The Happy, Well-Adjusted, Modern Orthodox Dropout

Nov 6, 2000

Originally published in Jewish Action, Fall 5761. Submitted to the Virtual Library by the author.

Let’s face the facts: across the board, in every sector of American Orthodoxy, our schools are losing a large number of our children. All too often, our young people don’t want to be religious, nor do they see any reason why anyone should be. A significant portion of our students, from some of our best Orthodox high-schools, are graduating with massive negativity towards Torah study, observance of Mitzvot, and religion in general. Many do not daven, recite berachot, or observe Shabbat. It may be shocking to hear, but many are familiar with drugs, and are not far behind the average American teenager in their sexual promiscuity. Obviously, such students have little interest in studying Talmud, or other Torah subjects. Even were they willing to do so, most are unable to handle simple texts of Gemara or Mishna, and would even have difficulty reading a Chumash – basic skills which should have been acquired after twelve years of Orthodox day schools.

These are not late-comers to Judaism, or baalei teshuva. These are Orthodox students, raised in Orthodox homes, living in Orthodox communities, who have attended Orthodox schools all their lives. Something is terribly wrong if the only hope for many of our own students, after years of Yeshiva and day school education, is that perhaps a year or two in Israel will salvage their Jewish future. The day school movement was a major achievement in American Judaism, and it helped rescue Orthodoxy from oblivion. But we must not blind ourselves to the facts on the ground. When a large number of our graduates emerge with negative feelings about Torah, Judaism, and learning – and when they are unable to resist the lure of the society around them – there clearly exists a serious problem in these schools, or in their faculties, or in their curricula. And something is obviously wrong in the upbringing they are receiving at home. Orthodoxy dare not rest on its past laurels. This is not a report from an academic ivory tower that debates religious pluralism, or religious Zionism, or the meaning of Daat Torah. Having worked with Orthodox youth for the past fifteen years, I write from the front lines, where a battle is raging for the souls of our youngsters.

Orthodox teenage dropouts fall into two categories. The first is the difficult and unresponsive child, a problem which exists across the Orthodox spectrum, one that has received much press as of late. The second is a phenomenon that is primarily Modern Orthodox; the child who has lost interest in religion. This is a subject that has attracted only scant attention.

These youngsters fall into two distinct categories. The first, a difficult and unresponsive child, has received all the recent attention. A second type, who has attracted only scant notice, is the well-reasoned young man who has simply lost interest in religion. This type differs substantially from the first, and he will be the focus of our discussion. Though both have strayed from the upbringing of their childhood, it is important to take particular note of what separates them, for parents and educators need to appreciate these differences and respond appropriately. For instance: drug use, promiscuity, and a general lack of observance may be common among both types of dropouts, but the motivation behind these activities often varies. The young man who is stable and happy might use foreign substances as a form of experimentation or entertainment; but for the first type of individual, alcohol and drug abuse are not merely recreational, but instead, a means to escape a life of frustration. This is a young man who is emotionally scarred, feeling out of place both at home and at school. Feeling unloved and unsuccessful, he rebels against the upbringing that has brought him nothing but pain. He does not leave Judaism because he rejects its values – at times, he even recognizes that the Torah is right and true – but he is extremely unhappy, and a candidate for professional therapy. His bitterness may be rooted either in family tensions, learning disabilities, or dysfunctional social skills, but the common denominator of all these difficulties is his inability to find a place in the educational system, and a niche and identity in the Orthodox community. For better or worse, the Orthodox community today revolves around its schools, and for these students, school is an experience they have learned to despise. Add this factor to the breakdown in family life that has had such a devastating impact on the moral practices of teenagers everywhere – tensions that have become increasingly apparent in our communities as well – and we begin to understand the magnitude of the problem that confronts us.

There are no easy solutions to problems that have become deeply imbedded in the fabric of our homes and communities, and the difficulties of the rebellious child often defy definition. Instead, let us present a composite portrait of our second student – whom we will call “Michael” – a young man who is happy and well-adjusted, but intellectually disillusioned. The causes of his disinterest in Judaism can be defined, and their solutions readily available, if only we were to face the issue squarely.

