Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Is Yeshiva Education Failing - from the pages of Lookjed

The other day, the Lookjed (Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora) educators list had the following anonymous post:

I went to a class reunion a few years ago. My 8th grade class reunion. Of the 30 or so in the grade from my Orthodox day school, about 20 showed up. I was one of 2 males wearing a kippahOne of 3 who had any concern over kashrus at the event.Some, it seemed, were sending their kids to some flavor of day school. A bunch weren't. We had graduated 25 years earlier supposedly as full-fledged and committed members of klal yisroel and I felt out of place saying that I was still actively involved in the Orthodox Jewish community.

I also am friends with a number of friends (elementary and yeshiva high school) via facebook. To complain about posts onshabbos, posts about treif restaurants they go to or about their travel to exotic (and decidedly lacking in Judaism) places for work or play would only scratch the surface. What I have surmised (based on the number of intermarriages and lack of any affiliation with Judaism) is that of the 30 or so from 8th grade and the 100 or so from yeshiva HS, I am in the minority. Yes, some have maintained and strengthened their connection to their religion, but a huge number have moved away. Some went to Israel for a year to various programs, some didn't. Even some who live there now do so on secular terms.

I go into school every day and daven with a large number of yeshiva high school students. I can already see a lack of affiliation. They simply don't care. Davening is an inconvenience, tefillin are optional, tzniyut rules are ignored, learning is devalued. This is all despite incredible faculty, a clear mission and a variety of attempts to help students explore their bond with their religion. I look around in the school minyan and see barely a minyan of students davening. I can see that so many of these ostensibly Orthodox Jewish High School students will take the kippah off when the bell rings (both literally at the end of the day, and metaphorically, upon graduation). At their 5, 10 and 25 year reunions I predict that most, if they show up, will be leading wonderfully productive lives with little or no connection to Judaism unless they find it later in life on their own.

But every time I think about how much we are failing our students, how many we are losing, I stop and think about my own graduating classes. Maybe yeshiva education has been failing for 25 years. Maybe it can't succeed. Is it possible that we are fighting a losing fight just to reach the 10% of students who have any interest in being reached and the 5% who can be brought in to the fold against their will? Are there any long term and consistently updated studies on religiosity and yeshiva education which can reassure me that our failure today isn't unique nor does it spell the demise of Orthodoxy any more than a similar failure did 25 years ago. Are there studies that show that we are doing a worse job than in years past?

Optimist that I am about Jewish education, despite all of the challenges that we face on a daily basis, I felt that a response was needed, on two levels.  First, this post is purely anecdotal and such "evidence", while a nice way to start a discussion, is no way to make policy or decisions.  Second, I felt that the author was drawing one set of conclusions when there were others to be drawn.  Hence, my response:

I am not sure what type of feathers "Throw Away" was hoping to ruffle with his post, but mine have been ruffled insofar as I see the post as the typical anecdotal and emotional lament that usually leads into the "Yeshiva Day School education is broken" trope, which often moves into the call for some sort of nebulous radical reform of the schools.

Leaving aside the anecdotal and emotional nature of the post, by remaining anonymous and, more importantly, by not naming the school, the writer makes it impossible to know the nature and makeup of his class.  Twenty five years ago, many Modern Orthodox schools had several if not many students who came from nonreligious homes, who continued on to public high schools, and probably on to lives where religion played a minor role, if that much.  Why the parents of such students chose an Orthodox school for ten years is difficult to say, but I suppose that that choice certainly increased the chances that their child would have some Jewish connection in life.  Sometimes that worked, and I suppose sometimes it did not.  Is it fair or logical to condemn a school because it failed to make a nonreligious student religious despite his or her growing up in a nonreligious home?  Hardly.

The anonymous writer also laments that he sees the beginnings of lack of religion among his high school students.  Of course, the problems of lack of religious inspiration, failure to observe standards of tzniut, and other such challenges are present in probably all Modern Orthodox Middle and High Schools, and have been for years.  Are they warning signs of abandoning religion?  In some cases, perhaps, but in many other cases they are symptomatic of students who are struggling to find their place as Modern Orthodox Jews in a secular and confusing world, not to mention a little bit of teenage rebellion.  I also have many students who present these challenges - and most that I know of go on to remain Orthodox Jews.  The fact that they forget to put their kippa back on after walking ten feet after going on a roller coaster is disturbing to me, and I am not thrilled about physical contact between the sexes, and I wish that they cared more about davening.  However, our job as educators is to understand each student and see what are red flags and what are genuine struggles and to address each student appropriately.

