I’ll never forget the moment when I finally made the decision to pull my son out of the yeshiva day-school system and into a Jewish community school. As an alumnus of the yeshiva he attended, and someone who still deeply respects that style of learning, I wanted to tell the Rosh Yeshivah (Head of School) of my decision to withdraw in person.
We agreed to meet after prayers at a Hasidic shteibl in the neighborhood. He thanked me for keeping him in the loop and not just pulling my kid without notice. But he then looked me straight in the eyes and said:
“This ends in one of two ways. Either the beautiful soul that is your boy will end up going off the derech (religious path) or he will look at you down the road, with tears in his eyes, and ask how you could have put him in a makom tumah (impure place).”
I was devastated by this exchange. Fortunately, the Rebbe of the shteibl, with whom I studied the daf yomi (daily Talmud page) and had a close relationship with, saw the beating I had taken and chose to offer mercy. He pulled me aside and, after some intensive dialogue with both me and my wife, gave us his blessings, noting that if quality of education was so important to me — note the qualifier — then switching schools might be the right choice.
Acting on this decision was not easy. The motivation to switch systems was rooted in our desire to ensure that our children receive a high-quality secular education. As an academic, it was becoming nearly impossible to watch my son grow and develop without the skills that I knew he would need to thrive in the modern world. Nobody was suggesting that I was wrong in identifying the poor quality of secular education offered by the yeshiva; the objection was that secular education didn’t matter.
And, to a degree, I understood and granted the point. There would be trade-offs involved in the switch, as our son would lose access to other skills, ones that can only be developed in an environment of intensive Talmudic learning. At the time, I was a regular at the shteibl, there to study the Aramaic texts of the Talmud with the host Rebbe, who conducted the discussions in Yiddish. This seven-year experience nourished my soul in incomparable ways — a mix of intellectual rigor and immersive nostalgia for a culture that may or may not have ever really existed, but was mythical to me. Pulling my son out of the yeshiva system would vastly lower the probability that he would ever be able to enjoy, or even see the appeal in, such an experience. And that hurts, for it is the type of experience that is critical to my personal identity as a Jew.
But, while I am so grateful for the Hasidic Rebbe’s blessing and the years we spent learning together, I still need to ask why the quality of a student’s secular education is not important to him. If the best way for our former Rosh Yeshiva to sell his school was on the principle of social isolation, from the secular world and even from fellow religious Jews, I knew there was something deeply wrong. How could a traditional Jewish day-school be labelled an impure place? I could align with the caliber of Torah learning the yeshiva offered, but not that type of message. The modern world demands a more inclusive attitude, both towards the value of a secular education and the value of our secular neighbors.
All of these issues came flooding back to mind with renewed urgency this past Shabbat. It is not unusual within the Orthodox community for discussions at the table to turn to the day-school crisis. Given the unsustainable costs of day-school and the tacit consensus that most yeshiva-type schools offer a very poor quality education, a group of local community leaders were getting buy-in to pilot a new program. The proposal was to create a blended-learning/homeschool hybrid model that would offer a poor quality education for half the price of existing schools. This description of the plan does not reflect my bias. Those were the literal words of its advocates — “we can create a system that more accurately prices the poor quality of education we are used to receiving.”
To be fair, there is much to respect in the proposal. It is a wholly logical response to our Orthodox community’s failure to provide our children with a high-quality secular and Jewish education at an affordable price. Our educational institutions have become crippled by financial difficulties. Tuition has been rising at a faster pace than the price of any basket of goods and services outside of cigarettes and, in my home town of Toronto, housing. At the same time, the industry has been upset by disruptive technological innovations. With school closures on the rise, many institutions which have been integral in sustaining the community in the past no longer have a future, at least not in the form they used to.
Jewish day-schools have been moving upmarket for decades, protected from disruption. But now that the possibility of blended learning has been introduced into the market-place, high costs become more difficult to justify. Consequently, there needs to be a radically new business/education model. For while the more secularly-minded may simply opt-out of the day-school world, religious folks won’t drop the private education paradigm, even as they plot to drop out of the failing institutional system.
Which leads my community to a distinctly modern challenge. I assumed that the quality of education in the Orthodox world would necessarily be improved by embracing new hybrid models of education. In digital spaces, we would have access to the highest quality pedagogies in reading, writing, math and science. But for this system to work, you need to want it desperately. What I failed to anticipate is that for most of my peers, who were lucky enough to have found their way despite never getting a quality education, secular academics just do not matter. What did matter was heeding the Rosh Yeshivah’s warning and never putting their kids in an “impure” place. In that case, the only logic behind constructing a new educational model is financial. Same isolation, same education, lower costs.
If your starting premise is that moral and social components of Jewish education must be left to the Rebbeim, then you accept unchallenged that the moral imperative is keeping our children isolated from the possibility of any secularizing influence — including that of fellow Jews who may practice Judaism differently than us. In that case, the only point of entry for discussion is the economic logic behind the project. And if you look around you, convinced that your community is in overall good shape, then you don’t challenge the morality of the endeavor. If you deny that the economic playing field has shifted and secular education is more, not less, important in our digital age, then you have no incentive to change the status quo. You only ask how it can be done more affordably.
And just as it is logical, it is equally horrifying. Has a race to the bottom ever worked out in the long-term? Not that I can tell. Instead, it highlights the danger of economic thinking unencumbered by moral or social considerations. And it represents a massive failure of the Orthodox leadership, whose responsibility is to set the moral terms.
We desperately need a new definition of what constitutes a quality Jewish education. And for many folks, this definition must come from the rabbinic leadership and passed down. The lay leadership and grassroots can be included in the discussion, but more than ever we need our Rebbeim to state the primary Jewish value as education, not isolation. I need my Rebbe to recognize that the kids won’t be alright if they only learn the skills that worked for him and his father. They need more. Because as much as I value the experience of stepping into a shteibl that seems locked in time for an hour or two, I also need to step out and into our complex world.
It’s been a few years since we made the switch, and my son is now preparing for his bar-mitzvah. We decided that in honor of the event, he and I will spend a year learning a book of Talmud together. Sometimes I get sad when we learn, as he demonstrates a natural aptitude for the twists and turns found on a Talmudic page. He would have made a great Yeshiva bochur (student). And sometimes when we learn I’ll make a Yiddish joke that plays on the language of the Talmud and he’ll look at me blankly. But at the same time, I’m proud of the fact that he is well-prepared to be an honorable and contributing citizen of Western society. And my hope is that, in some small way, our learning together will implant a seed of curiosity that will one day lead him to the Rabbinic tomes that line our bookcases.
To my friends, I say this: the mission of our Jewish schools should be to change the Jewish world. This mission goes well beyond obligations to the people who actually consume their educational product directly. As a community, we must work together in shifting the emphasis to how we can instill a sense of dignity, wisdom, trust and civic engagement, in other words, the moral elements, back into an equation of education that has now become dominated by a myopic focus on the economic component. And if that means expanding our boundaries of inclusivity, we should do so knowing that the spaces we are opening up to are not impure, but kadosh (holy).