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When Did Orthodoxy Become Big Enough?

In the most recent issue of Jewish Action, writers addressed orthodoxy’s demographic growth, yet lowering retention rates and lower rates of Jews from other denominations joining orthodoxy. The writers share thought-provoking ideas on why this is happening and how to prevent this exodus from worsening. Sadly, my personal experience leads me to believe that the reason for this exodus is simple: it is because we want it to happen.

Let me explain. 

Rarely if ever in my life, have I begged for something. Yet I and anyone familiar with the High school or Yeshiva and seminary acceptance process knows that is where parents, educators, rabbis, and worse yet, innocent children, find themselves helplessly humiliated and denigrated. The reality of exclusion from schools despite meeting standards is true from the most modern orthodox institutions to the most Hassidic of yeshivot. It is not a glitch in the system; it is its current design. 

I remember once getting on the phone with an out-of-town Rosh Kollel, who is infamous for taking revenge against community members by making sure their daughters do not get into high schools of their choice. I called him on behalf of one of those girls locked out of the Bais Yaakov she wanted to go to. She was in 8th grade at the time, sincere and devoted to her Judaism, something true to this day, years later. I begged him to undo his ban. My cries fell on deaf ears. I can just imagine how that would affect me had it been my child, or if I would have been the child or the child’s sibling. The cruelty, the indifference, and the arbitrary discrimination of it all were a denigration nobody deserved. And such a social and spiritual hunger games environment, unquestionably, there are many people happy to see fewer children competing with their own for the same spots. When exclusion is the name of the game, growth, and expansion can only go so far.

I remember another time I spoke to a Modern Orthodox high school principal with a heart of gold, one of the kindest people I met. I asked him about the application of the student to his school. He said the student was great, but it wasn’t as simple as I thought. Why? The student’s mom showed up to the open house with no hair covering. Knowing of many great Lithuanian Torah scholars whose mothers did not cover their hair, I asked him if that would be a reason for the student not being accepted. He said: “I personally don’t think so, but parents of other applicants have complained about it.” 

I don’t blame those parents. In the current environment where everyone is vying for the same limited number of communal spots and achievement is valued based on exclusion, they are just playing the game better than others. Such a community cannot attract others into its fold. 

And then there was the time I really begged. Never in my life have I begged like this. There was a student who, due to very particular circumstances, was only able to attend one high school. It was either that high school or a non-Jewish school. I called the principal, described the situation, and asked him to give it special consideration. He told me they have many applicants and could not accept just anyone applying. I explained again, begged with tears, and asked him to make an exception. He listened, heard me all out, and understood. Somehow a few weeks later, the student was told they were rejected. Why? Because once again, once the exclusion is the name of the game, no one wants to lose. 

Sadly, this kind of rejectionism is something that unites orthodoxy across every social, political, religious, and geographic span. To varying degrees, from girls in Lakewood finding themselves with no schools to the many young boys rejected from religious Zionist Yeshivas in Israel, rejection has become the name of the game.

Let’s think about that for a moment; from the day an Orthodox child starts thinking about their path in life in 6th and 7th grade, all they see is abundant rejection. They will have to fight in the spiritual hunger games for high school, post-high school, and, the more traditional they are, in the world of dating as well. The miraculous story of Orthodoxy’s post-Holocaust resurrection has turned itself into a story of an abundance of options, yet with even more competition and rejection. 

I think of my great grandparents who fled Shanghai in 1950 to Vancouver, Canada, without taking much with them, sending their two children off with the local Orthodox rabbi who drove them to New York, dropping off their son in Yeshiva Torah V’Daas and their daughter in Stern College. I don’t even know if they paid any tuition. They were dropped off at the schools that were thrilled to have young people who would get a Jewish education. How much have we sunk since then? How many greater Torah scholars do our Yeshivot produce today now that we have made a very long list of whom to exclude? Not many!

This sad situation is one that I see and hear about in the Chassidish communities. The pain of rejection and exclusion linger. They are not limited to the child being subjected to this humiliation. That rejected child may choose to fight to stay within the fold. Their siblings, friends, or community might look at it differently. They will rightfully ask themselves why they would want to put themselves through that painful process. Children who have been through it might not wish such an ordeal upon their own children, and those who have successfully crossed through this pain might find themselves in their late 20s and 30s asking themselves what that was all for. 

Nowhere is the process of rejection for the sake of rejection more blatantly purposeless than the process of the post-high school Israel seminaries. The extraordinary disconnect between the price parents pay and the added value their children get, the lack of any significant long-term differential between the various educational institutions all leave you wondering why there is such pressure to get into one place over the other.   

