Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Yeshiva Education Matters -- More Than We Realize

In California, people (not necessarily Jewish) who home-school also have a network that connects them. So, for example, twenty parents home-schooling thirty kids connect through the network, and consequently arrange among themselves to meet at the local park each day from 1-2 pm for all their kids to play. That way, they home-school, family-by-family unto its respective self, while still enabling the kids to interact socially with other kids rather than emerging in isolation.

If there were an Orthodoxy culture shift that encouraged home-schooling to the degree that a sub-institution were created to connect/network together home-schooling Observant parents/families by locale, then those families could interface on bases ranging from coordinating among themselves daily play time to weekend Shabbat meals. It would require an infrastructure, though not terribly large, to facilitate the home-schooling network.

The thing is, Jewish Day Schools provide more than text study; they teach kids to interface with other Observant kids, and they bring kids into contact with a wide range of rabbonim. If middot are taught properly, that is a great thing. Public schools today are not what they were in the days of Blackboard Jungle. I never attended a public school, and I do not know first-hand whether condoms are distributed at the nurse’s office or what goes on, but the sex education environment, and the way that young people dress today, and the free-flow of words that come out of their mouths is unbelievable. And the thing is, I am much more contemporary than are most rabbonim. So it takes more to shock me. I got a Columbia University degree and was friends with a whole crazy world of people through four years of college. I later went to a secular law school, clerked in Kentucky, presently teach law school as an adjunct.

It’s quite a world out there. Many public schools nowadays really are out of control. Even the so-called “Jewish Community Day School” out here in Irvine. I have spoken there several times, and I am shocked by how much utter hefker exists. Utter and udder.

So that goes into the equation on the cost of day school. They used to rationalize that, even if your professors at Columbia are no better than those at some “lesser college,” you nevertheless are paying for the Ivy League degree. There is hidden monetary value in having a degree from the Ivy League. In the same way, even for those who can home-school the text without yeshiva, maybe the parents of yeshiva kids really are paying for the atmosphere. With a full range of rabbonim on the limudei-kodesh faculty, maybe there are a whole bunch that do not “click” for a particular kid, but usually there is going to be one or another rav who will do it. In high school, I had a rav – Rav Yaakov Dardac z”l – and he changed my life. He did not do it for other students. But my father had just died, and he did it for me. In four years of high school – actually, twelve years since first grade – that one rav deeply affected me. I never would have encountered him from home schooling.

I have lost contact with most, maybe all, of my friends from high school. But those were formative years in my life, and I had friends who wore yarmulkas just like me. Shabbat was the norm. Torah and Judaism was the norm, even if we were not all the best b’nei Torah. We were pretty good. Yeah, a kid got kicked out one year for stuff he had in his locker. But that was also the point – one kid had the stuff in his locker. When I began college, I did not know personally a single kid who ever had smoked weed, uh, marijuana. I went through four years of college, and that stuff remained foreign to me. That affected friendships.

It is impossible to place a value in today’s corrupted social order on having a child or children in an Observant Day School. For gerim in particular, who enter our Observant universe with a world of ideals and the highest motivations that often transcend those of the FFBs who take it all for granted, they still cannot transmit to their children that element of acquired culture. Like the John Goodman character in that Coen Brothers movie or the dentist in “Seinfeld” who converts to Judaism for the jokes, there is such a cultural disconnect, despite the intellectual truth, that it sounds absurd when the person who converted last week suddenly says “I am not going to let them do that to us any more. We have been putting up with this for too long.” And that is why the children of gerim particularly need that submersion into the culture and experience of the Observant Day School. To meet a rav who might change a life, and to meet rabbonim of all sorts. To have a wide range of classmates who wear kipot or otherwise are frum girls in modest attire. To have the right kind of social pressure – “What? You’re not going to the Regional Shabbaton?” To have Chumash or Gemara homework and to know that a bad grade can affect college admission. There is no substitute for Observant Day School, particularly for the children of gerim.

This does not solve the money issue. But that is the starting point. Kosher meat costs more. Shul membership. Maybe a summer group experience. That is the price and pressure of living a Torah life at this moment of time in this society. Even the obligation to live in a community that is walking distance from shul – which often increases home living costs, because financially pressed people would prefer living in exurbia, but there are no shuls there. It is what it is.

We pay for what is important. A fancy car. An expensive bar mitzvah. A family vacation out of state or country. And yeshiva also is important.

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