 “Michael” grew up in Queens, in a heavily Orthodox community. He attended a local day school, and then continued in a prominent co-ed high school. Michael’s parents are nominally Orthodox, but Michael has never noticed that the details of Halacha are particularly important to them. He remembers when he was young seeing his father put on Tefillin every morning, then mumbling Kriat Shma, and a very quick Shemoneh Esrai before dashing off to work, but, recently, he doesn’t even see that. Nobody ever washes before eating bread in his family, nor are blessings over food or anything else a common occurrence. Sometimes, his father comes home from work late Friday night, about two hours after Shabbat has begun. He excuses himself by saying, “I got stuck in terrible traffic getting out of Manhattan.” Michael knows that there is never traffic leaving Manhattan on Friday evenings, and sees this as one more incident in a string of hypocrisies that characterize his religious upbringing. The synagogue that his family attends on Shabbat morning has done nothing to dispel this perception. Prayer seems to be the last thing on people’s minds, and Michael, when he comes, spends most of his time talking with his friends. The rabbi is a nice man, but powerless to stop the incessant chattering in shul. The daily Minyan is made up mostly of a few elderly men, some ‘frummies’ and people who need to say ‘Kaddish’ (in fact, the last time Michael’s Dad attended daily minyan was when he was saying Kaddish seven years ago). What is truly important in most people’s lives seems to be money. Those who have it are the talk of the town, and the toast of the annual synagogue dinner.

Michael has always done exceedingly well at school. He is very bright, and has always been at the top of his class, just as his parents expected. Nevertheless, Michael’s experience at school has done nothing to improve his negative view of organized religion. Throughout his high-school years, religious demands were imposed, but nobody seemed to take them too seriously, and the school administration seemed oblivious to the fact that few of the students were particularly observant. From the very start of high school, things started going downhill. Michael recalls vividly his daily trips by private bus to school. Supposedly obligated to deposit them on time for daily minyan, the driver would pick them up each morning with a different girlfriend in tow, and another video on the screen. Whereupon, instead of coming to daven, they would stop at a local bagel store, non-kosher, of course. Nobody seemed to notice. At school, the principal always cared more for the image of the school than the personal welfare of each student. Lip service was given to Torah studies, and some of the rabbis were nice, but they had been teaching the same subject for many years, and Michael found them uniformly uninspiring. In fact, Michael considers himself more intelligent than some of his rabbis, who were either ill-equipped, or not concerned enough to answer his questions. In any case, it was always clear to Michael that the secular studies department was valued more in the minds of both his parents and the administration. The students who were accepted to Ivy League colleges were placed on a pedestal, while the boys who went to Israel and got ‘brainwashed’ were belittled for their dedication to learning. Michael had toyed with the idea of attending Yeshiva in Israel after high school, like many of his friends were doing, but he had long ago decided that he didn’t want to be religious, and college in Binghamton was his escape from the observant life that was just a burden to him. What could a post high-school Yeshiva offer him, anyhow?

Presently, he is a typical American college student. He has joined a fraternity, he parties hard every weekend, and has dropped all semblance of Jewish observance. Deep in his heart he feels guilty about his lapses, but his anger and confusion at what he has seen portrayed as Orthodox life has left him cynical and embittered.

This picture, all too real, differs substantially from the young men mentioned above. While Type One is a ‘problem’ student, suffering with varied personal difficulties, Michael has never been a problem of any sort. He is normal, well balanced, articulate and intelligent.

