Friday, October 30, 2009

What the Heck? Nike Doesn't Seem to Acknowledge that Anyone Lives in Israel!

A while back I started listening to podcasts during my commute, while I run, do the dishes, you name it. The best way to listen to podcasts, is on an Ipod, which I love. (It's really a fantastic blend of hardware and software.) My cousin, who knows that I run, graciously sent me a Nike+Ipod kit. Basically, it's a little pod that you put in your Nike shoe (which I happen to have), which tells your Ipod how fast you're running and how far you went, and helps you keep track of your runs. It sounds kinda silly, but it really does help. For some reason, I want to hear that lady tell me, "Congratulations. You've reached your goal."
Nike even has this great website, called NikeRunning where you can keep track of your runs, set goals - all kinds of nice things. And then there's a feature called "MapIt." (you may need to log in to access the site.)
Apparently, MapIt is a way to map runs of different distance. You can enter your location, and either enter new routes or find routes that other people have already entered.
Being that I live in Israel, that's what I searched for. And while Nike does have Israel on the map, no one seems to live here. It's totally blank. See for yourself.

I have three words for Nike: What the heck? Why is it that I can map a route in Amman, Jordan or Qalaat Deba, Lebanon, but not in Tiberias or Tel Aviv? Who decides that Arab countries get to have roads and cities, but Israel does not?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Audio Shiur: Lech Lecha - The First Oleh, The First Aliyah Challenges

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Lech Lecha - The First Oleh, The First Aliyah Challenges
Avram's struggles as he moves to the Promised Land, both in Cana'an and especially in Egypt, portend greatly for his descendants. We discuss how the different perspectives of Rashi, the Midrash and Ramban deal with Avram's choices during his first foray into the Holy Land.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below. And if you're wondering where the cool Lego picture is from, check out this site.

Click to play the Shiur (or right-click to download)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Something is Very Much Wrong

An article in the Wall Street Journal about how students who participate in Birthright trips are far less likely to intermarry included a quote from Michael Steinhardt, a primary supporter of the program.
Mr. Steinhardt, 68 years old, says the study results were encouraging, but he is concerned that education in Jewish upbringing is falling short if one trip can make such a difference in marriage behavior. "Something is very much wrong" in upbringing, he says. Mr. Steinhardt, who describes himself as an atheist, has said he supports Taglit because he wants to pass along Judaism's humanistic values.
I really don't get Michael Steinhardt. On one hand, he criticizes parents for not imparting Jewish values in their children during their upbringing. On the other hand, he calls himself an atheist and only really values the parts of Judaism that are "humanistic."
It would be easy to criticize Steinhardt for the hypocrisy of leading a culturally Jewish life himself but criticizing parents for the way that they raise their children. But I can't. I feel sad for him. Really, I do. He must feel so conflicted.
Someone with only "cultural" connections to the Jewish people doesn't invest tens of millions of dollars in sending Jewish kids to Israel. He doesn't form a foundation funding numerous initiatives critical to enhancing Jewish life - many of them involved in different forms of Jewish religious life. He doesn't invest a huge part of his time and energy to rejuvenating the Jewish people. It just doesn't add up. There's got to be more there.
In this case, in a truly positive way, Steinhardt's actions speak much louder than his words.

Update: (October 30): I recently saw this article on the JTA blog from Mr. Steinhardt about his personal beliefs:
For years Steinhardt has touted himself as an atheist, making his disbelief in God very much a part of his public persona and his identity as a Jewish philanthropist (another phrase he hates)
Yet in talking about how to boost Jewish education, he suggested that Jewish parents join their children in struggling honestly with the notion of God. That, he said, is the Jewish tradition, citing the open squabbles that Abraham, Moses and Job all had with God.
“A God with whom we struggle is a God I could accept and still look myself in the mirror the next morning. And I suspect it is also a God that the next generation of Jews can live with as well,” Steinhardt said. “Our kids will respect us if they feel we are talking to them about a kind of Deity that we, ourselves, struggle to comprehend. It will convince them that we, their parents, are for real; that we aren’t trying to push some pious sounding, but insincere, horse manure on them. In the end, we can only gain by speaking honestly about this. I think it will not lead our kids away from faith. It might even lead them towards it.”
I guess I can say I was ahead of the curve on this one. Oh yes, my favorite Steinhardt quote from the piece:
When asked by an audience member what advice he would give to new graduates of Reform and Conservative rabbinical seminaries, he replied, “Go to Wall Street."

