Monday, March 04, 2024

Elitism and Insularity is Not Judaism

Image for illustration purposes only
The intensity of my constant focus on the war is getting to me. I have been talking about little else since it began shortly after Hamas attacked Israel last October. Although I am surely nowhere near as worried as the people of Israel who are directly feeling the impact of the war – especially those with close family members fighting in Gaza - or worse have lost loved ones in battle, I am human. I need to decompress. So I am going to talk about another problem that plagues the world of Orthodox Jewry: The madness of post high school seminaries in Israel for girls. 

I am not here to bad mouth the concept. Taking a year or two to study in Israel can be a very uplifting experience that will impact one’s thinking for the rest of their lives. 

There is  a column in Mishpacha called ‘Double Take’. (Not available online.) I believe this column presents fictional stories about various and typical problems facing Charedi families.  In last week’s column, there was a story about a mother of a young 12th grader applying to a few seminaries, with one particular one heavily favored by her. This young lady was everything one would want in a seminary student. She was a bright religious young woman with top grades,  well adjusted and having the typical values one would expect to find in that world. 

While all of her friends were accepted she was rejected. It turns out that she had a ‘glitch’ in her trek toward the pristine reputation she now enjoyed. Upon entering 9th grade she found herself not interested in school and feeling alienated from her new student body. As such her grades started slipping and sought outside interests that were not in concert with her community’s values. She was not OTD at all. But she started using technology on the sly and  after school, started hanging out with some of her old friends from elementary school her that were perhaps on their way to going OTD.

Long story short, a compassionate and understanding 12th grade teacher who was known to easily relate to teenagers and their problems was asked to intercede. She succeeded in straightening this 9th grader out… leading her back to the ‘straight and narrow’ path of the Charedi world. Never losing a beat except for that short interval. The schools administration and her teachers never aware of any of that ‘glitch’.

Why was she rejected? Apparently that 12th grade teacher was the cause. She was the contact person for seminaries seeking to evaluate students for admission. She was asked by the seminary head whether there was anything about this young lady’s past that was even remotely questionable. She responded by telling her everything. That ‘killed the deal’ for that young student. 

My initial impression of her as a hero quickly deteriorated into an impression of a vilain. How could a woman so kind and helpful to a young person turn on her so drastically?! 

But then I read her side of the story. Which explained that when the seminary head contacted her about that student she argued strongly for her to be accepted. She could not sing her praises enough, Considering her intelligence, good grades, excellent character,  reputation, and pristine values. But when the seminary head kept pressing about ‘anything’ that might give them pause, she was forced to reveal that short rough patch. Lying about it by saying that nothing happened would have ruined her reputation as a reliable source of information about seminary applicants from her school.

There are always 2 sides to every story. In this case neither side was the villain. However, both were in fact victims of the malaise of elitism that permeates the world of seminaries. (Which mirrors the elitism of Charedi Yeshiva high schools and Beis Yaakovs.) The real villain here is the seminary head who refused to take a wonderful young woman for fear that she might taint the other students with her ‘sordid’ past influenced by her old friends. Even though her contact with them was at most very minimal by now.

I can’t condemn that kind of thinking enough. The seminary head in this story exemplifies a Hashkafa that believes  the road to heaven is paved with as much insularity as possible. Even a hint of possible contact with the outside world is a slippery slope to hell. She wants only the ‘highest caliber’ girl with absolutely no ‘baggage’ in that regard. In other words clones of the Charedi prototype that eschews the outside world to the max. 

In my view, even though she doesn’t realize it now, this young woman will be far better off by not being subjected to such an insular indoctrination. 

Is there any wonder why there is a Shidduch crisis in the Charedi world? When perfection is seen as the only option it includes seeking perfection in a mate. That is the only thing they will accept in a husband. And such young men can only be found in a ‘Lakewood’ environment. How many perfect young men are there in Lakewood anyway?  

I know a few young women that will only date ‘Lakewood’ boys. Non Lakewood boys aren’t even suggested to them. You could not pay them enough to date a non ‘Lakewood’ boy. And these young women aren’t getting any younger as they continue to refuse dating anyone else no matter how religious or learned they are.  Which means that they aren’t dating as much as they used to and getting older by the minute. In ‘Charedi years’ a 23 year old young woman is considered past her prime.

This is the fault of a seminary system that works exceedingly hard to indoctrinate their young students to think in this elitist and insular way. If I could, I’d shut them all down.