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The Modern Orthodox Conundrum: Part II Why?

Part Two: Why is this Happening?

Last week, we discussed that a problem actually exists within the Modern Orthodox community. Recent pew polls suggest that one in three Modern Orthodox children are no longer fully shomer shabbos nor do they affiliate with Modern Orthodox Judaism, beyond social realms. And while there are certainly defectors within the black hat community, the numbers are drastically less as compared to your average Modern Orthodox teenager. Why is this so? After all, one might rightfully conclude that since the black hat yeshivish world is more stringent and uncompromising, more of them would be leaving, but that is not the case. Why?

In a word? Priorities. As someone once put it, the yeshivish world tries to fit their lives around Torah and mitzvot whereas the modern world tries to fit the Torah and mitzvot around their lives. People want a real Torah Jewish experience filled with inspiring shiurim, singing, fun-filled Shabassim and Yomim Tovim. They want simcha partying, a religious experience filled with excitement and ruchnius, with cool rabbeim. This explains the hard pull to the right. Davening isn’t a boring chore done by rote and without feeling, but rather, a passionate, intense opportunity to connect with Hashem. And while it’s true that some right wing yeshivot are not immune to problems, their level of observance is generally stronger because they take it more seriously. And they believe in the mesorah and halacha they are teaching. In parts of the Modern Orthodox community, many important halachos such as Tzitzit,  davening mincha and maariv, and strict kashrus are sometimes ignored (exceptions noted). So where did we go wrong?

Many Modern Orthodox Jews were subject to a  boring, heartless watered-down version of Judaism that lacked any true heart. Many were forced to observe mitzvot without a clear understanding of what they were doing. And unlike our parents who did “whatever our parents told us to do,” kids today are built differently. Even societal norms of sexuality were far more in check back in the day, yet now, the internet is a cesspool of whatever garbage one is looking for.  Social media has removed the barriers of propriety, giving people easy access to all things impure. That, along with much higher promiscuity levels in general, only contributes to society’s degradation. Add to that an entertainment industry lacking any moral standards, it’s hard to expect most teenagers to be any different than they are. In fact, the level of promiscuity and Shabbos desecration has never been higher within Modern Orthodox homes, as the lines between right and wrong are blurred. I see it with my own friends, and I see it with the hundreds of students I’ve taught. Today, a very high percentage of children – not yeshivish – who attend secular colleges do not keep Shabbos properly, or put on Tefillin regularly. Interestingly, I have asked hundreds of college students who grew up Modern Orthodox if they or their friends kept Shabbos in a secular college. Most admit they did not fully keep it, except when in front of their parents, so as not to upset them.

But what’s wrong with getting an education in a secular college? Nothing at all, provided the child is raised frum, insulated, strictly God fearing and very disciplined. And while that could technically exist, most of our children will undoubtedly succumb to the allure that is college life. And why wouldn’t they? There’s a reason Rav Avigdor Miller and Rabbi Meir Kahane, amongst a score of other well-respected rebbeim repeatedly warned of the serious dangers of attending a secular college. In short, it’s just too hard to withstand the temptations.

Rav Soloveitchik’s z”l, vision of synthesizing the modern and Torah worlds was brilliant and admirable, and he held Halacha to the highest standards. And it does work, provided we play by the rules. But once we decide to pick and choose what is permissible, the problems begin. Life without structure and clear guidelines set in place is a disaster waiting to happen. As much as we’d like, we can’t blame the schools when a lot of it falls on the parents who’d rather sit in a kiddush club, than have a meaningful davening. When parents bother their children to daven in shul, while they themselves are schmoozing away, their kids pick up on that. When we are inconsistent in our observances and practices, our children see it. (By the way, so does Hashem.) Many teenagers admit that they don’t truly believe that God sees what they do, or truly hears their prayers. Have we raised our children in a home where we speak of God as a real presence in the world? That He sees all and knows all – and is right here amongst us, albeit hidden.

When we don’t truly believe that God sees our actions, anything goes. When we bend, or chas v’shalom reinterpret Halacha for our own ulterior motives, we cannot possibly imagine the damage we are doing. Modern Orthodox can only work when there is a strict adherence to Torah law. Once you bend the rules and look for loopholes and justify eating  dairy out in a traif restaurant (“It’s just a salad and fish”), there’s no telling how far it can go. For you,  it’s a tuna fish sandwich. For him, it’s turning on a light on Shabbos. All of the excuses and justifications point in the same direction: a selfish decision that causes a direct violation of the law. And once we start with that nonsense, there’s no telling where it ends. I remember someone who grew up in a religious home except on the rare occasion that his mom needed a light off on Friday night. Sadly, to her it was just the flick of a switch but to him it wreaked hypocrisy, sending him (and his children) in the wrong direction. All because of a thoughtless – yet damaging – flick of a switch.

Even more frustrating are the parents and children I speak to who either deny it, downplay it, or get defensive and point out the exceptions, rather than the rule. Those who have moved to the right, have done so because they simply see the writing on the wall. They see Modern Orthodox splintering into pieces in a large fragment of our communities. Some point out the few kids who remained frum throughout college which represents the exception, yet ignore the other 80% that did not. Some happily point out that “ganav black hatter who has no scruples”  and while it’s easy to denigrate the few naughty hypocrite “frummies” they know about, it’s usually more about rationalizing their own errant behavior. I know a Modern Orthodox lady who prides herself on denigrating rabbinic Judaism whenever she has the chance, and although she is somewhat observant, her kids got the message loud and clear as none of her children (or grandchildren for that matter) are shomer Shabbos.