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Beautiful Friday Night Experience

Rena joined the staff of MMY this year, and they invited us to join the girls on their Shabbaton to Tzfat last week. We had a wonderful time - Rena gave a shiur Friday night, I spoke at Seudah shelishit. The gabbai in the Ari shul Shabbat morning reminded me of Manny Mittelman. (Simcha too!) But the highlight for me, by far, was the davening on Friday night.
We were supposed to daven in a specific shul, but I had the map upside-down and got lost. So we started following some people who seemed like they knew where to go, and ended up in an open square where some yeshiva bochurim had set up a couple of mechitzot. They were still davening minchah, so we joined. At the time there were maybe 20 young men, and about fifteen women.
Then Kabbalat Shabbat began, Carlebach style. The young men began to sway. Then they started jumping, up and down, literally bouncing around with energy. Lechu neranena ended, and we began singing shiru lashem. When we finished the words, the song just kept going, and we began dancing in a circle. Only by this time, a group of chareidi yeshiva students who were walking by joined in. About ten minutes later (the same song still going strong), an platoon of soldiers wandered into the square, and a few joined the dancing, their rifles swinging on their backs. It was such a powerful scene; how from twenty yeshiva students there were suddenly hundreds in the square, many watching, but so many singing, dancing, ushering in Shabbat. The circle was what I'd call a "Breslov-style" circle. The problem with regular circles is that when too many people join, there's just not enough room to move. So the circle slows down to a shuffle, killing the energy of the dancing. (This is now my preferred circle - the outermost circle at most weddings that I attend - the shuffling old-guy circle.) But with Breslov Chassidim, when that happens, they swing part of the circle inwards, forming an inverse petal on a flower. In this way, they can add room for more people without slowing the dance.
When I saw them do this it gave me a powerful feeling; that in this circle in which we danced, I felt an almost unlimited ability to expand. No matter how many people joined the circle, there would still be enough room, in that small square, for the dancing to continue at full speed.
The chief rabbi of Tzfat, Rav Shmuel Eliyahu was there, and during a lull they asked him to say a few words. He spoke about the power and joy that emanates from shirah - from song.
It was probably the longest Kaballat Shabbat I've ever participated in. But it doesn't feel like it was. Still over a week later, the davening that evening continues to warm my heart.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"What Did You Learn about the Parshah?"

A parent in my community recently sent out an email to the community listserve, complaining about many shortcomings he perceives in the local school. Among his complaints he noted that,
But we were tired of kids coming home every friday without knowing anything about the parsha
Truth be told, I don't agree with what he wrote about the school. We've had great experiences with our children at that school. But what bothers me here is how many if not most parents evaluate much of their children's religious education: through the d'var Torah they expect on the weekly parshah.
Schools spend very little time teaching Parshat Hashavua, for good reason. It's not in the curriculum. The weekly parshah has very little to do with the study of chumash, navi, halachah, or gemara. It doesn't build skills nor good study habits, and were schools to simply relate the information contained in the parshah, the children wouldn't really have something "good" to say. Sure, it's part of the Jewish cycle and an important part of the davening on Shabbat (notwithstanding the personal obligation to review the parshah each week), but it just doesn't fit into the framework of most schools. And yet, come Friday night parents around the world ask their children the question: what did you learn about the parshah this week? They act as if they spend all that money on their kids' education simply to hear a good vort after their chicken soup, knowing full well that the parshah really doesn't fit into the curriculum. Teachers know this, so they make sure to give the kids a good "vort" to repeat at the table, creating a ridiculous kind of circle: parents want to hear a dvar Torah at the table, so schools spend precious learning time giving children relatively meaningless divrei Torah for them to repeat, sacrificing important learning time in the process.
School isn't for my children to learn a good vort on the parshah. I want them to spend their time studying, working, reading, and focusing on skills. Moreover, our children aren't performers, and they don't really know how to give a d'var Torah. (How many parents do?) And yet, we judge their schools based on whether they come home with a parshah sheet to read at the table.
Our kids are not teachers. Instead of expecting them to teach us Torah, shouldn't we be the ones teaching them at the Shabbat table? And instead of asking our children what they learned about the parshah, why not ask them to take out their chumash and share what they're learning in their real chumash class - even if it's not this week's parshah? Our children will have something intelligent to share, and that's the best and only way to find out what they're really learning in school.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Audio Shiur: Parshat Noach - Humanity and Sexuality

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Noach - Humanity and Sexuality
This is not the Noach story that you learned in grade school. That story focused on animals, boats and a lot of rain. The real story - the underlying story - paints a troubling picture of a society that had lost its moorings, and warranted destruction. What went wrong? What was so bad about the generation of the flood? And most importantly, what implications does Noach's generation have for us?

