Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Time for Courage 2

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings – Wm. Shakespeare

How many yeshiva high school students would recognize this quote or be able to place it in its historical context? Not many, especially among the boys. This was the topic of a recent lecture delivered in Brooklyn by Prof. Yitzchok Levine, a math professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. Secular studies are denigrated by rebbeim in yeshivot, and this attitude trickles down to the students when it is not taught to them outright. Nor is this a new phenomenon. Some 25 years ago I was tutoring in remedial math workshops at Brooklyn College, where I did my graduate work. The college still had an open admissions policy and many students needed to be brought up to specs. I expected that public school graduates would be unable to do basic math, but I also encountered yeshiva high school graduates who could not add, subtract, multiply or divide. We’re talking fourth grade arithmetic here. In my naiveté, I became angry at the students, when my anger would have been better directed at their rebbeim and yeshiva administrators. When I asked students how it was possible for them to be so lacking in basic skills, one replied that, since a high school diploma was needed to earn a living and the yeshiva could not deny its students the possibility of earning a living, it doled out diplomas regardless of achievement or lack of it. Note that 25 years ago yeshivot still expected their male graduates to eventually earn a living; nowadays that is not necessarily the case. Somehow it escaped the notice of the rashei (resha'ei?) yeshivot that a worthless piece of paper masquerading as a high school diploma would not enable graduates to compete in the job market, and would cause hillul Hashem into the bargain.
According to Prof. Levine, the problem has gotten worse, much worse. Yeshivot no longer even concede the necessity of their male graduates earning a living and supporting their families; they will marry rich girls who will support them while they sit and learn “Torah.” And I suppose that those girls will have their babies in the office and care for them there. The attitude to secular learning has “progressed” from indifference to outright hostility. Rebbeim are telling students to skip secular classes when they can get away with it. If that is “Torah,” then we should go to the mountain and give it back. But of course it is not Torah; it is merely the gospel according to our naked emperors, aka gedolim, and their fawning lapdogs in the rabbinic establishment and yeshiva administrations. Prof. Levine professes that he does not know what the solution is. Of course he does not know – he is part of the problem! In the Q and A following his presentation, the first question asked (itself a sad commentary on the state of knowledge among adults in the community) was “How would you handle evolution?” Prof. Levine replied that he would teach it, since it is required on standardized tests and students need to be prepared for college, but then he would tell the students that it is against the Torah. This is coming from a college professor! He needs to take his own medicine, and also to read Rabbi Slifkin’s Challenge of Creation.
As Prof. Levine stated, many haredi parents admit in private that there is a problem but say nothing in public for fear of repercussions, such as shiddukhim being ruined or children being kicked out of yeshivot. There, dear Brutus, is the problem, and there lies the solution. It’s called C-O-U-R-A-G-E. Parents have to bite the bullet and publicly demand quality education for their children. And if their children are expelled, what of it? A yeshiva that expels a boy because his parents demand that the hanhala provide what the parents are paying a fortune for in tuition is a yeshiva that parents should not want their children to be in. A ruined shiddukh? So what? A prospective spouse who would call off the marriage (or allow his/her parents to call it off – what a wimp!) because the in-laws are zealous for a sibling’s education is someone that one should not want one’s child to marry! If the parents do not get satisfaction from the yeshiva administration, then they must organize as a community and establish yeshivot whose administrators are living in today’s world and not in a world that has long since ceased to exist. My alma mater, Yeshivah of Flatbush, could serve as a model. Its administration is independent of outside “authorities” and accountable instead to its parents and alumni. Hebrew (studied in Hebrew!) and secular studies are interspersed throughout the day. Students do not begin their secular studies stressed out from a full day of Hebrew and without the energy they need to excel, nor are they encouraged to regard either as more important than the other. God wrote both books, Torah and secular knowledge, and both need to be mastered. Secular teachers, for the most part, teach full time in the yeshiva. Yeshiva students deserve better than stressed out moonlighting public school teachers – and public school students deserve better than teachers who bolt as soon as the final bell rings in order to get to a second job.
Parents, when putting down roots in a neighborhood, should ascertain not only the quality of the yeshivot but that of the public schools. Good public schools anchor and stabilize a neighborhood, and keep yeshivot honest. Administrators who neglect the school’s secular curriculum should have to fear that parents will remove their children, and their money, and place the children in the local public school. Not that parents should actually do that except as a last resort, but when fighting a cold war perceptions often count for more than realities. We never contemplated actually firing off all those missiles at the Russians, since that would have meant the end of the world as we know it, but it was necessary to have the Russians believe that we just might.
Many yeshiva parents know that their children are being shortchanged. Sooner or later (sooner, judging from the off-the-derekh phenomenon) the brighter children will recognize that they were lied to by their yeshiva teachers and cheated out of the quality education that is their birthright. They might then throw out the baby with the bath water, not only repudiating the naked emperors that failed them every step of the way, but abandoning Torah observance entirely – going to the mountain and giving it back. Courageous action by us, parents and interested adults in the community, can avert such a tragic outcome and restore sanity to Orthodox Jewish life.

(Hat tip: Brooklyn Wolf)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

What, no hat tip for me? ;-)

Thu Jan 17, 05:05:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem is that societal rot this strong cannot be reversed without a massive upheaval. There is simply too much invested in the currently dysfunctional system for its leaders to ever change it over. As another blog noted, now that the money from the rich fathers-in-law is running out, the Spinkers are using fraud to fund their way of life. What comes next?
All that is left is for people who still care that Torah be practised with integrity to continue to stand for their beliefs and loudly proclaim that theirs is the right way.

Thu Jan 17, 07:45:00 PM EST  
Blogger Jeff Eyges said...

Also, it isn't just a matter of courage. These communities are comprised of complex support systems - social, financial. If one bucks the system, he/she is running a very real risk of ostracism by family and friends, loss of livelihood and being ejected from the community, leaving behind everything one has known from birth. It's a horrible situation to be in; I wouldn't be able to handle it.

Of course, you're right in everything you're saying. I don't know what the answer is. Other than those Hareidim who accept money from the government so that they can spend their lives learning (and I have no idea what percentage that is), they seem to be pretty self-contained. I don't know what kind of pressure can be exerted from the outside. Perhaps all we can do is to wait until they crumble from within - but it could take another generation or two, and the cost in terms of ruined lives will be a tragedy.

Sun Jan 20, 12:32:00 PM EST  
Blogger Zev Stern said...

There is strength in numbers. One family who bucks the system stands to lose everything - and it is hard to admit that the first 30 or so years of one's life were a big mistake. But many families, feeling cheated by the system and acting together, can make a difference.
The gov't needs to crack down on schools that don't educate and therefore turn out welfare cases. Didn't somebody in the Mishna state that if you don't teach your son a trade you teach him to steal?
And we have to have a safety net in place to catch young people who feel (and are!) cheated by the haredi system. There needs to be an open door for them at Young Israel synagogues and the like so they don't end up throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Sun Jan 20, 01:19:00 PM EST  

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