BATTLE CRY OF A NEW GENERATION
The Chazon Ish was once asked to explain his continued support for Yeshivos whose classes were conducted in Ivrit, a modern innovation that a previous generation had opposed. He responded with a parable:
"A country under attack calls upon a veteran army general to return and lead the nation’s defense. Rising to the opportunity, he gathers his troops and stations them at the historic front where many years ago he achieved his fame, despite the fact that today, the battlefront is elsewhere..."
Something has shifted in Orthodox life in America and in our vaunted school system. Our students are different; their values are harder to recognize, and the issues they confront in their own lives are new to us. Frank discussion with the best of our students, from the finest Yeshivos, will reveal that most can relate to, if not identify with, their rebellious peers. Though they would never abandon the ways of Torah themselves, for too many, their fidelity is often not a sign of conviction, but rather, inertia, or the lack of a better alternative. After all, it is not easy to throw overboard one’s friends, family, community and people.
Let us understand this: the primary restraint on the potential dropout is not cognitive. Rather, his emotional attachments to family and friends (and hopefully, to his Rebbeim and teachers) keep him within the Torah community. When this connection is strong and resilient, defying the Torah is unthinkable, but when this link is severed, children begin to look elsewhere.
A rabbi in an outlying community strikes up a conversation with David, a nineteen-year-old boy who has been in and out of Yeshivos, and had experienced a stormy relationship with his Chassidic family.
"Where are you from?"
"Well, I'm considering moving to this town."
"But, where do you live now?"
"I'm looking for a place right now."
The rabbi begins to get frustrated. "But, where is your family from?"
"Look, I was born in Brooklyn, and my parents still live there, but I packed out a while ago. I can't stand it over there."
This child did not want to leave the city for fresh air, and was not suffering from common family tensions. He could not acknowledge his family or his environment because he is struggling to define a new identity for himself. And when children of frum families, in frum communities, look for a new identity, Yiddishkeit will not be part of that package, at least not the brand of Yiddishkeit that reminds them of their former selves.
THE NEW AMERICANS
Students have always faced difficulties, and many fine Baaleibatim recall their Yeshiva years as far from successful; nevertheless, until recently, dropping out was not an option.
I grew up in the late 60's and 70s, in an Orthodox neighborhood. Though my friends and I did not take learning very seriously, certain pastimes were simply inconceivable to us. None of us ever entered a bar, or consumed hard liquor - even at weddings. Not because these actions were forbidden, but because they were reserved for Goyim.
We were the children of survivors and we grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. The Yeshivos we attended were directed by Rebbeim who had either learned in Europe themselves, or had been trained by those who had.
Our parents' identity was clear. They were Jews who would never truly fit the American mold. They had no interest in baseball or rock-and-roll, nor had they any inkling as to why anyone else might.
Somehow, the sense of distinctiveness, and the pride of being religious, has been lost.
Recently, a teacher posed the following questions to American seminary students in Yerushalayim:
"If you had the option to be born again as a Jew or a Goy, which would you choose?", and "In your opinion, who has a more attractive and enjoyable lifestyle, Jews or Goyim?"
Unbelievably, nearly 70% of the respondents displayed misgivings about their own identity.
In those days, religious Jews deeply distrusted the non-Jewish world that allowed the destruction to happen, and wanted no part of that world and its culture. But for the new generation, the destruction of European Jewry is ancient history. Their milieu is purely American.
Gradually, the Orthodox Jew co-opted the lifestyle of a secular society; financial success, suburbia, nice cars, and biannual vacations, thus transforming the pursuit of physical comfort and pleasure into one of the driving goals in Jewish life, albeit with a kosher twist. This shift in values betrays more than extravagance; it is symptomatic of a subtle attitude change. Whereas in the past, the values of the American culture were meant for the Goyim, and the Jew was grateful for its freedoms, today the Jew actively seeks out the finest of Americana.
It seems, at times, as if we have created a strange type of Shatnez, a mixture of piety and ritual observance, together with extravagant indulgence and American apple pie. We have distorted the Torah's message, and in the process, we are witness to the weakening of our very foundations, not to mention the dissolution and dysfunction in many of our homes.
