Reprinted with permission from Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union, vol. 82, no. 2 (winter 2021).
One of the most troubling findings to emerge from the 2020 Pew study as contributors to the previous symposium indicated, is that 33% of Jews raised as Orthodox do not continue to identify with Orthodoxy as adults. Even if, as some claim, Pew’s Orthodox sample was too small and therefore the %age might in fact be lower, it is still a cause for concern. While the study does not identify who comprises the 33%, we asked various rabbis, educators and others involved in the world of Jewish education the following questions:
What do you see happening among day school and yeshivah graduates?
What are our schools doing well?
What could they be doing better?
Could we, as parents, grandparents and community members, be doing more to address the significant dropout rate?
I look at what is happening to yeshiva graduates in much the same way that I look at their parents. A recent survey of the Modern Orthodox community found that 84% of men and 52% of women always or almost always attend shul on Shabbat morning. Yet only 42% of them fully agree that their tefillah experience is meaningful. There are far too many variables in the formation of religious identity to point to one cause or one solution, but it does seem safe to say that meaning-making is a key component of Jewish life that needs more attention.
I have often said that we’ve done an amazing job of teaching texts, but we haven’t always done such a great job of teaching students. By that I mean that we have not done enough to address their inner world. We encourage fidelity to halacha, we provide all of the accoutrements of a vibrant Jewish life—from niche schools to restaurants to amazing summer programs—and in the process, we build a commitment to a sense of community and belonging. But for many, including those who have adopted Modern Orthodoxy as a lifelong practice, there isn’t a lot of attention paid to such questions as: What is your relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu? How can you work on that relationship? How does that relationship shape your daily life, your interactions with others, the choices that you make and the kind of person you want to become? How do the texts we have been learning in such depth speak to those questions? These are questions only the learner can answer, but only if we ask him and are prepared to hear his thoughts.
We tend not to speak this language with our children and our students because we were not raised that way and because many of us are uncomfortable with it. There is also an assumption that students will just “get it” by virtue of the lifestyle and values we work hard to give them. But we live in a world in which there are a host of conflicting lifestyles and values, ones in which our youth (and we) are much more immersed than we ever were at their age. And as the Piaseczner Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, noted almost a century ago, if we do not satisfy our children’s inner lives, they will surely fill that vacuum with the emotional and spiritual solutions of the larger world around them. Children and adolescents naturally crave spirituality and a sense of meaning and purpose. We ignore that fact at the risk of their neshamot and our communal lives. As parents and as educators, we need to not only acknowledge, but to proactively nurture our children’s inner lives.
What does proactive religious parenting and education mean? First of all, know thyself. Almost all social science research points to the fact that family is far and away the most important influence on the religious development of children and adolescents. What kind of religious role model are you? Think back for a moment and ask yourself: Who had the most positive influence on you religiously when you were growing up? Now ask yourself: How can you be that person for your child?
Second, know your child. In the same way that we maintain an awareness of our children’s cognitive, social and emotional development, so too must we be ever mindful of their religious development. Do you know what kind of soul your child is? What are his or her spiritual strengths and weaknesses? “Educate the child according to his way” (Mishlei 22:6) may mean not only cognitively, but religiously as well. Each of our children may need differentiated religious instruction, experiences and inspiration.
Third, whatever you do, do it with passion and consistency. I recall a student of mine who once told me that in her sports-minded home, the family goes to shul even in a snowstorm because the rule is “if you would go to a football game in this weather, then you go to shul too.” At the same time, we need to speak aloud with passion and consistency about our love for and commitment to Torah and Judaism. At every opportunity at home and at school, we need to mention our relationship with Hashem or our awareness of His role in our personal and communal lives. If children don’t hear about a personal God, how can they ever come to have their own relationship with Him? If they do not hear the language of faith from all the adults in their lives, how will they ever be able to speak it?
Finally, we need to talk about this more with one another because, frankly, we do not all have the answers. We consult with one another about our children’s schooling and summer plans—why not about their souls too? Like in other aspects of parenting and education, there is no guidebook to follow and no GPS to help us navigate. Many of us need guidance. It seems to me that this is an area where congregational rabbis can use the pulpit effectively or bring parents together to share their successes and struggles and to get direction from those who have some expertise. In the same vein, it is an area where parents and schools may need more bidirectional conversations. This is no time to be shy or evasive about the challenges we all face.
The same may be said for educators who are in need of training on how to make Torah learning not less rigorous but more meaningful for students, not more relevant in the sense of current, but in its potential to help students navigate the world after they leave the classroom on any given day. And we need to not preach it, but rather to show them how they might reach for it each in their own way and why it can be a rich and satisfying part of their lives that is worthy of their ongoing commitment.
Even so, there are no guarantees, and the number of variables at play may, God forbid, work against us. But we will at least have been much more proactive about addressing the challenges of embracing modernity. Our community and our children’s souls deserve no less.
Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz is a veteran day school educator and administrator who currently teaches at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School in New Jersey and has published widely on curriculum, tefillah education and religious development. He is the author of the Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur series, winner of the National Jewish Book Award, and writes the “Soul of Parenting” column on the OU website.