I have been privileged to write for the Queens Jewish Link for a number of years. Sometimes I step into turbulent waters, sometimes I stay on water’s edge. But I try to be honest in conveying my thoughts, and judging from the feedback, that is what readers appreciate about my articles. What I am about to write may be the most controversial to date, but for me it may be the most important one.
I have had the honor to serve as rabbi in the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills since 1991. It is the House that Ruth built. It is also the House that Lottie built. Both, aleihen ha’shalom, were rebbetzins to my father shlita, as he built this most prominent of shuls and communities since 1951.
My point in mentioning this is that I know full well what the Modern Orthodox community is all about. I lived it and I was educated in it. Young Israel, Yeshiva University, Camp Morasha, Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and the Orthodox Union are all part of the fabric of my upbringing. The other half of my upbringing is Yeshiva Ohr Yisroel, Lakewood, and the Agudah. I pride myself in knowing both worlds very well.
I find that I need to make some observations about the current situation with the Modern Orthodox world, which I continue to serve. Please do not point to issues in the “chareidi” or “right-winged” world. I know there are. Perhaps at some time I will share my observations about that community. But their problems do not exhibit the same urgencies as the Modern Orthodox.
What compels me to write at this time is what I see taking place currently in our Modern Orthodox community. I will readily admit that I may be limited in scope, as I am judging by what I see locally. Yet I know it does go further than that.
The world continues to endure the devastating COVID-19 virus. Our synagogues were shut down for months. Baruch Hashem, most shuls have now been able to reopen. Some indoors, some outdoors. Some with more restrictions, some with fewer. The main competition that shuls are now facing are the lawn minyanim that were started with every good intentions but make it hard to draw people back to shul. But that’s another discussion, as well. (I myself, upon doctor’s orders, cannot yet join indoors; I do participate in a lawn minyan every Shabbos Minchah, as our shul is not yet available for an outdoors minyan at that time.)
Strikingly, I have noticed that the young married generation does not come to shul. Period. I have no reports of them on the lawns and I know that very few if any are in shuls. Our shul has the participation of some singles, some people in their 40s or so, some joining their parents, and some in their 80s! But I can’t think of any young married person who joins us with any regularity.
I was wondering if I am alone in this observation or if it’s widespread. So I put the question out on a Young Israel Rabbis chat that I belong to: “Do you observe that young marrieds are not coming back to shul?” I was stunned by the number of answers that I received from rabbis in many parts of the country, with the exact same observation. One rabbi chats with me offline about this. I was surprised by the intensity of his words, as he vented his frustration with his young community concerning the minyan issue as well as a whole host of other problems stemming from apathy from this generation.
He came to the same conclusion that I did: They are not coming because there is no point in davening if there is no kiddush and no socializing. In other words, if gong to shul is not fun, then why bother? This is not mere conjecture. Some of them actually expressed that in different words.
I also was extremely bothered by something else. Our son, Rabbi Ari Schonfeld, conducted his Zoom-based Night Seder America (NSA) for boys during the height of the crisis, beginning a few weeks before Pesach and continuing into the first weeks of the summer. It was a free program in which the boys learned Gemara, played “That’s My P’sak,” plus a whole variety of entertaining Torah offerings and valuable raffles nightly. You may have seen the front-page coverage of the program in the Jewish Link here and in Bergen County, plus a major spread in Mishpacha magazine. An amazing 1,500 boys plus other family members from across the country – and the globe – tuned in nightly. He continues to receive letters from boys and their parents expressing how NSA saved them from a total spiritual and emotional collapse during those awful times.
Guess what? There were no boys on the program from Modern Orthodox yeshivos. I am not exaggerating. None. The QJL and the Jewish Link of New Jersey had beautifully-written articles covering the program, but not one boy attended from the modern community in those readership areas. Yet, the more chareidi kids in the same neighborhoods were well represented.
It’s not a personal issue; it’s a major statement. Why did the modern yeshivos/day schools not produce students who felt drawn to learning when they had so much dead time on their hands? Will you say because it was geared for kids from a different culture? It decidedly was not programmed that way. And why was excitement in Torah talk not their culture?!
I’m sorry, my friends, you need to think about this seriously. The members of the young modern generation are leaving our values – and fast. Israel is not on their agenda either. Yom HaAtzmaut is celebrated with great gusto in the elementary modern day schools, but how many of these same kids celebrate when they are no longer in school? We do not get one young married to attend any Yom HaAtzmaut celebration or davening. Yom HaShoah? Forget about it!
