Dror “Yikra” leven im vat…

I received this historical overview of Jewish education in the US, from someone in the community, who shall be known as “Yikra”. The article is very informative, and certainly gives food for thought regarding the current situation.

I invite you to read it, and to address any comments or questions you might have to Yikra, in the comments section. Please note that all footnotes appear at the end of the article.

An Experience of After Public School Education in the US

A pendulum by any other name…….In the spirit of Professor Dan Gordis[1], history is critical; a lot of these issues are ‘age’ related. We may be ‘swinging back’ to earlier times…..or not.

Let us begin with some historical background: Many if not most Jews arriving to the ‘Goldene Medeeneh” after the Kishinev pogroms of 1903-6, were Orthodox! Coming to America, most did not have the financial where with all to build Yeshivot, nor the educational leadership, whose leaders (our ‘G’doilim’ of the early 20th century) steadfastly refused to allow educated orthodox to migrate to America. Without such leadership, the yeshiva education in America was negligible. That being said, I note -with a sense of pride of personally knowing many of them and their descendants- that great efforts were made, and refer the readers of this to the hagiographic biography of Rabbi Pinchos Teitz by his daughter, Mrs. Rivka Blau[2].

Unfortunately (from the Orthodox perspective), most of these ‘Orthodox’ immigrants[3] were brought up with Talmud Torah. The effects of this were devastating and were likely the impetus of the phenomenal growth of the Conservative movement.

By the 1960’s and almost certainly by the 1970’s the Orthodox (Jewish) “Talmud Torah” disappeared. The concept morphed into the non-orthodox main avenue of education for their kids[4] and was essentially worthless in light of alarming assimilation figures. I digress; I assumed you know what a Talmud Torah is; your American grandparents do: It was after school Yeshiva education for those kids in Public Schools.

The Orthodox abandonment of Talmud Torah institutions which occurred in the first twenty to thirty years after WWII, was secondary to a confluence of factors[5]; the two major driving forces were-

  • Rav Moshe Feinstein guided us to a strict division from the Conservative movement. I doubt there were more than 50 thousand Orthodox Jews[6] in the USA in the 60’s -out of 6 million Jews!
  • We embraced the day school system to great success to which many have correctly attributed this to the European Orthodox migration post WWII.

This now leads us into the critical differences between the Charedi and ‘Modern Orthodox’ environments[7]. The Charedi system now represents close to three quarters of American Orthodox Jewry, judging by day school figures[8]. Their system essentially rejects secular education and tolerates it only as much as they legally have to[9]. Some have even declared themselves “colleges” and will only allow their ‘graduates’ to begin any secular curriculum at the Graduate level, where, unfortunately, they are ill prepared to achieve any success[10]. The stifling environment of the Charedi system is well documented and lamented[11]. This blatant disregard for wisdom and knowledge in the spheres of education in the secular world is disturbing. Very few of the charedi educators seek any degree in education, and most are simply “involved in chinuch” as their educational bonafides. The Charedi educational system is not threatened at all by ‘Charter Schools’, such as Ben Gamla, as their expenses are minimal and ‘mixing with the goyim’ (even if some are Jews!) is strictly prohibited.

  • The point: The Charedi educators are the most common to be available for such positions, as it allows them to be ‘learning in the Bais’ all morning before work. This article pertains to ‘Modox’ (Modern Orthodox) Jews.

The questions are interesting enough for a symposium whether this “Talmud Torah” system will work again:

The first issues to tackle: What are the similarities and what are the differences?

  • How deleterious is the Ben Gamla experience as opposed to Public Schools?
    • The Ben Gamla schools cannot discriminate based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation etc.. Our children will be exposed to these kids, with its attendant positive and deleterious effects.
    • Consider the Israeli experience with public education and its obvious differences.

v The main point: Peer effects cannot be overlooked blithely, as the rabbis noted: “ איו לרשע ואוי לשכנו; טוב לצדיק וטוב לשכנו[12]”.

  • How do we compare the quality and quantity of Jewish educators now vs the 1920-60’s?
  • Where does rabbinic leadership play a role in guiding parents as to the critical importance of Yeshiva education?
  • While we’re at it, perhaps the moniker Talmud Torah is a bad idea; maybe a name change will reflect its differences from previous failures.

The next issue: Curriculum in such an environment.

  • Certainly, there needs to be a progression from basic Hebrew and T’fillah through Bible, Jewish history, Mishna and Talmud.
  • Should this particular history be taught to the children? At what age? Can it be tailored to pre-school? In other words: At what age do we educate our kids as to our uniqueness and what separates us from the ‘melting pot’ yet allows us to interact with it?
  • High school kids should hopefully be involved with Talmud study as well as other advanced subjects- which is a curriculum that desperately needs to be developed. Consider: an ‘SAT’ for Jewish studies! That would set a standard, which by Jewish historical trends, will be bitterly opposed[13].

Another critical issue: the choice of educators. As noted, the vast majority of our educators come from those who are, as previously noted, “involved in chinuch”. Unfortunately, as noted, even within the confines of Yeshiva University, this attitude is the likely the most prevalent. This will, I guarantee, turn off many students to Torah education, as the stifled, bigoted and abusive atmosphere that is characteristic of the charedi system will be rejected. The closest they can achieve is to send their ‘Ba’al T’shuva’ graduates to work with these charter school kids. The ‘top bachurim’ from ‘fine families’ will not participate. Nevertheless, being inculcated in the charedi system places them at automatic odds with the student population, as they would never dare expose their kids to such filth as a charter school.