To make matters worse, a new dangerous form of Modern Orthodox Judaism – Open Orthodoxy (AKA Liberal Orthodoxy) – has come to the forefront. In an attempt to make Judaism more inclusive and palatable, many laws are now straddling the fence, threatening proper Torah adherence. Just recently, nine Open Orthodox rabbis agreed to officiate same sex weddings, invoking the name of God. David Rosenthal, in his book Why Open Orthodoxy is not Orthodox details the origins and agendas behind these movements. Rav Aharon Feldman, The Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel explains that, “…Open Orthodoxy is a movement which poses as Orthodoxy, with teachers who pose as halachic authorities and students who pose as Orthodox Rabbis.” The danger of this is that it pollutes and perverts true Torah values.

I recently  interviewed a frum Chicago married father of four who, like me, attended Hebrew Academy, a year abroad in yeshiva in Israel, and finally Yeshiva University. He teaches a Torah class, so imagine my surprise when asked about the Toavah against homosexuality, he explained that “The Bible wasn’t actually referring to two men together, but rather, bi-sexuality.” Last week, I met a young Harvard college graduate with a kippah and Tzitzit out, who also mentioned that he prays at an egalitarian minyan, and is a proponent of same-sex marriages. While no one should ever be disrespectful to anyone regardless of their sexual orientation, the Torah’s position against it is abundantly clear and to be “pro” a forbidden act is – in and of itself – shameful.

What is going on here? Why are our children throwing away the single greatest privilege and honor bestowed upon man? Did they forget that it is a z’chus to be part of this holy, beautiful nation? The prophet Isaiah referred to Klal Yisroel “as a light unto the nations”, Twain coined us “the emblem of eternity,” and our second President John Adams said that the Jews have “done more to civilize man than any other nation.” Every Pesach, we read about how Hashem freed us from bondage, destroying every nation that got in our way, so long as we kept God’s laws. We truly are the most amazing nation in the world, able to withstand all of the world’s trials and tribulations because we believe in Hashem and his Torah. The true, God-fearing, faithful Torah observant Jew believes this in all of his being. He knows that Hashem gave us a Torah with 613 opportunities to become closer to God. We believe that He sees us and knows our thoughts and our deeds, and that He cares about each and every one of us in complete detail, as a mother cares for her children. My father, who is not a rabbi and did not have the ability to learn in a yeshiva, instilled the single greatest gift to me. He taught me that God created the world and gave us a blueprint on how to live our lives called the Torah. He taught me to say the Shema at night and speak to God about anything I want. How many of us do this with our children? How many of us take a walk and discuss why we were created with our families, or the importance of keeping the mitzvot? How many parents would rather sit in a kiddush club, or not even go to shul because they feel nothing? Do you think your kids don’t pick up on this?

Of late, more and more people and articles are discussing this painful trend. Avraham Shusteris’ recent article in the Israel National News, The America Yeshiva Day School fraud,  mentioned that from his graduating class of 2003, most of his classmates are no longer shomer shabbos, and the ones who have remained so have actually become Open Orthodox…(Let’s pray the majority of their grandchildren will not be mechalel shabbos.

Dr. Aharon Wexler wrote in a Jerusalem Post article that he “has found that students are confused about Modern Orthodoxy and perceive it as some sort of ‘Diet Orthodoxy.’ A 2011 population study of Jews in the New York City area estimated the number of haredi children at 166,000, roughly four times the number of Modern Orthodox children. “Another worrying sign is the large rate of defection to more liberal movements. Thus, among those between the ages of 30-49 who were raised Modern Orthodox, 44 percent have moved religiously leftward; among those between 18-29, roughly 30 percent no longer identify as Orthodox.” That means in an average Modern Orthodox family with three children, approximately one 1 in 3 of those children will more than likely not keep shabbos. This number dwarfs the number of defections within the more religious charedi community.

In his Haggada, Rabbi Dr. Lord Jonathan Sacks mentions that “Many Modern Orthodox children are crying out, ‘You sent me mixed messages. When I neglected my secular education, you were angry, but when I missed Hebrew lessons, you never seemed to mind. I learned about the laws of Jewish life, but we didn’t actually observe them. You said Judaism mattered, but what you did seemed to show that it did not matter that much. At my Bar mitzvah, you were more concerned about the catering than about how much I understood of the words I just read in the synagogue.”

Many Modern Orthodox children feel a spiritual disconnect with Judaism, viewing it as a series of antiquated, boring rituals. I have to admit that I too was guilty of this type of thinking until I got older and decided to dig a little bit and see things as they truly are. And so the shift  for many of those leaving Modern Orthodoxy is not necessarily based on anger, but rather a general disconnect.

How many kippah wearing Jews don’t truly believe that God sees, knows and controls everything? I’ve polled hundreds of Modern Orthodox teenagers who aren’t even sold on the fact that God wrote the Torah! How could this possibly be? Why weren’t they taught something so basic? Perhaps their parents don’t believe it either. Either way, the numbers are staring us right in the face. In many Modern Orthodox homes, especially in those who attend a secular college, 1 in 3 children are not shomer shabbos.

Next week, we conclude with an actual solution.

About the Author
Avi has published over 200 articles for the Jewish Press, as well as The Jewish LINK, and more, and just completed his second book, Real Questions, Real Answers.
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