A true story –
J., a top graduate of a prominent modern Orthodox woman’s high school, remembers her first day at Queens College. The students were in Sociology class. One of the members of the class confronted her about kashrut observance, espousing the oft repeated canard that kashrut really has its origins in primitive health regulations, and is thus superfluous for sophisticated moderns. The professor gave J. an opportunity to respond, and asked her to explain the reasons for kashrut to the rest of the class from her perspective as an observant Jew. She froze. She knew that her beliefs were under attack, and that she had been publicly put on the spot. She desperately wanted to explain the Torah position in a cogent way and yet she found that despite 15 years of day school education, she was unable to do so.
J.’s unfortunate experience is not unique. Faced with a university experience which is at best indifferent to Jewish sensibilities, and which is often actively hostile to observant Jewish values, many students find themselves questioning their belief systems.
What is the etiology of this problem? Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt’l, presciently discussed just this issue in a letter to Dr. Samuel Belkin in spring of 1955 (Community, Covenant and Commitment: selected letters and communications of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, KTAV 2005). Rabbi Soloveitchik felt that the yeshiva world is operating from an outmoded educational model in Judaic Studies. The real revolutions in Jewish education are over a century old, beginning with Rabbi Hirsch’s “Torah im Derech Eretz” which led to his prototypical day school in Frankfurt, and continuing with the Rav’s 20th century concept of Torah U’Mada. In both cases, the innovations centered on the inclusion of General Studies in a Yeshiva setting, and that basic trend continues today. There is tremendous energy put into updating curricula in General Studies in order to prepare our students for higher secular education and the world of work. In contrast, the format of the Judaic Studies curriculum in most yeshivas and day schools has remained virtually unchanged since the shtetl. And although many of us have warm feelings about shtetl life, the realities were often less attractive. Underneath the “Fiddler on the Roof” exterior, the shtetl was essentially a medieval society, cloistered from contact with the outside world, and suspicious of “modern ideas”. Jewish learning needed only to prepare the average shtetl inhabitant for social intercourse with others of like belief. The Torah curriculum was predicated on a world in which biology teachers or sociology teachers did not exist. There was virtually no opportunity for the cognitive dissonance brought on by intellectual challenges from outside ideas.
Is it any wonder that some of our students feel challenged by the university experience? We are sending our children to do ideological battle against 21st century opponents armed only with 17th century weapons.
The inadequacy of this outmoded approach manifests itself in many ways before students enter college. We are all familiar with the ramifications of this problem – young people who are otherwise motivated, but are apathetic about their Judaic Studies; uninspired, mechanical davening; lack of interest in mitzvah observance; fascination with the entertainments and fads of the non-Jewish world; and a general lack of pride in Jewish identity. Being Jewish is just “not cool.” Our magnificent Mesorah has been reduced to competing with pop culture, and has been found wanting.
At the Torah Academy of Long Island, we believe that we have the outline of a solution to this problem. Following the Mesorah of Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rabbi Israel Chait of Yeshiva B’nei Torah, we have developed a curricular approach to Judaic Studies that emphasizes relevance, logic and intellectual rigor of the Rambam. We have designed a curriculum that enables our graduates to successfully and proudly compete in the marketplace of ideas regardless of their post high school experiences. We have achieved a tremendous level of success in truly impacting on the lives of our students. But we know that this is just a beginning. What is really needed is a totally new vision of Jewish education specifically designed for the modern student. This educational reform must permeate every aspect of the school experience, of which formal Judaic Studies curriculum is just a part.
We envision a school in which every subject, whether Biology or Talmud, is understood as a manifestation of Hashem’s Chochmah, God’ Wisdom. We envision a school in which curriculum is not just a matter of covering a certain quantity of text, but a program of powerfully answering the most pressing issues of Jewish life. We envision a school in which trips and extracurricular activities are not just entertainment, but opportunities for expanding the borders of the classroom, while building the strong personal relationships between faculty and students that are so valuable for meaningful academic success. At TALI, we are continually reassessing our Judaic Studies curriculum to address these issues – we are constantly working towards greater precision and meaningful integration with all facets of school life.
We feel that we have taken some valuable first steps. Although we do not have all the answers, we have at least honestly framed the problem. We know that we cannot afford business as usual. We already see the depredations to our community that have resulted from following this path. The potential for failure is too great – the costs are too high. We invite all interested community members to begin this dialog. As Pirkei Avos Says, “You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it.”
By the way, what happened to J.? Thankfully, her story had a happy ending. Her response was to seek answers in Torah study with Rabbi Reuven Mann of the Masoret Institute for Women. She is now married, the mother of two daughters, a published author, and a teacher at TALI.