It had been a tough two weeks, and I took it out on the boys.
Standing in front of a dining-room full of high school and college-age students as the guest speaker at a New York yeshiva’s weekly post-Sabbath "Melave Malke" celebration, I shared with them some of the "highlights" of the preceding days -- the tragic drug-related death of a former yeshiva student in Brooklyn, the reports of several criminal investigations and allegations surrounding Orthodox Jews. And I lamented the shame and dishonor brought upon the entire community when terrible events of this nature are splashed across the pages of the newspapers and shape the public perception of Orthodox Jews.
I harped on this depressing theme for approximately three-quarters-of-an-hour, fielded questions for about 30 minutes more, and then bade the boys a good week as I donned my coat and made my way to the waiting car. As I was about to get into the car, though, one boy came running up to me: "Rabbi Zwiebel, I must ask your forgiveness."
"What for?" I asked, noting the boy’s crestfallen face. "What’s there to forgive?"
"You see, I haven’t been feeling well the last few days, and while you were speaking I just had to put my head down for a few minutes."
"That’s not derech eretz," he continued, using the Hebrew term for proper respect, "and I really apologize."
Riding home, reflecting on the purity of heart and nobility of character this young yeshiva bochur had just displayed, it occurred to me that I was the one who should have apologized -- for forgetting, in the anguished aftermath of the various problems that had consumed my attention over the previous two weeks, just how proud I should feel about the community of which I am a part.
How fortunate are the parents of my apologetic friend -- indeed, the parents of each and every boy in that yeshiva and in yeshivos across the globe whose sons are defying the contemporary Zeitgeist and devoting their minds, hearts and energies to the study and observance of Torah. These boys, like their sisters in Orthodox girls’schools and seminaries, may not receive the public attention that gets lavished on Orthodoxy’s problem cases, but it is they who most accurately reflect the Orthodox norm today – and it is they who give us reason to be confident of a bright future tomorrow.
In these confused and confusing times, when there are so many roads available to young people that lead far away from the Jewish path, who among us does not shed bitter tears over the heartbreaking phenomenon of young Jews drifting away from their heritage? Who does not cry for the troubled Jewish teens and young adults who descend into modern-day society’s dangerous subculture of decadent deviancy and mindless materialism? Yet as we mourn the tragic trajectory of our wayward youth, ought we not at the same time be thankful for and celebrate those of our children who embrace and epitomize the beauty of a truly Jewish life?
There are those who point to evidence of young people in the Orthodox community who have drifted away from observance and into unsavory lifestyles as evidence of the inherent shortcomings of the classical approach to Jewish education. Thus, for example, in a recent letter to the New York Jewish Week, reacting to a news item about the growing drug problem among Orthodox youth, Dr. Morton J. Summer, president of the Council for Jewish Education, castigates yeshiva officials "who do not at least acknowledge the contradictions between our classical traditions formulated in ancient times and the concepts underlying modern life." According to Dr. Summer, what yeshivos "vitally need" is "a fundamental reconfiguration of the Torah or Judaic studies curricula."
I think it safe to assume that Dr. Summer’s views, prominent though his position may be, will not carry much sway among those who are responsible for the education of Orthodox boys and girls. Critical introspection is always in place, and innovative programs to help prevent or deal with problems within the existing yeshiva system certainly should be developed, but "fundamental reconfigurations" to deal with "contradictions" and bring Jewish education in line with "modern life" are simply not in the cards.
And thankfully so. Despite problems – most of them attributable to lack of sufficient funding – the yeshiva system is one of the remarkable success stories of our time. The success is evident in the sheer growth of the yeshiva community; the number of students enrolled in Jewish elementary and secondary schools in New York State alone, according to State Education Department figures, has increased twofold, from approximately 50,000 to 100,000 over the past two decades. And the success is even more evident in the quality of the products of the yeshivos, the countless thousands of idealistic young men and women who have graduated from the system, refined in their personal demeanor in a time of cultural coarseness and vulgarity, committed to the perpetuation of authentic Jewish life in a time of rampant Jewish assimilation.
Who knows? Perhaps one of the reasons the yeshiva community is facing the phenomenon of "at-risk" teens is to see whether it truly appreciates the even more remarkable phenomenon of extraordinary teens like my dear apologetic friend.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[David Zwiebel serves as Agudath Israel of America’s executive vice president for government and public affairs]