Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - Appeal, Meaning, & Relevance
Lately I've seen many articles and write-ups about "kids at risk;" gedolei Yisroel weigh in on the matter more and more, and it has been determined that this is the biggest crisis facing the Frum world today. Somehow, though, it seems to me that predominantly it is the symptoms that are being addressed rather than the underlying causes. Without a doubt, there are many reasons for the "kids at risk" phenomenon, but there are really three primary and irreducible needs that we need to focus on, but often don't. However, before I get to them, let's remember that history is cyclical and these times are hardly new; the Jewish people have been through ups-and-downs on many levels throughout the ages, and this crisis is a recurring one.
Appeal (what we call "chein"). Yiddishkeit needs to be appealing. When the chein, the appeal, of Judaism fades, so do its youth. This is obviously not shocking news, but whenever people's associations with religious Judaism have turned negative, away they go. We need to insure that the chein of Yiddishkeit is there – and this is not merely an external, material appeal, but an emotional and spiritual one, as well.
Meaning. Things like bagels and lox, fancy weddings, or cholent and kugel isn't going to do it. If we cannot make Yiddishkeit meaningful and compelling, there is little reason for the next generation to stay on board. If all Yiddishkeit is perceived to be is a list of "do's-and-don'ts," or traditions and rituals without any real substance or compelling reasons to follow them, why would the next generation buy into it? Religious education needs to speak to the individual deeply and address the real issues that humanity struggles with; it needs to address the big questions. Unfortunately, these things are supposed to be "a given" – but we live in an age, and not for the first time, where "givens" aren't good enough. Sadly, our Yeshivos and religious institutions seriously overlook this need in the curricula of Jewish education. (Some might say that they actually lack curricula!) Why this is the case is a long and frustrating discussion, but it badly need to change (and I think it is changing…slowly).
Relevance. Yiddishkeit can't afford to get outdated; nobody wants to belong to the "flat earth" society. In Chareidishe circles it feels holy to hold up the banner of "TRADITION" and battle the forces of modernism – we may feel like we're modern-day Chashmonaim or Perushim – but this is not done carefully and intelligently, it cannot succeed. Yiddishkeit cannot remain relevant if we are busy living in the past and denying current realities. As Reb Aharon of Belz told the Satmar Rov: "I don't believe in fighting yesterday's battles." Modernism cannot be denied. Even those who claim to be protecting Yiddishkeit from alien forces have to agree that many elements of modernism are currently embraced (how many of us that dress in the finest eighteenth century garb of fur shtreimelach and silk caftans still ride in horse drawn carriages?) -- our ideological battles must be chosen carefully. Fighting losing battles and holding the line in defense of ideas that don't sound convincing is a risky business, and our younger generations may not feel obligated to keep marching in tow.
Of course, big problems don't have simple solutions. Moreover, every generation has its struggles granted from on High, and even the best efforts will have a percentage of failure – it's that "free will" thing – in defiance of even the best conditions. But if we focus on these three points above, we will provide our future generations with the best opportunity to succeed. Secular America in the sixties famously exploded when the nation's youth were frustrated and disillusioned; we need to insure that our Jewish communities don't experience a similar phenomenon. The key, it seems to me, is that if our generation – the parents – can fulfill the above three needs, we will reduce the "at risk" children to a very small number.
I am confident that there are many figures in the contemporary Jewish world that "get it." Rabbi Yakov Horowitz of Project YES, for example, continuously writes and speaks about the real issues; so I do believe that "help is on the way." As always, the solutions come from the problems themselves, and out of the crisis will sprout improvements and new visions that will serve our future generations. I only hope that it all happens sooner rather than later.