A Secular Teacher Recalls His Experiences at a Small Yeshiva
A while back, a small article appeared in our local Jewish publication regarding a meeting to address improper behavior exhibited by some Orthodox young men and women. As a non-Orthodox Jewish person who was the part time English department of an very small Orthodox yeshiva, I have experienced behavior which was not considered "yeshivaish," but unlike a rabbi or Orthodox lay teacher, I can be very objective with suggestions for remediation because I do not feel compelled to defend a particular way of life, a particular ideology, or a particular educational philosophy.
I recall that after my first week at the yeshiva, I approached one of the Rabbis and asked him when Orthodox students actually transfer the expectations of their faith regarding their behavior towards one another, and towards staff into action. As a knowledgeable Jew, I am fully aware that our great mandate was summarized into "that which is hateful to you, do not do to another." Never having dealt with Orthodox children before, I actually believed that there would be a stronger relationship between what they were taught from their religion, and how they behaved. The Rabbi looked at me as if I had two heads and shrugged his shoulders. I subsequently concluded through personal observation, that there might not be a magical transference, and that attention to ritual, the study of ancient texts, and the adherence to the yeshiva’s strict rules, seemed far more important to the Rabbis than how the students treated one another and the staff, let alone what they were learning in the secular program.
Had the students who sat in my classroom that first year attended any local academic high school, each would have been diagnosed with learning and/or emotional problems. Most were on or should have been on medication, but as secular staff, we were never told any of our student’s backgrounds or problems. These we had to discover ourselves. So I found myself in the unfortunate situation of disarming students, getting between violent students almost on a daily basis, and generally keeping the lid on a pot that was always about to boil over. Over the years, several students were asked to leave because of violence, drugs, or because they were caught talking to girls. These behaviors seemed equal in the eyes of the administration. So these boys were just passed on to another yeshiva to re-play the same scenario. One of the kids who left had a serious drug problem, went into rehab and, later, I was told, wandered the streets because rehab didn’t work for him and either did his Orthodoxy. I told the parent of another student that unless they got him some psychological help, he would not be welcome in my class. They addressed their son’s problem by taking him out of the school and putting him in another. He got no help. He was asked to leave the next yeshiva, and when I last spoke to his mother because I chose to stay in touch with those students who touched me in one way or another, she told me that he dropped out, did odd jobs, smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, and just lays on the couch. He was one of fifteen kids in his combined family. The unwillingness of some parents to address the reality of their son’s behaviors is part of the problem.
Over the years that I taught in this yeshiva, there was a reduction in violence because the Rabbis learned to be more selective in the students they admit. So while there were still students who drank to excess and partied hard on the weekends, none were violent in or out of school. From time to time there was the normal teenage posturing, and one or two were serious bullies, but for the most part, it was under control and no one was being physically attacked. Not so for emotional abuse from some to others. Some still have learning problems and these are sometime the result of years of poor secular teaching and parents who are so overwhelmed by their lives, they cannot take the time to address educational learning needs. So these young people are passed on and I have never seen any official record from any other school they attended previously. Yeshivas might consider adopting an official transcript detailing the academic, social, and family history of these young men, so the educator to whom this child is passed, does not have to rediscover all of this on his own.
Many of the young men who came into my classes bitterly complained about what they perceive as unreasonable demands by relentless rabbis who would prefer that they all were living in the golden glow of an 18th century shetel. Jews in shetels were deliberately kept away from the "outside world" because they were hated, and life in the shetel was brutal. It is now romanticized as an Orthodox ideal, but I seriously doubt if anyone would really want to return to those days. Still, it is very telling that the rabbi in this article was quoted as saying, "As long as we are surrounded by the outside world, substance abuse involving liquor, drugs and tobacco; drunken driving; promiscuity; unsupervised ‘Open House’ parties where proper behavior is thrown to the winds; eating disorders and other ills, come into the lives of Orthodox young men and women." You left out the violence some exhibit towards one another.