The Ramban explains that "Kedoshim Tihyu" calls for more than a heightened sense of spirituality, and more than additional stringencies for the pious and diligent few. Rather, this Mitzva encompasses and incorporates all the others. It is the heart and essence of the Torah, and, it postulates that religious observance will transform us into a nation of priests. For otherwise, it is possible for one to be technically observant, and yet to miss the point of Avodas Hashem. In other words, the chase after materialism does more than prevent man from reaching the desired heights, it creates a fraudulent persona, and shatters his basic Torah identity.
It is, then, inevitable, that in the absence of holiness, observance is often devoid of true meaning and purpose. Mitzvos are performed by rote, with lip service given to values that are not deeply held.
The inescapable fact is that a new generation no longer relates to Judaism the way Jews once did, and nothing is to be taken for granted. It is necessary, therefore, to reassess the standard methods of imparting values to our youth, and to discover where certain adjustments may be in order.
LOOKING AT OUR SCHOOLS
Without a doubt, our community is blessed with numerous strong schools who are extremely successful in imparting their values to their students. However, not every school can hope to emulate this success, nor can every school imitate the methods of traditional institutions, because not every school is able to put together the optimum mix of committed parents, solid environment, and background of students that guarantees a positive response to their approach.
In the past (and in our most elite Yeshivos and Bais Yaakov schools today), the function of the educational system was to develop the cognitive skills of our youth and train them towards maturity. Responsibility, commitment, organization, integrity, and academic excellence were the primary traits we hoped to transmit. Students who could not meet these standards quickly faced serious consequences - either disciplinary procedures or sundry punishments - both at home and at school.
These objectives and methods were valid when our students identified with the core values of the community. Yearning to achieve a place of pride in school and at home, they accepted the authority of school administrators, and looked for guidance as they progressed further in Torah and Yiras Shamayim. The rules and restrictions of school life were natural. Their significance was understood, and administrative prohibitions were respected, if not observed. When caught with a violation, students knew that a punishment was deserved, and appreciated the opportunity to atone for their mistakes.
Here are two examples, both taking place years ago, where punishment had a positive effect:
Moish had been caught with a group of friends vandalizing a snack stand. Though the actual damage was minimal, Moish was expelled from the Yeshiva for theft. "I know that I messed up, and I am going to get thrown out. I can't believe that I was so stupid. I always make the wrong decisions."
Moish was subsequently accepted to a good Yeshiva, made slow but steady progress, and is today a well- respected member of the community.
A similar story:
Judy comes from a Torah family, her father is a prominent Talmid Chacham. Always a bit impulsive, she was caught socializing with boys nearby the local Yeshiva. She was asked to leave town, and completed her high school elsewhere. This story took place over twenty years ago. Today, Judy is the mother of seven children, and is married to a prominent Talmid Chacham and Mechanech.
Judy understood full well the values of her home, and had no intent to leave the path of her family. She had a bit of a wild streak, and was merely flirting with the rules. She understood that her punishment was deserved, and in a sense, she cherished the opportunity to get a new start.
But punishments like these are effective only where students accept the school’s basic worldview and understand the natural consequences of their behavior. Unfortunately, this acquiescence can no longer be assumed. Many schools are finding their students to be materialistic and pleasure seeking, and face resistance when urging their charges to harmonize the Torah’s lofty ideals.
Recognizing that true spirituality can never be easily imposed, our priority should be to first demonstrate the beauty of Torah, and to insure that our students’ school experience is a positive one. Otherwise, we will be unable to encourage the difficult lifestyle changes we expect them to make.
Frequently, negativity is needlessly created in the implementation of school policy, especially in areas that are not critical to our children's development. Take, for example, a student who is tardy to class, or leaves the classroom unexcused. A decision may be taken to punish that student, who may then lash out angrily or inappropriately. The principal now responds to this new outburst, and soon the original transgression becomes lost in a mountain of troubles. True, school decorum is important, but we must first ascertain that disciplinary actions do not cause more harm than good. If our students are out of touch with the rules that govern their behavior, they see the imposition of restrictions as a foreign intrusion. In those instances, they often have no real sense of why their actions are wrong, and enforcement breeds unnecessary resentment.
