We must get with the program.
From my perspective, which admittedly is less experienced, the Yeshiva system as a whole is doing many things extremely well. Our insular society has done an impressive job at incorporating all sorts of curricula, developing the skills of our school faculty, and in general, combining all the various elements needed to provide a good education and incorporating them into our myriad mosdos ha’torah. 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 mesiras nefesh, have created these holy halls to be places which 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 world are the most complex and challenging they have ever been – certainly on the shores of the United States. The level of difficulty our children have in accessing the filthiest aspects of human kind is often not much more than a reach into their pocket. The most addictive drug substances 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 toisfos pales in comparison to the fleeting, momentary buzz of a shot of Jonnie 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 rabbeim would have been if they only knew 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 neshama 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 a parent who literally provides 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 no care?
The saintly R’ Amram Chasidah, an Amorah, was hiding women who were redeemed from captivity in his attic. He asked that the staircase, which was leading upstairs where the women were being held, be removed. It took ten men to do this, due to its very heavy weight. He did this to insure 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 begun 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 activity and outlet options, in a safe environments. And yet, the mold we expect our youth to fit into keeps getting smaller and smaller. By the day, and sometimes necessarily so, more and more activities are becoming “treif” and off-limits, 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 which 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, workout, learn karate, an instrument, etc.) A place where boys, from every track in yeshivah are encouraged (perhaps even by their Rabbeim) to feel success and fulfillment in things they enjoy. Frankly, far too many of them are not getting the confidence and fulfillment they need to enter the world as good, frum spouses and parents, by being cultivated with an educational and recreational system which consists primarily of gemara and textual studies.
Undoubtedly, one is able to 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 bais medrash as hashkafically healthy adults, people who respect, admire and heed the words of G’dolei Torah, even if that isn’t what they themselves have become? Many of our high school’s talmidim are leaving the yeshivah system believing that they are “b’dieved Jews” because they haven’t thriven 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 which they were shown by their Rabbeim. From their dress, how they spend their free time, to what decisions they make in their homes – changes begin to happen and decisions are made that are counter to the hashkafos hatorah which they were taught and that they themselves know in their heart to be correct.
Worse more, there is regrettably a growing number of young married men and women, whom, after leaving their yeshiva settings, move on, get married and for the first time feel “free”, in a sense – and on their own. They often enter the work force or school and begin to develop opinions and views and then, 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 can attest, I am a young married man, and there are two distinct groups of people my age – there are the ones 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 bais medrash/seminary years – relationships that would carry over in to the rest of the young man or women’s life. Too often in a young couple’s life, no Rebbe or moreh derech is involved in any significant way, and in the absence of that player on the team, important decisions, which are 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 that stubborn that we rather our children be in unknown locations, with unknown peers, doing who-knows-what rather 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 or not 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? Shouldn’t every good doctor’s most fervent wish be that he comes for his shift in the hospital and find that there are no patients?
There is a story told about Reb Yaakov Kamenetsky z’tzl, 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 teffilin on, since his son is ambidextrous and there are differing halachik 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 “ah 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 pray to Hashem that they enjoy the unparalleled pleasantness of a blatt gemara, but the time has come when we 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 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 fifty percent of troubled teens off the streets, wouldn’t that be worth it? 25 percent?
The numerous discussions I’ve had with various michanchim leads me to believe that this is not a new issue and will be difficult to change. The coming of Moshiach does seem that much more appealing when we can count on him discrediting the absurd mindset that a child in the alef shiur has more to offer klal yisroel than the one in the gimel shiur.
We need every one of our precious 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 army 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 medrash, and we should all have great admiration for the level of hasmodah displayed by some of our bochurim as they apply exhaustive effort to plunge 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 in our elite club.
Every parent and Rebbe knows this, as I have discussed this with many parents and michanchim alike, 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 Yeshivah image, or at times, to assist in marketing our children appropriately for the “right” shiduch.
It is time to show pride, and 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 frum, 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.