Monday, August 1, 2011

Tarbut v'Torah (TVT): Jewish Education's Crisis of Failure in Irvine, Orange County, California

When I was ordained in March 1981 with s'mikha from HaRav HaGaon Harav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik zt"l and Rav Nahum Lamm shlit"a at Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), I undertook to be a Rav b'Yisrael, a rabbi and teacher in the greater Jewish community. I have been a Rav for 30 years and have practiced in pulpit and community rabbonus for more than 18 of those years. It is because I love the Jewish People, and particularly because I am devoted to the Judaic education of young people -- of all ages, of all backgrounds -- that I write this considered commentary on my profound disappointment over what I have seen and experienced first-hand at the Irvine-based community day school called "TVT" or Tarbut v'Torah.

Irvine is not New York or Los Angeles, and – given its Jewish demographics – it is proper, even for an Orthodox Rav, to modify expectations in light of the reality of the community and what it realistically can accept in terms of Jewish education, what it reasonably can sustain. I write from that recognition and perspective.

I have been in Tarbut / TVT. I know many of its students. I deeply care for them.

I am deeply pained that, for exactly the same money – or even significantly less – that has been invested in the school, Tarbut / TVT could be a fine community Jewish Day School. Instead, it does not meet its mission as a community Jewish Day School. One readily can discern the focus that donors devoted on the campus grounds and the externals of the facility, but a more experienced and trained eye discerns sadly the lesser focus devoted on the quality of the Judaic component of the academic program. (It is beyond the scope of this commentary to opine on the school's secular program or its administration. Neither approbation nor disdain should be inferred from this commentary regarding either of those two subjects.) This severe weakness is commonly perceived, and it is commonly acknowledged among Jewish educators outside the community. It is discussed quietly among rabbis of all Jewish denominations in Orange County, several of whom lament privately that the Morashah Day School extends only through sixth grade. However, it is regarded as rabbinic-career political suicide to say it aloud, with attribution, within the Jewish community of Orange County. I thank G-d for imbuing me with the courage to write this.

It is not difficult to know what a formal Jewish education can offer its students. Throughout Southern California, there are noble efforts to that effect. Institutions under Orthodox auspices are not the only ones. There are noble efforts under Conservative and Reform auspices, too. In Woodland Hills, in the San Fernando Valley, Bruce Powell has created a burgeoning model of a community Jewish Day School. Tragically, however, Tarbut's / TVT's Jewish studies program is dramatically weaker than one finds at many fine Jewish schools run in the United States under Reform or other denominational auspices.

The students at Tarbut / TVT deserve better. I know many of them personally. Many are bright -- and they would love to learn more. They are quite capable of being taught text knowledge. Certainly, at a tuition of some $15,000 per head, they deserve it. TVT / Tarbut should be a school where capable students learn Jewish knowledge, book knowledge, side-by-side with secular curricula. But it is not. I know this from very personal knowledge: from what I personally have seen, what I have tried to share of myself, and -- primarily -- from what parents themselves privately and confidentially have brought to my attention throughout my three years in Orange County. I have spoken privately with select students and with select faculty through three years here. There is great fear to speak openly about the lacunae. "Rabbi Fischer," I am asked, "Please do something about this. Please say something. Please write something. Please tell what is happening -- or, more accurately, what is not happening -- here. But, please, promise me that you will not quote me. My friends will attack me. My children will lose their friends. Please do not quote me."

There is no need to fear. I will not quote and will not attribute. I speak only as a Rabbi of 30 years -- as a Congregational Rav and as a professional Jewish educator. I speak only in my own name, and I bear full personal responsibility for every word I write here. For a period now extending through several years, Tarbut V'Torah (TVT) consistently has failed its parents and students, failing to transmit a substantive Judaic knowledge foundation to the vast majority of its students. The academic lacunae are palpable, and the failure to transmit substantive Judaic information and to inculcate meaningful Jewish learning is manifest. Given the expansive and lush grounds on which the Tarbut V'Torah campus is situated and the $15,000 annual tuition charge for each student, this poignant institutional failure to achieve the results charted at leaner, more modestly funded Jewish Day Schools operated throughout America under Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox auspices respectively cannot be attributed to a lack of material wherewithal, thus amplifying the concern.

At Tarbut / TVT, the students are not taught to navigate a Chumash. They do not learn Chumash text as part of their curriculum between grades 1-12. They cannot read a Rashi commentary. Over 90% never even have heard the most basic terms that children at any other Jewish Day School would have learned. The kids should be looking and learning inside real texts – Chumash, Rashi, Mishnah.

The level of Hebrew reading at Tarbut / TVT concerns me. I have met any number of parents who have brought their 12-year-old sons and 11-year-old daughters into my office, to start them on the paths of their respective bar- and bat mitzvahs. I would take out four Siddurim -- one for the student, one for the Mom, one for the Dad, and one for me. Typically, I also would invite our Youth Director to participate in the session, handing him a Siddur, too. I would ask the student kindly to read something in the Siddur so I could gauge the level of intensity needed for the forthcoming curriculum of bar/bat mitzvah study. The experience typically would be profoundly disheartening.

