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November 30, 2015 / 18 Kislev, 5776
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Are Yeshivas Doing Enough?

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On the surface it would appear the current major threat to Jewish survival comes from the Islamic nations surrounding Israel. That threat is small, however, compared to the threat of secularization.

If one were to say that to be a good Jew we need to follow the Torah in its entirety, then many of us are not acting properly as Jews, even in the Orthodox world. Many of us have become lax, using excuses such as “this law is outdated” or “that law is just rabbinical.” That leaves us with the question: What does it mean to be a Jew?

Rabbi Benzion Klatzko suggests Judaism is not a religion at all but rather a relationship (see TorahAnytime.com). There are a number of approaches the Torah teaches regarding the way we should connect with Hashem. Shir Hashirim teaches us our relationship with the Creator should parallel a healthy relationship between husband and wife. In such a relationship, actions are performed not by rote but rather with enthusiasm for someone you care about.

When we look at our current generation, it is uplifting to see the rise in ba’alei teshuvah as well as the increase in students who are taking on religious obligations more gradually. But we cannot ignore the number of students raised in Orthodox homes who are going the opposite route.

What causes one to decide to take one path versus the other? The answer is simple: connection. Those who have this relationship, even if only a weak one, want to strengthen it, while those who lack any sort of emotional connection end up taking one of three directions: fulfilling the commandments out of habit; becoming lax in their observance but still keeping the laws to varying degrees; or seeking this connection elsewhere and drifting away from Judaism.

People don’t like to blame themselves, so everyone points the finger at someone else: families, yeshivas, colleges, etc. At the end of the day, we are all at fault. But while it is true that families and colleges can have a deleterious effect on one’s Jewish attachment, it is only yeshivas that serve as a constant in providing a Jewish environment and education, and therefore they have the most potential to help.

There is, however, something powerful missing in many of our yeshivas: Jewish spirituality. We are taught Chumash, Gemara, Ivrit, Nach – but not about connecting emotionally to our Creator, building this relationship, understanding what it means to belong to the Jewish people.

We learn from our rabbis that if you cannot accept the first of the Ten Commandments (“I am Hashem your God”), you cannot accept the entire Torah. So how is it that young adults go through years of Jewish education without ever really learning about God? If Judaism is a relationship, and if the key to keeping us going as Jews is our connection to Hashem, this is a subject that cannot be ignored.

Education is the prime component but our yeshivas are not doing enough. In my own yeshiva experience the emphasis was on dry law and content, treating Tanach and Gemara like any secular course. I remember that in my Jewish classes we all used to take notes and study simply to pass the exams. That’s what happens when Judaism is taught as a body without a soul.

Since graduating yeshiva high school five years ago, I have witnessed hundreds of Jews, myself included, strengthen their connection to Judaism – and this number includes students from all sorts of backgrounds who attend a secular college, choose a non-religious group of friends, and/or lack religious support at home.

If students can survive, connect, and strengthen their observance in these most non-conducive settings, they should be able to flourish in a yeshiva setting. Unfortunately, it seems Jewish spirituality in many yeshivas is less accessible than it is in secular institutions. And this actually makes sense. Jewish organizations on campus want Jewish involvement so they cater to the students, making Judaism exciting and positive.

It’s time we apply pressure on our yeshivas. What’s the point in spending as much as a quarter of a million dollars on education from kindergarten through 12th grade if your kids don’t even keep up with it afterward? And even if they do, can they open up a Gemara and read it with ease and understanding? Are they fluent in Hebrew? Do they follow the mitzvot? Do they have any desire to build on their Jewish observance?

Thank God, many can answer “yes” to at least some of these questions, but there are too many who can’t. Yeshiva administrators tend to blame families and college life for these problems, but having lived it, I know these excuses are weak.

If yeshivas are not doing their job, let them hear your dissatisfaction. Parents pay a lot of money for their children’s Jewish education. They have every right to tell the yeshivas they are unhappy. And this call to spiritual arms isn’t for parents only. It’s for every Jew concerned that the teaching of Judaism in all too many of our yeshivas lacks soul and meaning.

Michael Schaier has a B.S.in Animal Science from Rutgers University and is currently studying at the Mayanot Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

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