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April 19, 2014 / 19 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘observant’

The Secret of Orthodoxy’s Success

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

There is a little known fact (outside of Lubavitch) about the founder of Chabad Chasidus, Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi (the author of the Shulchan Aruch HaRav – also known as the Baal HaTanya). He supporeted the Czar of Russia in opposition to Napolean. R’ Shneur Zalman reasoned that the freedom that would result via Napolean’s emancipation from the Czar would cause Jews to go Off the Derech (OTD). He wasn’t entirely wrong.

Not that an anti-Semitic dictatorship like the Czarist Russia or the Soviet Union didn’t do the same thing or worse. Most Jews in the anti Semitic/anti religious Soviet Union were unable to remain observant. But it cannot be argued that too much freedom will result in the masses opting out of observant Judaism – or even Judaism altogether.  At least that is what the recent Pew study revealed. A shocking 70% of non Orthodox Jews marry out and only 20% of their children are raised with any semblance of Jewish identity.

Why is that? There are many reasons mostly having to do with a lack of any significant Jewish education. But that is only part of the story. An Interesting observation was made by Bethamie Horowitz in a Forward article that had a positive spin on that survey. Sort of positive – that is.

She noted that marrying out is not so much a function of going OTD as it is the result of an overwhelming sense of acceptance of Jews into American society of Jews and Judaism. That should be obvious to anyone who is paying attention. Here are some examples of that:

Yiddish words are increasingly seeping into the English language.

The Holocaust is perhaps the most revered subject in the public square today. Hollywood – which is probably the most influential component of American culture – will not let us forget it. Every year there is another Holocaust movie or documentary. Which is often nominated for an Academy Award.

The number of Jews winning the Nobel Prize was immense this year it seems. I believe that 22% of all Nobel Prize winners are Jews (Whereas only .2% of the world population are Jews.)

In fact there are so many indicators of our acceptance that it would take up too much space to include them all. I recall reading about a poll recently that said that Judaism is the most respected religion in America.

Not only are Jews no longer hiding their Judaism by changing their names; not wearing a Kipa in public (if they are male); and keeping  their religious practices completely private – if at all, they are now proudly proclaiming their Jewish identity.

It is now ‘cool’ to be Jewish in this country. But it is not cool to be observant. That is a burden that a proud assimilated and not religiously educated Jew can do without. Without a religious education the freedom to assimilate can and probably will lead you astray. Why be observant, an assimilated Jew might ask? Just be a proud Jew. The next generation will ask why even bother even being Jewish at all? ‘I don’t even like bagels’ they might say. ‘I prefer lobster!’  Intermarriage? What’s the big deal? It is completely accepted now.

The ultimate demonstration of that was one of the most famous intermarriages of the modern era. Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of a President married a Jew. Her wedding highlighted many aspects of a Jewish wedding, including a Chupah and a Kesubah. Her husband even wore a Kipa under the Chupah. And the media was all over this fawning over it like it was a royal marriage. As Ms. Horowitz points out:

A cartoon from the October 1, 2012, issue of The New Yorker depicted a couple and a wedding planner with the following caption: “No, we’re not Jewish. But we think it would be fun for our reception’s theme to be ‘A Jewish wedding.’”

So is R’ Shneur Zalman right? Should we be praying for a government that will oppress us? Is oppression the only thing that will keep us Jewish? Apparently that is what the Baal HaTanya believed. The Judaism of his generation was apparently very shallow. A Jew would not remain a Jew if given the chance – and the anti Semitic Czar would never give a Jew that chance.

He preferred persecuting us. And Jews remained Jewish and for the most part observant. Why observant? The communities were tight knit and going OTD meant being ostracized. Which of course meant that an OTD Jew would have no place to go since he was still a Jew and not accepted by Russian gentiles. He was worthy only of persecution.

What a sad commentary on Judaism if the best way to keep Jews observant is by keeping them oppressed. This is what R’ Shneur Zalmen wanted and it is why (I am told) he supported the Czar.

But I have to disagree with him and the entire premise of blaming freedom for the masses going OTD. It isn’t the fault freedom. It’s the fault of lack of a proper religious Jewish education. The vast majority o those of us who were properly educated are today observant… in an era of complete freedom and total acceptance by general society.

