Are Jewish Schools Failing Our Children?

Filling our teenagers' heads with Jewish law and simplistic answers to complex issues like homosexuality and slavery only serves to disconnect them from the faith. We need a new approach to Jewish education based on active listening and safe space.

Orel Cohen

Sam grew up in a family where both of his parents were hozrei b’teshuvah (those who assume a religious lifestyle). While Sam, whose real name is withheld for confidentiality, was still young, his family moved from a city with a small Jewish population to one with a strong Orthodox community, including an ultra-Orthodox school. As he grew up, in contradistinction to his surroundings, Sam identified as Modern Orthodox. He rebelled at the close-mindedness of the local school, so for eighth grade, his parents transferred him to one of the flagship institutions in the Modern Orthodox world, an hour-and-a-half commute from home. Despite the distance, Sam did well with the change, eventually becoming president of both his senior class and the regional Orthodox youth group.

In an essay for the school newspaper’s graduation edition, which the school’s administration declined to publish, Sam wrote:

“I look around the student lounge and see friends who came to Yeshiva High School (not the school’s real name) in an exceedingly fragile state. Their religiosity needed a foundation and a jump-start … They were starving for a connection, and that was something YHS too often failed to provide. They leave the school the way they came, except rather than open-minded and desiring to connect, they leave turned off and uninterested.

“Then I see other friends who came to the school with a solid religious background, only in need of a prodding and a reminder of how great Judaism can be. As they grew into themselves, shedding the blind acceptance of their past, they simply needed to be shown the beauty of Judaism, and why they should stay on the path of their youth. But instead, their teachers and rabbis threw more and more laws at them that they failed to connect with. Rather than learning about how to deepen their connection to God and truth, they solely learned statute after statute. YHS failed here as well.”

Quoting a graduating senior, Sam writes, “YHS failed to make religion personal. It seemed like a rulebook, and an unappealing one. Whatever religion I had in me going in vanished through my teenage years.” Another classmate shared, “I feel that I am more knowledgeable, yet far more confused. I think, as of now, I am perfectly unsure of who I am religiously.”

After high school, Sam decided to spend his gap year in Israel, studying at a yeshiva. With two months remaining in the program, Sam dropped out, took off his kippah and began working as an intern for a cause he felt passionate about. Next year, he plans to attend university.

Sam’s story breaks my heart, not just because of how the school and yeshiva systems failed him individually, but for all of his friends and for those young Jews they represent.

The widely discussed Pew report of 2013 paints a favorable statistical picture of Jewish identity and continuity for American Jews who identify as Orthodox. However, it is by no means an entirely rosy picture. In an analysis of the Pew data, Rabbi Avraham Edelstein, in Matzav.com, sites the statistic of 330,000 Jews who were raised Orthodox who no longer identify as such. The age group with the highest proportion that left Orthodoxy is Jews aged 65 and older (78 percent). That percentage steadily declines by age group to 17 percent of 18 to 29 year olds who were raised Orthodox but dropped out.

But, does that figure, 17 percent, reflect the true proportion of young Orthodox Jews who are disconnected from their faith? Buried in the Pew survey’s statistics of people who still identify as Orthodox are the ranks of the “Social Orthodox,” as described by Jay Lefkowitz in an article for Commentary. The Judaism of the Social Orthodox is uninspired, based not on belief, but social convention. And in closed ultra-Orthodox communities, in addition to those that actually leave, how many remain behind just going through the motions?

Each situation is individual and family dynamics certainly are crucial, particularly among those hozer b’teshuvah. However, to ignore the role our Jewish schools play in influencing our children’s love of and connection to Judaism is to bury our heads in the sand.

I do not profess to have any easy solutions to these problems of alienation, but it seems clear that we need to listen to our children and acknowledge their need for real connection. We need to realize that filling their heads with more halakha (Jewish law) and Talmud, providing simplistic answers to difficult subjects such as homosexuality, slavery, agunot (chained wives) and mamzerim (people born from certain forbidden relationships), among others, is turning them off.

We need to move the discussion from the head to the heart and help our students discover for themselves what our Jewish texts mean personally to them, not just telling them what the commentators have to say. We need to reexamine and redefine the teacher-student relationship based on principles of active listening and safe space.

Perhaps we can start the conversation with a change in terminology and perspective. We refer to one who decides to pursue a religious path as a hozer b’teshuvah, which, literally, means “returning with an answer.” A person who leaves a religious life is referred to as a hozer b’sheela, literally “returning with a question.” Acknowledging and validating the questions of our children, which should then be our questions, is the place for us to begin the process of discovery and repair.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations.