There has been a lot of discussion about young people abandoning Mitzvah observance (going OTD) over the past few years. A lot of that discussion took place here.
Indeed it has been declared a crisis by some. The focus of this issue in the religious media has been primarily in the Charedi world. Many theories have emerged as to why children go OTD. Among them: being sexually abused and the negative reactions to it by family and community, dysfunctional family situations, faulty educational environments, teachers unprepared to deal with questions of faith, or being overly sheltered from the world so that rebellion occurs when they are exposed to it unprepared.
I’m sure I missed a few reasons, but suffice it to say there are many reasons or combination of reasons to explain the phenomenon in the Charedi world. This problem is non discriminatory and touches even the best of households. Much ink has been spilled on horror stories of good and decent parents who have one child who has completely crashed and has become – not only OTD, but even a societal outcast (e.g. use of hard drugs and generally dropping out of society).
What has not been discussed much is the phenomenon of Modern Orthodox children going OTD. As though it wasn’t a problem for them. Of course that isn’t true. MO kids go OTD too. But I was amazed to find out the rate. According to an excellent blog post by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky there is an unpublished study claiming that 50% of Modern Orthodox high school graduates go OTD within two years of their graduation!
That is a shocking statistic. It almost justifies claims I often hear by the right that whatever problems they have with OTD, it is a drop in the bucket compared to our problems with it. My answer to them is that their drop is a very large drop which has been declared a crisis by many of their own leaders. But their point is well taken if that 50% statistic is anywhere near true.
But let us examine what is really going on with a statistic like this. Just as is the case by Charedim, there are many reasons why someone may abandon his religious observance. Some of them probably overlap. But there are definitely reasons that are unique to Modern Orthodoxy. One very plausible explanation is that many of the children attending MO schools are not from religious homes. When a child doesn’t see and live at home what he is taught in school, there is little chance of him remaining observant – if he ever was. But I don’t think anyone believes that is the entire reason.
Rabbi Pruzansky proposes another reason which I think is completely valid – although I don’t think it is the only reason by far.
He says that one has to look at the home first. What kind of role models does a child see in his or her parents?
I have long ago contended that the many MO Jews are what I call MO-Lite. This means that they are socially religious. They live in MO Neighborhoods and go to MO Shuls. But they are not really all that into their Judaism in any serious way. They observe Shabbos and Kashrus because that is how they were basically raised. But their observance is more social that idealistic – and outside of those two main Mitzvos – picking and choosing what they do and do not observe.
MO-Lites pay as much (if not more) attention to their lifestyle choices than they do religious choices. So when the two conflict – the lifestyle choice may win. Not that they will purposely violate Halacha, but they don’t look at their Judaism as the primary part of their lives. As Rabbi Pruzansky points out:
Children who see their parents prioritize shul – not once or twice a week, but every day – see shul as a value. Children who see their parents attend shul once a week and primarily socialize and converse while there see shul as a place to meet their friends. When older, they can just bypass the middleman and just go straight to their friends.
Similarly, children who see parents learning Torah during their leisure time perceive learning as a value. Children whose Shabbat is different than the other days of the week – the Shabbat table is different, the conversation is laden with talk of Torah, ideas, values, and zemirot instead of idle chitchat, sports, and gossip – experience a different Shabbat. It’s just a different day. When Shabbat is not observed as a different day, it stops being a different day.
I have noticed that there are teens who simply do not daven – they will converse the whole time – and invariably they are the children of fathers who themselves don’t stop talking in shul. Children who roam the halls of the synagogue Shabbat morning are invariably the offspring of parents who roam the halls. Like father, like son.
Rabbi Pruzansky gives some more examples like this. I think that these parents represent precisely the kind of Jews I have called MO-Lite. It should be no surprise to them if after high school their children attend a college away from home and eventually abandon observance altogether. And these are the kinds of schools pushed by these parents who value the ivy league university experience over the religious experience.
Try remaining observant in a university campus social setting away from home. It’s pretty difficult to do without any support. It can be done. And it is done in many schools. But it takes effort and determination that is learned in the home via the parents as teachers and more importantly as role models. If a parent is casual about his Yiddishket (MO-Lite) than his child will be at great risk for going OTD. Of course this isn’t always the case. But I’m pretty sure it is a big factor.
There are of course many exceptions all over the place. For example there are MO-Lite children who end up being very sincere about their Judaism. Often via their experiences in Israel (although sometimes the reverse happens too).
There are also kids from seriously religious homes of any stripe that go OTD anyway. But I think there is a lot to be said for the MO-Lite phenomenon as one cause of the problem. I would also add that “Lites” exists among Charedim too which I am sure also impacts on their OTD problems.
My guess is that if one were to look at the rate of dropouts based on the seriousness of the parents in both MO and the Charedi world, the dropout rate might be about the same. For me the issue is not whether a student has an MO education or not. It is about how serious his parents take their Judaism.
For Modern Orthodox Jews – the way to get the best of both worlds and remain observant post high school is to attend a yeshiva like Yeshiva University. That may not solve all the OTD problems – and one size does not fit all – nevertheless putting a child in a Torah environment is certainly better than putting them into the promiscuous environment of the university campus.
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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 email@example.com.
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