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Modern Orthodoxy And Torah Education


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“What kind of job is that for a Jewish boy?”

These were the words that greeted a friend and mentor when he chose the profession of Jewish educator almost 50 years ago. Two basic assumptions stand behind such a question: (1) Jewish boys are destined for greatness; (2) Jewish education is certainly not the path to achieve that greatness.

Indeed, I have no doubt that the great aunt who posed this (presumably) rhetorical question believed, quite strongly, that this young man (who is now over 70) would achieve far greater success pursuing a career in medicine, law, accounting, or public school education.

Most believe that we as a community have progressed beyond the aforementioned question; that it reflects a time when Jews struggled and clawed to lift themselves out of the projects and into the middle class – a time when choosing the path of melamed would mean retaining the status quo and rejecting the opportunities offered by the postwar American economy.

In our current age, we still believe strongly that Jewish boys and girls are destined for greatness, yet seemingly accord more respect to the position of Jewish educator: our schools expand; more teacher training is planned; we excessively recruit the most talented men and, now, women in the field.

Nevertheless, my experience in an admittedly brief career in Jewish education leads me to believe that though our communal mentality has progressed somewhat, we still cling to the initial question, merely rephrasing and redirecting it. When confronted with an aspiring young mechanech, we now ask “What kind of job is that for a Modern Orthodox Jewish boy?”

It seems that our sundry communities (with notable exceptions) still discourage their young people from becoming Jewish educators and guide them toward alternative careers, under the assumption that mechanech as a job title represents a less than adequate achievement for our children.

Even a cursory glance at the current Modern Orthodox educational landscape reveals a severe imbalance as to who constitutes the ranks of our Judaic educational professionals.

Most of the young and even older teachers and administrators are men and women who make their homes in communities philosophically to the right of Centrist Orthodoxy. Certainly, I do not question their abilities. To the contrary – in my time working at Yeshivah of Flatbush and other institutions, I have found that the haredi community has produced educators of the highest quality, idealistic in their goals and inspiring in their methods. Indeed, my greatest influences as a young teacher were men who graduated from Ponovezh and ITRI, not Yeshiva University.

My purpose here is to explore why we in the Modern Orthodox community, committed as we are to transmitting our religious values to our children, have failed to produce a sufficient number of quality educators and have implicitly relegated chinuch to a second-class status. What steps must be taken to expand the ranks of Jewish educators who come from and reflect the ethos of our community?

Our initial problem, as I’ve already alluded to, is philosophy and attitude; we do not view Jewish education as an ideal and an opportunity to achieve success. Though we pride ourselves on our commitment to yeshiva education, we balk at the notion of our own children entering the field. For many, though not all, a child who chooses the educational track has shifted “to the right” and rejected a certain degree of worldliness that we value.

Such a perspective undermines our own philosophy which demands a commitment to depth and breadth: an unflinching commitment to the Torah and its precepts and at the same time openness to the “best of what has been thought and said” in the world. An individual who chooses chinuch commits him/herself to deepening our community’s dedication to Torah and allows us to proceed with greater confidence into the modern world.

We must recognize that Jewish education represents a true manifestation of a Modern Orthodox philosophy. Achieving the goals of Modern Orthodoxy demands battalions of teachers committed to teaching and disseminating Torah. The field of teaching must be assimilated into and accentuated within our weltanschauung, or worldview.

More practically, we must recognize that belittling the status of Jewish educators severely discourages talented individuals from entering the field. As an example, a classmate of mine left Orthodoxy and ultimately married a non-Jewish woman. Before the marriage, his father begged that he speak with a rabbi. My classmate responded, “For the past 20 years I heard you complain constantly about how terrible these rabbis were, and now you want me to listen to them!”

We are not prohibited from criticizing educators – yet this criticism must be tempered, or even overwhelmed, by the respect and reverence for the men and women who commit themselves to avodat hakodesh (holy work). Successful and passionate educators must be praised and cherished. The principles they work for must be informed of significant achievements. The educators themselves must be lauded for their commitment. Most important, we must convey to our children the value of their teachers.

Our concern over our children entering the world of Jewish education develops as well from the affluence of our community. Modern Orthodox living demands salaries that can support homes on Long Island, yeshiva tuition, and much more. Teachers are simply not paid enough. Many parents rightfully worry that a career in Jewish education will not provide sufficient economic stability for their children’s families.

Here our responsibility is twofold.

First, we must lobby our institutions to pay better salaries to yeshiva teachers. They must be offered benefits and incentives that will allow them to live comfortably. I believe strongly that an institution’s money is ultimately best invested in human capital, which will undoubtedly yield the greatest returns.

Second, we need to shift our attitude. We as a society are too materialistic. Happiness arises not from the attainment of material “things” but from emotional and spiritual fulfillment. The opportunities to live an ideal and to open young minds offer a wholeness and satisfaction that supersede monetary and material gains.

Many challenges and deficiencies currently afflict our educational institutions, but it is the shortage of quality teachers that stands at the forefront. We have a responsibility as a community to produce the men and women who will go on to educate the children of our immediate future.

If confronted with a child, a young friend, or a relative who is choosing the path of Jewish education, do not respond negatively, discouraging them by listing the dangers, the difficulties and the poor salaries and security.

Instead, respond: “What a bold and idealistic decision. I wish you much luck. I cannot tell you how important quality educators are to our community. It is a difficult path that you are choosing, but ultimately I have no doubt that the fulfillment and accomplishment will make it all worthwhile. Educating our children is truly holy work.”

I have numerous friends who, yielding to very real external pressures, left education. They now function as highly qualified and successful, lawyers, doctors, and accountants. Yet they often remain unfulfilled, while our community lost out on superior educators and valuable role models. A weekly or even daily shiur falls short of satisfying their potential and the promise of hundreds of inspired students.

When in college, I had a constant internal debate over my future career; while education enticed me, I was overwhelmed by more worldly concerns impressed upon me by Modern Orthodoxy. Support and encouragement from family and friends, however, ultimately solidified my decision.

I have no regrets, and I look forward to the many opportunities that lie before me to positively affect the Jewish people. So many potential future educators wait to be formed and fostered. So much of our destiny as a people depends on our attitude and actions. By supporting and encouraging our own potential educators, we build a bright future for our community.

Ultimately, the answer to the question is: “The indispensable and most honored job for a Jewish boy or girl.”

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About the Author: Rabbi Elie Weissman is currently the rabbi of the Young Israel of Plainview. He has taught Judaic Studies at Yeshivah of Flatbush High School and now teaches at Yeshiva University High School for Girls (Central).


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