This winter break, my kids came back from college, and one night some of their friends stopped by to visit. We started talking and one of them mentioned to me that he had a solution for the dwindling numbers facing Modern Orthodoxy. Now, this I had to hear. Like a double agent, I get my best information from my children’s friends (and their friends) because I’m no threat to them. They all attended popular Modern Orthodox day schools in New York, and they requested that their names not be listed. And then the games began.
Kid one: “First off, the only thing I remember regarding Judaic studies was a lack of warmth from most rabbis. They always seem to be concerned with our test grades, quizzes, assignments, or that we showed up for davening. I never once heard the words ‘emunah’ or ‘bitachon’ until I turned 19 and went to Israel for my gap year in yeshiva. From then on, all my rebbe encounters were different, Thank God.”
Then another friend chimed in: “Even though I was a straight-A student, I never saw the value of grading students in Talmud, Chumash or Hebrew language. It’s just another meaningless list to memorize. Half of my grade didn’t even believe that the Torah was written by God, and they were from Orthodox families! Now you’re making them memorize phrases that mean nothing to them inherently, and then punish them when they perform poorly. No one ever taught them about ‘Hashem’ because schools aren’t in the ‘making people religious’ business, (unless it’s a yeshiva). Now that I am older, I realize that everything I learned was forgotten because I simply memorized and crammed everything the night before for a good grade.”
Another 22-year-old in Queens college explained: “The proof is that most kids who go to Israel become more religious because there are no grades, and they can finally experience the pleasure of learning holy things. I know that’s how I felt, and most of my friends were the same. These kids are dealing with rabbis who care about not only educating us, but our neshamas as well. I never once experienced that in Jewish day school except for perhaps one or two rebbeim who actually seemed to care. But schools want rabbis to teach us, not make us frum.”
Another interview with a successful graduate from day school who went to Maryland: “Practically all of my friends from high school are no longer frum. I think they are more socially Orthodox but truthfully, I’m not sure what that even means. Perhaps they never were. Also, everyone’s version of Modern Orthodoxy is different. I have friends like me who are very strict about Shabbos, tefillin, kashrut and making brachot, while other friends pick and choose what they want to do like they’re reading from a menu…”
When I came home, I mentioned this idea to my wife, an English department chair, teacher and tutor for over 30 years (with a master’s no less), and well, let’s just say, she didn’t take it lightly. “I’m very sorry, but I do not agree with you. A Jewish day school’s purpose is to teach children subject matter, get them into a good college and hopefully give them a love for Israel. Nowhere in the contract does it say that a rebbe’s job is to make kids more frum.” Good point.
I agreed with her, with only one caveat. This principle of education being the primary objective may apply to educators as a general rule, with the exception of one group: clergy. Why? Because by its very definition, a rabbi brings others closer to God. The material that is taught by an English professor, or the math that is taught by a mathematician, has no room for emotional or spiritual dynamics. Subject matter is taught for the sheer purpose of educating.
On the other hand, a rabbi has a completely different role. Aside from teaching a subject and the skills to master it, equally important is his ultimate goal: to bring others closer to God by instilling a love for Torah and mitzvot. As badly as every rabbi wants to make their students more observant, education and grades become the primary focus in most day schools. And this is where the divide exists. Invariably, the focus becomes mainly on the mind, less on the heart. It’s almost a Catch-22 because on the other side of the argument, if we do not test children, they will not study. Or will they?
To answer this question I bring to the stand, none other than myself—only projected back to the year 1988—an irreverent, obnoxious 11th grader, whose only interest was having fun and hanging out with friends. Rabbis to me were simply an obstacle to the things I wanted, and the fact they were constantly testing and failing me hardly endeared me—or any of my friends—to being closer to God. They never gave me the remote impression that they actually cared about me, Avi Ciment, beyond my grades, which stunk to begin with. I always came late to davening, so they even failed me in praying. I didn’t even get my diploma at graduation, but had to wait until I went to a summer minyan and had a rabbi sign an attendance sheet, furthering the divide. The fact that my rabbis also sent me to Hebrew summer school because I failed Ivrit in middle school, junior high, high school (and later in college) hardly inspired me to ever learn Hebrew again. (Still can’t speak much beyond the prerequisite “Moneh!”) And yet, I shamefully admit that I wouldn’t have studied if there were no tests.
So, what’s the solution?
Perhaps day schools need to change their entire narrative and rethink their M.O.
Is the ultimate goal a great education and great college, regardless of our children’s spiritual growth (or more likely, decline)? Do we care if our kids text on Shabbos, or skip tefillin when no one’s looking? Because once they’re out, no one will be looking… Why aren’t there more classes (without grades) that discuss real issues we all deal with, like what happens when we die, proving the veracity of the Torah, or why bad things happen to good people? How about a rabbi whose sole purpose is to see how kids are truly doing, helping them grow spiritually, as opposed to reprimanding them for not wearing tzitzit or failing another test?
Should we get rid of all tests then? Of course not. This is school, after all. Kids need some accountability and parents want to know (for almost 30 big ones a year) that their kids are learning. Perhaps certain classes are not graded but rather solely based on class participation and projects. Maybe certain courses are pass/fail, creating a different relationship between student and rebbe. There can be different tracks within one class, meaning if you elect to be tested, you will receive a higher special status for your resume.
The point is, nothing will change until parents see the value of kiruv, both in the home, as well as in day schools. We can’t rely on NCSY, JSU, Aish and Chabad to do the job alone. Aside from the yearly shabbaton, most of which involve boys and girls trying to “socialize,” there needs to be a major revamping of the Judaic school curriculum as a whole. As former editor Elliot Resnick of The Jewish Press once posed, “Is it really more important for the average Jew to know the laws of eruvin rather than to know what the purpose of their existence is?”
I have to admit that when I went to Israel and there were no tests, for the first time in my life, rabbis weren’t the enemy. They had one goal: to bring this kid closer to Hashem and teach him some Torah. Plain and simple. My relationship with Hashem grew, BH, and continues to do so, and nothing brings me greater fulfillment. Still, I’m sad to say that I can’t truly recall any high school experience that helped bring me to this place. And for all that money no less… Today, BH, at 51 years of age, I wake up and run to shul daily and love it, and even learn when I can. My Hebrew? Thank God for Google translate:)
Avi Ciment lives in Florida and is a longtime columnist for The Jewish Press. He lectures throughout the world and has just finished his second book, “Real Questions Real Answers.” He can be reached at www.AviTalks.com.