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Bans are not Chinuch
by Rabbi Yonasan Rosenblum
This article orignally appeared in Mishpacha Magazine

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2/13/08
I suspect that some Mishpacha readers are beginning to wonder whether the magazine has developed an obsession with at-risk youth ever since the well-publicized tour of chareidi MKs of the teen hangouts around Jerusalem's Ben-Yehudah street. Mishpacha recently carried an interview with the highly respected Bnei Brak dayan Rabbi Yehudah Silver dealing, inter alia, with chinuch issues and featured the Novominsker Rebbe's words to a group of mechanchim under the aegis of Binat Halev.

In addition, Rabbi Grylak, Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz (in English), and myself have all addressed aspects of the topic more than once. (For the record, we do not discuss among ourselves or with the editors of Mishpacha what we are going to write about.) Even the English serial Black and White touched on it.

The objections of some readers on this score would be well taken if we were talking only about the obvious drop-outs from mainstream educational frameworks. If they were an isolated phenomenon, one could argue that they constitute the exception that proves the rule of our overwhelming success in raising children whose connection with the Ribbono shel Olam is vibrant and positive.

But the truth is that drop-outs constitute only the most glaring example of a larger probelm of alienation. That is why one famous lecturer on parenting bases almost all his examples on drop-outs: They serve to highlight more general problems in chinuch.

Drop-outs represent only one end of a continuum – the tip of the ice-berg. At the other end of the continuum are the hundreds of bochurim that one sees learning full-blast in the local beis medrash every bein hazmanim. In between, there is a whole range. And so it is among girls as well.

Anyone with eyes in his head knows that there are plenty of kids of both sexes who are still in regular yeshivos or Bais Yaakovs and, more or less, in uniform, but whose faces do not reflect much enthusiasm for their lives and for whom thoughts of the Ribbono shel Olam are rarely uppermost in their minds.

Signs of alienation among those still in the system are easy enough to pinpoint. Every time a proposal is raised to lower the burden of the army draft there are protests from certain segments of the chareidi world, who are concerned that any lessening of the fear of the army will result in many bochurim leaving the yeshivos. That response is itself an admission that there are those staying in yeshiva not out of a love of learning, but for negative reasons – fear that they won't be able to find a shidduch or of the army.

Recently, the Jewish Observer pointed to a new phenomenon – or an old phenomenon that now has its own name: Adults at Risk. The phenomenon refers to middle-aged adults who suddenly wake up one day and realize that they have been going through the motions for years, perhaps decades.

In normal times, inertia keeps most members of any particular society within its ranks. But, in the long run, in a society such as ours that places many demands on the individual, inertia is not enough. Without the infusion of positive energy, at some point, whether in this generation or the next, social pressure will cease to do the job.

THAT MEANS WE HAVE to understand the meaning of chinuch. One of the master mechanchim of the last fifty years, HaRav HaGaon Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, zt"l, used to say, "One does not educate with issurim." Bans and efforts to throw up walls of protection around our youth (and ourselves) are, of course, crucial. No one in their right mind would downplay, for instance, the importance of the various efforts to limit Internet use or the development of ever more sophisticated Internet filters.

Separate seating for men and women on buses serving chareidi neighborhoods is a fine thing, especially during the early afternoon hours when the buses are full both of avreichim and seminary students finishing their school day. But I wonder whether one yeshiva bochur ever went off-the-derech because of the absence of such a separation or will be saved by their existence. Given the proliferation of temptations all around, such separations cannot substitute for learning to keep our eyes in our Gemara and our thoughts where they should be.

If we make the mistake of confusing bans and various safeguards with chinuch, we will inevitably fall prey to a number of illusions. One is that all our spiritual problems are a function of the surrounding society. From that illusion follows another: that we can somehow recreate the ghetto and erect walls around ourselves. Anyone who thinks that it is still possible to secure the fort through a multiplicity of lines of defense alone is living in a fantasy world.

Again, that does not mean that the defenses are not important. But at best they can do no more than secure us time for the much more difficult task of chinuch and infusing our children with excitement over the privilege of being born to a life of Torah and mitzvos. Without the latter, all our defenses will turn out to be new Maginot Lines, as easily skirted as the French fortifications on the Eastern front were by German troops at the outset of World War II.

Too great a focus on bans can lead to a false sense of security, and distract us from the primary task at hand, which is creating both an emotional and intellectual connection between our children and Torah. No less important than a child's mastery of the material he is taught is the way that material is internalized.

HaRav HaGaon Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt"l, used to give the example of a yeshiva student who has just learned the sugya of adam muad l'olam (a human being is always responsible for the damage he causes) in Bava Kamma. He breaks his roommate's alarm clock, and attempts to disclaim responsibility on the grounds, "It was an accident. I did not mean to." That talmid has not yet internalized the connection between his studies and life.

Precisely because chinuch is so hard, we all try to push off the responsibility to others, and content ourselves with the role of enforcers of boundaries. Parents leave to the chadorim the responsibility for answering their children's basic questions in emunah. Meanwhile the chadorim act as if all such shaylos must have been answered in a proper home, and treat any questions as an act of rebellion, if not an attempt to negatively influence classmates as well. Similarly, if a boy awakens to a question in his high school years that did not bother him before, the reaction is often that all such questions should have been long answered. If instead of receiving answers or direction, the student sees that his question provokes anger and confusion, he may wrongly draw the conclusion that there are no answers.

Chinuch requires the efforts of parents and professional educators working together, and the task of all of us as mechanchim is never done.

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