Sunday, November 19, 2006

Modern Orthodox Yeshivot - Outreach or Excellence

One of the major problems that confront the classic Modern Orthodox institution in America is the make-up of the student body.
There are some Yeshiva University ordained B'nei Torah who prefer sending their children to the place where the likelihood of their children attending their alma mater is greatest. These children are Shomer Shabbos and Kashrus to the fullest extent, and want to know and do more. There are other families, as well, who raise their children with a strong sense of appreciation for Yiddishkeit.
Together with these students, are elements of the Jewish scene whose affiliation to a lifestyle guided strictly by Halachah ranges from limited, to virtually non-existent. They come from homes where lights may get turned on on Shabbos, Hechsherim not so meticulously checked, and other lifestyle issues which leave much to be desired in areas of Tznius. They openly do not wear Tzitzis to school, and their relationship to Tefilla ranges from boredom to hostility.
The mix is, more often than not, not beneficial to either side. The entire student body is invited to Regional Shabbatonim, and the segment of the populace still in need of significant progress is quite open in their violation of basic Halachic standards. On school outings, some of these students may sneak a visit to the treife eatery nearby.
The parents basically send their children to the Yeshiva in the hope that their children will marry in the faith, even having attended a prestigious undergrad program, with all the pitfalls that entails in this regard.
Many of the students will go to watch an R-rated movie, with or without parental consent, and there is peer pressure, in many instances, to tag along. Not to mention Saturday night bashes at students' homes. If one of the Talmidim from the 'stronger' group will actively protest, he will get shunned, perhaps even ridiculed, by those who are not, as yet, buying into the program.
The more frum fellows look askance at their peers who are not participating members of the Orthodox Jewish persuasion, and all the attendant feelings of superiority, engendering guilt, hostility, and cliqueishness, seethe just beneath the surface, ready to explode at any time. Those who crave acceptance will compromise on the standards they might optimally want for themselves in order to ingratiate themselves to their friends, and those who don't have this same craving may suffer because of it.
When there is a severe breach in prax-standards, the tension between the good of the individual Talmid, who, if ejected, will almost certainly go to a public school, versus the good of the other Talmidim, who are hurt by an atmosphere of lax standards and inconsistent enforcement of school religious policies, becomes a major headache.
If the son of the YU Musmach (just as a paradigm) would like a meaningful davening environment, or to be among like-minded growth-oriented individuals, he is denied the opportunity until his year (or more) in Israel where he can attend a Yeshiva composed of students of a similar stripe.
Occasionally, there will be the exceptional student who is clearly very sincerely committed to his Yiddishkeit, and simultaneously able to have a positive effect on his less religious peers. In the considerable time that I've observed this scene, I have seen this in, at most, two outstanding individuals. This is, in my opinion, not something for a school to be banking on in the formation of the student body. In Al HaNissim on Chanukah, we mention the miracles of Hashem delivering the mighty in the hand of the weak and many in the hand of the few. Truly miraculous. But, equally so, apparently, is the handing over of the defiled into the hand of the pure. By natural occurence, the impure is a more powerful force. If something Tamei comes into contact with something Tahor, the pure becomes defiled, not the other way around.
It would seem that the only viable option is to have an overwhelming majority of kids who are well-grounded in their Yiddishkeit, along with a small group of students who must conform to the standards that their peers are able to live up to. Otherwise, the better students will, almost inevitably, get dragged down. If this smacks of exclusivity, it's because it is, to an extent, meant to be. There is no substitute for exclusivity in the quest of achieving excellence, for it is undeniable that a negative peer environment impedes it.
Those who are not part of this small group should attend a Kiruv-geared school, with standards in line with what the level of observance dictates, and funded with the charitable aid of the community at large.
One must be willing to sacrifice for the sake of Kiruv, but the sacrificial lambs should not be those getting shoved off the cliff by those behind them in line.

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