By Yosef Wartelsky
We must get with the program.
From my perspective, the yeshiva system as a whole is doing many things extremely well. Our insular society has done an impressive job of incorporating all sorts of curricula, developing the skills of our school faculty, and generally combining all the elements needed to provide a good education and incorporating them into our myriad mosdos haTorah.
We can proudly look at these structures of impressive architecture and boast that they are far more than brick and steel; these edifices are spiritual fortresses, modeled after the yeshivos of a decimated world and designed to mold and fortify the next generation. Our leaders, with tremendous mesirus nefesh, have created these holy halls to be places that are conducive to producing well-rounded, wholesome, productive b’nei and bnos Torah.
Nevertheless, mechanchim will agree that the challenges yeshivos face in today’s United States are more complex than they have ever been before. Children can access the filthiest aspects of humankind with not much more effort than needed to reach into their own pockets. The most addictive drugs are frighteningly accessible to any boy or girl who may be going through a rough time. And, to many of our precious sons, the pleasantness of a Tosfos pales in comparison to the fleeting, momentary buzz of a shot of Johnnie Walker.
I remember the day when reading an Archie comic was frowned upon, when following sports too closely and being a diehard fan was a favorite topic of mashgichim for a good mussar shmooze. How appalled our rebbeim would have been if they had only known we snuck in an episode of The Cosby Show or I Love Lucy during night seder. Ha! What a different world we live in now. How many parents only wish that their children’s pastime was an obsession with professional sports? Who wouldn’t rather their child go skiing or play pool or read Harry Potter rather than taint their pure neshamah with the real grime our society has to offer?
The dangers of technology cannot be disputed. Indeed, our leaders are correct in warning us about placing these devices, with such potential to destroy, into the hands of our children. We must wonder about the thought process, or more alarming, the lack thereof, of parents who provide their child with what is tantamount to a loaded gun. Do they think their child got lucky and was born without a yetzer ha’ra? Do they simply not care?
The saintly R’ Amram Chasidah, an Amorah, was hiding women who were redeemed from captivity. He asked that the stairs leading to the attic where the women were staying be removed. It took ten men to do this, due to its weight. He did this to ensure he wouldn’t be able to ascend the steps and approach the women. When he accidentally saw the beauty of one of the women upstairs later on that day, he did the impossible: He moved the heavy staircase by himself and began to climb the steps to do a terrible sin, only stopping himself moments before it was too late by screaming “Fire! Fire!” and attracting people nearby, in effect protecting himself from doing an aveirah.
Do we think our children are more righteous than R’ Amram Chasidah, whose very name is “righteous one”? Our children don’t have to move a heavy staircase; they simply need to push a button. So, our yeshivos are spot-on in banning these “weapons of mass destruction” and are doing a great service in educating their parent bodies about these dangers.
But the question begs to be asked: What have we done to keep our most precious commodities feeling happy and fulfilled? Have we been offering them fun and engaging activities that can even begin to compete with all that they have readily available? We all try to provide a fun, happy, and exciting atmosphere for our children, both at home and in our schools, but what we often fail to realize is that today’s children have an entirely different interpretation of what “fun, happy, and exciting” means.
With the guidance and backing of our gedolim, we must be courageous and meet this reality head-on. The times we live in demand us to offer vastly more wholesome activities and outlet options, in a safe environment. And yet the mold we expect our youth to fit into keeps getting smaller and smaller. By the day, more and more activities are becoming “treif” and off-limits, and sometimes necessarily so, which in turn makes our charges feel increasingly more restricted, in essence forcing them to look elsewhere. Well, the problem is that “elsewhere” is often on the streets or on the screen, both highly unattractive options!
I am convinced that we must dare to dream of an institution that provides nightly activities and healthy outlets where teenagers can come and do what many regular teenagers want to do with their free time (i.e., swim, play ball, work out, learn karate, play an instrument, etc.) A place where boys, from every track in yeshiva, are encouraged (perhaps even by their rebbeim) to feel success and fulfillment in things they enjoy. Frankly, by being cultivated within an educational and recreational system that consists primarily of Gemara and textual studies, far too many of them are not getting the confidence and fulfillment they need to enter the world as good, frum spouses and parents.
Undoubtedly, one can acquire any and every tool he may need in life from our holy Torah. What we must objectively analyze is what percentage of our talmidim leave the walls of the beis midrash as hashkafically healthy adults, people who respect, admire, and heed the words of gedolei Torah even if that isn’t what they themselves have become. Many of our high school’s talmidim are leaving the yeshiva system believing that they are “b’dieved Jews” because they didn’t thrive in their learning, and because too many of our yeshivos are subliminally, albeit sometimes unintentionally, giving that message.