To be more specific, the ‘problem’ child is the student who starts with a disadvantage. Whether it be a dysfunctional or broken family, a relationship that soured, or a learning disability that has hampered his academic success, this type of child exists in every sector of American Orthodoxy. In many cases, the difficulties our students face cannot be handled without professional help and guidance, and it behooves our educational staff to have regular enrichment sessions together with psychologists and social service staff. But Michael started with no disadvantages. He represents a particular problem that is limited to the Modern Orthodox community: the detached and disinterested child. By contrast, his Haredi counterpart is not intellectually disillusioned, but rather, emotionally scarred. Many a Haredi dropout has confided in me, incredously: “Rabbi, nobody is turned off from Yiddishkeit, we all know that the Torah is true! We just can’t do it!” With limited exception, this statement accurately reflects the Ocean Parkway scene in Brooklyn, New York. There, hundreds of formerly Haredi teenagers who “hang out” every Friday night (when they are not doing something worse), readily admit to their basic unhappiness. Frustrated and depressed, they turn to drugs not for recreation, but in a desperate need to salvage the happiness of youth. As one of these boys expressed: “One day you just start doing drugs, and then you’re mechallel shabbos, I don’t know why, that’s just the way it goes, no particular reason.”

The same cannot be said for the numerous graduates of Yeshiva High Schools who presently are ‘partying’ and ‘hooking up’ on college campus. These young men and women function quite well, and are not depressed by any means. They have rejected Orthodoxy not out of despair, but rather, because it means nothing to them. Ironically, though this problem is even more serious than the first, its causes are more easily defined, and its solution readily available, if only we were to confront the issue squarely. It is in connection to this group of teens that I wish to address the remainder of this essay.

 What makes Michael run? And why can our schools not stop him and turn him around? Michael is no longer listening, but hundreds of our young people are standing right behind him, waiting for their chance to escape. Watching our students go through the motions of a pro-forma observance, it is clear that we have failed to instill our youth with passion and inspiration, and their casual attitude towards religious ideals demands our attention. Why is it that only Modern Orthodox children need to come to Israel and become more serious about their Jewishness? Is there something in the religious life in Israel, and in their yeshivot, that is lacking back home? Let us then focus on our American educational system, in an attempt to understand the dropout phenomenon before it begins. In this way, perhaps we can install some breakers to help turn back the tide.

While many of our high schools compare structurally to a typical private school, where the institution is controlled by a board of directors, and the professional staff serves at their whim, other schools are run by the Rosh Yeshiva, with the Menahel/Mashgiach and the Rebbeim in control of daily affairs. There are a number of Modern Orthodox institutions that have found success with a different sort of approach, and we would do well to consider their model. In this model, the institution’s goals and standards are set by the Rosh Yeshiva. He and his staff of Rebbeim are viewed – and view themselves – not as skilled men and women in pursuit of a career, with each educational position a stepping stone on the ladder of their own success. And the Rosh Yeshiva is not merely a professional educator who is not required to be a shining example of Torah scholarship. Their image of their school and of themselves is quite different: The Yeshiva is designed to represent the will of the Torah, and the Rosh Yeshiva is the standard bearer of G-d’s word. He reflects a Torah ideal to the next generation, and his only concern is the development of a “Makom Torah,” one that will produce students who actualize the Torah’s values in their own lives.

Teenagers are extremely perceptive, and keenly aware of the subtleties that motivate the policies of school administrations. In a Yeshiva where the students sense that the primary concern of the administration is the development and welfare of each individual, the administration is loved and admired. However – and this is equally true of both traditional Yeshivot and high schools – if the students sense a lack of sincere interest, or witness religious inconsistency in the school’s approach to Torah norms, they will inevitably reject the school and its philosophy, feeling betrayed by a system whose primary concerns are focused on considerations other than Torah. In an ideal Yeshiva, the graduates would continue their studies in the school’s own Bais Medrash program, providing both the image of continuity and role models to aspire to. An added advantage would be a Kollel on campus, some of whose members would be alumni of the Yeshiva, cementing even further the image of Yeshiva as a home, one where a student’s identity is developed and nurtured.

