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It’s Time for a Jewish Vocational School

When we moved into our first home almost 40 years ago, I spent most Sunday mornings from May through October mowing our lawn with a manual four-blade push mower.  I also shoveled our walk and driveway after any snowstorm with an ordinary shovel.

Granted, it wasn’t easy … but the physical labor felt refreshing, and emotionally it felt really good knowing that I performed the job myself.

A few years later, with more income in our pockets and more family matters to address, I began outsourcing the lawn maintenance to a gardener, and hiring a neighbor with a snowplow to shovel our walk and driveway after any snowstorm.

Unfortunately, I think physical labor gets a bad rap in the Modern Orthodox Jewish community.  We pride ourselves on not having to engage in physical labor, as a measure of our success.  But what’s wrong with a little physical labor?

Don’t get me wrong.  I believe in the business maxim of “make what you are good at, and buy everything else,” and I have applied this not only to my business career but to my personal life as well.  However, I do think there is a bigger role for physical labor in the Modern Orthodox community – specifically when it comes to a career or a profession.

Which brings me to the reason for this column.

When our kids are in high school, we are busy figuring out which Israel program they should attend and which college they should apply to.  But not every youngster wants to learn full time in Israel for a year, and not every youngster should be going to college.  Yet the idea of sending our kids to a vocational school to learn a trade is still a very foreign concept in the Modern Orthodox community.

There are some very honest and reputable trades that require some physical labor, but are looked upon negatively in our community: plumbing, diesel technology, HVAC training, gardening, welding, and masonry.  Yet most of us would not encourage our kids to learn these trades, even though they would allow one to make a nice living.  I don’t hear any Jewish mothers bragging to their friends about their son, the electrician … or their son, the auto mechanic.

Why not?  Can’t we recognize that there are other careers besides the traditional career paths that virtually all of our children follow?  Not everyone is geared toward a professional career in law, medicine, accounting, or the sciences.  Some of our kids actually enjoy physical labor: doing things with their hands …fixing mechanical objects … tinkering with machinery.  Why aren’t we encouraging them to do what they love, and then make a career of their interests and their skills?

There are some fine vocational schools, where youngsters can learn a trade and become certified in various fields.  Yet I think it would be difficult to convince Modern Orthodox parents to encourage their kids to attend such schools.

Instead, what I think the Modern Orthodox community needs is a post-high school vocational school, where Torah topics are taught in the morning and various trades are taught in the afternoon.  A school that would allow students to continue learning Judaic studies, but rather than granting a bachelor of arts or bachelor of science degree, would certify its graduates to become plumbers, electricians, auto mechanics, and welders.

There are trade schools in Israel, and schools organized by some Haredi communities in America, that teach a specific vocation without offering a college degree.  However, these schools are focused on office jobs: bookkeeping, computer programming, web design, and laboratory technician jobs.  To my knowledge there are no vocational schools for the Orthodox Jewish community that specifically train those interested in trades involving physical labor.

I bet if Yeshiva University or Touro set up a vocational school where one could learn Gemara and other Torah subjects in the morning, and train to become a plumber or an electrician in the afternoon, it would slowly begin to attract students in the Modern Orthodox community, who would welcome the opportunity to learn a trade under a Jewish flagship.

Or maybe some other entrepreneurs can set up a school like this.

As to whether one can support a family after learning one of these trades, I can attest to the fact that my non-Jewish plumber, gardener, auto mechanic, and electrician could almost certainly afford to pay Yeshiva tuition for their kids if they had to!  I am also certain that if there was a frum plumber in our community who was equally as competent as other non-frum plumbers, we would tend to gravitate towards using the frum plumber.

We take pride in those who toil over learning a page of Talmud, and devote themselves full time to Torah learning.  We smile when we learn about our friends’ children who have graduated with honors at the finest Ivy League schools.  We kvell when we hear about members of our community who make important contributions in medicine, law, business, and science.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could be equally proud of those who fulfill their ambitions and their desires by engaging in more physical trades.

I’m hoping that one day we will see more Modern Orthodox folks engaged in these vocations.

About the Author
Michael Feldstein, who lives in Stamford, CT, is the author of "Meet Me in the Middle," a collection of essays on contemporary Jewish life. His articles and letters have appeared in The Jewish Link, The Jewish Week, The Forward, and The Jewish Press. He can be reached at michaelgfeldstein@gmail.com
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