Thursday, February 15, 2007

honest kiruv and the world of jewish ed

I would love to attend a kiruv seminar not as a presenter, but to deflate some of the silly arguments brandished about in the name of a good cause. Here on a new kiruv website is a piece extolling the value of a day school education. Despite not coming from an Orthodox background and initially fearful of limiting his daughter’s interests and intellectual pursuits, the writer gushes:
We quickly discovered that our fears had no basis in reality. In Aleeza's first year, her class put on skits commemorating Thanksgiving and later one about Chanukah. I still remember her coming home so excited to tell us how she learned all about Mozart and Beethoven in school -- Jewish Day School. Even I, who played the violin as a kid, didn't learn about Mozart until college.

Two words: Get Real. If there is a yeshiva that offers a full limudei kodesh curriculum and has a parent/student body committed to rigorous observance of halacha that also offers (I would even settle for one that tolerates!) a rich secular studies curriculum with appreciation of arts, sciences, and the best of higher culture, will someone please let me know where it is so I can enroll my kids!!! The Jewish world and jewish education is unfortunately very polarized and it is disingenuous to suggest that one is not forced to choose between full commitment to halacha and an immersion in the world of Torah and and appreciation of higher culture and secular knowledge. I have daughters too and have tried it both ways. When we moved a few years ago we originally had our daughters enrolled in a school that you would describe as more-or-less modern orthodox, which offered what we perceived to be a rich curriculum. I too would like my daughters (and son) to learn about Mozart, to study literature from the canon of great works, etc. Unfortunately, one of the great failures of modern orthodoxy is that there is only a small minority of people (like myself) who are committed to it as a philosophy because of an admiration of the Rav or Rav Kook, a belief that secular studies and culture have value, an appreciation of Zionism, without sacrificing anything in the way of shmiras hamitzvos and committment to limud torah. Modern Orthodoxy for many means Orthodoxy-lite – keep the big stuff like kashrus and shabbos, but the little stuff is just details that don’t matter too much (this is obviously a generalization that does not apply to all people or communities). While my daughters were in this school they found themselves just about the only ones wearing skirts and long sleeves even on Sundays, the only ones with no TV at home, etc. So we switched. They are not in the most chareidi school in the neighborhood, but one which has taken a more rightward tilt as it has evolved. Thanksgiving is a half day of school (it is discussed by some teachers as well); Yom haAtzmaut is not marked on the calendar or noted (when my wife attended the same school years ago the former was a day off, the latter celebrated). Literature is filtered; music is Jewish only. But, I have no fears that our lack of TV or adherence to hilchos tzniyus is out of step with what the school reinforces. My kids can live without Mozart; they can’t live without commitment to halacha. Fortunately, education is still valued and a priority at the school they are in: girls are expected to study and do well within the somewhat filtered exposure to the outside world. But this is moderate by chareidi standards. Jewish Worker recently posted a piece from the chareidi press explaining the desiderium of the Bais Ya’akov movement – “We are not interested in teachers who have a good (secular) education for our daughters, we don't want teachers with degrees, rather we want teachers who know less (my emphasis), who are vessels full of fear of God who can influence their surroundings “. I personally wish I could have my cake and eat it too – I wish the world was more sympathetic to a vision of Orthodoxy that did not see a dichotomy between knowing more and fear of G-d. But alas, this is a world of dreams.

Just to be clear – I agree with the premis there is simply no way to raise a child with a strong Jewish identity without minimally a basic Jewish day school education (see here for a roundup of research, the most comprehensive of which is the Schiff survey which concluded “Extensive Jewish day school education is the most important contributor to the formation of strong Jewish identities”). But to imply that that commitment comes without sacrifice (and I have only written of ideological choices and have not even commented on the tremendous financial burden yeshiva ed places on parents) is wrong. And I have not even touched on boy’s yeshivos where the number of hours spent immersed in gemara is in direct proportion to the negativety conveyed toward all things secular, with no discrimination between Mozart and Rolling Stones, between Lear and Looney Toones.

