Friday, June 02, 2023

There’s nothing like a crisis to get people talking. Be it tuition, abuse cover-ups, the internet, or shidduchim, major dilemmas in our community are usually what attract the headlines and inspire conversation. This behavior is natural, of course. We generally have a desire to discuss things that are meaningful and relevant, and we also like catastrophes. Therefore, stories that affect our community in real and sometimes frightening ways attract our attention. Despite the explanations, this practice exposes something problematic.

The perfect introduction to this conversation is to remember the adage in Pirkei Avot that equates wisdom with foresight. The logic is clear: If a person only considers the present when planning, organizing, and making decisions, then only short-term success is guaranteed. So when problems come up, the only option might be to scramble for solutions. By waiting for crises to dictate our next move, we find ourselves restricted to damage control.

The “crises” that our communities are faced with provide good examples. As opposed to Yosef, who had the wisdom to save during times of affluence, we spent, and now we are paying for it. Many in our communities have expenses that are difficult to cover, yeshiva tuition most famously among them. Foresight may have told people to save, to choose smaller homes, and to skimp on the vacations. Schools may have planned their finances or structured their personnel differently.

Another example is what is known as the “Shidduch Crisis.” Online dating sites and pay-for-shidduch initiatives are just a two of the proposed solutions to increase the number of married couples in the Orthodox world. But what if this issue could have been avoided altogether? Maybe we could have been more cognizant of how our communities were developing. Maybe we could have identified the problematic mindsets and tried to change them. Maybe some foresight would have helped.

(This is not to pass judgment or claim that I know exactly what could have been done to avoid these problems. Perhaps they were unavoidable. I am just trying to point out that all crises have causes, and that these factors could be addressed in advance.)

To pin down the main factor that prevents foresight is impossible. Human nature is complicated, varied and cannot be explained in a few sentences. However, I’d like to mention two possibilities, and the reader can decide if they resonate.

The first cause relates to being self-centered. I don’t mean this to be critical, but rather to be descriptive. Being self-centered is a big part of Orthodox Judaism, and particularly today. “Connecting with God,” “Becoming a Bas-Torah,” and “Growing in Learning” are a few of the popular goals that m’chanchim set for their students and individuals for themselves. Of course, these are all meaningful pursuits. However, when growing as individuals becomes the totality of Avodas Hashem, we don’t really think in terms of community, the future, and definitely not out of the box. We look at ourselves and ask “How’s everything going?” And if the answer is “pretty good,” we smile and keep moving along.

The ones most affected are those on the fringe. Not everyone can connect to things the way they are. Those that leave due to a lack of diversity or flexibility are often viewed as unfortunate casualties, as opposed to signs that we are missing something. To look at it from a chinuch perspective, every school has a small demographic of students for whom the classic yeshiva day school format “doesn’t work.” This group includes (but is not exclusive to) students with learning and differences and cognitive weaknesses, those that are exceptionally bright but need to be challenged, and those that just aren’t into the whole learning thing. It would be unfortunate for the needs of these students to be overlooked because overall we are “doing fine.”

Another potential factor that limits our foresight is our conservative nature. Orthodox Judaism puts a large emphasis or tradition, for good reason. Our reverence for tradition is pervasive, going beyond halacha and affecting many aspects of our non-ritual lives. Granted, there is a wide range in terms of accepting novel ideas. However, uniformity of practice is a pretty fair characterization of most Orthodox communities.

Our traditional nature makes us wary of innovation. Our Rabbanim generally use prescribed modes of deciding halacha, our smachot generally looks the same, and many of our schools rely on age-old methods. Novelties like academic Talmud study, creative rabbinic solutions to permit agunot, and women’s tefilla groups make many of us uncomfortable, and we thus paint those efforts as being beyond the pale, or having less-than-noble intentions. There may be truth here, but some of it is simply a visceral reaction to change.

In general, our schools are thriving, in conjunction with our communities. For the most part, our children are learning, they stay within the fold, go to college and have successful careers; things are looking bright. Ostensibly, this should give us a sense of comfort that our educational methods do not need change.

However, general success should not make us complacent. We should constantly be asking ourselves if our students are being taught in the optimal way. Can our schools adjust or rethink their approach to reach more students more of the time? Can Talmud Torah become more meaningful to our students? What is the future going to look like and how can we prepare our students for what they will face? These are some of the questions, if addressed properly, can help us avoid the next crisis.

Yair Daar teaches Gemara and Tanach, and serves as a curriculum coordinator at SAR High School in Riverdale, New York. He is currently a doctoral candidate at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School. Yair lives in Bergenfield with his wife and three daughters.

By Yair Daar

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