As Noah Feldman’s article in Bloomberg  pointed out, one need only look at Lakewood to see just how well religiously educated Jews are doing. Their growth has been exponential over the last couple of generations. That Noah Feldman  – a once Orthodox but now assimilated Jew who married out pointed this out – does not detract from the reality of what he said. (Ironically he was given a religious Jewish education. But he is the exception that proves the rule. Unfortunately there are a lot of exceptions. The reason for that is beyond the scope of this post.)

So there you have it. The real fault of why the vast majority of Jews in this country are not observant lies mostly with the lack of any significant religious education for the masses of Jews who immigrated here in the early 20th century. Jewish education was practically non-existent then. Coupled with the melting pot climate of assimilation and the requirement to work on Shabbos in order to keep your job…  the children of these immigrants ran away from observance in droves. They wanted to be Americans. Not Jews. Those 90 percent of Jews who are today are not observant are their offspring. Through no fault of their own – being completely bereft of any Jewish education – they do not know the definition of Judaism and see no value in it. As can be seen from the Pew study.

The good news is that many of these Jews do not have the biases of their parents or grandparents. Their parents and grandparents hated the burdens of being observant and ran away from observance. Their children don’t know enough about it to hate it. Of course this is not true in all cases. Many of these young people do not want to give up the freedom that non observance affords them. But a surprising number of them do.  That’s where organizations like NCSY comes in.

So, all is not lost. The lesson we should take from all of this is that we should appreciate and even cherish the freedom this great country of ours affords us. And  that oppression is not the way to keep Jews in the fold.  Being Jewish because circumstances force you to be is not a prescription for Jewish continuity. Education is. And that is the secret of Orthodox success in this – the free’est country in the world.

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah .

The Importance of Day Schools

Monday, August 12th, 2013

I never thought I would have to make this argument in 2013.

Jordana Horn, the former New York bureau chief of The Jerusalem Post,  has written an article in the Forward defending the premise that one can be raised as a proud and productive Jew without ever attending a day school. She proceeds to document her own attendance in public school and that of her siblings to prove her point. Which is that one can be fully Jewish, relatively knowledgeable about one’s Judaism and fully proud and participatory in it at many levels. She then presents a list of suggestions instructing us how to go about doing so successfully. It is a list of very practical suggestions with which I agree. But it falls woefully short in my view.

I have to ask, is her definition of being a Jew the correct definition? Is Judaism only about marrying Jewish? Or reading Hebrew? Or the ability to read the Torah? As laudable as these things are, they fall far short of what being a Jew is all about. The entire concept of following Halacha is missing from her definition. And in my view being an observant  ‘Halakhic Man’ is the essence of being a Jew. Everything we do as a Jew should be viewed through the lens of Halacha. That is what God desires of the Jewish people… and no less. That many of us fail in that regard one way or another does not make it any less so.

That said, I must concede that it is possible to raise a child to be Halachic Jew without sending him to day school. I am sure that there are some cases where that has happened even in our day. But I would not recommend it.

I understand the incentive for a parent too try and do something like that. The tuition crisis in America is real. There is no two ways about it. Any parent with children in a day school will verify that. But there is a reason that is so

Day schools today are not what they used to be in their early days (…fifties and early sixties) – a school with teachers so underpaid that they could barely survive even with second jobs. No enrichment programs. No school psychologists. No real curriculum development. No special classes for learning disabled children.  Nothing except the bare bones of studying Limudei Kodesh  (religious studies) in the morning and Limudei Chol (secular studies) in the afternoons.

Funding Jewish education in those days was a joke. Tuitions were tiny back then because day schools were struggling just to get parents to send them their children – even for free. Generous philanthropists didn’t exist yet. As a result, religious teachers sometimes went unpaid their meager earnings for months at a time. I don’t know how they existed.

And yet, somehow the day schools of that time managed.

Today, things are much better. Teachers make livable wages. Fundraising is much better. Teachers are paid mostly on time. Schools are therefore much better now. It is easier to recruit good teachers for a school if you pay them a livable wage. And as a school grows – so do programs they offer their students. All this costs money. Hence the increased tuitions today.