This educational shortfall is universally recognized among Jewish educators and rabbis in the region, but there is an understanding within the community that discretion is appropriate. One Youth Director after another who has worked with me has seen first-hand and experienced the Tarbut / TVT failure. Each has expressed amazement. The Youth Director would sit in my office with me, as we -- and the parents -- would gauge the prospective bar/bat mitzvah student’s Hebrew reading to assess the need and plan out a learning program. Because I always would have the Mom and Dad in the room with us, too, as the child would read Hebrew from the Siddur, the parents also would be startled.

As in public schools, where many parents consign pedagogical authority to the employed teachers without always investigating what is being taught and how, many of the parents of TVT students understandably do not investigate what their children are learning at Tarbut V'Torah, often because they understandably do not know how to check or what standard to expect. They are not professionally trained Jewish educators, and they understandably do not have a skills set in that area. Yet even they know that something is severely wrong when their intelligent child, after six years at some $15,000-a-year, sits in the Rabbi's office at age 12 or age 11 and barely is able to read a line of Hebrew smoothly, much less to identify basic Judaic concepts or terms.

If the parents lack the skills set, how then do they know there is a problem? Consider that I do not read Chinese. But if my son, after attending a Chinese-language class for six years at $15,000 a year, were asked to read from a Chinese book, and he were to articulate only a handful of syllabic sounds in a sixty-second minute, and then were to stop after just a few more syllables over three or four more minutes, I would be quite unsettled. And if he then were to turn to me, seeing my dismay, and say “Don’t be angry at me, Dad. I really am trying, but I can’t read this so well. It is a foreign language with a different set of alphabetical characters.” Well, after six years -- and knowing how well my child is able to acquire other knowledge skills -- that would tell me something very sobering about my $90,000 investment.

That is the core of the problem at TVT / Tarbut v'Torah. For those less professionally trained and experienced in the area of Jewish pedagogy, the difficulty to recognize the scope and depth of the problem is amplified and obfuscated by two factors:

(1) A small number of TVT / Tarbut students independently are intensely home-schooled by their parents, after school and on weekends, because those parents are among the proportionately few in South Orange County who enjoy the Judaic background and skills-sets sufficient to perceive that their respective children otherwise are not being taught a meaningfully substantive Judaic knowledge base. Then, after being home-schooled, those proportionately few children are presented to the broader community as “proof” that TVT / Tarbut is doing a fine job.

(2) The second obfuscation is more subtle. The Rabbi and the temple Youth Director -- whether Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, or Orthodox -- is assigned, within the separate institutional framework of the temple that provides services for its members, to train the 12-year-old boy or 11-year-old girl, over the course of the following 8-12 months leading up to bar/bat mitzvah, to essentially quasi-memorize the bar/bat mitzvah service. Thus, on “Bar/Bat Mitzvah Day,” those present at temple hear a young lady or fellow chant and otherwise lead aspects of the service with the perceived erudition that implicitly comes with years of training, learning, and study.

But the actuality differs. Professional and experienced pedagogues in secular schools have encountered this same educational phenomenon when first meeting a child entering the first grade. The child is tested in entry-level reading skills and is given a page, or several pages, to read. The child reads beautifully. The parent beams proudly, but the teacher methodically reaches for a second book of similar grade-level, but written by a different author, illustrated with different pictures. Inexplicably to the parent -- but all-too-common to the trained pedagogue -- the same child cannot read from that comparable book. The trained pedagogue instantly discerns that the child was taught "sight reading," not phonics. Thus, the child essentially has quasi-memorized that first book, page by page. But the child remains helpless when exposed to other illustrations, another page lay-out. The child has not yet been taught to read. Many pedagogues maintain that there nevertheless is some value in teaching "sight reading" if it encourages a foundational love for books and love for reading among nursery children and kindergarteners. However, by eighth grade, it is recognized that "sight reading" is not sufficient.

The same phenomenon underlies the Bar/Bat Mitzvah phenomenon. The Tarbut / TVT student leads the service at the temple. Perhaps she reads from the Torah. Perhaps he reads a Haftorah. Perhaps she leads a portion of the prayer service. Yet, if the same boy were to be asked -- only moments later -- to read also from the Haftorah that appears on the page that precedes or follows his Bar Mitzvah Haftorah, the result well could surprise. Likewise, the boy or girl is taught essentially to quasi-memorize portions of the prayer service that he or she leads. But if he or she were to be asked moments later, quietly and confidentially, to read in the same Siddur from prayers that appear a few pages before or after what he or she has been taught essentially to memorize, the results well could surprise. Thus, for the audience -- the assembled congregation -- an appearance of erudition redounds to the school's reputation. Would that it were so!