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Elephant in the Room 2: More Comments on College Campus Life

A commenter on the Jewish Star website responded to my article about attending college in America. I'll take his comments piece by piece and respond.
Attending a Jewish university may well have been the perfect decision for a Rabbi wishing to live in Israel.
First of all, let's set the record straight: When I attended college, I had no rabbinic aspirations whatsoever. I was actually interested in engineering, and figured that I would enroll in a joint program with Columbia University in that discipline. After attending YU, I changed my mind (I really didn't want to stop my Torah learning completely), and switched to Computer Science (in which I got my bachelors degree). When I finished college, I still wanted to continue learning (and had already enrolled in Semichah.) I still thought that I would end up working in the computer science field, and felt that a Ba'al Habayit with semichah can often influence communities in ways that even a rabbi cannot. (For that I can give credit to my father.) Only during semichah was I bitten by the rabbi "bug" and decided to enter the professional rabbinate. So none of my personal decisions to attend YU or study for semichah were related to a career decision. Rather, they emanated from a desire to continue my Torah education first and foremost, while I furthered my secular education.
However, for those of us who wish to build our lives and careers as Modern Orthodox Jews in America, or for that matter, anywhere else in the world, there can be no question that attending the best university that we are capable of opens doors and provides competitive advantage. Doing so at night or by commuting to school every day closes some of the most valuable doors that help transform children into adults – those related to social networking or extracurricular activities.
I strongly disagree with the assertion that you need to hang out in the college dorm in order to make the proper social bonds to succeed in your career and "get ahead." I just don't think it's true. Sure, if you're a member of "Skull and Bones" at Yale, that might get you a head-start on your presidential run, but do you really need to live on campus to write for the school paper, or participate in the economics society? Is it really necessary in order to get the "good job"?
Let's say that you learned at the Milwaukee yeshiva and attended the University of Wisconsin (which some yeshiva students have done). When you get to the interview, do you think that they're going to ask you about your favorite football tailgate party? The Wisconsin degree is strong enough on its own. Finally, most "good jobs" demand a graduate school degree. In grad school, no one lives on campus. Many students work and attend school, and even if they don't, they most often find housing near but not "on" campus. Those grad school connections are just fine to get into the most prestigious law firms. And to get into graduate school, you don't really need to have had a campus experience. Plenty of good yeshiva students (men and women) have gained admission to the most - the most - elite graduate schools in America with a BTL or a YU degree.
But his (rather weak) point raises a different question: let's assume that his incorrect assertion is actually correct, and that spending the four years on campus actually did open the doors to the inner sanctum of professional success. Would it be worth it? Would the benefits of those doors opening outweigh the spiritual challenges and dangers inherent in college campus life? I don't think so.
And YU is not the best of both worlds; it barely ranks in the Top 50 colleges, and Stern provides a worse education for women than that.
Hey, don't get me wrong, but top 50 is pretty good, if you ask me. A great number of liberal arts colleges would love to get into the top 50. More important is one of the main reasons that YU actually ranks so high: its students have very strong academic records, and consistently gain admission to the best graduate schools. In fact, I would argue that YU's placing in the rankings speak volumes about its success: YU could never compete with the course offerings and facilities of numerous colleges across the country. That's a function of the dual-curriculum, location, and many other factors. And yet, it still ranks in the top 50 every year. That's not bad.
