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May 4, 2015 / 15 Iyar, 5775
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Inspiring Our Youth and the Search for Meaning

Among the many things Judaism can do for you is to give meaning to your life.
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One of the many themes I talk about here is the OTD (Off the Derech) phenomenon. Going OTD means abandoning adherence to Halacha and often includes abandoning belief in the Torah. Or God. Or both.

It should not come as any surprise to anyone that this is a serious problem in all observant denominations. From Hasidim, to Yeshivish, to Centrist, to LWMO… all have their share of OTD. Not to mention the “Lites” of every denomination.

The reasons one might go OTD are varied and many, including things like having been sexually abused; growing up in a dysfunctional family situation; undiagnosed learning disabilities (like ADD or ADHD); or the inability of teachers to answer hard questions about belief. These and other causes have been discussed here before.

But I would note that the cause of going OTD I have been hearing a lot about lately is the lack of finding any inspiration in the classroom. It doesn’t matter whether the classroom is a Haredi one or a Modern Orthodox one. The lack of inspiration to remain observant is clearly either missing or being missed by students who do not pick up on it – if it is there at all.

This was brought home to me again last night at the annual NCSY dinner here in Chicago. One of the awardees made this point as did my son in law, Rabbi Micah Greenland, International Director of NCSY (as well as Regional Director of the Midwest Region).

He spoke about this week’s Torah portion where the very first Mitzvah given to the Jewish people as a nation was the establishment of the lunar calendar. Although I am not a Kabbalist and avoid references to the Zohar for many reasons (which I am not going to go into here) Rabbi Greenland made reference to the Zohar’s explanation for God giving this as the very first Mitzvah to His people. He compares the Jewish people to the phases of the moon. The moon waxes and wanes every month. And every month when it renews its waxing and waning cycle we bless it.

The Jewish people have their own moments of waxing and waning. Sometimes that occurs simultaneously. As is the case in our own era. On the one hand we live in unprecedented times. There are more Jews learning in religious day schools, high schools, and yeshivos post highs schools than at any time in history. There are more books published in English on every possible variety of Torah subjects than ever before enabling masses of people to access Torah unlike any time in history. There are tons of shiurim on the internet on every Torah subject and for every level of student – from the most sophisticated advanced student of gemerah to the novice.

On the other hand this is a drop in the bucket compared to the number of Jews who don’t know anything about their own religion and don’t care. They do not know an Aleph from a Beis. Not because they reject Judaism. But because they never had the slightest exposure to it… other than tokenism. If I am not mistaken the figure Rabbi Greenland used is 90 percent.

Ninety percent of all Jews fall into this category. And more than half of them intermarry. In many cases this is even a cause for celebration. In a country that celebrates both diversity and assimilation at the same time, a mixed marriage is the quintessential example of how that works.

Who can forget the image of Chelsea Clinton under a chupah with her talis wearing, Yarmulke wearing chasan! The pop culture media salivated with great joy over that event. This is a media that includes many Jews. And many of those are themselves intermarried. As nice as it might seem for our standing in this country for one of our own to marry the daughter of a President, an intermarriage is not something to celebrate.

What we end up having is a twofold problem. Reaching out to the unaffiliated and reaching in to the uninspired. There is a lot of good work being done in the former. But what about the latter?

Rabbi Greenland said that NCSY addresses both problems. Although the majority of NCSY attendees are from non observant backgrounds, there are many from religious backgrounds who attend religious schools. While they all are taught the basics of Halacha, and how to study Torah in all its various forms many students just go through the motions. Once they graduate high school and move on to a university campus, the lack of having had any inspiration can easily cause them to drop observance altogether.

While there are some universities that have an excellent Jewish presence that enables students to remain observant there are many that don’t. If they do not pick up any enthusiasm for their Judaism in high school, they can easily go OTD. It seems to be a big problem. I’ve addressed this issue before.

Memo to Jewish educators: While it is vitally important to have organizations like NCSY to fill in the ‘inspiration gap’ left out in the schools, it is perhaps even more important to ask why that kind of inspiration is lacking or insufficient in the classroom. And then try to do something about it.

Among the many things Judaism can do for you is to give meaning to your life. Judaism is more than about following Halacha and believing in God and His Torah. While those are the essential elements of Judaism – they may not be enough for some people to keep adhering to the sometimes difficult task of being observant in a society that values freedom above all else. Without understanding that Judaism provides meaning to one’s life, one can end up rejecting it. But even with that knowledge motivating observance may fall short if there is no reinforcement by one’s peers and friends.

Sam Love who recently wrote so poignantly about his own journey in and out of observance contacted me again, recently. Among other things he said the following which I think sums it up:

We are born, we go to school, we work, we get married, we get divorced, we retire and we die.  If life in this world is not our ultimate goal, what is the purpose of living?  The purpose of living is to prepare for our ultimate goal – olam haba.  It just makes sense.  And what can prepare us for our ultimate goal in life?  Religion – yiddishkeit.  That was my (original) reason (for becoming observant) and even today, secular society seems so vacant and pointless.  Yiddishkeit and NCSY do not seem vacant and pointless.  My experiences in the Frum world (Chabad and Yeshiva) seem more dismal than secular society.

I am now going to school in Toronto.  As you may know, there is a huge Jewish community here, and I think it is safe to say that not everyone here is Luvavitch or yeshivish – yet I haven’t been to shul here in the nearly 2 years that I have been here, and I don’t plan on going to any in the near future.

Why?  I can’t quite put my finger on it, but if I had to guess, it would be that there are most likely going to be bad people at shul and it presumably (based on past experiences) would be an uncomfortable environment, so why would I want to put myself through that and go?

Need I say more?

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah.

About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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One Response to “Inspiring Our Youth and the Search for Meaning”

  1. Tzvi Fishman says:

    Try inspiring America's Jewish youth with some real exciting yiddishkeit like strawberry gefilta fish and chocolate chips bagels! That will really turn them on and keep them away from the shiksas. And be sure not to mention anything about Israel, because if they get inspired about real Jewish life in Israel, then they'll all say goodbye to the big Jewish America lie which you are all so unsuccessfully trying to sell. The kids know its a fake, so why not just be American like everyone else and have a good time like the goyim? The only solution to assimilation is Israel. That's the only future there is.

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Binyamin and Chaya Maryles, uncle and aunt of Emes Ve-Emunah author Harry Maryles.
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