Why the closing of a small seminary serving less than 200 girls should be the concern of the entire Orthodox population.
A well-known scene: Yaakov and his family are moving down to Egypt; there are caravans and sand and turbans and probably a lot of noise. Yaakov gestures to Yehudah, taking him aside. Go down, he tells him, and build us places to learn. It’s an unusual command, because how much longer is it going to take Yaakov and his family to get there? A few months? But Yaakov knows that a Jew needs to be able to express himself, and exile isn’t inherently built for that, in fact it’s counterintuitive. There’s a need to prepare a way to transfer the mesorah before you go. A few millennia later, Rav Yehuda Hanasi did the same thing by redacting the Mishnah.
Fast forward another few millennia and our academic institutions are still serious business. At Yeshiva of Greater Washington, every graduating senior has a meeting with Rabbi Zev Katz to discuss seminaries. His word is inviolate; if he says you’re in, you’re in. He’s sitting in one of these meetings, trying to tolerate the wisdom and overconfidence of his talmidah.
“I need a seminary,” she says, “where the majority of the girls aren’t spoiled, where the majority of girls aren’t from Bais Yakov, and where the majority of girls don’t wear pants.”
Well. Prejudicial, perhaps, but definite, to be sure. He lists three seminaries, but recommends Afikei Torah. She applies to just one, upon his recommendation, and goes for two years.
It’s not what she expected, but perhaps it never is. Afikei Torah is one of those places where you can’t float out the year; you can’t fake your way through fire. It’s go big or go home. These girls are sincere about the work they do: they build up their bitachon, they perfect their tznius, they build into themselves the necessary DNA to live out their life as frum ovdei Hashem and pass this on to their children.
It’s a success story for our educational system.
It’s not such a jump to figure out that the girl in the story is me.
Recently, Afikei Torah announced that they will be closing their doors, and reopening next year as Lev Bais Yaakov. If the closing and opening of seminary doors were seen as a somber or horrific occasion, Jewish life would not be able to continue; seminaries open and close as often as Israeli unions strike. Nostalgia is often warranted, but not eulogies.
So why eulogize?
Because it’s the canary in the coalmine.
Or actually, the canary has been dying for quite some time. In the last five years, at least four other schools that fit that narrow mold of serving girls “frum but not yeshivish” have closed without being replaced by a viable alternative. The halfway point between modern Orthodox and yeshivish is a philosophical destination and lifestyle that gets marginalized, viewed by our educational system as a factory defect of family circumstance or the natural consequence of hokey, middle-America attempts at a frum community. It is neither.
We’re just growing, a part of the indefinable change of the demographics of Orthodox Jewry. The baal teshuvah movement of the nineteen eighties is no longer – thank God – a movement, but a constant, everyday reality. Torah communities are flourishing in places Torah has never been before, bringing up women in a way we never have before.
It’s also worthwhile to note that shuls across the country -in big towns or small – that cater to this population have swelling membership rosters. They are being built in basements, in small houses hollowed out. And their members fill the proverbial rafters; they are the biggest game in town. I was recently listening to a speech where the rabbi was defining one of these new shuls to his congregation, “We’re frum, but we’re cool. But we’re frum!” If these families are in the minority, they’re not going to stay that way, And girls from the existing schools on both ends do sometimes grow up to feel that they do not fit into their parent’s choices – a discomforting thought, to be sure, but one best faced head on.