It’s Not a Hefkervelt
by Jonathan Rosenblum
September 23, 2005
James Q. Wilson is one of the few academic sociologists to have had his theories tested in the real world. In a 1982 article, Wilson and George Kelling argued that a proliferation of broken windows in a neighborhood leads to higher crime rates by conveying the message: "nobody cares, if you break some more windows nobody's going to do anything about it – in short, anything goes."
New York City made the "broken windows" theory the center piece of its community policing initiative. Police started enforcing laws against jaywalking and squeegee men, painting over grafitti, fixing the broken windows, and getting street hustlers off of the corners. Crime rates, particularly the homicide rate, plummeted.
Long before Wilson's seminal article, I was exposed to a variant of his theory in yeshiva. My rav once told us how a letter he had written to a correspondent of thirty years came back stamped "No such address." He speculated that the postal man had other things to do that day and wanted to save himself a bit of time. After a few more examples of similar irritations, he asked if we knew the cause.
We all leaned forward to hear the answer: "The pill." Observing our puzzled looks, he explained that by detaching pleasure from responsibility, the pill had transformed people from reflective human beings into pleasure-seeking animals, and the effects permeated the entire social fabric.
In the language of the yeshiva, when people feel themselves to be living in a hefkervelt, a world in which anything goes, they lose all sense of responsibility and the society breaks down. I doubt, for instance, that I am alone among American immigrants in my suspicion that Israel's inferior service is, in part, a result of the slovenliness with which employees are permitted to dress.
ISRAEL'S FAILING EDUCATION SYSTEM is ripe for an educational variant of the "broken windows" theory. Our test results in math and reading comprehension increasingly resemble those of countries from which we import foreign workers. A 2003 international study revealed that the level of student satisfaction in Israel is the lowest of 28 industrialized countries.
Many of these failures result from the rampant violence and general air of disrespect in schools. The status of teachers is low in the eyes of their students and society in general. According to a recent poll published by "Mishmar HaChinuch," an educational watchdog group, few parents would advise their children to consider teaching as a profession because of its low status.
Teachers themselves have contributed to their low status and lack of authority. When they come to class dressed in bare midriffs and décolletage, imitating their students imitating Britany Spears, they are viewed as figures of ridicule, not serious professionals. Two Bar Ilan professors recently found that Israeli teachers place fewer demands on their students and more readily accept sloppy work than teachers in the rest of the developed world.
A number of the new Education Ministry reforms are designed to reduce the general air of anything goes. Students are to stand when their teachers enter the room, and dress codes have been instituted for students and teachers.
These reforms are straight from the haredi educational system, where uniforms for girls and strict dress codes for boys are the norm. No haredi student would think of calling a teacher by his or her first name, and teachers are usually addressed in the third person. Not surprisingly, teaching is the highest status calling for haredi women, despite pay scales lower than the secular system, and one of the highest for men.
To judge by the educational marketplace, even secular parents are discovering the virtues of haredi education. SHUVU, a system originally created for Russian-immigrant children, added nearly 2,000 students this school year, 10% of them from native Israeli families and another 70 French immigrants. A SHUVU school in Kfar Saba designed for native Israelis opened last year with 28 students. Despite the sustained opposition of the municipality, the school began this school year with 122 students, as many as the building can hold.
The Kfar Saba example is part of a larger pattern. In 1999, a haredi-run school with 25 first-graders opened up in Tzoran near Netanya. For the first month, the 25 six-year-olds had to run a gauntlet every morning of jeering demonstrators, some with large dogs.
The next year the school reopened in nearby Kadima with 125 students, and the third year with 300. Among those 300, were three children of the principal organizer of the original demonstrations against the school. He was so struck by the poise with which the young Bais Yaakov teachers guided their charges past the screaming demonstrators that he chose them for his own children.
Even Modi'in, a city without a single haredi resident, now has a haredi-run school (or did until two weeks ago when the city refused permission to reopen.) LeMa'an Achai started two years ago with nine students. It began this school year with 130 students, from a mixture of secular and national religious homes, in temporary headquarters in Modiin Ilit.
These schools have one thing in common: virtually all the teachers are Bais Yaakov-trained. And in each case word of mouth has enabled the schools to mushroom in size. In a survey of SHUVU parents, over 80% attribute their decision to transfer their children to the general respect for learning and lower levels of violence. In addition, they almost invariably cite the dedication of the teachers.
There is perhaps a larger lesson behind the success of haredi teachers operating in a framework of respect and authority. As we approach Rosh Hashanah, a day devoted to crowning G-d over us as King, we would do well to consider how much we suffer from the feeling of living in a hefkervelt.
Related Topics: Israeli Society
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list