for them.  

It also means that the pressure to excel is enormous even among the best and the brightest, leaving little time for relaxation. That can lead even some very bright students to fall through the cracks because they cannot handle the pressure. And possibly even go OTD.

What about attracting students who have no background?

I’m sure that many Modern Orthodox schools accept such students. But their numbers are smaller. Charedi day schools probably outnumber MO day schools by orders of magnitude. And I wonder how successful these schools are at getting their students from non religious homes  to retain religious observance once they leave the school. I would be happy to hear that they by and large do.

I do not believe that there is a mainstream Charedi elementary school that attracts children with no background along with children from religious homes. I don’t know too many Charedi schools that will accept a child from a non Shomer Shabbos home. And as one goes up the Frumkeit scale, children even from religious homes are not accepted if their religious standards do not ‘measure up’.

The fear among parents in these schools is that accepting children with little to no religious backgrounds will unduly influence their children to the values of ‘the street’. Which parents see as harmful to their child’s spiritual growth.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it isn’t so. Children from good homes with loving parents usually end up with their parents’ values. Not only that, but exposing them to the culture a bit is actually a good thing – even if one does not accept that it has any value. Over-sheltering your children often can lead to going OTD too.

How do I know that that kind of outreach works? I went to such a school. Yeshivath Beth Yehudah in Detroit. There were many students in my class from homes that were not Shomer Shabbos. Those children were actively recruited by Rabbis Joseph Elias, Avrohom Abba Freedman, and Sholom Goldstein. These were pioneering Mechanchim of that time, sent by Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz to lead the school.

These Mechanchim sent their own children to that school. They did not fear their children would go OTD by being exposed to those ‘other’ kids. They were more interested in providing proper Chinuch to those who might otherwise never get it.

I remember those children.  Some of them were my friends.  Some still are.  Almost all of them became Bnei Torah.  And I believe that none of the ‘Frum From Birth’ children in my class went OTD. Some are in fact Roshei Yeshiva… and their children are probably in Kollel. (Of course they may now be suffering the financial consequences of their ‘Torah only’ Chinuch - but that is another discussion.)

The point is that elementary day schools have nothing to fear from reaching out to Jewish children with no backgrounds and recruiting them into their schools at the earliest possible ages. If every day school in the world would do that, imagine the impact it would have! It would make the outreach being done by all Kiruv organizations tiny by comparison. And it has the real advantage of mainstreaming them at an early age without the ‘stigma’ of being a Bal Teshuva. (Grossly unfair though that stigma may be, it unfortunately exists and ought to be eradicated. But that too is another discussion.)

But don’t just take my word for it. I admit that my experience is anecdotal. Take a hint from the Torah and Rav Nosson Adler’s message about Hakhel.  Chinuch is far more important than the purity of personal religious observance.

I doubt that any of these day schools will hear my words. But they ought to. In my view it would make for a far better Torah world if they did.