What is your alternative? The world will not disappear, and Orthodox efforts to keep your young people from this "outside" world by teaching suspicion and disdain for it, has worked against you, because these young people see the world you disdain, and know that they will eventually have to live in it or next to it and function in it. You are not giving them the skills they will need to function in it successfully. Contempt is not a skill. Fear is not a skill. It is obvious that some do not perceive this "outside world" as evil or contemptuous because they have adopted some of the behaviors you and I disparage. But as soon as they did, the drinking, drugs, and sex became behaviors practiced by Orthodox young men and women and, believe me, they practice these behaviors with some degree of relish. Of course if they were to live, marry, work, and die in Monsey or Boro Park, never move out of their confines, never use the internet, or see a movie, or meet anyone who is not Orthodox, you might or might not have the problem you are having. But you know as well as I, that not all your young men are going to be scholars and sit and study all day hidden away and safe from this outside world. These young men and women are part of a world, and they need to be taught by the rabbis and secular teachers to be able to negotiate it as best they can while still remaining true to their traditions and the values of that tradition. Attempting to keep them from this world while disparaging it and not teaching them the skills to understand it and negotiate it successfully, will not make it go away. In short, they have to learn to deal with the temptations out there in an effective way, and you will have to change your educational teaching methods and approaches to enable them to learn about this world and deal with it so they can function in it as decent human beings.
The outside world will not disappear, and if one really wants to address the problem that Orthodox kids are having with drugs, booze, sex, and violence, you should begin by addressing how the Orthodox deal with these issues themselves, and why Orthodox children; would choose to act in a way their community deems "immoral behavior." True, the temptations are there, but to act on them is a choice and why Orthodox boys and girls choose to act immorally is what needs to be addressed. After all, the only things in this life that you, I, or our students control is the choice to be either moral or immoral.
Yes, the outside world is tempting, and the Orthodox educators have not effectively addressed its enticement, believing that if they impose hours of study, and rigorously demand strict adherence to dorm regulations, young people will be safe from the lure of the "goyim." This approach works only with the docile and fearful, but it does not work with those who are inquisitive and dynamic. The latter students rage against the Procrustean bed they call Orthodoxy that they feel is being forced upon them.
Any group wishing to address this issue will have to deal with the following questions:
How does Orthodoxy responds to the non-Orthodox outside world and what messages are we sending our young about it?
Knowing full well that almost all will have to function in it, what are we doing for them to enable them to function in it successfully?
How are Orthodox practices and values transferred to Orthodox children and what do they see around them in the Orthodox community that may mitigate accepting those values?
What is the relationship between Orthodox beliefs and practices and human choices and behaviors?
You are concerned about a very specific population, and if the Rabbis really want to address these young people and their behaviors, they should address the overwhelming anger that some Orthodox children feel when they consider their lot in life. The restrictions on socialization which is a normal teenage inclination, the natural thoughts and inclinations that come to a person that are taught as sins, the restrictions on technology and communications at their schools coupled with the long hours of study that seems to have no relevancy to life as they know it and envision it for themselves, develop a resentment that builds to anger. Initially, Orthodoxy must address the anger that many Orthodox young people feel about how they are treated, what they are taught, the length of their learning day, and how creativity and freedom of thought are discounted by rabbis who have the only correct answer and who will respond to open and honest questions with a charge of "hallul Hashem," discount, dismissal, or expulsion.
It has been my experience that Orthodoxy teaches contempt for "the Goyim" and for all things not Orthodox. I gleaned this from the way some of my more bigoted students talk about anyone who is not Orthodox and white. This also includes contempt for Jews who are non-Orthodox. I see Orthodoxy teaching separation in the belief that all that is not Orthodox is "unclean," and association with it will in some way taint the Orthodox person. This latter fallacy, I believe, underlies another one of the problems because that which is forbidden becomes a desirable source of curiosity and a way of getting some personal power by rejecting Rabbinic admonitions. Personal power is part of the equation. Most Orthodox kids I’ve met, even the ones who follow all the rules, feel absolutely frustrated and helpless because they are caught between their rabbi’s ritual and study demands, parental expectations, and their natural inclinations to be normal teenagers. Breaking societal and rabbinic rules are a way of getting back something for yourself and not feeling helpless to exert any control over your life. So the question is: Why do Orthodox kids need to get back at their society and their rabbis? What is missing that might be briefly satisfied through drinking, drugs, sex, eating disorders, and bullying etc?
