You would think I would be a prime candidate to advocate attending a modern orthodox day school/yeshiva. After all, I went to these type of schools myself, I believe secular culture has value beyond its instrumental use for obtaining parnasa, and I'm a zionist as well. I was not fast enough in pulling out my blackberry to snap a picture, otherwise I would save myself these thousand words (don't worry - hopefully less) with just one image. One a recent day off for a secular holiday I went for a short walk to stretch my legs. As I passed by one of the local modern orthodox high schools, there was a young lady entering the building wearing a red santa hat on her head. A santa hat! A few moments later I saw another student come out accompanied by a mother wearing pants and with no hair covering. On my way home the same school was letting kids roam outside for lunch and I got to witness boys with kippot that I needed better glasses to be able to see and girls with dresses that would not be allowed in the front door of the school I send my kids to. Question: Is this what modern orthodoxy has become? Is this what modern orthodoxy idealizes?
Some will no doubt object to that last question -- who says what I witnessed is the ideal? Point granted. But it certainly is within the threshold of what is tolerated, while the same cannot be said about the average RW yeshiva or Beis Ya'akov. Some will object that if there are no schools for kids like these, they will end up in public school and drift off even further. Point granted as well. So is that what modern orthodox schools aspire to be -- the last refuge for those who want a Jewish environment but not the demands of a traditional yeshiva program? I think most who champion the benefits of modern orthodox education would argue that it is far more than that,and indeed, it should be. So I ask: what are those benefits and where can I see them manifest? If these students are not the ideal, if the program they are in (co-ed classes, no dress code requirement, minimal exposure in the form of 1 or 2 periods a day to gemara, etc.) is not the ideal, then where is the ideal exemplified within the modern orthodox world? The boys who spend their summers in Morasha Kollel (been there, done that) and the girls involved in similar programs seem to me to be the exception to their peer group and not at all representative of the norm -- they are managing to achieve great things despite their surroundings and despite the educational system that they find themselves in, not because of it.
Perhaps for some it is worth it in order to get a better education, but that begs the question: do these type modern schools offer a better education? I think one must be absurdly naive to think that the answer is "yes" in the realm of limudei kodesh; it's not even worth the time to do a comparison. What about limudei chol? Does one get a better secular education in a modern orthodox school that (as I recently saw posted on one prominent school's website) carries a sticket price of over $30,000 compared to a Beis Ya'akov that costs far less? I have two daughters in high school right now that between them are taking three AP classes in their junior and sophomore years (AP European History, Psychology, Art History). One took a year of a foreign language. They both are required to clock a certain number of chessed hours. One is involved in extra curricular activities like helping with a school performance for the public that is being produced. Gym is offered. So what are they missing? The only class I think I had when I was in 9th grade in a modern high school that they have had no exposure to is music -- in every other area I can think of their education is on par.
Excuse my being blunt, but at the end of the day, I don't really think anyone is sending their kid to the type high school I saw instead of a Mesivta or Beis Ya'akov because they can get an extra AP class, or they offer music appreciation, etc. I think it's really all about the walls we erect or choose not to erect between ourselves and the outside world. Make no mistake about it: the Beis Ya'akov uniform, the black hat and jacket, the requirement to be in yeshiva all day + a night seder -- these are all walls. Ain hachi nami, it would be dishonest to not admit that in many cases these walls are breached, these walls are porous and permeable, these walls are just a facade and the interior kedusha they are supposed to protect has been decayed and destroyed. But even if in practice we often fail to achieve the ideal, does that mean we should not aspire to it and try our best to implement it? That's the issue -- what do we aspire to? What are our ideals? What should be policy, even if in practice it is not applied or conformed to with absolute consistency? Should we try to put up those walls, or do we think they are needless constraints?
Let's be honest: those walls are not being shrugged off because they make it harder to go attend a performance of Shakespeare or to listen to Mozart. It's attending a movie on Saturday night (probably too innocent an example) or listening to the latest in contemporary music that's the motivating force. This is not just an issue of chinuch, but it's an issue as to what kind of frum society we want to construct. We want to watch the football game this weekend wearing our jeans and team jerseys, eating glatt kosher wings and hero sandwiches, and not have to think about whether we should be having a seder or doing something more productive during that time. The hero sandwich and wings are glatt kosher -- it's the lifestyle of the person consuming them which is treif.
We have had battles in our house over whether one of our children should be granted her own e-mail address like her friends have (that one got an OK with conditions); we have had battles over whether I-pads and other such stuff are acceptable (no go on that). We have no TV, we keep non-Jewish music out. The philosophy of my kids' schools is also to keep this stuff out as much as possible (and admittedly rules are breached as much as they are obeyed by many parents). And still, with all that, b'einei chazisi that the outside culture exerts a tremendous influence in what fashions are considered "in", what kids talk about, what they want to look and sound like. I cannot even begin to imagine the influence outside culture exerts when there are no safeguards, when openness to everything is viewed as appropriate, and where my lifestyle is viewed a narrow minded and fanatical, something out of the middle ages. The santa hats speak for themselves.
True, in parts of the chareidi world my ideas and ideals would not pass muster. The walls are higher, people prefer an even more cloistered environment than my own. I could easily write a post questioning the degree of insularity the far right has adopted and the intellectual cost of their philosophy. Some would argue that there is harm even in Shakespeare, that listening to Mozart is as bad as listening to whatever passes for contemporary pop music -- I obviously disagree. However, and this is just a personal feeling, my impression is that my advocating a more moderate position than those on the far right amounts to a difference of degree, not a difference in kind. And in the end, if it is a choice of being an intellectual ignoramus but 100% committed to Torah or being an all star in chochmas hagoyim but walking around in a santa hat, does the former fault in any way compare with the latter?
There is an attitude that is prevalent that says the way to win over a talmida wearing a santa hat is to show love and tolerance and over time she will come to appreciate the warm and fuzzy relationship she has with her Moros and teachers and become a true bas Torah. Maybe it works. But the other side of the coin is that that tolerance can be interpreted as acceptance and validation, not only of the person, but of the actions and attitude as well. That's where I think in many cases things are holding. There are a whole host of modern orthodox bloggers who yomam v'layla have what to say about the failures of chareidi society (and to be fair, in many cases the points raised do deserve attention and are valid and should not be dismissed flippantly). But where are the bloggers in the modern orthodox community speaking out about the internal shortcomings of their own community? Where are the critical voices examining whether the chinuch is successful, whether modern orthodox educational institutions are helping their students grow in learning and yiras shamayim, etc. before they get to that year in Israel where magical transformation is supposed to occur? Where is the self reflection, the kshot atzmecha that must always precede the keshot acheirim?
This has been a long tirade, and I'm just getting warmed up, but something tells me it's time to stop. I haven't pulled any punches and that's usually not a good thing.