One might ask why a competitive advantage is so necessary. The answer is the reason that we are MODERN Orthodox Jews – we want to live successfully in this world while observing Halachah, and, we’d like to provide funding for organizations such as the one for which Rabbi Spolter works.
Now he's starting to sound a little silly. You need to not only attend college in Penn, but live on campus so that you can get into the "good" businesses to make enough money to support Orot. Actually, I like that last part. We'd love to accept any donations you can send our way. But if you're looking to build a wildly successful business that will generate money to give to my workplace, maybe going to college isn't the best idea. The most successful businessman, in my experience, are not college graduates per se, but entrepreneurs who struck out on their own with passion, an idea, and a ridiculous amount of guts. Look at the Forbes 400 list: Bill Gates (dropout), Lawrence Ellison (dropped out of University of Chicago), the Waltons. The wealthiest members of my shul either made their money from a business they started, or inherited it from someone who did. (See the entire Walton/Walmart family). Perhaps one could argue that we put too much emphasis on going to college and working for someone else. What the Jewish community needs badly are precisely what we don't have enough of: gutsy, passionate business people with exciting ideas who are willing to take crazy enough risks to make it really big. And living on campus has no positive influence on those kinds of jobs. None at all.
Living as a Modern Orthodox Jews is complicated – we are often caught in a balancing act between what feels like two worlds. If we wish to teach our children to live as Modern Orthodox Jews in America (and not simply sitting in Kollel), we must teach them to be comfortable and strong in their beliefs. Where better for a test run than at college, where the stakes are low and they are surrounded by their peers? Rather than having to awkwardly explain to a boss and coworkers that you cannot order the shrimp on the menu, you could have already perfected your lines, explanation of Kashrut, and comfort during college.
Of course Modern Orthodoxy requires balance, trying to live between two worlds. But that doesn't mean immersing yourself in the center of hedonism and debauchery (the college campus) and expecting yourself to emerge unaffected. Campus life - the drinking, partying and sex, is one of the primary motivating elements driving many students' choices when picking a school. How then could a religious parent just shrug it off? "The stakes are low" in college? Sorry, but at that point in life, when students are young, prone to experimentation, and are in the process of forming their identity, the stakes are not low: they're at their highest. Instead of "perfecting their lines", too many Orthodox kids are accepting that drink, eating the shrimp, and abandoning Orthodoxy.
Rabbi Spolter’s article reeks of a slippery slope that ends in isolation. Yes, there is a chance that by crossing the street, one can get hit by a car, but the solution is not to live as hermits. Rather, we should teach our children to look both ways, decide when to walk and when to wait, and tread thoughtfully as strong individuals.
Like it or not, Judaism believes in a large degree of isolation. What are the laws of kashrut - especially the numerous rabbinic laws like pat akum, yayin nochri, gevinat akum and the like, if not blatant attempts to establish a line of separation between Jew and non-Jew? The eruv ensures that we live in our own communities; we send our children to private schools not just for the Jewish studies, but also to shield them from the influences of wider society. Of course we protect ourselves and our children. Not to do so would spell suicide for our way of life and the values we hold dear.
And yet, I agree that there must be a balance. College does have a great deal to offer in terms of the disciplines in academia, learning to develop a deeper mode of thought, and even just learning the skills of a needed trade. I have never advocated not studying in college. I went to one myself. What I reject is the need for our children to live at that college, to soak up the "college experience", and expose themselves to the negative spiritual influences so detrimental to their spiritual growth and identity.
That's not a slippery slope. It's falling off the deep end.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Shameless Self-Promotion Department