It is important to remember, that when kids are drunk, high, or sexually involved, they feel a freedom that they do not feel when they are sober and following the rules. True, being high is a false and fleeting moment, but it is at least a moment when they are not being judged and found wanting by those who judge them and who represent what they perceive as an oppressive society. And how does Orthodoxy contribute to the problem itself? Liquor is readily available in any synagogue or school and it’s rarely under lock and key. Young boys have permission to get wasted on Purim and at weddings and bar-mitzvahs and this behavior is sanctioned by the adults because it is a simcha. Being high is a good feeling, and being drunk frees you temporarily from restrictions. It’s an easy leap to drugs and sex. Orthodoxy itself sends mixed messages. If liquor is good, why not drugs? Why not sex? Also, Orthodoxy teaches that sexual relations are permitted if the man or woman are not married or the woman is not Jewish. Virginity in the Jewish woman is prized, but it doesn’t see the same holds for men. Tradition also suggests that if the need is there, dress in black and go to a town where you are not known and satisfy yourself. This is part of a traditional teaching that is now running amuck. Again, mixed messages are being sent. Sexual details most certainly are discussed but only if it is discussed in the context of the holy books. All other times it is considered taboo if it is not connected to tradition. So they can talk about it in detail and know about it, but only if it is connected in some way to holy writ. That’s a mixed message. If the rabbis really want to address the issues of immoral behavior honestly, they have to realize that they are sending mixed messages about sex, and accept their own culpability in creating and reinforcing the problem. But if you insist on defending this approach because that is how it has always been taught, you are not addressing the problem. You are the problem.
Young Orthodox boys and girls have feelings of being overwhelmed by a repression that is infused into their lives and educations. The "forbidden fruit" of the "outside world" would not be so tempting if "forbidden fruits" were discussed openly and comments and questions from students were received without harsh judgement from the rabbis. I’m not advocating accepting such behavior. I am advocating open discussion about it. The kids already know where the rabbis stand on the issues, and because of this, they won’t speak to the rabbis because they are afraid of being reported to their parents and afraid of being thrown out of the school because they would be perceived as a bad influence. And it isn’t as if these outside influences suddenly appeared. No shagets or shiksa has taken over the body of an Orthodox boy and girl. The behaviors are now Orthodox behaviors even if they are an anathema to Orthodoxy itself.
In trying to keep young people from experiencing the world as it exists, the Orthodox are just pushing young people to experiment and to sneak behind the backs of those rabbis and parents who would keep them from it. Young people are curious and seek all sorts of knowledge about all sorts of things. That’s normal. Adam and Eve ate that apple because they had to eat that apple. They were human prototypes, and had they not eaten that apple, humanity would not have progressed. There is no progress without knowledge. It is natural to seek knowledge and truth, even if it is forbidden. Innocence is not an option if we are to be truly human. So I contend that if young people’s inquiries for knowledge are met with scorn, contempt, and dismissal as they often are in a rabbi’s classroom, students will seek those experiences with even greater intensity when not under the watchful eye of the rabbis. Kids will find a way to listen to contemporary music, watch TV, see restricted movies, read restricted magazines and books, drink, do drugs, and have sex, and do it all behind their parent’s and rabbi’s backs. Why is the knowledge you are offering not being transferred into values and behavior? How are you teaching this knowledge that causes young people to reject your vision of how they should behave and what they should value? Values that are imposed are values that will not be acted upon when authority is not looking.
A true set of values require thoughtful consideration of causes and effects, consequences, moral behaviors, and ethical principles supporting moral behaviors. Imposing values through guilt and force just doesn’t work. How does Orthodoxy teach its value system? Orthodoxy mistakenly believes that by virtue of it being "Orthodox" and therefore having cornered "the truth," those who fall under it’s sway will recognize its benefits immediately and accept it without question. That’s an error the rabbis make. Perhaps that was the case when Orthodoxy flourished insmall towns and there were no other options, but that reality is long gone and Orthodox boys and girls have many options if they give themselves permission to exercise them. Increasingly, they are giving themselves more and more permission.
To some of your young people, your way of life is perceived as being imposed through force, coercion, or through guilt. If this way of life is not accepted on the surface for survival’s sake, but not as an internalized truth, it stands little chance of being sustained when the powers that force, coerce, or lay down guilt are not directly involved. How do you get people to value what you want them to value and act on those values consistently when not watched? The old methods may not work anymore. Times have changed. Kids have changed. Teaching approaches must change. Organizations must change.