The article concludes, “Many Jewish parents find it difficult to believe that it is possible to successfully educate children in both what Harvard wants from them and what G-d wants from them at the same school. Anyone who has genuinely checked it out has seen that it is completely doable.” Yes, it is doable if one minimizes G-d to the bare essentials and devotes the rest of one’s day to Harvard. I wonder what the kiruv workers who tout these articles would advise a girl in a Bais Ya'akov high school interested in medicine who desired to go to college away from home? Something tells me the message delivered would not be about the glory of aspiring to knowledge and realizing potential. For the overwhelming majority of students, our schools and society force a choice – Harvard or the Bais Medrash? Either/Or – but not both.

7 comments:

  1. Having read other writings by this author, I don't think he's being anything but sincere; he explicitly calls the school where he sent his daughter a Jewish day school, after all. If with anyone, your beef would be with the editors of Aish.com.

    You spent most of your post bemoaning the death spasms of a derech in Judaism that uses the secular world in its avodah, while not discussing the issue of lying in kiruv outside of your first sentence. The easiest limud z'chus the editors would use is that the article reflects the view of the author, not of the site, but the question still stands, and I think it would be an interesting discussion.

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  2. Bob Miller10:55 PM

    Until you really can categorically rule out the existence of a school with a balanced approach, you have no business assuming someone is lying.

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  3. Josh, I have no doubt as to the author's sincerity, but don't see that as a justification for painting an overly rosy picture.

    Bob, the point of the piece is not to tell us that somewhere out there is a jewish school that affords the best of both words and my post makes no attempt to evaluate the veracity of such a claim. The point of the piece is to suggest that ANYONE can have the best of both worlds through Jewish ed - obviously, for such a claim to be true, MOST schools would have to offer such a remarkable dual curriculum. Unless you live in a different world than I do, MOST school do not. Why try to sell people on something they can't really expect?

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  4. Bob Miller8:17 AM

    I'm not too keen on aggressive kiruv marketing either. Moreover, the "consumers" of kiruv have many ways to disprove the questionable claims made, so making them is futile and invites ridicule, not only in blogs.

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  5. I have no doubt as to the author's sincerity, but don't see that as a justification for painting an overly rosy picture.

    I don't think the author views him picture as being overly rosy; I believe that, based on his background, he seriously views a Jewish day school that teaches about the chagim and the siddur as being the epitome of Jewish education (and Y"K to him for even reaching this level). Most parents who send their kids to Jewish day schools probably feel similarly.

    I don't argue with your main point, but am only saying that the author is truly being meisiach l'fi tumo, and it's only the editors of the site who are osim m'leches HaShem r'miya (if one wishes to call it that).

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  6. Anonymous3:57 PM

    "Jewish Worker recently posted a piece from the chareidi press explaining the desiderium of the Bais Ya’akov movement – “We are not interested in teachers who have a good (secular) education for our daughters, we don't want teachers with degrees, rather we want teachers who know less (my emphasis), who are vessels full of fear of God who can influence their surroundings “."

    it's a piece by a teacher in the movement, and *her* characterization of what's wanted. There have always been people like htat and now there are more and/or they are more influential, but this doesn't define charedi education even in israel (e.g. BJJ)

    "Yes, it is doable if one minimizes G-d to the bare essentials and devotes the rest of one’s day to Harvard. I wonder what the kiruv workers who tout these articles would advise a girl in a Bais Ya'akov high school interested in medicine who desired to go to college away from home?"

    They would ask her why she is going away and can't go to a college close to home - if she has frum relatives or friends she plans to stay with - and encourage first finding a place close to home and at minimum living off campus. They would also stress the difficulty of going to med school, doing a residency, practicing (depending on the speciality she is interested in) while raising a family and ask her if she's thought this through and what kind of plans she has to balance work/family. I would bet any sum of money that you would do the same.

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  7. Anonymous11:07 AM

    >with no discrimination between Mozart and Rolling Stones

    May I just point out the irony that the article you linked to, from Kiruv.com, was called--Gimme Shelter

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