Hence, it is critical to insure that punishments are depersonalized, and instituted only after a positive and personal relationship has been established between students and administration. Students must sense that disciplinary measures are being imposed only reluctantly, and are not being used as a power play. All too often, we force our students to adhere to trivialities, brandishing our ability to punish them at will. Such actions, either in the classroom, or in the principal’s office, are antithetical to true Chinuch.
'Esti' and 'Sari', both fifteen-year old students in a non-New York Bais Yaakov, had violated the school dress code. They were both a bit precocious, and even a bit mischievous, but at heart, girls who could be won over with a kind word. They needed to be punished, but the question was how.
The principal called them into his office.
"Listen, girls, you and I both know that by the time you graduate this school, you will both be outstanding seniors, examples of frumkeit and virtuosity, and models for all the students to admire."
"So, I have a good idea. Being that we both know how this story will end, why are we fighting? Let's start being frum now!"
What the principal did was this: he transformed a potentially explosive situation into an opportunity for growth. Rather than automatically penalizing their infraction, he utilized their misbehavior to form a positive relationship. Along the way, he planted in their minds the following notions: 1) he recognizes that they are top students, valuable to the school 2) behaving badly is beneath them and 3) they will soon be much greater than they are now. How could they be angry with that?
Teenagers rarely accept or reject Torah and Hashkafa for purely intellectual reasons. They first measure their personal regard for their teacher, and only afterwards do they agree to accept their words.
At the beginning of the semester, Devora interrupted the teacher's lesson with an impertinent comment. The teacher, who had been frustrated with his inability to reach this particular class of students, responded sarcastically, and with a hint of anger. The next time this class met, Devora, insulted and embarrassed, had moved her seat to the very back of the classroom. For the balance of the school year, despite the teacher's many attempts at reconciliation, Devora participated only when prodded, and most often, put her head down throughout the shiur.
Experienced educators will find this story familiar. One ill-placed remark can easily spell the end of a teacher-student relationship, and in our present set of circumstances, it is the relationship that is the key, not the studies that are being recited.
Generally, our desire to preach is premature - if our students have connected with us, they will come to us for advice, and if they haven't, our words of encouragement often have the opposite effect. It is not our words of Torah that will win them over, but rather, our ability to connect with them in a deep and meaningful way. Rather than haranguing our students or posturing, we should first assure that our students are happy, and would be best served by avoiding confrontations, not allowing frivolous issues to affect the students' desire to accept our spiritual demands.
Rivky was a student who was headed in the right direction. Vulnerable to temptation, the administration felt that she was making steady strides, though she had not yet made a commitment to become a true Bas Torah.
Two days before the annual school retreat, an outing anticipated for months by the entire student body, Rivky was told that she could not come along, for despite clear and stern warnings, she had skipped class once too often. She was called into the principal's office:
"You know that you were wrong, Rivky, you were warned, and yet, you deliberately chose to challenge authority."
"Rabbi, I used to love this school, I told everybody what a great place this is, but now, I really wish that I would have gone to the modern school instead!"
Was the administration technically right? Yes.
Did Rivky deserve a punishment? Yes.
But did the consequence in this case have a positive effect? This is questionable.
A message had been sent to the students that the administration was not to be crossed. The students now recognized that the teachers were more powerful than they, and that the rules must be observed, or else. Granted, these are wonderful lessons. But these messages are appropriate only when our students are completely with us, on every level. For the student who has not yet identified with our goals, such punishment serves only to lessen the likelihood that they will accept Torah values.
It is a school’s responsibility to train its students to travel the right path, and it will succeed only by motivating them to make the right choices.
Often, complaints are expressed about students who are not performing up to par. The general impression is that if students are not behaving in ways that we hope for, it is because they are not being pushed hard enough. Let us therefore force them, and this will solve the problem.
This is an erroneous conception. Our goal is not to have students comply with the standards of behavior that we demand, but rather, to have our values assimilated by them and accepted as their own.
It is not obedience that we want, but inspiration.
The principal of a Bais Yaakov high school was asked by a prospective parent if he speaks to his students about the importance of marrying Bnei Torah who will intensively study Torah for a number of years after marriage.
"The question is not whether I tell them to marry Kollel boys or not", he responded, "but, whether or not they will want to marry Kollel boys!"