But in our high schools, confused by the mixed religious signals they receive, eighteen year olds – barely fluent in Hebrew texts, not to mention Gemara – are sent off into the world to fend for themselves, as if their Jewish education is now complete. In their baggage, they carry their own confusions, plus the concept instilled in them over the years – that it is important to confront the surrounding society. Thus, they see no need to hesitate before rushing off to the society that beckons, even though they are ill-equipped to confront the culture shock that awaits them. Without a guiding hand, and minus the continuum of some post high school learning that provides identity and anchor, one has to wonder for example, how a healthy teenage boy can handle himself in an environment of inviting coeds. Has he been taught about the Yetzer Hara? Has he been given the tools to remain intensively Jewish in an environment that is not conducive to Jewish learning and living? Does he have a Rebbe with whom to discuss these issues? Certainly, the Torah teaches us that man is required to sanctify the material world, and the engagement of the religious Jew with his physical surroundings is his only opportunity to do so. But, there is a crucial qualification: man must consecrate his world, but he can do so only after he has first sanctified himself, after he has learned to separate right from wrong. But, what is occurring in many of our schools is an assumption that because a child is born into an observant family, he is born with a built-in ability to sanctify himself. We are sending our students out to confront the world without providing him the tools for confrontation, chief of which is a sense of personal spirituality. This is what is meant by the verse “Ki Adam L’Amal Yulad – for man was born to toil” (Job 5:7) a child is born, while a man must be made. It is only with exertion and diligent effort that man discovers the true inner self by which he connects to his Creator, actualizing the latent G-dly image that conceals itself within every child. Man does not become religious or spiritual automatically. One way to help a student to consecrate and sanctify himself is to impart this subtle message: Torah offers an alternative view of what you can be. Perhaps you will become only a bit more spiritual than your friends and family, but the morality and lifestyle popularized on the street is not your way. You are different; you are a child of the Torah Teenagers seek desperately for an identity of their own. His rebbeim can help him find this identity by giving him the spiritual nurturing and confidence that comes with an exposure to genuine and committed Torah learning, and by providing him with the powerful models of Torah living which will give him the self-assurance and courage to forge his own unique Jewish personality. The sad fact is that our present educational system is not doing the job. For one thing, we must honestly recognize that though our communities and lifestyles may be observant, they are not necessarily paragons of piety and religious fervor. Inevitably, our schools reflect the values of the communities they are serving. Thus, our students are deprived of a genuine spiritual message both in their homes, which are often quite casual in their Jewish observance and their study of Torah – and hardly oasis of spirituality – and also in their schools which mirror the values of their community. Deprived of genuine spiritual nurturing, our students have no reason to change, and they miss the opportunity for growth that true choice would provide.

Everyone recognizes that the teenage years are the most crucial in a child’s development. While a younger child sees himself as an extension of his parents, and an adult has long ago developed an identity of his own, the teenager lies somewhere in between, searching for self. In this vacuum left open by his changing psyche, it is the Modern Orthodox teenager who is particularly vulnerable to the varied influences that beckon. In their struggle to crystallize their beliefs and outlooks, they do more than assimilate their studies and teachings. They also refine their identities by reflecting their values against others with whom they interact.

The problem arises when the Modern Orthodox youngster attempts to define his relationship to Torah. Invariably, the casual approach he sees takes over. When he asks himself why he should not be devoting his life to more intensive Torah study, he easily rationalizes with the cliches he has often heard around the dinner table or in back of the Shul – “That’s for black hatters who sit around doing nothing all day”.

In a recent article in Jewish Action magazine, examining a similar dropout phenomenon among Religious Zionist youth in Israel, Moshe Lichtenstein posed the following query: “Who is our poster boy? Is it the religiously observant brigade commander whose Kippah peeks out from under his helmet, his life spent in the army, outside the Beit Midrash…or is it the rabbi who served in the army, but devotes his time and energy to teaching and preaching Torah?” Translated into our own milieu, his question is this: Whom do we admire? Is it the student of outstanding potential whose parents pressured him to return from Israel to begin his studies at Columbia – “and he is still very religious” – or is it the neighborhood scholar now in his third year at Shaalvim, hoping to become a Rosh Yeshiva? Which one of these is our ideal?

