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Keeping Haredim Excited About Torah

Jewish schoolboys

Jewish schoolboys
Photo Credit: Yonatan Sindel / Flash 90

Many of us have heard about the books and stories coming from those who grew up haredi (ultra-orthodox), but have since adopted a modern lifestyle. But while we are rightfully concerned when these tales make headlines, in order to change the situation for the better, it is in our best interest to find new ways to infuse life and vitality into observant life; a vitality that is enduring unlike the fleeting temporarily of secular experience.

A Purim Tale

Being both highly sensitive and introverted has made living in major cities challenging. But while each and every outdoor adventure is a “stethoscope to the world” experience, this challenge also carries great potential.

It is because of this sensitivity that a story from Shushan Purim a few weeks back stuck with me. It occurred not long after my family and I moved into an apartment in Jerusalem.

The Happy Collector

When I arrived to pray and hear the megillah Shushan Purim morning, there was a collector there that stood out because of his exuberance. It is a mitzvah to give charity to the poor on Purim* day, so there he was with his basket in hand ready to collect. But there were two things different about this gentleman. The first, as mentioned, was that he was in a happy, exuberant mood. The second was that he was exclaiming that giving charity to him was an ultra-fulfillment of the mitzvah.

Now you can imagine the thought that came to mind: It is a mitzvah to give to anyone who is needy. So how exactly would giving to him be any better?

Then during prayer I received my answer. There he was again, still exuberant as ever, running around with his charity basket and … his son in tow.

That morning a father had two options. Either he could go to synagogue and collect quietly, perhaps even leaving his son at home so he shouldn’t remember Purim as the time when his father asks for charity all day. Or he could inject a healthy dose of folly, a holy spirit of folly, and make sure that even though he still had to collect, Purim should still remain an enjoyable one for him and his son.

Non-Obligatory Novelties

The thought then occurred to me: While technically giving charity to this man fulfilled the obligation like any Jewish person in need, something extra special did come from his happy behavior. That even in the face of adversity and challenge, he found a way to both remain happy himself and bring enjoyment to his son on Purim.

According to the Avnei Nezer, a child who does not know how to perform the hidur (beautification) of a mitzvah is not required to do so. For instance, whereas a child is not obligated to perform the hidur of shaking the lulav (the mitzvah is to hold it); nevertheless it is praiseworthy to teach the child to shake in order to appreciate the inner (non-obligated) life and soul of the mitzvah (see the full explanation here).

While giving charity to this father was legally the same as giving to any other person in need, through his decision to make the day happy for himself and his son, we learn a great lesson in education. Thinking back to that Purim day, his son will remember the fact that he and his father managed to enjoy a Purim during those difficult times, not whether the reasons his father gave were rational.

Teaching Novelty in Education

We started this article on how to market Torah to haredim with this story because it captures the life and exuberance that every educator should have when instructing a classroom of students.

We brought an extreme case to show that even marketing tactics can be praiseworthy under certain pressing circumstances. How much more so then in the case of an established hidur, whereby we teach it (e.g., to shake the lulav) to the child even though he is not yet obligated.

But the life of the mitzvot change from generation to generation. Therefore, a true educator has to be attuned to the new hidurim that give life and exuberance to the act of learning and performing these mitzvot.

For instance, in our generation we have been given the opportunity to learn Torah with its mathematics, the triangles and squares in the Torah. This imparts a tremendous sense of fun and enjoyment to learning Torah. Like a hidur (e.g., shaking the lulav) not knowing the Torah’s math doesn’t detract from the mitzvah of learning Torah. The child could make do with just learning the Mishnah and Talmud.

If the Torah’s math is not learnt in a particular cheder or yeshivah, they don’t have to do strange things in order to introduce it, but it’s certainly too bad, because the hidur, this way of learning, is what gives a lot of life and novelty to the learning, (for example, see our mathematical analysis of the Haggadah song, Who Knows One?).

Difference between Haredi and other Jewish Schools

Presumably both haredi and modern Jewish schools would be interested in learning the mathematics behind the Torah. What then is the difference between the two?

As explained in “When Torah Goes Viral” the marketing for modern environments is to explain the unification that is taking place between the Torah and the wisdom of the world (in our case, mathematics). So whereas the way to market Torah mathematics to haredi schools is to explain this concept of a non-obligatory hidur mitzvah, for more modern environments, the selling point is the unification taking place between these two seemingly disparate worlds.

For example, so far there are over 9,000 views of this class given at a modern orthodox high school on Torah and mathematics. Notice that during the class, Rabbi Ginsburgh assumes that the students already know what algebraic expressions are. The novelty that we present to these children then is that the Torah relates to the algebra, geometry, etc… that they have already been learning. So too, when marketing to modern audiences outside the classroom, we continue along this path by asking whether they would like to know the Torah behind E=MC2, Pythagorean Triples, Pi, Euler’s Theorem, Golden Ratio, and so on …

But haredi audiences don’t know what any of these things are. For example, instead of the Fibonacci sequence, we can begin by calling it by its more accurate name (the “love series of numbers”). While the content is the same, what changes is the approach.

A Call to These “Wayward” Youth

For instance, now that these formerly haredi youths have entered the modern world it may be more appropriate to reach out to them with unifications instead of hidurim. As mentioned, teaching hidurim should begin from a young age, even before they are obligated. But now that this child has presumably entered or passed adolescence, and has studied something in university or from popular books, we should now reach out to them with the second approach.

*For simplicity, I will continue to refer to the day of the story as Purim, even though this was Shushan Purim, the day when the megillah is read in Jerusalem.

About the Author: Yonatan Gordon has spent most of his past 13 professional years in the world of Jewish publishing. He was the Marketing Manager at Kehot Publication Society (publishing arm of Chabad) for the better part of six years. He is founder of the website Community of Readers.


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