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The Crisis Of Meaning In Jewish Education


Over the past few years there has been extensive coverage of an upsurge in Jewish religious observance. Increasingly sophisticated efforts at kiruv have resulted in large numbers of ba’alei teshuva – returnees – rediscovering the beauty and depth of an observant lifestyle.

An important concomitant of this revitalization of Orthodoxy is that we now have more Jewish schools serving more Jewish children than ever before. Since education is viewed as both an indication of the health of the community and a guarantor of its continued health in the future, it appears that American Orthodoxy is on the move. Confident of success and secure in its underpinnings, the Orthodox world seems poised for a bright future of unprecedented growth.

Unfortunately, this confidence may be a bit misplaced. To borrow a phrase popularized by Paul Harvey, here is “the rest of the story.”

In her groundbreaking work Off the Derech (Devora Publishing), Faranak Margoles describes a counter-trend in Jewish life, one that is not receiving nearly the same level of attention: observant Jews leaving their Orthodoxy behind. Some of these are ba’alei teshuva no longer enamored with their new-found lifestyle; some are from families that have been observant all along.

Over the years I have often seen these problems emerging in young people from “good” families, families who themselves are committed to observance and who have sacrificed to send their children to Jewish day schools. These students share many commonly seen characteristics – uninspired mechanical davening, sloppy mitzvah observance, fascination with the entertainments and fads of the non-Jewish world, and a general lack of pride in Jewish identity.

In many cases these young people lead a schizophrenic existence – outwardly observant while in school and with their parents, but significantly less so on the weekends with their friends. The parents of these children cannot understand the reasons for their children’s lack of interest in Judaism. They ask a question that should concern all of us: How is it that a strong Jewish education has failed to inspire their children?

Are such parents wrong to feel that Jewish education, which is supposed to play such a central role in keeping Jews “on the derech,” must also be held accountable for failing to meet the needs of their children who abandon Torah observance?

Margolese hints at some of the reasons for this in her second chapter. The essential model of Torah education employed in contemporary yeshivas and day schools originated in the European ghetto and was only designed for the small percentage of elite students who actually attended yeshiva. Furthermore, the ghetto was intellectually and physically closed to outside influences. The Torah curriculum, the only curriculum of the ghetto, was designed for a student who would never stray beyond the shtetl walls, never be challenged by the lures of a secular society, and never find his intellectual underpinnings tested.

Is it any wonder that so many young people seem so uninspired by their years of yeshiva learning? In accordance with the requirements of their yeshivot, these students may have “learned” many blatt of Gemara, or memorized many pasukim of Chumash with Rashi. But their souls have not been touched. And when, after high school graduation, these same young people enter college, their commitment to Jewish ideals, their attachment to an authentic Jewish lifestyle, and the depth of their understanding of core Jewish concepts are sorely lacking.

Is it any wonder that they cannot find relevance in a curriculum developed for another world, a world so foreign to their experience? What we should expect is indeed what we are getting – ever-increasing numbers of students whose attachment to Judaism remains sentimental at best, cynical and rebellious at worst. This situation is intolerable and a recipe for disaster. Ultimately, a community will act out its lack of ahava (love) for Jewish life in the form of assimilation.

About the Author: Rabbi Pinchas Rosenthal is director of the Executive Learning Program at the Manhattan Jewish Experience (www.jewishexperience.org), a cutting-edge outreach program serving young people.


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