Coercion can be maintained for a limited amount of time, while our youth are still under our thumb, but, more often, it creates a negative association with deeds we are striving to have them adopt. Without care and sensitivity, the hostility we create may last a lifetime.
Ahuva is a sweet girl who was raised in a Torah home far outside the New York metropolitan area. Her father and grandfather are Talmidei Chachamim. She has no desire to rebel and looked forward to attending high school in New York, where she would grow and be inspired.
Boarding had been arranged at a Torah home, and the host parents were apprehensive about the 'out-of-town' values that Ahuva might bring with her. Immediately upon her arrival, she was handed a list of rules, ninety-nine percent of which dealt with Tznius issues. Her appearance was carefully scrutinized each morning, and then again upon her return. Skirts cannot be too short, but also not too long. Conversation, she was instructed, should be limited to Devarim SheBeKedusha. Please do not discuss the news. Your acquaintances are poor company, no visitors allowed. No makeup, no eye shadow, no lip gloss, no nail polish, no....... no......... no........
Ahuva had never realized before that she was such a bad influence, nor had she any idea that she dressed so immodestly.
Ahuva has learned how to adjust her skirt to the desired length before she comes home, and to roll it out again when she leaves; to pin her hair up before she comes home, and to let it down afterwards.
In class one day, the teacher was discussing an issue of Tznius and was challenged by Ahuva: 'Why are certain women so concerned about Tznius and not bothered by their Middos? Which is more important, anyway?'
The principal was shocked to hear of this incident, because Ahuva was one of his model students. Investigating, he discovers the issues at her host home, and suddenly understands the source of the problem.
In Ahuva's life, we have succeeded in creating the Tznius monster. Rather than presenting the values of modesty as a natural statement of a woman's inner beauty, Ahuva has been taught that 1) she is a bad influence on other people 2) she cannot live up to the standards of B'nei Torah 3) Mitzvos equals pressure. Thus painted in her mind as a rebel, can she be blamed for challenging her teacher's values?
RULES AND STANDARDS
But, before we urge our administrators to ease school structure, it is important to take pause, and to recognize, as well, that attempts to weaken student discipline can have a deleterious effect on the school environment. For a school to succeed at improving students’ behavior, it is critical that high standards of performance be maintained and enforced. Students must learn to conform to acceptable norms, and schools who bend the rules too often are likely to find that their instructions are no longer taken seriously.
Thus, the delicate balance between discipline and positive methods of re-enforcement poses a real dilemma. I would suggest that an effective means of moderating school expectations would recognize the difference between enforcing oppressive rules and maintaining appropriate standards.
Reasonable people will honor the standards of others when requested to do so. Students readily accede to a plea to abide by higher community standards when that request is not personally threatening. In such instances, adherence does not imply identification with a message that may be beyond them, but is simply a statement of respect for others. Rather than to impose rules on an unwilling student body, it would be better to pleasantly ask for compliance, and to focus efforts on the more important task of educating students to growth in maturity and Jewish values. In this way, disciplinary standards will be maintained, while at the same time, patience and understanding will produce students who are more receptive to our message. But we must learn to bide our time and wait until they’re ready.
Truthfully, when implemented with care, even rules that are imposed by fiat can unify a student body rather than become sources of conflict.
Let us examine the issue of school uniforms:
Most of our Bais Yaakov high schools have official school uniforms. Though students’ personal clothing may not be in synch with the higher uniform standard, they often recognize that uniforms are beneficial for effective school policy and discipline. Yet, motivating girls to wear the school uniform is not a difficult task. Many are quick to design school sweatshirts and jackets, replete with official school emblems.
The key is this: just as sports teams or fraternal organizations have uniforms their members are proud to don, so too, creating a positive and attractive environment makes students long to be part of a group setting. Recreating this scenario in varied areas can effectively reduce the negative pressures associated with Tznius and many other rules in the minds of our youth. Our goal is to first create a warm and caring environment, one that our youngsters are anxious to join and proud to be a part of.
And if the values of the school are clearly defined, and successful alumni are showered with praise, the direction and objectives will be recognized by each of the students. Those who long to remain part of the school circle will adopt the practices and mores of their friends and mentors – on their own - with no need for undue pressure and confrontation.
