The Crisis In Jewish Education
Rabbi Pinchas Rosenthal, Dean
Torah Academy of Long Island
Over the last few years there has been extensive coverage of an upsurge in observance. Increasingly sophisticated efforts at kiruv have resulted in large numbers of returnees – ba’alei teshuva – rediscovering the beauty and depth of an observant lifestyle. An important concomitant of this revitalization of Orthodoxy is that we now have more Jewish schools serving more Jewish children than ever before. Since education is viewed as both an indication of the health of the community and a guarantor of its continued health in the future, it appears that American Orthodoxy is on the move. Confident of success and secure in its underpinnings the Orthodox world seems poised for a bright future of unprecedented growth.
Unfortunately, this security may be a bit misplaced. To paraphrase Paul Harvey, here is “the rest of the story.”
In her groundbreaking work, Off the Derech, Faranak Margoles describes a counter-trend in Jewish life, one which is not receiving the same amount of attention – observant Jews leaving their Orthodoxy behind. Some of these are ba’alei teshuva, tiring of their newfound lifestyle; some are from families that have been observant all along.
Over the years I have often seen these problems emerging in young people from “good” families, families that are themselves committed to observance that have sacrificed to send their children to Jewish day schools. These students share many commonly seen characteristics – uninspired mechanical davening, sloppy mitzvah observance, fascination with the entertainments and fads of the non-Jewish world, and a general lack of pride in Jewish identity. In many cases these young people lead a schizophrenic existence – outwardly observant while in school and with their parents, but significantly less so on the weekends with their friends. The parents of these children cannot understand the reasons for their children’s lack of interest in Judaism. They ask a question that should concern all of us: how is it that a strong Jewish education has failed to inspire their children? Are they wrong to feel that Jewish education that claims to play such a central role in keeping Jews “on the derech” must also be held accountable for failing to meet the needs of their children who abandon Torah observance?
Margolese hints at some of the reasons for this in her second chapter. The essential model of Torah education employed in contemporary yeshivas and day schools originated in the European ghetto and was only designed for the small percentage of elite students who actually attended yeshiva. Furthermore, the ghetto was intellectually and physically closed to outside influences. The Torah curriculum, the only curriculum of the ghetto, was designed for a student who would never stray beyond the shtetl walls, never be challenged by the lures of a secular society, and never find his or her intellectual underpinnings tested.
Is it any wonder that so many young people seem so uninspired by their years of yeshiva learning? In accordance with the requirements of their yeshivot, these students may have “learned” many blatt of Gemara, or memorized many pasukim of Chumash with Rashi. But their souls have not been touched. And when, after high school graduation these same young people enter college, their commitment to Jewish ideals, their attachment to an authentic Jewish lifestyle, and the depth of their understanding of core Jewish concepts is sorely lacking. Is it any wonder that they cannot find relevance in a curriculum developed for another world, a world so foreign to their experience? What we should expect is indeed what we are getting: ever increasing numbers of students whose attachment to Judaism remains sentimental at best, and cynical and rebellious at worst. This situation is intolerable and a recipe for disaster. Ultimately, a community will act on its lack of ahava (love) for Jewish life in the form of assimilation. Similar to New Orleans our current culture is a levy whose hurricane Katrina will inevitably come.
We believe that given the realities of our circumstances, we must recommit ourselves to the core educational objective of relevance. We must acknowledge the fact that such a path requires core change in the fundamental infrastructure of our schools.
This means committing real resources to achieving concrete, measurable progress in the following critical areas:
1) Curriculum - Formulating a vision specifically designed for the modern American student. The principles of this vision must permeate all textual study and imbue it with relevance.
If the child is not shown how the concepts of the text are relevant to his life, the experience is both futile and alienating. These ideas must be articulated in both the Torah and General studies curricula and student life in the school.
2) Intellectual atmosphere - Questions on any topic must be welcomed and responded to without any fear of rejection.
3) Assessment - Clear procedures to determine whether a student is in fact, developing properly through the stages of maturation involved in attaining love for Judaism. Great care must be taken to measure students’ skills in the creative application of relevant Torah principles to their lives. A 95 in Gemara is not always a measure of a love of Judaism.
Constraints of space and time do not permit for a full discussion of the issue and its possible solutions in this article. But at least, we have begun to honestly frame the problem. We cannot close our eyes to the magnitude of this situation, and the responsibility that we all share in revitalizing the Jewish educational system. I invite all interested community members to begin this dialog. As Pirkei Avos says, “You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it.”