Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Crisis Crisis

There’s nothing like a crisis to get people talking. Be it tuition, abuse cover-ups, the internet, or shidduchim, major dilemmas in our community are usually what attract the headlines and inspire conversation. This behavior is natural, of course. We generally have a desire to discuss things that are meaningful and relevant, and we also like catastrophes. Therefore, stories that affect our community in real and sometimes frightening ways, attract our attention. Despite the explanations, this practice exposes something problematic.

The perfect introduction to this conversation is to remember the adage in Pirkei Avot that equates wisdom with foresight. The logic is clear; if a person only considers the present when planning, organizing, and making decisions, then only short-term success is guaranteed. So when problems come up, the only option might be to scramble for solutions. By waiting for crises to dictate our next move, we find ourselves restricted to damage-control.

The “crises” that our communities are faced with provide good examples. As opposed to Yosef, who had the wisdom to save during times of affluence, we spent, and now we are paying for it. Many in our communities have expenses that are difficult to cover, most famously among them, Yeshiva tuition. Foresight may have told people to save, to choose smaller homes, and to skimp on the vacations. Schools may have planned their finances or structured their personnel differently.

Another example is the what is known as the “Shidduch Crisis.”  Online dating sites, pay-for-shidduch initiatives, and closing the age-gap, are just a few of the proposed solutions to increase the number of married couples in the Orthodox world. But what if this issue could have been avoided altogether? Maybe we could have been more cognizant of how our communities were developing. Maybe we could have identified the problematic mindsets and tried to change them. Maybe some foresight would have helped.

(This is not to pass judgment or claim that I know exactly what could have been done to avoid these problems. Perhaps they were unavoidable. I am just trying to point out that all crises have causes, and that these factors could be addressed in advance.)

To pin down the main factor that prevents foresight is impossible. Human nature is complicated and varied and cannot be explained in a few sentences. However, I’d like to mention two possibilities, and the reader can decide if they resonate.

The first cause relates to being self-centered. I don’t mean this to be critical, but rather to be descriptive. Being self-centered is a big part of Orthodox Judaism, and particularly today. “Connecting with G-d,” “Becoming a Bas-Torah,” and “Growing in Learning” are a few of the popular goals that m’chanchim  set for their students, and individuals for themselves. Of course, these are all meaningful pursuits. However, when growing as individuals becomes the totality of  Avodat Hashem, we don’t really think in terms of community, the future, and definitely not out of the box. We look at ourselves and ask “how’s everything going?” And if the answer is  “pretty good,” we smile and keep moving along.

The ones most affected are those on the fringe. Not everyone can connect to things the way they are. Those that leave due to a lack of diversity or flexibility, are often viewed as unfortunate casualties, as opposed to signs that we are missing something. To look at it from a chinuch perspective, every school has a small demographic of students for whom the classic Yeshiva Day School format “doesn’t work.” This group includes (but is not exclusive to) students with learning and differences and cognitive weaknesses, those that are exceptionally bright but need to be challenged, and those that just aren’t into the whole learning thing. It would be unfortunate for the needs of these students to be overlooked because overall we are “doing fine.”

Another potential factor that limits our foresight is our conservative nature. Orthodox Judaism puts a large emphasis or tradition, for good reason. Our reverence for tradition is pervasive, going beyond halacha and affecting many aspects of our non-ritual lives. Granted, there is a wide range in terms of accepting novel ideas. However, uniformity of practice is a pretty fair characterization of most Orthodox communities.

Our traditional nature makes us wary of innovation. Our Rabbanim generally use prescribed modes of deciding halacha, our smachot generally looks the same, and many of our schools rely on age-old methods. Novelties like academic Talmud study, creative Rabbinic solutions to permit agunot, and women’s tefilla groups make many of us uncomfortable, and we often paint those efforts as being beyond the pale, or having less-than-noble intentions. Some of this may be our honest feelings, but some of it is a visceral reaction to change.

In general, our schools are thriving, in conjunction with our communities. For the most part, our children are learning, they stay within the fold, go to college and have successful careers; things are  looking bright. Ostensibly, this should give us a sense of comfort that our educational methods do not need change.