MOTIVATION AND UNDERSTANDING
Many of our students believe that Aveiros are to be avoided because sinning is evil, and if caught, they will be punished, either by the authorities, their parents, or G-d.
With this attitude, it is no wonder that so many of our students lack enthusiasm for Mitzvos, or respond that they admire the ways of the non-Jew. In their mind, Aveiros are attractive and enjoyable, but as believers, they feel that the ‘fun’ is not worth the price.
Like most people, the primary concern of our children is their own self-interest. Those who would rather be doing Aveiros are restrained only by an external force that will never guarantee eternal fidelity. If, on the other hand, we can impart to our youth the notion that Mitzvos are the key to a happy and fulfilled life, they will pity those who have missed the boat, and appreciate our many demands.
But if we fail to understand our students, they will never realize the advantage of taking our exhortations to heart.
A certain lecturer has recently become very popular, addressing the questions of religious youth in high schools throughout the country.
After participating in the seminar, one student told her principal: "I learned more here in an hour and a half than I have in the past three years."
Another responded: "He spoke about things that we really want to hear about, but nobody ever discusses with us."
These comments are a serious indictment of our schools. Can it be that students perceive that they are not being spoken to?
Many students feel that the school curriculum does not address their true interests. Take, for example, the common Chumash lesson. Teacher will read a Pasuk and present the different opinions of the Rishonim, perhaps explaining how each opinion is derived from the text. The students will dutifully memorize this information, but the teacher did not impart the essential message: that this Torah discussion is addressing them directly as individuals. The Torah stands in contrast to man's evil inclinations - "Lo Dibrah Torah Ela K'Neged Yetzer Hara". Shiurim and lectures must speak to students' hearts, not to their notebooks.
It's not that more needs to be done to answer students' questions, though a greater willingness to address their doubts is certainly advisable. Rather, we should be more cognizant of their lives, and more aware of their interests; to make it clear that teachers and administration understand their needs, and that the Torah addresses their own lives.
To make the Torah real, we must transform the school experience into one that is an integral element of adolescence, fortifying them for the future and the inevitable battles with the surrounding culture. Of course, the study of texts, and the transmission of critical skills are prerequisites in education, but perhaps we need to reassess whether our schools are dealing with today's students as they are, and if they truly understand the mindset of today's youth.
To summarize: because most of our students have their basic worldview framed first by American values, the Torah's commands must be superimposed upon foreign soil. For today’s schools to be successful, they must first win their students over emotionally, and only afterwards transmit their demands intellectually. Acceptance of new values requires a different worldview - a paradigm shift - and people cannot change overnight. Discipline may coerce students into accepted behavior, but it will never change attitudes, and certainly never inspire them.
There are positive aspects to the present situation that can be utilized if understood properly.
Today, there is very little of substance that competes with the Torah for the hearts of our youngsters. The common perception that the street is an attraction for our children is simply not true. The tawdry and vacuous fantasies of the popular culture can only draw those who are unhappy and dissatisfied, and it is no match for the intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually fulfilling life that the Torah offers. Our students are not fighting with us as much as they are empty shells, waiting for the right teacher to fill the vacuum. If we create institutions that are inviting, our students will be more than ready to stretch a little higher in order to join the fraternity. But, it is the sense of belonging that must be established first, before the values are imparted.
None of this is meant to imply that all, or even most of our students, need these methods. Many of our enclaves are filled with traditional families who have maintained the old standards and have little need for changes. But certainly, all of our institutions can be injected with a new spirit, one where the primary concern is the development of our students and care for their well being.
Ronnie was twenty-two years old and ready to begin looking for a Shidduch. A former Rebbe called proposing a certain match. Ronnie accepted immediately.
"But, don't you want to know about her, or her family?" the Rebbe asked.
"Rebbe, if you say that I should meet her, that's all the information I need."
This is the relationship that we must create with all of our students, at any age, and at every stage of their lives.
Rabbi Heshy Grossman, former principal of Hanna Sacks Bais Yaakov High School in Chicago, Illinois, is the Menahel of Ohr Yosef Torah High School of Bergen County, a new Mesivta scheduled to open this coming September in Paramus, N.J. He can be reached at Tel:(201) 921-4921; FAX: (973) 473-0251; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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