Tuesday, January 29, 2013

santa hats and black hats: chinuch choices

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.


  1. anon19:50 AM

    R'Chaim, everything in your post is true but there is more to the other side. You and I attended the same yeshivos/shiurim/camps (I'm a few years behind you) so I share your perspective and many of your formative influences. And when faced with the imperfect choice between the Modox school whose ideals (zionism, value of secular world,etc) are closer to mine or the "right wing" choice, we chose the more "right wing" choice for girls high school for many of the same reasons you did. And we do not regret the choice. But we do recognize it comes at a real cost.

    We also understand (like you) that the "cost" is not the quality of the secular education. We see that the "right wing" high school can and does provide an excellent and rigorous secular education and the limudei kodesh is outstanding. The real "cost" comes in attitude, atmosphere, intelletual honestly/openness and consistency -- which candidly is stifled in the name in Torah but in many ways does the opposite of promoting Torah values (at least as I was taught to understand them). The "walls" you write about do the job that they are designed to do, but don't underestimate the damage they cause as well. The damage can either come from creating people living a Torah life, but with certain values that stfile and contradict many other Torah values -- often in an intelletually inconsistent or superficial way, or people who can be turned off when they understand and no longer appreciate the stifling in this approach (and I am assuming I don't need to detail the issues any more -- which I am sure you understand and appreciate). And I fully understand and appreciate the problems with the Modox model and the inconsistencies there (hence our own chinuch choice). But pulling off the trick of sending your child to the more right wing version and still getting the product you want is not so simple.

  2. How successful are MO schools in graduating Jews who have a wary, critical attitude toward the general culture and its foibles and evils? Don't we see in too many cases that they absorb the maximum that is remotely permissible (or can be rationalized as such) from general society? If that is their problem, what is the schools' solution? Take the money, keep head in the sand?

  3. Elitzur2:54 PM

    I don't know where you are from or what schools you are refering to but where I live I have this choice: a charedi girls high school that is a complete failure in limudei kodesh and limudei chol, that tells girls that their jobs are only to support their husbands who are learning, and who come off as hypocrites for having students sign 'contracts' that everyone knows are not going to be followed. Or a modern Orthodox all girls high school with AP classes and a healthy attitude towards general culture (or do you call such a school not Modern Orthodox by definition since it's not co-ed?).

    But don't let my real example stop you from your gross generalizations...

  4. I think that the solution across the board is aliya. The more Jews there are in E"Y means more available models of chinuch and lower costs. The MO parents who are not making tons of money are now grasping at straws -- charter schools, which are public schools with secular Hebrew studies and no yirat shamayim, plus afternoon Talmud Torah, a classic failure. For the familes who succeed for now in staying on the day school treadmill, the additional costs of the MO day school include both parents working high-powered jobs and no one home for the kids, and pressure on the kids to participate in multiple extracurricular activities both for the school reputation and for college applications.

  5. chaim b.7:34 PM

    Elitzur -- I live in the Five Town in NY and I am speaking about real schools in my community. I have seen other schools of the same ilk I describe elsewhere in NY and have taught in some of them. I have attended schools like these. Obviously every community is different and you need to make your own choices based on what is available to you.
    One point: I notice when you describe the modern orthodox high school you make reference to AP classes (which as I wrote, are available in the Beis Ya'akov branch I send my daughters to) and having a healthy attitude toward general culture. But you make no mention of the attitude toward Jewish culture - how do the girls dress on weekends? How many of them can independently tackle a Ramban inside? Do they give hashkafa any thought, and what are their attitudes? In my view these are the factors that should weigh most heavily on what kind of chinuch we should aspire to. I don't see them as being the priority in the modern world (again: your omission of them is telling) in the same way as in the RW world.

    Anon1 -- I agree with everything you said. The tradeoffs differ depending on the school and community. I think you would agree with me that there are enough choices that are moderate (e.g. places like Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, Chofetz Chaim, Ner Yisrael -- I don't know enough girls' schools besides the one my kids attend to give names) to make the RW chinuch system a more palatable choice for folks like you and me who grew up in the YU world but now want other options for our children, with no regrets in either of our cases.
    I have more to say on this but need more time to write.

    Goyishrebbe -- Eretz Yisrael is the ideal! However, the reality of finding employment and making it work is not so easy. For those who can do it, kol ha'kavod -- I wish I could join you.