Meanwhile parents who themselves have gone through the day school system recognize their value and no longer need convincing to send their children.  All of this translates to the impossibly high tuition that are demanded of parents today. Even though scholarships are given to those who need them – every spare dime a parent may have is asked for by the schools that have no choice but to demand it in order to fund their exploding budgets. Budgets that are for the most part necessary in order to serve the demands made by parents who expect the best and most enriching education possible. (Although trimming what is in some cases bloated school budgets is a subject for legitimate discussion – it is beyond the scope of this post.)

For parents with four, five, six or more children who feel they are squeezed to the max for every dime, the thought of sending a child to a free public school while teaching them about Judaism at home must be very tempting. But it is a losing proposition in most cases. It would take a most unusual family and an unusual child to overcome the influences in a public school.

Inspiring Our Youth and the Search for Meaning

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

One of the many themes I talk about here is the OTD (Off the Derech) phenomenon. Going OTD means abandoning adherence to Halacha and often includes abandoning belief in the Torah. Or God. Or both.

It should not come as any surprise to anyone that this is a serious problem in all observant denominations. From Hasidim, to Yeshivish, to Centrist, to LWMO… all have their share of OTD. Not to mention the “Lites” of every denomination.

The reasons one might go OTD are varied and many, including things like having been sexually abused; growing up in a dysfunctional family situation; undiagnosed learning disabilities (like ADD or ADHD); or the inability of teachers to answer hard questions about belief. These and other causes have been discussed here before.

But I would note that the cause of going OTD I have been hearing a lot about lately is the lack of finding any inspiration in the classroom. It doesn’t matter whether the classroom is a Haredi one or a Modern Orthodox one. The lack of inspiration to remain observant is clearly either missing or being missed by students who do not pick up on it – if it is there at all.

This was brought home to me again last night at the annual NCSY dinner here in Chicago. One of the awardees made this point as did my son in law, Rabbi Micah Greenland, International Director of NCSY (as well as Regional Director of the Midwest Region).

He spoke about this week’s Torah portion where the very first Mitzvah given to the Jewish people as a nation was the establishment of the lunar calendar. Although I am not a Kabbalist and avoid references to the Zohar for many reasons (which I am not going to go into here) Rabbi Greenland made reference to the Zohar’s explanation for God giving this as the very first Mitzvah to His people. He compares the Jewish people to the phases of the moon. The moon waxes and wanes every month. And every month when it renews its waxing and waning cycle we bless it.

The Jewish people have their own moments of waxing and waning. Sometimes that occurs simultaneously. As is the case in our own era. On the one hand we live in unprecedented times. There are more Jews learning in religious day schools, high schools, and yeshivos post highs schools than at any time in history. There are more books published in English on every possible variety of Torah subjects than ever before enabling masses of people to access Torah unlike any time in history. There are tons of shiurim on the internet on every Torah subject and for every level of student – from the most sophisticated advanced student of gemerah to the novice.

On the other hand this is a drop in the bucket compared to the number of Jews who don’t know anything about their own religion and don’t care. They do not know an Aleph from a Beis. Not because they reject Judaism. But because they never had the slightest exposure to it… other than tokenism. If I am not mistaken the figure Rabbi Greenland used is 90 percent.

Ninety percent of all Jews fall into this category. And more than half of them intermarry. In many cases this is even a cause for celebration. In a country that celebrates both diversity and assimilation at the same time, a mixed marriage is the quintessential example of how that works.

Who can forget the image of Chelsea Clinton under a chupah with her talis wearing, Yarmulke wearing chasan! The pop culture media salivated with great joy over that event. This is a media that includes many Jews. And many of those are themselves intermarried. As nice as it might seem for our standing in this country for one of our own to marry the daughter of a President, an intermarriage is not something to celebrate.

What we end up having is a twofold problem. Reaching out to the unaffiliated and reaching in to the uninspired. There is a lot of good work being done in the former. But what about the latter?

Rabbi Greenland said that NCSY addresses both problems. Although the majority of NCSY attendees are from non observant backgrounds, there are many from religious backgrounds who attend religious schools. While they all are taught the basics of Halacha, and how to study Torah in all its various forms many students just go through the motions. Once they graduate high school and move on to a university campus, the lack of having had any inspiration can easily cause them to drop observance altogether.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/blogs/haemtza/inspiring-our-youth-and-the-search-for-meaning/2013/01/16/

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