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.