I once met a highly respected American Haredi Rosh Yeshiva, who said about the seminary his daughter attended that “the place should be bombed.” Why? Because while he dedicated his life to the study of Torah, often with scarce resources, his daughter’s seminary insisted on charging him $22,000(!) for his daughter to go to Israel for ten months. No discounts or accommodations. He would be paying that money to have his daughter hear from inspirational speakers the importance of building a Torah home. While he was speaking out of his pain and anguish, the irony is not that they demanded that price from someone who lived the exact life they were teaching to aspire to; the irony was that he paid it. Why would he and so many others agree to such extortion, which brought his daughter zero personal added value? Because in the spiritual hunger games where exclusion is the currency, he could not afford to have his daughter lose. He would never want for his daughter to find herself on the “outs” of a system in which being “in” is what it is all about. If this is true for the daughter of someone with the social status of a respected Rosh Yeshiva, imagine what it is like for the daughter of a single mom, someone with a learning disability, or a family that is different in any kind of way.  

A father whose daughter didn’t get into any seminary in Israel wrote in pain:

“What have we come to that a good girl, who for all her years in school has never missed a homework assignment, never had an unexcused absence, never had a discipline problem, has taken school seriously, no cell phone, no internet, nothing; she has followed all the rules to perfection. Now she stands with a half year left to high school knowing she just doesn’t cut it.” The pain, the waiting, and the designed uncertainty leave all too many looking for the exits.

While this is far truer for Yeshivish orthodoxy than it is for Modern Orthodoxy, concerns over who will – and will not – marry you is a simple and existential threat. Saying something is “bad for shidduchim” is not like telling a child they will be in time out; it is an existential threat. Simply put, there is a window of about four years during which more than 90% of your eligible cohort will get married; if no one marries you in that time, you might very much be on your own and childless for the rest of your life. A true horror that has somehow not been solved.

This threat affects young women in a highly disproportionate way. In the recent Agudah convention, it was estimated that about 25% of girls over the age of 24 remain unmarried. The number of still single men that will date them is lower than 5%. Since singles are expected to not date outside the fold of the community, remaining on the outs of this cruel game of musical chairs is not something anyone would want to risk. How does a community that bans fertility treatments for unmarried women “lest they not want to get married” accept that so many of their daughters will never get married? That is the sad reality when exclusion is the highest currency, and everyone thinks they will end up being on the winning side of the game.

Once again, artificial and meaningless exclusion parameters are defined, some win, and some lose. Despite the various communal solutions suggested, such as the NASI program or others, no solution has been successfully implemented. Why? Because usually, those at the top of the system do not think their daughters will be among the unlucky 25%, and the fact that they will rise at the price of others getting out of the game is no reason to change the system.

True to a lesser degree is the situation with the American Yeshiva system. I have personally met students in Lakewood’s prestigious Beth Medrash Govoha who struggled with the same reading fluency problems I might see in a 6th grader. How did they get all the way to the prestigious Lakewood’s post-high-school-post-Israel Yeshiva when being on that level? Because they went to the right places. It is for the same reason so many members of the American Yeshivish community trip over themselves to get into the “right” Brisk Yeshiva despite there now being decades of no evidence whatsoever of its ability to achieve superior Talmudic, scholarly, character, or leadership outcomes. It is about being in the “right” places with the “right” people.

And so to the various orthodox think tanks and philanthropists, I say: no amount of money diverted towards our system will change the dynamics of competitive exclusion. So long as our community is no longer dedicated to virtue, measurable by less exclusion, we will keep bleeding out the most precious treasure in the world –our children, our people.

There is another aspect of those leaving our community we can no longer ignore. A bird will not leave its nest unless it is broken. Too many – and even one is too many – leave the nest because the nest is very broken. Too many victims of abuse are forced to leave their homes and communities because of what they have been through, rather than the abuser being the one to be expelled from the community. While the recent way in which orthodoxy has dealt with the Chaim Walder saga is encouraging, we must do much more to support victims of abuse and uproot abusers from our midst. 

It is easy to discuss retention and drop out from Haredi or Hassidic Judaism due to the insularity of those communities, yet drop out from modern orthodoxy is under-discussed despite its far greater prevalence. This silence is symptomatic of the problem at hand.  

A rabbi in an American modern-orthodox gap year program in Israel shared that he once stood in front of a room full of his students and asked: “if you gave your parents a choice between you remaining in Israel leading a Haredi lifestyle, or you coming back to America, going to an Ivy League school and abandoning all orthodox practice, what would your parents choose?” The room erupted with laughter. The answer was obvious to everyone. These young adults knew their parents would far prefer that they go to an Ivy League school rather than lead an ultra-orthodox lifestyle. We cannot ask children to make the sacrifices it takes to lead an orthodox lifestyle while we let them know it is our second, third, or fourth priority. 

Where does solving this problem begin? 