The recent post that I wrote about Orthodoxy and the college campus was recently printed in the Jewish Star. (You know, the well-read weekly published on Long Island? You don't know? Truth be told, neither did I. But now I know.)
Link here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Audio Shiur: Parshat Bereishit - The Roles of Men and Women

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Bereishit - The Roles of Men and Women
The age-old struggle over the roles of men and women in society emanates from the careful words of the Chumash describing our creation. How was Woman created? What was her original status vis-a-vis man? By looking at both the text itself, together with Rashi and the view of the Midrash, we struggle with the worldview that emanates from the Chumash, and how it contrasts with our modern-day attitudes towards this critical issue.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Conscientious Objectors - Parshat Bereishit Edition

Returning to Bereishit - the beginning of the Torah - brings a certain comfort: a return to the familiar and a revisiting of stories that we know but reread with a fresh perspective. It was in this light that a read an article in this morning's Jerusalem Post: "High-school students decry 'occupation'":
Claiming to represent over 80 of their peers, four high school seniors on Monday publicly announced their refusal to serve in the IDF because of what they termed the "occupation and oppression in the occupied territories."
"We, male and female Jews and Arabs from all across the country whose signatures are below, declare that we will take action against the Israeli government's policy of occupation and oppression in the conquered territories and in Israel, and therefore refuse to take part in those actions, which are done in our names by the Israel Defense Forces, We were born into the reality of the occupation and many in our generation see it as something 'natural.' For most of society it is obvious that at the age of 18, every young man and woman must join the Israeli army. But we cannot ignore the truth - the occupation is a violent, racist, inhumane, illegal, undemocratic, immoral and an extreme condition that presents a mortal danger to both peoples. We, who were educated on the values of liberty, justice, honesty and peace, cannot accept it."
Reading about their objection, what struck me wasn't their naivete, or chutzpah or lack of appreciation for the IDF. I wondered: Only four students? That's it? And even if they really do represent eighty, only eighty? That's all the students that they could find? I'll explain.
These students have been spoon-fed a left-leaning liberal education from kindergarten, completely devoid of any Jewish value or content. In their worldview, the State of Israel is simply one nation among many, without any special or unique claim to the land. It promotes freedom, democracy and human rights for all people (which it does). From that perspective, the Palestinians have just as much right to be here as we do, if not more. After all, they've been here longer than most of us (at least most recently).
This is, of course, the perspective that drives much of the liberal camp campaigning against Israel from the United Nations, to the Hague to the Netherlands (see Barack Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize). In a way, I truly do understand them. If we have no unique claim to the Land of Israel, then it's easy to see us as "occupiers" who "oppress" the Palestinians in the West Bank. They do not have a say in their elected representatives - at least in the larger sense. They don't live in their own country. Their land was taken over by military force in 1967, and we really have no business being there. I get it.
But if these are the values which underlie these kids' noble sentiments, what strikes me isn't their passion and commitment, but the lack of any such passion on the part of their peers. There shouldn't be four or even eighty conscientious objectors - there should be hundreds! Where are the rest of the liberal Israeli youth, refusing to serve in the imperialist IDF? I can think of only three possibilities:
  1. Most kids get a substandard liberal education, so they don't really appreciate the worldview enough to stand against it (quite possible)
  2. The education is fine, but teenagers are too self-centered and apathetic to take a stand like these kids (most likely)
  3. The kids are getting an education, but one rich enough in Jewish values to forestall this ultra-liberal perspective (much less likely in my view).
What Jewish values? Actually, it's the first Rashi in the Torah.
אמר רבי יצחק לא היה צריך להתחיל את התורה אלא מהחודש הזה לכם שהיא מצוה ראשונה שנצטוו בה ישראל ומה טעם פתח בבראשית משום (תהלים קי"א) כח מעשיו הגיד לעמו לתת להם נחלת גוים שאם יאמרו אומות העולם לישראל ליסטים אתם שכבשתם ארצות שבעה גוים הם אומרים להם כל הארץ של הקב"ה היא הוא בראה ונתנה לאשר ישר בעיניו ברצונו נתנה להם וברצונו נטלה מהם ונתנה לנו:
Said Rabbi Yitzchak: the Torah should only have begun from "This month is to you" which is the first commandment in the Torah that Israel was commanded. Why does the Torah begin at Bereishit? Because, "The power of His deeds He told to His nation, in order to give them the portion of the nations” (Psalms 111) That if the nations of the world say to Israel, "You are thieves! You conquered the land of the seven nations!" Israel could respond, "The whole world belongs to God. He created it and gave it to whoever was righteous in His eyes. With His will he gave it to them, and with His will He took it from them and gave it to us."
The very first Rashi in the Torah (by the way, my wife Rena wrote a great piece on this Rashi available here) addresses the concerns of our four students: we didn't steal the land. God gave it to us. But these kids lack a fundamental fact underlying Rashi's premise. Rashi assumes that the Jews appreciate the difference between themselves and other nations; that they appreciate the calling of the Jewish people, and our special and unique role in the world. But our passionate Israeli kids feel none of that. Let's return to their letter in which they write,
Out of responsibility and concern for the two nations who live in this country, we cannot stand aside.
In their mind, the State of Israel isn't a Jewish State. It's a democratic state, inhabited by both Jews and Arabs, both with equal rights and claims to the land. We're not different or unique. Rather, we're just one of "two nations who live in this country". Rashi fundamentally disagrees. The verse in Pslams that states "The power of His deeds He told to His nation, in order to give them the portion of the nations” teaches us two critical things:
  1. We are "His nation" - God's nation - with unique responsibilities and obligations
  2. We are not "the nations". We stand apart, separate and distinct
Without an appreciation for those two fundamentals, you cannot accept Rashi's argument. If everyone's the same, then we did steal the Land.
I'm not angry at these children. I don't think that they're ungrateful or selfish; quite the opposite. They seem passionate and committed to the beliefs. What they do make me is sad - for them and for us. They were raised in the Modern State of Israel, as Jews living in one of the most exciting times in Jewish history. And yet, they have zero appreciation for the uniqueness of the Jewish people, and no understanding of any Jewish connection to the Land of Israel. That's not their fault. It's our fault.
Bibi Netanyahu recently said that the Palestinians "must recognize Israel as Jewish state for there to be peace". Before we start worrying about our enemies, we better start paying more attention to our own children.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Housing Crisis