Along the same lines, we need to honestly assess another occurrence in a different facet of frum culture and society. One need not even look at the at-risk children in our community. Take for example the numbers of regular yeshiva guys and Bais Yaakov girls who, very soon after leaving the walls of their yeshivos, shirk, and at times rebel against, so many of the values and standards that they were shown by their rebbeim. From their dress and how they spend their free time, to what decisions they make in their homes, changes begin to happen that are counter to the hashkafos haTorah they were taught and that they themselves know in their heart to be correct.
Worse, there is a growing number of young men and women who, after leaving their yeshiva settings, move on, get married, and for the first time feel “free” and on their own. They often enter the workforce or school and begin to develop alien views. At times with a great deal of chutzpah, they mock elements of our circles who have ardently maintained our mesorah and mock the manhigim who have transmitted it. I am a young married man, and I can attest that there are two distinct groups of people my age—there are those who continue to grow in their ruchnius and live their lives with those goals, and there are those who seem to be slipping in basic areas.
As an aside, this terrible phenomenon would be greatly diminished with the development of real, long-lasting, rebbe-talmid relationships over the high-school and beis midrash/seminary years—relationships that would carry over into the rest of the young man or woman’s life. Too often in a young couple’s life, no rebbe or moreh derech is involved in any significant way. In the absence of that player on the team, important decisions crucial to the building of a Jewish home are influenced more by Western culture then by daas Torah.
So, back to our chinuch mentality. Are we collectively so stubborn that we would rather our children be in unknown locations, with unknown peers, doing who knows what, than releasing some energy and feeling success and satisfaction with the proper oversight and supervision? Are we prepared to have an honest conversation with ourselves about whether our children are feeling adequate fulfillment from their daily learning? Are we brave enough to do what needs to be done to give perfectly normal children and young men and women a feeling of achievement?
How many mosdos and organizations exist that are geared towards at-risk kids? Shouldn’t we have one overarching organization that is tasked with the mission of putting the therapists and the at-risk yeshivos out of business?
It has been said about numerous philanthropists that what they enjoy donating to most is kiruv. Well, in the brand of kiruv that deals with children who have left the fold, I can’t imagine there could be money spent better than an investment that keeps them from ever leaving in the first place.
How many psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers spend day and night dealing with children and young adults with every conceivable issue? Can’t we find some talented, committed visionaries to provide us with that proverbial ounce of prevention?
There is a story told about Reb Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt’l, which I verified with his son Reb Shmuel, shlita. Reb Yaakov was approached by a man and his son, who was soon going to be a bar mitzvah. The man asked Reb Yaakov which arm his son should be putting tefillin on, since his son is ambidextrous and there are differing halachic opinions. Reb Yaakov turned to the boy and asked, “Which hand do you throw a ball with?” The father, wanting to show off his family’s piety, quickly responded, “By us, we don’t play ball.” Reb Yaakov turned to the boy, and, with a great mussar quip, insightfully replied, “Ya? So which hand does he fight with?” To Reb Yaakov, it was clear that if you limit a boy to that degree, he’ll find other ways to release his energy.
We all daven fervently that our children should be talmidei chachamim and that they enjoy the unparalleled pleasantness of a blatt Gemara, but the time has come when we must stop buying into the philosophy that a boy is only successful if he finishes masechta after masechta. The time has come when parents and yeshivos must begin to care far less about how they are perceived and more about how they are engaging and nurturing each and every talmid.
If we keep 50 percent of troubled teens off the streets, wouldn’t that be worth it? What about 25 percent?
The numerous discussions I’ve had with various mechanchim lead me to believe that this is not a new issue and that change will be difficult. The coming of Mashiach seems that much more appealing if we can count on him discrediting the absurd mindset that a child in the alef shiur has more to offer Klal Yisrael than the one in the gimel shiur.
We need every one of our children to stay engaged in the fight. We need every position on the battlefield to be filled. We need the generals, lieutenants, marines, and the navy of Hashem’s forces working together. And we need to stop trying to produce only the generals. Lest I be misunderstood, allow me to be clear: In no way am I belittling the thunderous, sweet kol Torah that emanates from our cherished batei midrash, and we should all have great admiration for the level of hasmadah displayed by some of our bachurim as they apply exhaustive effort to plumb the depths of Shas. But we mustn’t give them a greater feeling of belonging to the am segulah than we do any other child.
Every parent and rebbe knows this, but very few of us consider that maybe our children are the ones in the army who are meant to be “cleaning the tanks.” Convincing ourselves that our sons serve in an elite unit, whether true or not, is far more effective in bolstering our family or yeshiva image, or at times in marketing our children appropriately for the right shidduch.
It is time to show pride and to encourage our children to be the best Jews they can be. It is time we have confidence that what will bring the most satisfaction to Hashem is if we make an honest calculation of how we’re faring with the gifts He’s entrusted to us. And after that assessment, it is time we take the essential and bold steps to keep our youngsters happy and mold them into loyal servants of their Father in heaven, regardless of what capacity they serve Him in.
It is time to make this crucial change in our chinuch mindset.
Yosef Wartelsky works for Torah U’mesorah and is an assistant head counselor in Camp Munk.