If Orthodoxy is serious about addressing and understanding this problem, it has to understand that in addition to being Orthodox, boys and girls are also human beings with genetic predilections towards seeking knowledges that are absolutely normal to human development. Orthodoxy imposes on the human being a set of rules and regulations that are meant to limit the natural tendencies of young people. As it says in Genesis, "Man is evil from his youth," so an imposition of moral behavior on humanity is one way to keep kids from going off the deep end. But it’s moderation in all things that keeps the balance, and Judaism is a religion of moderation. Yet Orthodoxy has responded to the "outside world" by moving to an extreme and forbidding what may deemed reasonable and normal behaviors where young people are concerned. And your problems with young people will continue unless you recognize that one might reach a balance between the extremes and openly allow young people to talk about the outside world and make some decisions about it without being told by the rabbis that they are sinful for having the desire to be like other teenagers. If the rabbis cannot do this because they cannot handle teenage issues without feeling personally attacked or that their way of life is being attacked, then let them hire counselors who are trained to listen and trained to lead and teach through appropriate questioning skills. Rabbis who were not trained to work with this type of teenager must agree to share the responsibility with people who know and understand teenagers, even if these people are secular. Lives of children are at stake here.
It has been my experience that some boys will talk about themselves and about other kids, but only if they perceive the adult as being safe. My perception is that rabbis are not considered by at-risk students as being safe. I am. So I am told things they would not tell their parents or the Rabbis. These self-revelations are not cries for help, but a wish to be known to another human being without being blanketed with a list of sins and judged wanting. I remember how surprised one young man was when I told him that what he was thinking was normal for a teenage boy. They are experiencing physical changes that are confusing, emotional reactions that are confusing, and all the time they are trying to figure out who they are, what their role is, and what they are going to do with their lives. On top of that, they have to deal with the myriad regulations and judgements of what is right and what is wrong according to their traditions. Often, these regulations are diametrically opposed to what normal curiosity dictates. The bulk of the children are probably experiencing rabbis and other teachers who dismiss these very real feelings and needs with the suggestion that study, prayer, and more regulations to stifle natural inclinations will solve all problems. Most teenagers don’t consider the restrictions on their lives as being normal. Certainly, restrictions are necessary whether you are Orthodox or not. But certain of your young men and women see only restrictions and rarely see that restrictions are in place to protect them. You need to show them that the restrictions are for protection, and you must give meaningful reasons. And that still might not be enough because they are still teenagers. Why are these young people not seeing the truth or beauty of Orthodox behavior? How is it being presented to them, and why do they not see it as a better way of life?
Personally, the frustrations I experienced teaching in that yeshiva caused me more than once to consider leaving. At that time I had been in education for forty-five years and certified as a teacher, supervisor, principal, and superintendent. All offers to assist in school improvement were met with an "I’ll get back to you." We did not even have staff meetings to discuss certain students. And each attempt I’ve made to co-teach with a rabbi, or correlate the secular English curriculum with the religious so the boys would have been be better able to see both as more meaningful, was been met with silence. I offered to teach the rabbis the art of developmental lesson planning, and that too was met with silence as have been my judgements regarding academic curricula offerings. There were great films I could not show, great literature I could not teach, and I was never allowed to take my students to a museum because the rabbis feared they would see a naked statue and get aroused. Well, teenage boys certainly would make comments and would certainly giggle because that’s what immature teenagers do. It’s normal. But teenage boys get aroused by sitting in a math class because involuntary physical reactions happen. In all the years of going to museums and taking children to museums, I have never known anyone to become aroused by looking at a naked statue. They giggle. Besides, what do the Rabbis think they’re protecting students from? Nakedness? Being human is being able to know and to see, and if there is sin in nakedness, the sin is in how one person treats another person while naked. Rabbis have no idea that by keeping things hidden and imposing modesty by fiat, the desire to know is increased. In the Gemorah, my students learned about female discharges. That kind of carnal knowledge is permissible because it comes from holy writ, but seeing a naked statue is a sin. Personally, I think discussing female discharges with teenage boys is really more than they need to know. What they need to know is how not to contract a STD and how not to impregnate someone.
If we are dealing here with immoral behavior, one must also deal with the effects of guilt. When everything that is not what the rabbis teach is considered a sin, there is very little wiggle room for new experiences. Some kids just give up and decide for themselves that they will take power away from those whom they perceive would restrict them in everything and decide that if everything they want to experience is a sin, than what’s the point? So some just reject the entire notion of sin because that seems to be the only way to have some freedom and some fun. Besides, for some, having had to put up with years of restrictions might just entitle them to some guilt free fun. Some young people may perceive themselves as having suffered under such burdensome restrictions. Is the booze and sex and good feelings and freedom owed to them because of what they’ve had to put up with? If listening to contemporary music is a sin, and drugs, booze, and sex are all sins and all get you condemned to the same hell, why not go for the gusto? It all leads to the same place. Perhaps the rabbis might want to reconsider the idea that all behaviors that depart from traditionally acceptable behaviors, may not be condemned with equal ferocity. Even the Bible teaches that not every sin is equal to every other sin. There are gradations. The sin that got you put out of the camp for three days, was different from the sin that got you stoned to death. The rabbis need to lighten up.