Israel certainly faces its share of challenges: from the Palestinians to Hamas to Hizballah to Iran, there's never a lack of things to worry about. Funny thing is, though, that living here, you don't really spend that much time worry about the "big" things. Sure, if there's a war or an attack, God forbid, it occupies everyone's mind. But most of the time, life goes on. We have bigger things to worry about. And by bigger things, I'm talking about housing.
Everyone knows about Barack Obama's building freeze. But that's just in the "occupied" territories. (Just as an aside, over Chol Hamoed we took the family on a great tiyyul walking Nachal Kanah, walking from Yakir to Karnei Shomron. It surprised me a little to see that they were pounding away with the machines at a foundation for a new house in Yakir. Some freeze. It was also kind of a sad hike. The wadi is literally surrounded by Jewish settlements. Yet, my cousins - who were leading us on the hike - said that were it not Chol Hamoed, with security blanketing the area, they would not feel safe to hike the nachal on their own. But I digress.)
The housing crunch affects Israelis across the country. It's well-known that you can't buy a house, attached or not, for anything less than a million-point-two (or three) shekel. Same goes for an apartment in a major city. Sure, there are depressed areas you can buy in, but if you want a normal (read here: small by American standards) home or apartment in a regular area, it's just really, really expensive.
Combine that with the fact that Israelis build demographically: they build by constituency for a specific group, either Religious Zionist, Chareidi, Secular, Mixed - it's always built with a specific community in mind, which pits groups against each-other in the battle for available land. (that's what just happened in Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel. I heard that the Chareidim won, which isn't really a surprise, as there's a new Chareidi mayor in Beit Shemesh). And, if you want to build a new yishuv or small town, on the western side of the green line, forget it. Bureaucracy, green-groups and simple politics will bog you down for years.
So you think to yourself: one-point-four million shekel (the price just went up while you were reading) - that's not that much. It's only four hundred thousand dollars, give or take. A steal by Teaneck standards. Remember one thing: this aint Teaneck. And while an Oleh might be fortunate to have sold their overpriced New Jersey home for a prophet (forget about former Detroiters), what about a young Israeli couple, surviving on salaries that are about a quarter of American standards? It's American housing prices on Israeli salaries.
And that's a recipe for a housing crisis.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Elephant in the Room: Some Troubling Truths

