I am in shock.
A friend of mine was visiting the United States and his ride to the airport for his return flight to Israel fell through. At the last minute he needed to find a ride to a terminal that was 50 minutes away in order to catch a bus to New York City where he would then take a shuttle to the airport.
A young man, fresh off a year of Torah study in a top hesder yeshiva and looking forward to his second year of learning in Israel, offered to drive this visiting rabbi. This boy would appear to be a yeshiva high school success story – religious and learning Torah. Of course, he was told, the rabbi will pay something to offset gas expenses and for his time.
They arrived at the bus terminal and my friend decided he would give the boy more than what he thought the effort was worth since he appreciated the gesture. He offered the young man $50. The boy said it was not enough. My friend offered $60. The boy said, “You have to pay me double because I now have to drive back.”
My friend was taken by surprise and said $60 for 90 minutes of driving was certainly fair. The boy insisted on asking a cab driver what he would charge. The cabbie answered $60. The boy would not accept that. He demanded $100. The rabbi said he needed cash for more buses and for food. The boy responded that this was “taking away time from Torah learning” and he needed to be compensated accordingly. My friend managed to find $84 only to be met with the boy saying, “This is just not right.” And with that they parted ways.
My friend related how just that morning during Shacharit he was thinking about how “off target” we are as he watched rabbis barking at children to stand during “vayevareich Dovid” and the “vihu rachum,” part of Tachanun at a youth minyan. He was not suggesting we shouldn’t find ways to encourage our children to stand when our custom dictates standing during prayers. But the degree to which the kids were being scolded for not standing struck a chord that led him to reflect upon what we teach as important and what is not important.
When this yeshiva boy then squeezed him for money, it all came together in his mind and I could not agree more.
There is no doubt the horrifying actions of this young man are not mainstream. However, sometimes reaching a new low can shock the system and prompt introspection. A yeshiva high-school graduate – after a year in shana aleph and preparing for shana bet – acting in this manner is certainly a significant low and brings issues I have been thinking about for years to the fore.
Let’s take a step back and see where the average yeshiva high school boy stands upon graduation from high school. Is he fluent in Hebrew? No. Can he prepare a Gemara on his own? No. Does he enjoy studying Gemara? No. Does he know Tanach? No. Does he enjoy davening? No. Does he understand basic Jewish philosophy about God, the purpose of creation, and why we do the things we do? No. Does he stand head and shoulders above the rest of society in terms of his dedication to acts of loving-kindness and basic human decency? No.
The time has come for us to look at ourselves in the mirror and work to make change.
What can be done? I would begin by following the advice of my teacher and mentor, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, and teach Hebrew. Twelve years of school is more than enough to produce students who are completely fluent in Hebrew and capable of opening both prayer books and classic Jewish texts and having a basic understanding of the meaning of the words.
Another one of my teachers pointed out the shame that if every Book of Chabakuk were to be removed from all our schools and study halls, no one would even notice. The Written Torah contains God’s eternal messages to us and therefore we should shift away from our focus on Gemara and produce students who are proficient in Tanach and Mishnah.
There should certainly be a Talmud track for the elite students with the intellectual, language, and attention skills necessary to enjoy and benefit from it, but for the mainstream yeshiva high school student this almost exclusive focus on Gemara wastes precious time from more productive study and actually turns most students off from interest in Torah and even Judaism.
Tanach study should lead to meaningful discussions about the lessons each chapter seeks to convey about proper moral, ethical, and spiritual behavior. We should teach our students about meditation and connecting to their deeper selves along with the concept of personal prayer.
Once they understand that the most important part of davening should be their personal prayers and pouring their hearts out to God in their own words, this has the capacity to change and uplift their entire prayer experience. The topic of prayer must be accompanied by Jewish philosophy courses and providing the framework for students to ask their questions and receive well-thought-out answers.
Aside from these curricular changes, we need to spend significant time refocusing on core Jewish values outside the classroom. Our students should be proactively involved in organized chesed activities a few times a week. I have seen the most turned off students become alive spiritually through regular visits to nursing homes or working with special needs children. We should be running workshops with our students about racism, discrimination, charity, business ethics, morality, and honesty.
The prophet Isaiah begins his book by stating God’s complaint that He does not desire our ritual observances if we are not focusing on the basics – caring for the needy and the downtrodden. We must convey that message to our children through both their classroom curriculum and hands-on activities and training.
There is no question that the reforms I have suggested require careful and thoughtful planning along with significant teacher training. I also recognize how difficult it will be for the first school to break ranks from the norm and boldly go where no Orthodox school has gone before. But the reality that our average students are not steeped in Torah knowledge, not skilled in reading classis texts and prayers, not excited about Judaism, and not prepared to be morally and ethically superior to the low common denominator of surrounding society must slap educators in the face and inspire change.
I look forward to seeing these shifts and adjustments throughout our day school system thus ultimately producing young men who are comfortable reading our texts and prayers, inspired to want to study and pray, enthused regarding their Judaism, prepared to enter the world as the most moral, ethical, respectful, and upstanding members of society, and constantly on the proactive lookout to help others in any way they can.
Every student emerging from such a system will see that driving a stranded Israeli rabbi to the bus station is in complete consonance with Torah and Torah study and is at the heart of what it means to a Jew.
Rabbi Dov Lipman is an educator, author, and political activist based in Beit Shemesh, Israel. He has rabbinic ordination from Ner Israel Rabbinical College and a Masters in education from Johns Hopkins University. His website is www.rabbilipman.com.
About the Author: Rabbi Dov Lipman is a member of the 19th Knesset with the Yesh Atid party. He has rabbinic ordination from Ner Israel Rabbinical College and a Masters in education from Johns Hopkins University.
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