  6. Anon19:47 AM

    Actually, I went to secular HS and college after day school, but I've seen various Jewish schools first-hand. At various times, our kids went to centrist MO and RW schools, so we saw the students, staff and parents do their thing. I've also seen family and shul interactions within these groups when spending Shabbos with them while on business trips.

  7. Just to clarify the last comment byt 9:47 Anon1 is not by the same author as the first comment of the thread.

    1. Sorry, I meant to use RAM for the 9:47 comment

  8. Chaim,

    I must admit that I am disappointed by this post. It is lacking the depth and sophistication with which you generally write. Imagine if I drove past a yeshivish school and wrote about the problems I saw there. The mothers where long flowing sheitels, designed to make them look "hot", and too tight and short skirts. The boys mercilessly mistreating a classmate due to some difference etc. We both know I could do it. Both worlds have strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps the MO worlds problems are more observable superficially, but does that make them worse? If your goal was to vent, I hope you feel better now, but if you had something better in mind, you failed.

  9. chaim b.6:59 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. Walk into Skokie and Brutish and you'll see something else. The parents you are comparing are coming from very different places. Compare parents educated at Shalavim and Michlala, and you will see something else. Why do you leave out DRS?

  11. That should say Bruriah.

  12. Walk into Skokie and Brutish and you'll see something else. The parents you are comparing are coming from very different places. Compare parents educated at Shalavim and Michlala, and you will see something else. Why do you leave out DRS?

  13. I'm talking about the average student/parent in both systems, not nitpicking examples.

    I deleted my previous comment because after thinking about it I decided it would be wrong to give specific examples. I will just say that I believe what I said holds true even given your examples (one of your examples is in my neighborhood, so I am familiar enough with it), but feel free to disagree.

  14. Anonymous1:39 PM

    In principle I agree with much of what you say in your post, but (as is all too common), this comes across as nothing more than (much politer than some, to your credit) cheerleading for one camp over another. Not very productive in my opinion, and there are serious problems with tarring a whole segment of orthodox Jewry (that is, whoever might fall under your label of "modern orthodox") with the failings you witnessed.

    1. chaim b.7:55 PM

      The last point is a fair criticism. I realized it myself and started to write a new post to add to and reformulate some of these ideas in a way that doesn't refer to the MO label, but considering it took me 6 weeks to do this one I can't promise another of this type any tome soon. Had I referring to a particular school or ilk of school, folks like Pesach Sommer above I don't think could have objected.

      In my weak defense I can only say that it is the schools I am referring to that self-identify as modern orthodox and justify their educational philosophy and methods as true to that shita. It's their choice of label, not mine. Are all mo schools alike? Obviously not, which is why at the end of the day I should have done a better job writing the post.

      To come back to a different comment made above, this is why I think saying that there are parents in RW schools that also dress inappropriately or act inappropriately is not a fair response to the post. Yeshivishe hashkafa does not condone or justify such behavior -- quite the opposite. Yet, the hashkafa of modern orthodoxy *is* used (in certain quarters, at least) as a justification for setting up schools with coed classes, one period a day of gemara study, etc. and that hashkafa *is* used as a justification for removing boundaries.

      Let me just round things out here with a quote:
      "Yet we simply cannot ignore the fact that many of our students do not possess the textual skills, feel the same passion for Torah study, or strictly observe halakhah to the same extent as many graduates of more yeshivish communities."

      Meorot (published by YCT) 7:2 Tishrei 5770 Modern Orthodox Day School Education p. 11-12 (quote from Rabbi Shlomo Brody)

  15. Chaim -

    I somewhat agree with what you're saying about MO schools/students, etc. , but I think it's important to point out that sometimes it may be a little unclear who is "to blame". If someone like myself (Azrieli/RIETS student) steps into a MO teaching job [parnassa-? :) (Chumash, Gemara, Nach) - I would hope that I would try my best to educate students regarding the texts and their importance, etc. etc. If a kid decides to ignore this, is it the (YU educated) Rebbi's/Morah's fault? Maybe it's the admin.- but be careful not to accuse all of them either....)
    Every school is different...
    (I went to a HS woth a pretty yeshivish hanalla - while we were exposed to a lot of learning, nighly sedarim etc. etc.- we weren't always learning. Sometimes more is less...)