Your son is ecstatic. He just received a letter granting him admission to the summer program of his dreams; five weeks at the highly prestigious summer science learning program in Maine where he'll study with noted experts in physics and chemistry, areas of particular interest to him. You've been encouraging him to expand his horizons; taking him to scientific competitions and lectures for years, so you find his enthusiasm encouraging.
What about kashrut? Shabbat? Sure, it might be challenging for him to deal with religious observance over the summer. But that's what real life is about, isn't it? But then your rabbi (or blogger) confronts you with a troubling statistic: 25 percent of all Orthodox attendees to the summer program drop their Orthodoxy. Despite your skepticism, the rabbi/blogger shows you the surveys and it's true: one-quarter of all Orthodox camp participants abandon Orthodox practice.
Would you encourage your son to go? It's my blog so I can say it: I wouldn't. After spending so much time, effort, blood, sweat, tears and money on conveying the importance of Jewish life to my children, how could I risk it all on one summer - no matter how enriching it may be?
If you haven't realized it by now, I'm not writing about a summer program. No, I'm writing about attending secular college.
I'm reading a fascinating symposium published in a special issue of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah's Meorot Journal about Modern Orthodox education. In an important symposium, Rabbi Todd Berman writes about preparing students to thrive in non-Orthodox environments, specifically secular colleges. His essay focuses on important ways to mitigate the effects of the pressures to abandon religious life on campus, like:
1. Sending educators from high schools to visit kids on campus
2. Helping students form critical social bonds within the Orthodox groups on campus
3. Offering valuable courses both in high school and in Israel to help prepare them for college life
All of these represent good ways to help our kids retain their connection to Orthodoxy on the college campus. And yet, I wonder. Rabbi Berman himself states the numbing numbers:
"one-quarter of the students who come to college as Orthodox Jews…changed their denominational identity while at college," (Avi Chai Foundation, “Particularism in the University: Realities and Opportunities for Jewish Life on Campus,” Report, Jan. 2006)
That's right. One quarter. If twenty students graduated this past June from your local yeshiva high school and headed off to campus, five of them won't consider themselves Orthodox in four years - after a full twelve years of intensive Orthodox education. What causes this drop off? It's not the intellectual pressures, by and large. No, it's the social environment.
The campus culture, while ostensibly "celebrating pluralism," often lacks tolerance for what is seen as xenophobic tribalism. Orthodox students are sometimes made to feel odd for maintaining religious observance at the expense of partaking fully in the smorgasbord of cultural delicacies offered. However, both of these issues, while not insignificant, pale in comparison to the social pressures and realities of campus life. As one junior put it, "it is hard to be 'shomer negi`ah' when a girl sits down on your lap during orientation." From the promiscuous parties sponsored by the university to the open support of binge drinking, to the small things like the experience of living in an openly coed dormitory, students are made to feel, as one student told me, odd for not being sexually and socially active. A former student once remarked that just as the State of Israel lowered the red line on the Kinneret Sea, pretending that the water level had not yet declined to the danger zone, so do students redraw their own red lines, or even worse, forget why they were there in the first place. It is quite difficult to describe the tsunami of social-sexual pressure crashing down on the religiously oriented student. These social pressures, and not the academic or even the cultural, are the most difficult to withstand.
We often overlook this reality by telling ourselves that sooner or later our children will have to confront "real life." I'm sorry, but the college campus does not represent "real life. "In "real life", women don't sit down on men's laps. In a normal workplace, that would constitute an inappropriate sexual advance which would be addressed immediately. Binge drinking might happen after work hours, but no one forces you to join your coworkers at the bar. In "real life" you can choose your roommates and the values you wish to maintain in your home. Can you do that on campus? In "real life" Orthodox people have the ability to avoid many of these challenging situations - something they cannot do on the college campus, where the parties take place on your floor - and probably right in your room.
Still, we satisfy ourselves with platitudes: "no solution works for every student". "Yeshiva University isn't the answer for everyone". Of course that's true. But we then use those platitudes to justify sending our children to terribly dangerous spiritual situations. There's a world of difference between "perfect" - or a zero percent drop-off rate, and "exponentially better than twenty percent". Rabbi Berman writes,
Without a doubt, Yeshiva University remains for many a safe haven; yet more and more yeshiva high school graduates are bound for secular campuses.
I have a simple question: If a "save haven" exists, why do parents send "more and more" of their children to "unsafe" environments? In trying to offer solutions to a glaring problem, we're avoiding the elephant in the room, and failing to state the obvious: Secular residential college - any secular residential college - presents a serious and even mortal danger to our childrens' well-being. It's just not worth the risk.
Sadly, while many in Jewish education agree with me, no Modern Orthodox educator or administrator can actually say this. Parents would never tolerate an educator who, in their minds, discouraged his or her students from attending college (which they would not be doing; they would only be discouraging them from attending a residential college. Plenty of yeshiva students - both male and female - attend numerous secular colleges during the afternoons and evenings and seem to thrive both educationally and spiritually). Educators do not tell the truth for fear of losing their positions. Even Rabbi Berman seems to play this game.
It is incumbent upon the community to empower our students to succeed in the college environment. We can achieve this goal if we keep several issues in mind: the positive social networks in place in high school or Israeli yeshiva should be maintained through developing programs for our alumni, refocusing our expenditures of energy on what is happening on the campus, promoting key social networks in college, and being realistic about what we expect to accomplish.
Which is it? Can we achieve this goal of empowering our students to succeed in the college environment? What then does it mean for us to be "realistic about what we expect to accomplish"? What's a realistic drop-off rate for Orthodoxy? Fifteen percent? Ten percent?
It's time for Jewish educators to start speaking the truth: We cannot "achieve this goal." The college campus promotes values antithetical to Orthodox Jewish life. Those are simply the facts, and we permit ourselves to pretend otherwise at the expense of our children's spiritual well-being.
So I'll say it: Please do not send your child to a secular, residential college - even one with a strong Hillel and Orthodox community on campus. It's not worth the risk, and certainly not the benefits.
The options truly abound. He or she can attend YU, or Lander - or even college in Israel; he can live at home or study in a yeshiva and attend college at night, and still gain admittance the most exclusive graduate schools in the world. Many, many Jewish kids have and continue to do just that.
And while the numbers aren't perfect, the vast majority of them still consider themselves Orthodox today.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Shopping for the Arba Minim