I would add one note to Rabbi Lichtenstein’s comment: Who is our children’s’ whipping boy? Who among the Jewish people receives the most criticism from us? In yearly symposiums in Los Angeles, or at scholar-in-residence weekends in New Jersey, among the most popular discussion topics are these: “Why don’t Israeli Yeshiva students enter the army?” Or, “Should Torah scholars rely on others for financial suppport?” Whether or not these subjects are worthy of debate is not the point. These issues – whether or not Torah should be studied exclusively, or whether Kollel should be pursued as a lifelong option – are relevant only to the diligent student who is already mature, religious, idealistic, and committed to Torah. But, the bottom line is that if Torah scholars are demeaned for their lifestyle, our children hear this: I don’t really need to learn. A child must know that the Torah stands alone, infinite and binding, for without the insistent, inescapable demand of G-d’s word, he succumbs to the equally incessant call of the materialistic society around him. If he senses that the Torah is merely one option in an entire spectrum of admirable options, the Torah loses its aura and appeal, and Torah study is no longer an absolute requirement in his life. It is a lovely ideal to hold up Maimoinides the physician, or Rav Soloveitchik z”l, as our models. But we should be careful not to dress our young people in ideological strait-jackets that do not fit. Before they can be citizens of the world, a personal connection with the Creator must be nurtured in every child, not the embracing of certain fashionable outlooks and attitudes that do not address his own relationship with G-d. Rambam and the Rav did not simply go out and engage the outside world. First and foremost, when they were still very young men, they were deply engrossed and became deeply learned in all facets of Torah; they were imbued with a love of G-d and Torah, devoting days and nights to its study: they became sanctified and spiritual Jews, whose prayer to G-d was awesome and who felt a closeness and attachment to their Creator that was physical, emotional, psychological and intellectual. To tell our young people that they must become like these giants is a fine and lofty sentiment; but not to provide our young people with the holiness and inspiration to achieve this – and not to fortify them spiritually before they face an environment that is far more hostile to Torah’s values than ever before – is to fail our young people and cynically to leave them twisting in the wind as they enter the struggle with the outside world.

Only an educational system that sensitizes itself to the particular religious needs of each child can hope to be successful. Only a system that looks at each student as an individual soul, and teaches not only texts but also uplifts and inspires youngsters with the lofty vision of Torah can rescue our schools from the malaise in which they find themselves these days. Perhaps it is time to put aside the philosophical clichés, to remove the blinders from our eyes, to look at the facts on the ground realistically, and to start again from the beginning. For let us bear in mind an obvious truth that we have not imparted successfully to our students: the inculcation of religious values differs substantially from the standard educational process. While secular studies are a normal part of the physical world, and an intelligent and studious child feels an inherent connection to the subject matter that he naturally relates to, Torah can not be acquired in the same manner, for it addresses the otherworldly soul. An attachment to religious studies can flower and develop only with vision, sensitivity, and care. For this reason, many of our students find Talmud “so boring”, for they cannot relate to a world that is higher than their own. To be religious in the modern world demands enlightenment and inspiration, while to be an ordinary scholar, one needs only to excel at his studies. Unless we are keenly aware of this difference, and respond appropriately in the classroom, we will never succeed in motivating our students to rise above themselves. Religious studies alone will not anchor our students to Judaism, nor will guilt hold them steady after they leave our environments.

Consider the following example: In certain institutions, teenage boys and girls learn Torah together in the same classroom. The administration waxes on about equal access, equality, and women’s right to learn, but is completely oblivious to the fact that the average teenager is simply thinking about the opposite sex most of the day. This is symptomatic of our all too common naiveté. Witness one respondent to a recent symposium in a prominent Orthodox journal, who writes that the greatest failure of Modern Orthodoxy is that we have not produced enough artists and poets. They should do more than learn just Torah, but study “the poetry of Rilke, or derive spiritual nourishment…from Viennese painting and that of Paul Klee.” Would that this were our problem – that our students know only Torah. One wonders: to whom are such idealists talking to? Do they know the true interests of today’s youth? For most of my students, the only literature they know is People magazine, and many consider a good Stephen King monologue to be fine poetry. They care nothing about Mozart, and probably never heard of him; their musical tastes run from Metallica to Snoop Doggy Dogg. We are teaching our students beautiful words, but their hearts and minds are elsewhere. Should we be surprised when their commitment to Torah begins to unravel?