However, general success should not make us complacent. We should constantly be asking ourselves if our students are being taught in the optimal way. Can our schools adjust or rethink their approach to reach more students more of the time? Can Talmud Torah become more meaningful to our students? What is the future going to look like and how can we prepare our students for what they will face? These are some of the questions, if addressed properly, can help us avoid the next crisis.

(Originally published in The Jewish Link of Bergen County

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Taking Ownership

Your children’s school is not educating them properly. Our yeshivot are shortchanging their students with administrators and faculty that settle for mediocrity.

Such accusations are, of course, not true. Our schools are full of devoted, caring, and motivated teachers who work hard (in school and out) to provide for their students as best as they can. School leaders dedicate all their energy to promote excellence in education, and to foster nurturing and growth-oriented environments for your children. Educators are working harder than ever, and you and your children are reaping the benefits. Don’t worry, things are great.

But would you know if they weren’t?

A quick look through current Orthodox publications and websites will demonstrate that Chinuch is not really on the public agenda. Yes, when something new comes out, it sparks interest and conversation. Of course, there is everyone’s favorite topic, tuition. But what about the day-to-day conversation? Do parents talk about what goes on in the classroom? At the Shabbos table, is there discussion of educational philosophy and what we want for our children in terms of Chinuch? Look at the OU website. You’ll see tabs for “Torah,” “Life,” “Holidays,” and “Tuition Affordability,” but nothing regarding Chinuch. On YUTorah, the shiurim classified as “Chassidut,” out number those labeled as “Chinuch” by 32. This is not meant as a criticism of these institutions, but rather to point out that they reflect the societal reality.

This phenomenon should not surprise. After all, how do you expect parents who have no Jewish-education training to have opinions? Teachers and administrators have dedicated their careers to chinuch, giving them an expertise that cannot be expected from parents and other community members. The community must have trust in our schools to do their very best to educate the next generation.

This approach is not completely wrong. Parents cannot be expected to have “expert” opinions, and many (probably most) lack the time and resources to develop any degree of expertise. We can also invoke the saying “a little information is a dangerous thing.” Imagine the nightmare for a Head of School if the parent body suddenly starts occasionally reading about education: “Excuse me Dr. Principal, but  I read on that teachers need to be doing more projects, why aren’t we?” “ My sister thinks that my son might be a Kinesthetic Learner, can we meet to discuss that?” Arming parents with a few facts and expecting them know when and how to intervene may not be the best idea either.

On the other hand, parents can, and should, develop an idea of what ideal Chinuch looks like for their children. What are the skills that you would like your children to develop? Is there a specific environment you would like your children to be a part of? Do you have a vision of what discipline should look like? What type of knowledge is important for your children to learn in school? How should tefillah be treated? These are just some of the questions parents could be pondering.   

Discussing chinuch is not meant to be only a philosophical exercise. Discussion brings about awareness, and awareness brings about action. If there is one lesson to be learned from today’s society, it is the power of people uniting for a common goal. But we don’t need to run into the streets and storm the gates to reach our goals.  An informed public can be very powerful in creating a forward-thinking atmosphere that can naturally nurture and motivate our schools. When this atmosphere does not exist, change only comes about in reaction to crisis and involves tension and conflict. The alternative is much better.

Yes, our schools are doing a great job. Our children are learning, growing, and truly flourishing. However, we cannot settle by saying we have succeeded, because success is not binary. Progress should be a significant goal, whether or not we define progress the same way as the rest of the world. Our goals in Chinuch must adapt in order to meet our children’s changing needs. If we truly believe in the credo of “chanoch l’naar al pi darko,” then we must be open to rethinking and adjusting our teaching goals and methods. This progress can only happen if we make Chinuch a topic of communal discussion.

So let’s do our best to start taking ownership over our children’s Chinuch. We can read articles, start conversations, and talk to friends and relatives who are involved in Chinuch. If that seems too much, start with simply thinking about it.We are waiting to hear what you have to say.

(Edited version originally published in The Jewish Link of Bergen County


Monday, May 27, 2013

Back (for now)

I started writing articles The Jewish Link of Bergen County (new local jewspaper - I'm going to cross-post here for those who don't live in Jersey and for those who want to comment. But it's mostly because I need attention. Enjoy.