For Simcha's afikomen present (yes, that's right, afikomen. We could be better about giving presents in a timely manner) Rena promised to take Simcha into Yerushalayim for a day. She finally got around to that day this week, and decided to take him into the city on Thursday. I suggested that we take him to go by a Lulav and Etrog set - something that neither Simcha nor Rena had ever experienced.
The Lulav-buying experience has changed significantly over time. When I grew up, we bought our lulavim at Rabbi Anemer's house - he's the rabbi of the Young Israel where I grew up. (I have no idea if he still sells the four species or not.) He had a ping-pong table in his basement where he spread out the lulavim and etrogim. People would come into his home, say hi to his wife cooking something in the kitchen, and gingerly descend the narrow set of stairs down to the basement, where we - his students - would be sitting, hours on end, cutting our fingers binding lulavim together into sets; sorting kosher hadasim from non-kosher; grading etrogim. We did everything, from cleaning the lulavim with a toothbrush to assembling the final sets. Some people wanted to stand around and choose each and every piece. Others were quite happy to be handed a finished set, pay the rabbi quickly and be on their way.
It was in that musty basement that I learned how to choose a lulav: how to look for the straightness of the spine, like a guitar player checking out a potential new instrument. I learned to spot what was the beginnings of a split at the top (truly the most challenging aspect of lulav-selection), and the various blemishes endemic to the etrog.
But times seem to have changed. Nowadays, most arba-minim sellers have already graded their wares and divided them by price. You can't really find a gem for cheap; they know, and have sorted the good ones from the "cheap" pile. Most bookstores in America sell the sets already assembled. The hadasim come in plastic bags, complete with hechsherim and grading. I missed the old way - the way that I used to choose a lulav; zillions to look at, waiting for the one that called out to me, instead of buying a sealed box hoping that I got lucky.
So we went to Machane Yehuda, one of several locations where the municipality of Jerusalem had constructed outdoor markets to sell arba minim. To get to the tent, we walked through the market. I had forgotten about the onslaught of colors and smells; the closed quarters and traffic jams, as we squeezed our way past stalled tomato carts and overflowing spice stalls.
At last we emerged and made our way to the arba minim. It was as I had imagined: table after table of arba minim of varying colors, textures, shapes, and of course, prices. I saw something I had never before seen: an orange etrog - completely and totally orange. Was it kosher? I have no idea.
We started moving from table to table to get a sense of price and merchandise. I showed Simcha the basics of arba-minim shopping: is it better to get one with the brown sediment still on? What happens if it falls off? What's a good yellow, and what's a gold that will turn brown on the second day of Chol Hamoed.
I ended up buying the separate elements of my set from a single table. 50 shekel for my lulav; 60 for my etrog. 50 for the hadasim. (I only bought grade A - there were three kinds of grade "a" hadasim. I opted against the 80 shekel AA hadasim. That seemed a bit much.) 5 for aravot, and another 10 for the plastic ziplock bag. I bargained down to 160 shekel, and thought I had done well.
But the salesman at the very next table had been barking, continually for a least a half-hour: "Fifty shekel for a set! Fifty shekel! An entire set!" I set Simcha to work. He chose an etrog and lulav, and even got a plastic zipper bag, all for fifty shekel. Sure, mine were better pieces individually. But were they three times better? I wondered. Either way, it was far, far less than the ninety dollars I had paid in America, I kept reminding myself.
We made our way back to town, stopping in a clothing store (for Rena) where we bumped into a couple visiting from Teaneck. The man noticed my lulavim, and after I told him where we had bought them asked how much I paid.
"Fifty", I said, pointing to Simcha's, "and one-sixty", holding mine aloft. The difference in price surprised him.
"What's the difference between them?" his wife wondered.
"Let me see your diamond," I said. "What's the difference between a really expensive diamond and a cheap one? Color, cut and clarity. Truly subtle differences. The same applies here. Not much difference to the unschooled, but a world of difference if you know what to look for."
I think I sounded convincing.
At the lulav tent, I eventually settled on a particular table and started comparing etrogim.
Rena stood back the whole time, kind of taking the scene in. After a while, I asked her what she thought of a particular etrog. Was this one better? Or this one. She said that she found the whole thing kind of distasteful. "It seems so external," she said. "Isn't Judaism supposed to be about internals, and not what something looks like on the outside? You have no idea where that etrog is completely rotten on the inside."
True enough, I said. But the Torah says that we're looking for hiddur. In this case external beauty really does matter. But as I got down to the nitty-gritty of choosing an etrog, I found myself having trouble making a definitive choice. If I saw one that I liked, something about its color bothered me. Every one I picked up was nice in one way but lacking in another. One gorgeous etrog suffered a small bump at the top (bad sign). Another had great bumps, but lacked a certain something. It just didn't "call out" to me. After a while I began to realize that there wasn't the perfect etrog. It doesn't exist. It's a question of finding the one with the qualities that I liked best.
And maybe that's the Torah's message about beauty. Yes, there are objective qualities to look for in an etrog: it must be whole and complete, fresh and unblemished. But when you start to look deeper, everything grows subjective. Yellow or green? Pitom or not? Bumpy or smooth? There are no "right" answers to those questions.
At that point, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.