Let me not paint too bleak a picture. None of this is meant to deny that our communities are also filled with many outstanding young men who are dedicated to Torah learning and committed to Halacha and Mitzvot. They are a pleasure and joy to behold. But, the many successes of Modern Orthodoxy are not a contradiction to the ideas expressed here. To those familiar with the scene, we know that without the year or two in Israel, when our students have the chance to remove themselves from the American lifestyle, even our best and brightest would sink as quickly as they reached the nearest college campus. Rather than burst with pride at the wonderful things that yeshivot in Israel do for our young people, this phenomenon should give us pause; why can we not inspire our own children, ourselves?

Our challenge is two-fold: in addition to learning how to cope with the difficult child, we must improve the structure of our institutions, creating a personal, caring atmosphere that sees Torah study and Yirat Shamayim as its prime objective. We must do a better job of establishing Torah environments, providing each school with men of stature who represent the Torah in the eyes of their students, people who understand the challenges of youth, and who can establish the relationships necessary for a teenager to thrive religiously amidst a secular society. We must encourage young, aspiring educators to focus on the problem of the disinterested teenager, and give these teachers the framework and opportunities to reach the children we are losing in the classroom. We must be certain that our children are exposed to Talmidei Chachamim; that they meet people who embody Torah, men and women whom they admire and respect. We must provide models for them to emulate, a living ideal for which to strive. They should be fully aware that the Torah truly has the answers to our questions, and is the solution to our needs.

We must not allow our students to slip away, unnoticed. We must establish a network of concerned educators who dedicate the time and effort to maintain contact with their former students, long after they leave our schools. Every student who has once attended Yeshiva should feel forever that he has a place of his own, one where learning is important, and where his continued development as a religious Jew is somebody’s concern. We must give back our schools to the Rebbeim and educators whose job it is to open our children’s eyes, with wonder and pride, to the Torah transmitted to them from their own Rebbeim. Only in this way, can we hope to counteract the tide of secularism and hedonism that envelops our society.

To summarize: while Yeshivot should strive to redirect the dreams of youth towards a more spiritual direction, the message our children receive is that everything is A-OK., and isn’t it wonderful to be an American. We are out of touch with the true preoccupations of the majority of our youth, and hence incapable of influencing them in the right direction. We must face up to the fact that for many students in Modern Orthodox institutions, the home life that they have been exposed to falls far short of Halachic standards. Instead, they are part of a lifestyle that breeds cynicism, and even contempt, for anything that demands a more precise exactitude of Halachic observances. If their parents are not truly religious, and their schools do not reflect the highest levels of Torah dedication, what is left?

We are asking them to give up a world of glamour and allure. For what? Are we showing them that the Torah will offer them more than foregoing the party of their friends? Do they understand the grandeur and pride of religious devotion? Have we given them a sense of fulfillment for learning a Blatt Gemara? Are we sure that they even know how to learn a Blatt Gemara? This article appeared in Jewish Action, Fall 5761, and was submitted by the author. Without the religious fervor and excitement of those who search for the word of G-d, and without the encouragement, admiration, and support of a community that sees Torah study as a badge of honor, our children see no overwhelming reason to devote their time to the tedious study of difficult texts.

 We cannot hope to solve the problems at home, but we can do this: we can learn to identify the things that are truly important, and try to expose our Michaels to pure Torah in its most pristine form. In this way, wherever they go, they will remember with pride and joy the anchor of their youth, and when the rough spots come, they will know where to turn.