Friday, December 02, 2022

What Are Modern Orthodox Priorities?

Image for illustration purposes only (Jerusalem Post)
I don’t necessarily think he’s wrong. But Avi Ciment’s solution to change the trajectory of so many MO (Modern Orthodox) young people dropping observance is not really going to make much of an impact on that trend.

First let me reiterate my objection to his lumping all MO Jews into one basket. That is far from the reality, as I pointed out recently. The community of which he speaks is however a large segment of MO that I call MO-Lite.  While I will be using the term MO please keep in mind that I am really talking about MO-Lite.

Avi posits that MO needs to change their priorities and put Torah first. The fact that they do not put it first is the source of the whole problem. This manifests itself in how MO high schools are mostly focused on academics for purposes of getting their graduates into the right schools. Observance – while important – is nevertheless secondary. He also posits that MO homes tend to ‘pick and choose’ which Mitzvos are important and which are not. 

That manifests itself in the way that a lot of MO teens end up violating Halacha in their relationships with the opposite sex without giving it a thought. The following is what a Chasidic patron of Avi’s business observed MO teens doing openly at a hotel in Miami Beach: 

He says to me, “Avi, I’ve got a question for you. I noticed this past winter at the Fontainebleau, many young Modern Orthodox teenagers during winter break were dressed completely inappropriately, sitting on each other’s laps, touching and holding hands. I even saw a few teenagers unabashedly texting on Shabbos. I’m completely confused. After all, it’s one thing to do something wrong and be ashamed of it and try to hide it, as we sometimes do. But with many Modern Orthodox, it’s as if all these laws in the Torah that you’re violating don’t even exist, given that you do these aveiros publicly without any guilt or shame whatsoever.” 

I wish I could say I am surprised by this. But I have witnessed the same thing myself. In fact MO coed high schools are quite conducive to behavior like this by some of their students all year round.

Even if one would say that this is a minority of MO, it is still way too large and widespread to ignore. Is there any real surprise that when the goal by their parents is getting their kids into the ‘right’ schools is successful - that things can easily go downhill? Especially when those young students opt to live in a campus dorm that has little to no religious infrastructure? While some students can survive that kind of environment, my guess is that a lot do not. 

It has been suggested that those that do succumb to the forbidden attractions of campus life were halfway there when they were still in high school. And to whatever level of observance that was kept, it was mostly done out of habit. Not out of conviction.

Everything starts in the home.  Parents are the most important role models a child can have. If parents treat Halacha seriously that will generally be the way children will treat it. But that is not enough. There must be family harmony. Children must see their parents in a peaceful, loving, and respectful relationship.  Children are usually nurtured by such parents with love and understanding. It is in this setting that observance of Halacha is transmitted successfully. A transmission that includes sanctions for violation albeit with a heavy dose of compassion. Forgiveness should be an integral part of it when called for. 

Children that grow up in families like this will very likely try to emulate their parents’ ways. MO Jews can then participate in the general culture relatively secure in the knowledge that when their children do will remain observant - following in their footsteps.

But that is a not the way this segment of MO lives. Which brings me back to my point about ‘selling’ the priority of Torah as an antidote to this problem. In families where the abovementioned dynamic does not exist - you can talk all day long about how important prioritizing Mitzvah observance is. But getting this segment of MO Jews to accept it in actual practice is another thing.

Most people are set in their ways. MO Jews included. Ways that are constantly being reinforced by their peers who have the same values and priorities they do. Old habits die hard. So, I’m not sure Avi’s solution to this problem is a viable one. My fear, therefore, is that this trajectory will continue. 

Here’s a thought. It might be prudent to see how NCSY works. (First my disclaimer. My son-in-law is the international head of NCSY. But I had made the following  observations long before I ever met him.)

NCSY’s focus is mostly on secular high school students that have little if any religious education. Their parents are Jewish but nor observant.

What NCSY does is focus on the positive side of Judaism. Showing these young teens that they can continue to enjoy that part of the general culture that is permitted by Halacha. Halacha is never compromised at an NCSY event. These  teens are observant during an NCSY event while at the same time enjoying their time there. They are given a positive experience in observant Judaism that they take home with them. An experience that will often inspire them to explore observant Judaism further 

Those who volunteer as NCSY advisers are encouraged to be role models for the secular NCSYers - showing them that observance will not deny them many of the pleasures (those that are permitted by Halacha) they have always enjoyed from the general culture. This is a successful formula for both the secular NCSYers and the advisors themselves. Each inspiring the other.

While many NCSYers do not become observant, many do. There is no reason it can’t be the same for MO teens. Many of whom attend NCSY events. I think more of them should be encouraged to do so. This is certainly not the solution to the problem. But it is something that should be looked at as one way to change the trajectory of so many MO young people dropping observance..