Friday, March 28, 2008

Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - Appeal, Meaning, & Relevance

(Illustration by Issachar Ber Ryback)

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 Yiddishkeit can't afford to get outdated; nobody wants to belong to the "flat earth" society.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.


At March 29, 2008 at 6:15:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I heard this just this past shabbos and thought it might be really good for one of those awesome short quote posts you post from sifrei Chassidus, and other sources eg HaGaon HaRav Rav Kook Z'TL most recently etc. I heard the following from a direct witness:

Someone once asked HaGaon HaRav Zelik Epstein Shlita in the 1970's how he can manage in America speaking almost only yiddish and not being able to speak English (he might speak it now, I don't know). Without batting an eyelid, Rav Zelik responded "its simple. In America, money talks."

This struck me as being an amazingly sharp answer and if one is misbonen into it he realises what a profound answer has just been stated.

I thought you might like to post it.

Gut voch

I also would like to end with something I really should have done much earlier and thank you for what is literally an awesome blog and has personally given me so much Torah, Chassidus, inspiration, history and divrei hisorerus and kedusha. May Hashem send you much bracha v'Hatzlacha in all speheres of your life and may you prosper in all that you turn your hand to.

Thank you so very much.

At March 29, 2008 at 7:33:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been the therapeutic director for a program for "at-risk" young men for the past three years, and I have to say that after all of that time, the actual catalyst for youth leaving yiddishkeit is not one item per se; it can only be determined on a case-by-case basis and is really a confluence of factors for each person.

The "frum world's rejection of modernity" theory is but one possible reason for youth drop outs. Frankly, there is much that exists within the modern world that must be rejected if one is to maintain one's own sanity, let alone kedushah and taharah. What differentiates our current age from those modernities past is the simple and immediate access to pure evil, e.g. the internet, which is so vast that there is no way to adequately protect young people from its seamiest side--because there is no way to anticipate the extent to what is out there in cyberspace. I can tell you horror stories of what has happened to people who clicked into the wrong place at too young an age to handle it.

But, leaving this one example aside, I think that the "at-risk" phenomenon is really the frum world's way of describing the type of dysfunction that exists everywhere: drug and alcohol addiction, promiscuity, school failures, criminality, violence, and the like. What causes these things is precisely what causes them in the general population, factors such as mental illness in the family, abuse, trauma, limited opportunity, dysfunctional family life (and mosdos-life), lack of support, role models failing to live up to their own standards, etc. "At-risk" is not synonymous with existential disillusionment or philosophical problems with religious dogma, such as was apparent throughout the 19th century. It is more the result of a sense of emptiness, lack of love, low self-esteem and like issues.

At March 29, 2008 at 9:24:00 PM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Thank you both for your insightful comments.

Ezriel: Could you please send me an e-mail? Thanks.

At March 30, 2008 at 5:30:00 AM EDT, Blogger Leora said...

I love the illustration you chose. I see an abba and a little boy focused on their own things and struggling to connect.

Nice post.


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