Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Can Communal Change lead to a Better Educational System?- Some thoughts on the movie Unorthodox (Part II)

[This is the second part of a three-part series on the movie “Unorthodox”. In this post, I address ways for institutional coherence to lead to a change in Jewish education. To read part I, where I addressed how Israel schools have changed, please click here.]

Michael (name and details changed) went to a well-known Modern Orthodox high school. When I would run into him at local races, he always came across as a kind, well-behaved, and thoughtful young man (athletic too). He also came across as not particularly excited by religion. In fact, when he graduated from high school, he was one of the few graduating students from his school who did not spend a year studying in Israel. I lost touch with Michael after he went to college at a large Midwestern university. I remember my shock when I next saw him, a number of years later. I was in shul and I saw a young man whose long beard and style of dress clearly marked him as Chabad. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t figure out why. When it finally hit me that this was Michael, I went over to say hi. We talked for a while, and he explained to me that he had connected to Chabad through his campus shaliach, and that he was now learning in a Chabad yeshiva.

I thought about Michael’s for quite a while. How was it that this young man who grew up in a typical Modern orthodox community, and had spent 12 years in its schools, and had graduated without a strong connection, had become so committed to a religious life?

In watching Unorthodox, I again thought of Michael, as well as those who are similar to him and went to Israel, as well as those who went straight to college. Where are we as a community and an educational system failing? I do not ask this question with an assumption that we can reach every child/student. Still, I wonder how many Michaels and Tzipis there are who never discover that religious Judaism is something they could live and love. In this post I will focus on the community, and in the next post I will discuss the school system.

What Unorthodox makes clear is that part of the effectiveness of the year in Israel in leading to stronger religious commitment (permanent or temporary) goes beyond the classroom. May students see communities, both charedi and dati leumi, which they perceive as being more authentically in line with the Torah they’ve learned, than the ones in which they grew up at home. They see serious tefillah, Talmud Torah, and shemiras hamitzvos in ways that they often did not at home or in their communities. While their communities in the States (and elsewhere) often felt “moderately passionate” to borrow a phrase from Rabbi Lamm, in Israel they witness and experience real passion.

Even if one accounts for some degree of over-idealization in the student’s experiences in Israel, it is hard to deny that Har Nof and Alon Shevut are very different from the average Modern orthodox community in Chutz La’aretz. Teenagers, who often notice real or perceived inconsistency and hypocrisy are often left wondering about the differences they perceive.

The question which needs to be addressed is whether change can occur on a communal level, or whether it is only the educational system which can help our students grapple with their inner and religious lives. While in some cases the schools will have to largely work on their own (and I will address this in the next post), I believe that, in some cases, communal change is possible.

While institutional change is hard to bring about, communal change is even more complex. In order for a community to evolve religiously various institutions need to work together and come up with a shared vision. Schools, where students are the focus, have to work with shuls where there are a much wider range of participants. In doing this important work, they allow students to see in their non-school life, reinforce what they are learning about in school. Absent this consonance, students are left wondering why they should live what they are learning at school.

My sense is that there are communities where the school-shul partnership is happening. One such community is in Philadelphia where the Kohelet Foundation is making sure that the various Kohelet schools are working together with the community. They describe their mission as:

The Kohelet Foundation aims to strengthen and preserve the Jewish Day School education model for our next generation of leaders by creating and supporting Jewish communal responsibility for day schools among parents, philanthropists, and the greater Jewish community.

Local educators and sought after speakers not only address the students at school, but also speak to the parents and other community members. This makes it possible for parents to grow along with their children, and to create Jewish lives which are passionate. Communal funders come to see how supporting different organizations, rather than focusing on just one, can be more effective.

While no school can ever force parents to engage with the learning, it is advantageous for this to occur. Many parents grow frustrated when their children get to Israel and “flip out”, especially when their children not only become more religious, but also become more “right wing” philosophically. This approach also addresses the concern that change is too sudden and volatile. Slow, thoughtful growth, done along with one’s family would benefit the community, family, and students. With this approach, Israel yeshivas and seminaries could reinforce what the students already possess, rather than try to get the students to change.

While it would take complex change for this approach to come about, I can’t help but wonder what Michael might be like today if he had witnessed such an integrated approach.

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