Furthermore, I fail to see how one can conclude that Jewish Day Schools have been reaching only a small percent of their constituencies.  How then do we explain the growth of Modern Orthodox communities over the past 20 years?  I have lived most of my life in Teaneck, NJ and have watched it double and then double again in that time, and surrounding communities and communities around the country have grown as well.  Where are all of those people coming from if not from Jewish Day Schools?  Yes, some of the people are ba'alei teshuva, but solid majorities have come up "through the system".  While I agree that we have lost people and continue to do so, I would question whether the losses are as dramatic as Anonymous would imply or if those losses can be laid entirely or even primarily at the feet of the schools and the educators who toil in them.

Being an educator is a tricky business.  What inspires one student can turn off another student, or perhaps can turn off the same student on a different day.  We are called upon to constantly be sensitive to the characters and needs of our students and to do all that we can to ensure that they both learn something concrete and have positive Jewish experiences along the way.  To my mind, one of the most positive changes in the field in the past few decades has been the push the professionalize it.  More teachers in more schools are more connected with the world of general education and with their colleagues in other schools than ever before.  That has led to a growing culture of sharing, trying new ideas and approaches, and learning from experts about how complex our students are.  We may never succeed in reaching every child, but I am optimistic that we are taking steps in the right direction.

What do you think?  Are we failing?  Are we succeeding?  How would we measure one or the other?


Anonymous said...

Interestingly, the anecdotes cited don't really speak to whether day school education IS failing, they speak to whether it HAS failed. Aaron, when you and I were in high school, what were your thoughts on the topic? I remember very clearly talking then about how it was a failed system of babysitting--effectively marking time and warehousing the kids until they would be sent to Israel and reformed. And if you look at it honestly--perhaps not looking to the best and the brightest, but looking to the majority of those in the class . . . is that not what happened?

However, I believe strongly that many things have changed for the better since then. Quite frankly, I believe that you and your cohort are doing everything you can not to repeat the failures of the last generation's teachers, and to give a far better, more engaging, more exciting, and longer lasting education. Just because it failed for the writer, and for you, and for me . . . doesn't mean it continues to do so.

However, to address one of your points . . . I don't think the rate of attrition in our generation is that much due to the presence of those from non-frum homes. Fact is, I ran across an article last week describing an exquisitely treif experience by two self-described lifelong friends and former frum Jews. Having known these two through 18 years of yeshiva education, I can assure you . . . Their FFB credentials were unassailable. The presence of "OTD" kids in our generation involved all shapes and backgrounds.

Truth is . . . I maintain now (as I did back then), the major contributor to kids leaving frumkeit is the parents/home environment. I wonder how many of the uninspired kids seen in today's schools are simply the children of parents who were equally uninspired back in the day--yet for whatever combination of inertia and peer pressure remained nominally in the fold while remaining uninspired and disengaged? When the home influence is completely lethargic towards learning and meaningful observance,few educators are inspiring enough to make a huge difference.

FWIW, it's not always easy to predice, based on observing negative behavior in a school setting, whether a kid is truly disaffected. I have first-hand knowledge of my own Rebbeim who stated that I'd throw away my kippah the second I graduated . . .

Reuven (you know which one :) )

Tikvah Wiener said...

I agree with you, Rabbi Ross, that we have to take into account that adolescents are experimenting with identity in high school, and so we cannot make snap judgments about who they'll become once they've matured. In fact, aren't we all in the process of becoming our whole lives, and if we're not, then there's a problem!

As a whole, yeshivas are much more professional, exciting places to be than they were 30 years ago, though I passionately loved my high school experience at YULA and so cannot complain about my own yeshiva experience. I felt accepted and nourished there, as I think we try to make our kids feel now.

That said, we should always be looking to improve ourselves. I see too many kids who are bored in their classes, who are not excited about learning. I think there are many ways we could be engaging our kids more, though, as you know, I'm a big fan of yours, so present company excluded. In fact, I'd say if you could only replicate what you do for all yeshivot, we'd be in a much better place.

Tikvah Wiener