Growing up in a Modern Orthodox environment, I gained much from my community. As I grew up, I watched more and more Jewish teens abandoning their lives as Torah observant Jews. As a person who’s so passionate about my Judaism, it pained me to see close friends and family fall “Off the Derech”, but at the same time I understood full well why many of them had chosen to leave.
As we know, a baby doesn’t run before it can crawl, a flower doesn’t sprout before a seed is planted, and a car doesn’t drive without an engine. Why then, when it comes to preparing children and teenagers to be observant Jews are we failing to give them the proper foundations? In my opinion, the Modern Orthodox system must rethink the process. Schools expect high school students to be engaged through hours and hours of Gemara and Tanach classes. The questioning then begins. Do the students really know what Gemara is? Who are these Rabbis of the Talmud, thinking that they can institute all these laws? How is what I’m learning relevant to my life? Does G-d even exist? If G-d exists, is He present in my life? Didn’t the world just come about randomly? Jewish youth have burning questions in a world that seems to be ever so contradictory to our faith, and all we hear from the “system” is – that’s just what high schoolers are like — when they go to Israel their Yeshivas will take care of them. The truth is that there are satisfying answers to these questions, but the curriculum does not make it a priority or give the time to delve into these issues. Both excuses are unacceptable.
As a student in a post high school gap year program in Israel, I have been educated in a way that makes me understand that Judaism is true. I have analyzed and contemplated by original text study and logical discussion, that Judaism truly reflects God’s ideal plan for the world. For too many teenagers, the “belief” they were taught in elementary school is not enough to last into adulthood. The whole idea of believing that God exists and believing that the Torah is true is not the way Judaism is supposed to work. We should know that God created the world, we should know that God gave us the Torah at Har Sinai. We should know that God is present in our lives at every moment. In our education system, we must ensure that students know full well what Judaism means before assuming they will live their lives as observant Jews. Knowledge of Judaism means allowing students to conclude with conviction that it rationally makes sense to live by it’s principles.
Once the knowledge of the Truth is there, we also have to make Judaism relevant and meaningful. Whether learning Pirkei Avot, Mesilat Yesharim, or Orchot Tzadikim –the Torah offers endless lessons on how to live a happier, richer, more successful life and can speak to every generation, no matter their interests or biases. Our Rabbis teach us that the Torah has seventy faces to it, but often there is only one perspective presented in high schools which limits students’ access to a meaningful Judaism. Why can’t a topic like Chassidus be a part of the daily learning in addition to the conventional curriculum in order to help students connect emotionally and spiritually to Judaism? Isn’t it crucial that students find inspiration in their studies?
Once the seed is planted, we must focus on the learning process itself. It’s practically impossible to enjoy Torah learning when cramming for a secular exam that’s taking place the period after your Gemara test. What usually happens is that the night before a Judaics test, after getting home late from an after-school activity, and studying for all of the “important stuff”, whatever little time is left can be spent learning enough Torah to get an acceptable grade. Performing well in your Judaics class becomes a means to improve the transcript being sent to a secular college, instead of a means to becoming closer to the Creator. High Schools should consider abolishing grades and tests in the Judaics department, and start learning Torah in a way that helps the students connect to G-d. The grades should be based on effort – pass or fail. The requirement should be that the students attend each class and engage in conversation and text study. The classic argument against this is that no one will pay attention to anything the teacher is saying because there won’t be any motivation. I would counter this by suggesting that we don’t confuse obedience with motivation. Grades can force obedient behavior, but they do not inspire spiritual yearning. If students feel that Torah is an opportunity to learn purpose, values, and gain wisdom, then they are able to learn for the sake of learning. Their whole outlook on Judaism would be different. Judaism and Torah would not feel like a burden but rather a pleasure. Often, a student learns a lot more from doing a research paper rather than from simply spitting back information on a test. The research empowers the student with knowledge – and that knowledge is satisfying. If students are empowered to discuss and research their own questions as well as the foundations of Judaism, they will be more invested in their Jewish identities and learning. Students in Modern Orthodox communities must come to understand their roles in this world. Their Judaism needs to be a prerequisite to intense study.
In the beginning of the Yeshiva year in Israel, everyone tells you that you have to find YOUR Rebbe. A Rebbe is someone in whom you feel comfortable confiding, a spiritual mentor with whom you are able to discuss all your personal questions. Unfortunately, many religious high school students have related their experiences more like this .” I had Rabbis. They were the nicest of people and meant well — and I even hung out with them in school, but I never got the feeling that they were there for me as a Rebbe. When they gave a class it was because we had to get through Gemara and Tanach text, but I never felt that the information was being taught in a meaningful way — in a way that made me understand why the information was relevant to my life. Teaching Torah was a nine to five job as opposed to a life mission. Students were not asked about their feelings towards Judaism, or why they were having trouble following Halacha, or other personal things of that matter. The Rabbis were never really a part of their spiritual lives”. Coming to Yeshiva in Israel, most students discover that having a Rebbe can make such a positive impact on their lives. Whether it be going for a coffee, getting a call before Shabbat, or just having someone who is there to answer all of your questions no matter the topic — these things are integral in helping a student grow and fall in love with Judaism. These suggestions on “how to inspire” are based on personal student experiences. They are from students that have witnessed the contrast between the high school experience and the environment and principles that most post high school yeshivas in Israel provide.
The way in which the schooling process affects our community is a startling phenomenon. Many Jewish teens are completely turned off to religion in high school and “somehow” become enlightened in Israel. Observing how Yeshivas operate and adopting some of their practices will guide Modern Orthodox High Schools in helping their students become more connected and more observant in their Jewish lives. The opportunity to change the way we educate our students is in reach – it just takes courage to go against the norms. Be the change you want to see!
If you’d like to be a part in changing the system for the better, please email firstname.lastname@example.org