I suggest a study might be done to see if there is a relationship between the immoral activity and those who have been sent away from their homes and communities for the purpose of studying in a yeshiva. Is being away from parental love and supervision a factor? Is being away from one’s support system at a time of life that is one of the most difficult, a factor? Is being thrown into a situation where an outside agent suddenly assumes the role of parent part of the problem when the student does not have a trusting relationship with this agent? And what if the student does not respect this "outside agent?" What about students who have serious learning disabilities being tossed into schools that do not recognize learning problems and have neither the staff nor the inclination to address these learning needs? And what of those students who are emotionally disturbed and are sent off to yeshivas because tradition dictates it by parents who see this as an easy way for someone else to deal with the problem? Are these problems exacerbated because a disturbed student now has to deal with a variety of unknowns and find a place for himself among a group of others whose problems may be as serious as his or her own? Parents and the tradition of sending children off before they are ready to be on their own must also be addressed in the issue of why students behave as they do?
Most rabbis see their roles as protecting and defending their tradition. This is right and proper if you are in the adult world. Tragically, in protecting and defending traditional ways, they are teaching a hard Orthodoxy to some young people who are very much at odds with rabbinic educational objectives. I will give you one last example of the kind of message the rabbis send and what one can conclude from it. One young man in my class was a diabetic. He took his shots regularly, but the rabbis would not permit him to have a cell phone because they feared he would talk to a girl. His need was to be able to reach his parents or a doctor in the event of an emergency. So the underlying statement to this young man is that it is more important that we make sure that you maintain your modesty than to insure your well being. Was there really any wonder that this particular boy was so angry? And what is to be said for parents who recognize the danger to their son, but are fearful to make waves because their son may be asked to leave the school. What kind of message is being given by both rabbis and parents? If this were your son, what would you say to a rabbi who seemed more concerned with modesty than with your child’s well being? Would this particular kid talk to a girl on the phone? Most definitely, but I’d still prefer he had the phone in the event that he had an emergency. The kids with whom you are having difficulties are the at-risk kids at the other end of the continuum. These kids have given themselves permission to crave freedom from rigidity. The students I have met do not seem to mind their following their traditions, but they do mind the straight jacket into which they feel they have been daily forced by the rabbonim. The rabbonim are in a defensive position and, in a little yeshiva like ours, did not have the financial resources to ameliorate the problem. But even if they did, would they trust such resources if these were from the secular world?
With some of these special students, they fight an uphill battle, and when these kids are expelled, everyone loses. So the yeshiva world needs to consider whether or not the traditional yeshiva provides the best opportunities for the young people who are on the edge. Are there yeshivas where the secular program takes up the bulk of the student’s time, and the religious program is reduced? And what would such a new curriculum look like? Might it be thematic? Might it correlate conceptsin both religious and secular studies? Might concepts be explored through film and other media?
Yeshivas need to take this at-risk end of the continuum and those in between and offer them something less rigid in their educations. I think you might stand a better chance of making meaningful changes in their lives and keeping them within the community if you did. It’s all a question of values. Are the traditional ways of teaching and the traditional one size fits all curriculum currently employed of greater value than the emotional, physical, and spiritual well being of those who attend yeshivas? If you cannot or will not adjust so as to better address the needs of these specual young people, you must recognize that you are the problem and that in your choice to remain ossified in your teaching approach because it was handed down over the centuries, you are choosing to place a teaching style and tradition over the very real emotional needs of the children you teach.
Some of the students I taught came out of tragic circumstances and went home to parents who are divorced, parents who disliked one another, physical and emotional abuse, memories of parents who have committed suicide, thoughts of siblings who have attempted suicide, etc. These students entered my classroom, and some have entered my heart and continue to stay in my life because I have come to care deeply about them. Tradition dictated that they go off to Israel after graduation. Some who did, encountered the same difficulties they had in the states, and were asked to leave their yeshivas because being immature, they acted out with old familiar habits at their new taste of freedom. Maturity is a factor and these young men were not mature enough to be away from home in the states let alone away in a foreign country with little supervision.
Because special students have special needs, perhaps it would be better if special schools were set up locally in Orthodox communities just for such students. Yes, it would break with the tradition of sending children away from home after their bar mitzvahs, but these particular students could then live at home and have whatever educational and emotional supports they need within a concerned, supportive, and loving community.