Ultimately, then, the need in Orange County is not exclusively for a Brooklyn/Los Angeles-quality yeshiva day school. Naturally, as an Orthodox Rav, it is my goal and dream to see a Jewish Day School of such caliber established some day in Irvine so that my Orthodox rabbinical colleagues and I do not have to endure the enormous logistical challenges and difficulties of having our children educated two hours away at YULA in Los Angeles. But as a Rabbi who recognizes the variegation of the Jewish demographic locally and understands with the experience of a career spanning a quarter century what is at stake and what realistically can be achieved for the Jewish community that I love and whom I am dedicated to serve -- an Irvine-based South Orange County Jewish community of more than 100,000 Jews who are not predominantly Orthodox but who deserve excellence for the tuition dollars being invested in their most precious resources, their children -- it is deeply, deeply painful to watch profoundly bright and capable young children in our community being denied exposure to substantive Judaic knowledge.

As a Rabbi, it devolves on me to observe aloud that wonderful, bright young people are processed year-after-year through Tarbut's / TVT’s revolving doors at a tuition rate that certainly implies a substantive education, yet that demands from and offers them so much less than one typically would find provided to graduates of a Jewish Day School run under Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, or Orthodox auspices.

I know the children because my focus as a Rabbi always has included attending with utmost concern to elementary students, teens, and college students. I know, first-hand in the confidentiality of my relationships with families of Tarbut / TVT students, how deeply so many of those parents are pained. There are parents who literally have broken down, crying in my office. I know, from that same base of direct and confidential personal knowledge, how relieved those parents are when the year-long quasi-memorization process ends, with their sons and daughters emerging from the Bar/Bat Mitzvah having publicly presented the appearance of having a Judaic education. I know the scope of what rabbis in Los Angeles -- who may speak more candidly on the subject because they are outside the penumbra of political fall-out and personal exposure when speaking -- think of TVT / Tarbut. (The school's reputation outside Orange County and its environs is one that I have not encountered in my quarter century in the Rabbinate.) From a career in the rabbinate, I know what other Jewish community and denominational schools can and do teach their charges.

It thus is a matter of grave public concern, compelling a Rabbi to speak out, even as it is a matter of political suicide in South Orange County to discuss this subject publicly with candor. But I am a Rabbi, and that is my calling. It is my soul's yearning. It is incumbent on me to share these concerns publicly. We need only view the greater American society's economic fall-out, in the face of the Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae setbacks that were perceived by many who knew that the system was in grave danger but who chose not to speak because their personal political considerations for advancement and personal fundraising opportunities diverted them. And, then, one day Bear Stearns collapsed, and then Indy Mac, and then Lehman Brothers. Yet, with deference to the significant economic and financial institutional concerns of an American polity in which I share, I feel obliged even more to share the present concern. The need for a dramatic overhaul and re-conception of Tarbut V'Torah (TVT), its mission, and its educational aspirations for students and parents who deserve better is most compelling because, at bottom, we are talking about the right of Jewish young people to receive the substantive education they deserve and for which their parents believe they are paying. They are good young people. They are capable of learning great things. And, if they miss these opportunities to grow in Jewish text knowledge -- the study of Chumash, Rashi, Mishnah, Talmud, and so much more -- during their childhood and teen years, they may never get that opportunity later, once "life happens."

And what will they have left to pass down to their children?

This statement of public concern concludes with one more area of attention. A Jewish community day school that offers its students the opportunity to participate in formal daily prayer services lays a foundation for them to have an option to grow spiritually in yet another way, and also to learn the skill of navigating through a prayer book. Those who daven daily are not perfect. But if tefilah -- Jewish prayer (davening) -- is taught with sensitivity and formal training, it sometimes can assist a school's administration and faculty in an effort to guide young people from evolving in their teens towards the coarseness sometimes found in segments of external society. Coarseness is the hallmark of teen evolution in certain circles of society, but the Jewish Day School model aims for something more noble and uplifting. Dirty words, filthy language, coarse sexual references and humor are not compatible with a successful Jewish Day School model. TVT / Tarbut should offer its students the opportunity to pray every day -- a formal Shacharit option each and every school morning, with all boys age 13 or over donning tefillin and with Sephardic boys wearing a tallit in the tradition of their parents. Such prayer need not be mandatory, but it should be a formal curricular offering in much the same way that so many other community Jewish Day Schools offer. Similarly, Tarbut / TVT should offer a formally scheduled Mincha prayer opportunity, even if only optional, every afternoon.

If there is no one else to lead such a daily Shacharit service, I publicly volunteer to lead it. Just as I remain available -- as I have for three years -- to teach Torah text as a formal faculty member. I extend that offer because it is easy to offer analysis and observation when one is not prepared personally to accept a challenge and take up a gauntlet. But the faculty member need not be I. Nor need the prayer leader be I. But it is time. And if not now, when?

No comments:

Post a Comment