I go to the Celebrate Israel Parade every year when it functions. Sure, the kids have fun marching on Fifth Avenue with their schools. But how many older ones do you see lining the sidewalks to view the parade? Fewer each year. What happened to the teachings of Religious Zionism? Has it gone kaput?
Trust me when I tell you that more and more of our kids will grow up drinking the milk served on the college campuses and develop anti-Israel attitudes. It just won’t be cool to support the notion of a uniquely Jewish State. Modern kids do not want to be out of step with what is the notion of the day.
Quite a few years ago, I was asked by the active members of our Young Marrieds Minyan not to talk about Israel. It’s not that they wanted to hear more divrei Torah. These same people never came to a shiur. It was just not in their interest range. When I talked passionately about the travesty facing Israel due to the Oslo Agreements, it was met with a big yawn. Later, when I begged the audience to try to rally to defeat the disengagement from Gush Katif, I was treated to a series of harsh emails for speaking too strongly on the matter. Currently, I find that, at best, Israel is simply not on their radar. It will only get worse from there.
Rav Soloveitchik zt”l would sometimes be critical of the lack of “leichus” (literally “moisture”) in Torah learning among his students. He meant the excitement or energy for Torah that was missing.
Am I generalizing? Yes, I am. Undoubtedly, there many Modern Orthodox kids who are growing up with the right values and attitude towards Torah and Israel. But I can’t deny what I see. And I see trouble ahead for too many in our camp.
What can we do about it? Well, since my contention is that the problem starts in the elementary level of modern chinuch, that’s where the issue needs to be addressed. However, it requires an overhaul in the whole system. Anything new naturally causes resistance. I get that. People also may think of me as a radical nut job. Maybe I am. But even nut jobs have the right to voice their opinion.
Ask the average 8th grade boy in these day schools who was, say, the Chasam Sofer? Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch? Sarah Schenirer? The Chazon Ish? Rebbetzin Kanievsky? Rav Moshe Feinstein? Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik? What years did they flourish? Where did they live? Have they ever met the Novominsker Rebbe zt”l? Rav Hershel Schachter shlita?
Better yet, ask them: Who was Chaim Weitzman? David Ben Gurion? Golda Meir? Moshe Dayan? Vladimir Jabotinsky? Menachem Begin? My bet is most of them will not know.
Now ask them: Who was Babe Ruth? Hank Aaron? Michael Jordan? Lebron James? Would they like to meet the latter two?
My point is, kids are not taught their history – even recent history. If they are, it is not absorbed. It’s not lived. They are not taught to love and admire g’dolei Torah. They are not taught what great spiritual heights our people can reach. They are not taught that these are our real heroes to emulate. The enthusiasm in learning Torah is absent. We can be huge sports fans, and all Orthodox kids in America thankfully are, but the athletes should not be their idols. Rav Moshe Feinstein should be. Rav Soloveitchik should be. The Chazon Ish should be. Sarah Schenirer should be. Rebbetzin Kanievsky should be.
Another radical proposal: I know that this cuts to the heart of Modern Orthodox education, but from the earliest ages, first grade and up, boys and girls need to be in separate classes if not in separate schools. Boys need rebbeim who will shape them for the rest of their lives. Girls need moros who can inspire them to greatness.
Another thing… and here you will really think I’m off the deep end. Hebrew t’filah (prayer) and learning should not be taught with Sefardic pronunciation, unless, of course, the child is Sefardi. Ashkenazi kids are more naturally at home with Ashkenazi pronunciation. The davening and learning is more at home with that pronunciation, as well. I have noticed that many Ashkenazi kids who mature into adulthood have a hard time with reading Hebrew properly as they grow up. There is total confusion when they are at the amud. And it places an artificial barrier between them and the Chumash/Rashi they should be absorbing.
As I stated at the beginning of this article, these words, I am sure, will be greeted with some controversy, although I am not looking to create any; I am looking to bring up for discussion what I consider a crucial crisis in our educational system at a time when we can still do something about it. Cancel Culture is now part of the American culture; let it not become part of our culture, as well. We need to heighten, absorb, and learn to love our history, its giants, and its present moment.
I look forward to reasoned responses to this essay. Shlomo HaMelech taught us in Mishlei (Proverbs 9:8): “Do not rebuke a mocker lest he hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you.” Whatever admonition I delivered with these words were given in the spirit of speaking to wise people. I am ready to receive the same.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.