It begins with schools and rabbis. If schools and rabbis are unwilling to openly set expectations and discuss our values– stating clearly that our highest priority is for students to grow up to carry the Judaism we teach them as our highest priority, we are doomed to fail. This is not done as often as it should because of communal expectations of Keeping up with the Joneses. The exclusivity and high socioeconomic status modern orthodoxy has achieved leaves too many vying for the Ivy Leagues and everything that comes with the 1% lifestyle. If we can no longer tell our children that our number one priority for them is to embody the values of Judaism, Shabbat, and tradition we are trying to teach them, they will pick that up and follow our expectations. 

What the Hassidic, Yeshivish, and modern orthodox communities all have in common is that they have become large enough to feel like they can “afford” losing some. In some cases, some may silently be satisfied with those who leave. After all, the fewer competitors in the game of musical chairs, the better off those who remain might be. 

I look back at what my grandfather Rabbi Baruch Poupko–a builder of American Jewry– did as a rabbi in Pittsburgh in the 1940s-1970s and ask myself at what point did orthodoxy become big enough to lose our children, brothers and sisters. My grandfather spent his time asking physicians in Pittsburgh to refer Jewish families to a Mohel because there were not enough Jews who wanted a mohel for their son; he helped build Hillel Day School and get Heintz to become Kosher. 

I compare that with what today’s rabbis are doing for orthodoxy. We are begging schools to take in children from a bit of a different background. If there is a family that is a bit out of the fold who needs a Mohel, we scramble to find a Mohel that can clear his schedule to leave Passaic, Lakewood, or Brookly’s busy communities. We beg overbooked summer camp to take in a Jewish child who didn’t meet their high bar of acceptance. We are trying to help find a Shidduch for the many brilliant and committed young women who are treated by our establishment like a statistical disturbance because there are not enough men for them to marry. We are spending so much more time asking our own institutions–which we helped build and maintain–to kindly hold our own children. That is a moral crisis, not a logistical one. 

 

Orthodoxy does not have a retention or outreach problem; orthodoxy has an exclusivity problem. This exclusivity problem manifests in different segments of orthodoxy in different ways, but that is the problem. The high cost of leading an orthodox life, the crisis of those who leave the fold, and the collective unwillingness to tackle these problems all come from the same place–we have become an exclusive club. We do not have less successful Kiruv programs and professionals than in the past. The problem is in that outreach asking others to join orthodoxy has become like a GoFundMe for an exclusive gulf club in Westchester. Who would want to give to a club that would never take them in?!

 To rebuild a diminished orthodoxy, rabbis, lay leaders, and institutions need to work towards a less exclusive and more communal approach. Whether it is with combating the cost of being orthodox, making sure schools, summer camps, gap year programs, and Jewish life are more inclusive and less about keeping others out, we need to fight for an orthodoxy that celebrates each and every one of its members and children. No one should be satisfied with what we have, and no one should have anyone they feel they have the right to spare or let go of.  

I shudder as I remember the age of the Kantonists, an age in which elites of the Jewish community, albeit under crushing circumstances, chose to sell out more than 50,000 Jewish children to the Czar’s Russian army rather than stand and fight for every Jewish child. If we think there are those we can spare, we will pay a heavy price because those whom we passed on will not disappear. When the Soviet revolution took place, and Jewish communities in Russia were being ravaged, the great Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the Chafetz Chaim, told those around him with pain: “who knows if this is not the blood of the Kantonists being avenged.” While this has unquestionably a spiritual component to it, it also has a historical one. Communities that became elitists at the cost of throwing others to the wolves will find themselves sooner or later facing either those whom they sought to cast out or others who experienced the intolerable pain of witnessing that casting out.  

I am deeply thankful for all those studying and thinking about the present and future of orthodoxy. We must do our best to make sure the intoxication that comes with high demand for our institutions does not lead to their destruction. We must all fight to make sure we rise by rewarding talent and merit, not by excluding our most vulnerable. If we do not change course, we are asking members of our community to leave. If the system is designed to fail some if institutions can only absorb some, marriage works only for some; if financially you can only be part of the community as a one-percenter, history will not forgive us. We will not be forgiven for taking the blood, sweat, and tears of the post-Holocaust generation put into building a thriving community and turning it into our private country club. We must fight this fight to do better. 

“…Concerning the shepherds of Israel;…The frail you did not strengthen, the sick you did not heal, the broken you did not bind, those astray you did not bring back, and the lost you did not seek, but with strength and with rigor you chastised them…. I shall demand My flocks from their hands, and I shall banish them from shepherding the flocks. The shepherds will no longer shepherd themselves, and I shall rescue My flocks from their mouth, and they will not be to them for food.” (Yechezkel 34) 

We are all shepherds in some way; may we be blessed to execute that responsibility faithfully. 

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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