The list of issues is ever expanding and I look forward to seeing solutions being brought forth in light of today’s economic conditions.

[1] Gordis, Daniel “Are Young Rabbis Turning on Israel?” Commentary Magazine, June 2011 p. 18-25

[2] Blau, Rivka “Learn Torah Love Torah Live Torah” Ktav Publishing House 2001

[3] I placed it in quotations, as the average Orthodox Jew arriving from Eastern Europe reminds me more of “Tevye the Milichiker [milkman]” from ‘Anitevka’- a person with enough knowledge to read the Siddur and Chumash, but not necessarily understand it. That alone should make us note the remarkable progress of Yeshiva education here in the United States.

[4] For the most part, their day school systems -think Salomon Schechter- are a dismal success, despite beautiful structures, there was (and is) very little commitment by the laity, which is of little surprise to the Orthodox.

[5] There are many other confluences, not the least of which was the civil rights movement, the spillover of which addressed the issues of Saturday education, work schedules etc..

[6] The ability to differentiate between ‘right wing Conservative’ and the prevalent ‘modern Orthodox’- American Orthodox- Jew was quite difficult. Many of those who grew up with observant Yiddish speaking parents and grandparents still had a strong feeling for tradition. As time wore on, they stayed with the Conservative movement.

[7] Waxman, Chaim “The Haredization of American Orthodox Jewry” Jerusalem Letter No. 376 19 Shevat 5758 / 15 February 1998

[8] Schick, Marvin “A Census of Jewish Day Schools in the United States, 2003-4”, Avi Chai Foundation. It was noted then that that were 205,000 students enrolled, at least half (over 100,000!) in Charedi institutions and only 20% in non Orthodox schools. Since then, it is more than likely that the Charedi numbers have increased.

[9] On a personal note: if you think this only applies to the Charedi NY Metropolitan area, you are mistaken. I was informed by a Chabad educator here in South Florida, that he had opened a boys high school with no secular education what so ever!

[10] I refer to the “left wing’ Charedi institutions like Chofetz Chayim and Ner Israel, where graduates have had some success, however, as my nephew at Ner Israel in Baltimore noted “We sent 35 of our graduates to Medical and Dental schools in the last 10-15 years”!

[11] Klein, Jonathan J. Just Between Us section of the Jewish Action Magazine, OU, Nov 1997

[12] “Woe to the evil doer and woe to his neighbor”; Midrash Tanchuma Bamidbar (Numbers) 12. I find this coincidental as I am writing this on the week of the Torah portion of Korach, to whom this famous maxim was applied!

[13] Why do you think they burned the Rambam’s books? Do you really think rabbi Judah the Prince had an easy time of it?


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Barry Gross
    Jul 04, 2011 @ 17:55:58

    Not living in America I cannot comment too much on this. However, I do think that the opinion smells of generalization in the extreme regarding “Chareidi” attitudes and education. For sure some elements of chareidi do not consider secular education to be of any or little value but other elements do place importance on it.
    One other point, I would caution against using SATs for Jewish Studies. Introducing an external test to the study of Judaism is not beneficial and ultimately is likely to require consideration of views and attitudes which are not accepted. Whilst being aware of dissenting opinion is fine once you have been fully versed in Torah and able to deal with it there are huge risks in exposing young minds to deviant opinions. The purpose of Jewish Education is not to enable the student to make choices as to whether or not to follow the laws but rather to seek to ensure they do. Whilst this cannot be guaranteed exposing them to alternative view points creates a handicap.


  2. Yikra
    Jul 07, 2011 @ 22:34:30

    The Charter School issue (?crisis) is of little concern to the Chareidi community. Since tuitions are relatively low, as a matter of fact, in general (not specifics!!) ‘the more frum the school, the less the tuition’. Their financial crisis is secondary to other factors, quite related to their attitude towards secular education. As their population burgeons, the ability of the wealthy to support all others will diminish, as I can’t help simple economic mathematics. As they say ‘guht vill helfin’; hopefully they can generate enough income for everyone not working.
    In regards to the “SAT’s” of Judaism, your response is familiar. The greatest minds in Jewish history standardized things. Look at the footnote regarding the Rambam and ‘Rebbi’; The vilna Gaon standardized the very text of the Talmudim. There sorely needs to be a standardized marker for Jewish education for a myriad of reasons, the least of which is to weed out all of the “top bachurim in der Yeshiva” (I have yet to meet anyone who wasn’t); student’s proclivities and most important- a guide as to how well that information (which you noted needs to be taught!) to be transmitted is done! Uh oh…it evaluates teacher performance.
    Rabbis will riot as it will threaten their livelihoods. Is it your business that they can’t teach (Chareidi education is still besmirched by physical abuse even today; again, in general, ‘the more frum, the more the abuse’ -think …pahtches)?
    Alternative opinions regarding the text should be gradually taught…..and I mean gradual. In my opinion, until one is schooled in classic exegetic commentaries (think- an average of 20-22 years old in a dual YU like curriculum), then one can approach ‘alternative’ commentaries. I also do not mean that the Rashbam should be taught ‘off the bat’ (I wonder if that expression is an American baseball or one of your Irish cricket quotes?)
    Unless you meant that alternative means would be made available to them during Charter School time….unlikely, as the law of separation of church and state forbids any Judaica to be taught, and, is strictly enforced. I apologize for the assumption, however the European model has the state paying for religious education, as we say “that’s another whole ball of wax”.


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