Tuesday, March 15, 2016

WHAT Are They Leaving? - On re-evaluating our educational goals to make Judaism more compelling


At the end of high school, I almost gave up on Orthodox Judaism. No, I was not going to abandon everything, but after 12 years of Jewish education that had mostly not spoken to me, I was not interested in learning more Torah, or continuing to do mitzvos. It wasn’t that I no longer believed in God, although I certainly could not have explained what such belief meant, as much as there was a lot “out there” that I found enticing, and little in what I had learned about Judaism that made me feel that I should refrain from living like a typical college student. Although I was told I would enjoy a year studying in israel, I was pretty sure I did not want to invest more time in an activity which did not mean anything to me. It was only due to a fluke that I changed my mind.


There is much talk about why many young people are leaving the Orthodox community (sometimes it feels like too much talk). Currently, two studies are are being conducted about why charedim go “OTD”, and the defection of Modern Orthodox youth was a large part of the discussion at a symposium on the future of Modern Orthodoxy I attended yesterday evening. While many are asking some variation of “Why are they leaving?”, I want to ask a different question. What are young people leaving when they leave Orthodoxy? In other words, when a Jew from a MO or Charedi world leaves observance around the age of 18-22 (roughly college age), what is their understanding of Judaism that they are leaving behind?


I ask this question not because I believe that any approach can stop all, or even most people from leaving, but rather because I wonder whether our educational system (and with that term I include families, shuls and even camps, as well as schools) is providing a rich enough approach to Judaism. Is what college-aged students have experienced and know, enough to even make it a struggle to leave?


What does the average graduate of our schools know about Jewish philosophy? Have they studied Rav Saadyah Gaon, Moreh Nevuchim and/or the Kuzari? Do graduates of MO schools know anything about Rav Kook, other than, perhaps, the fact that he was one of the chief-rabbis of Israel? What does the average graduate of a yeshivish high school know of the Ramchal or the Michtav MiEliyahu? For goodness sakes, do chassidim study chassidus in their schools? How about the שש מצוות תמידיות, the six mitzvos about which the Sefer HaChinuch says we are obligated at all times, thereby suggesting that, at least on some level, they are essential to Judaism? What is Ahavas HaShem? What do we mean when we talk of God being one?


When I think about all that I have learned since high school, I shudder to think that I could have given up on such a rich tradition that includes so many thinkers who have inspired me. I likely would have stopped keeping Shabbos, without having ever been exposed to Heschel’s The Sabbath. I would have stopped keeping many mitzvos, without ever having been taught any of the many approaches to ta’amei hamitzvos. I wasn’t exactly davening too often at that point, but it saddens me that I had never heard about the Piaczena Rebbe, or the Avudraham after 12 years of Jewish education. I could go on and on.


Jewish observance makes demands of us, and consciously or not, one of things that someone who leaves asks themselves before departing, is why they should sacrifice for Judaism. I would hope that those who stay, do so (among other reasons) due to having discovered a deep, meaningful experience in our Avodas HaShem. I wonder whether we are making the chance of discovering that depth and meaning enough of a realistic possibility during the first two decades of our children’s and/or student’s lives.


Of course, even one who agrees with my premise might wonder where we can find the time to teach those things. The answer is quite simple. It is time to re-evaluate what we are teaching in schools (as well as what we learn in shul and camp). The basic curriculum that is taught in most day schools is based on an approach that was designed by Torah U’Mesorah more than 50 years ago. Do we really believe that the needs of today’s children are the same as they were back then? In yeshivish yeshivas, the emphasis is almost overwhelmingly on gemara, with aggadeta, where one could be exposed to Jewish thought, excluded. While it is claimed that an interested bachur can learn these things if he is curious, many do not know how much they don’t know, and are not given a chance to discover what might interest them. While gemara-only might work for some, if we define success narrowly enough, there are many whom are being pushed away by this approach. This is particularly ironic when we consider that up until well into the 20th century few men ever studied gemara, particularly for as many years as bnei yeshiva learn it today. While Bais Yaakovs do teach more broadly than their male counterparts, there is still much depth that could be added.

As I said earlier, there are many reasons why people leave Orthodoxy. There is a lot we can learn from talking to those who left, if we want to make our communities better. It is time to at least make the decision to leave, a more challenging one, by teaching the depth and meaning of our tradition.

"At the end of high school, I almost gave up on Orthodox Judaism. No, I was not going to abandon everything, but after...

Posted by Pesach Sommer on Tuesday, March 15, 2016

11 comments:

  1. As I wrote in my manifesto, Tools & Goals, it's not that many of our children go off the derekh, it's that we never give them a derekh (path) to begin with. We teach them halakhah, how to "walk" the derekh, the tools. But we do little to teach them about destination or how to get there, the goals. Nearly all of the systemic teaching of such subjects is done in preschool; after which such topics are taught in non-coordinated snippets of derashos and mussar shmuessin. No big picture. No mountain peak to climb for. We never challenge "מי יעלה בהר ה"?

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    1. Those words were part of the inspiration for this post.

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    2. RYGB's answer to "should we teach girls gemara"... Our curriculum for boys is not doing the boys any favors; and you want to spread it further???

      I think he would want to see more mussar and hashkafah as well as pragmatic halakhah on the boys side. I'll point him to this comment chain and see if he joins in.

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  3. Rav Sommers, didn't you graduate from Yeshiva of Flatbush, where they did, at least at some point, teach Jewish Philosophy rather seriously? I remember that our students at Yeshiva Seminar from Flatbush were quite well read. While I agree with everything you say here, and believe that serious education in these areas at the high school level would be greatly desired, I don't think it should be in the form of "kiruv" as a response to potential OTDs. What one will end up with is kiruv, not an engagement with philosophical texts.

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    1. I did go there, but it's not just about what is taught, as well as how. Additionally, things like Taamei HaMitzvot and serious ideas about tefillah were not covered.

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  4. As someone who has left the circles of Orthodoxy, I found this post very applicable to my experiences, and I'm sure there are many details which others can relate too, although no two experiences are the same.

    I have always wanted to gather a bunch of my formerly-orthodox friends and have a discussion with the Orthodox community about why we left, and the diversity of our experience, reasons for leaving, and where they are now.

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    1. Thanks for your kind words. I would encourage to try and speak to those who will listen about your experiences.

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  5. I can connect to this fully, I grew up traditional and went to semi-religious middle school and grade school and then attended a public high school. Ironically, once I was at the public school my mother insisted I joined NCSY and let me tell you, I'm glad I did. It changed my entire view on Judaism since I was seeing it as a part of me instead of a boring class in school that was mandatory.

    I agree with you completely but I do think that Jewish Identity also comes from the home and from parents. Sure I can give credit to the approach NCSY gave me in rekindling my Jewish curiosity I once had as a child but it wasn't just NCSY. I think to truly change the fact that people even in traditional homes decide to even intermarry is because Jewish Identity is lost in the home.

    Surely a heavily aggressive schooling system of ones religion can surely turn people off from wanting to learn more. It should come from passion and inner searching not from having to memorize biblical facts to ace a test.

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    1. I agree with you 100%. The only reason I mainly focus on schools is because they can be changed by the community, more easily than individual families.

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    2. This is why schools push for the children to attend summer camps, youth groups, etc. The same thing, taught in both schools & camps, can have almost no impact in one situation, while being life-changing in the other setting.

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