Thursday, July 10, 2003

RJJ Newsletter - July 2003

I know a young man who after many years of serious and effective study at Lakewood became a rebbi at the start of the school year that has just ended at a major Brooklyn yeshiva. Because he continues to live in Lakewood, he must arise early for the long commute and in order to be at the school for Shacharis. His teaching day extends well into the afternoon and then there is the return trip to Lakewood. In short, his job is exhausting. It’s no wonder that not long ago he questioned whether he should continue the grind or attempt to join a kollel that might pay him more than he earns as a full-time teacher.

There are questions about kollels that should be raised, questions that accept the fundamental importance of these institutions in our contemporary religious life and yet do not accept uncritically the view that in a community where resources are obviously limited and priorities must be set, it’s right to place so much emphasis on kollels while ordinary Torah education is increasingly being relegated to the status of a stepchild in Orthodox philanthropy.

It is also necessary to question whether the continued expansion of kollels is to be encouraged, without any regard being given to what the young men who study in kollels will be doing down the road.

There are kollels that make a major difference in the places where they are located and there are kollels that are, in effect, the breeding ground for the next generation of Torah scholars. It remains, however, that most kollels do not fit either of these profiles, that they exist for a host of other reasons, including ego gratification for their sponsors or because no one else knows what else to do with the rapidly growing number of married young men who need to be accommodated.

However we look at kollels, there is something amiss when a full-time rebbi with a classroom of students and all of the attendant responsibilities - preparation, paperwork and contact with parents – is paid less or even about the same as kollel members. Admittedly, the typical kollel student is not that well paid, although the trend has been to increase kollel stipends at a considerably greater rate than increases in rebbis’ salaries. The message being sent is that the Torah community is not particularly concerned about top-flight students who leave yeshiva, even to teach Torah.

What is happening is part of the larger story of the abandonment by our community and leaders of ordinary yeshiva education, certainly at the elementary school level and, at times, above that. Our basic schools, without which Torah and chinuch cannot exist are left to sink or swim for themselves. Schools and parents are being told in effect that the obligation to save these institutions is theirs and not the community’s. With few exceptions, shuls no longer make appeals for yeshivas in their neighborhood and our Torah leaders no longer pay much attention to basic chinuch. Anyone who doubts this can examine each week’s Yated Ne’eman, the yeshiva world’s major newspaper. Or we could examine the mail that comes nearly daily from Torah leaders. There are impassioned pleas for chesed causes and individuals, as well as special Torah educational opportunities. Nary a word is said that there is an obligation to help the schools that educate our children.

I have made this point often and I recognize that, as in the past, what is being written here is likely to fall on deaf ears. As I write these lines, I am mindful of the example of the Great Roshe Yeshiva of Lakewood, that Torah giant who for all of the extraordinary burdens that confronted him worked tirelessly for basic Torah chinuch in Israel and North America. In a state of constant exhaustion, he raised funds for these institutions and was their leading advocate.

Has anyone seen even once during the past ten years a kol koreh from Roshei Yeshiva and Torah leaders proclaiming that it is a sacred obligation to support basic Torah chinuch? Just once? Their names are plastered everywhere, prohibiting this and advocating that, but when it comes to basic Torah education they are silent.

They do beat the drums for kollels, at times deservedly, and yet also at times because it is the politically correct and safe thing to do. They seem satisfied, however, with the current attitude that basic yeshiva education is a parental responsibility, irrespective of the reality that so many of our parents are struggling to make ends meet and are failing in the process.

It is always risky to project the future, if only because the unexpected usually happens. But if the present trends continue, we will have a further significant increase in kollel enrollment and a further increase in the number of students who are drifting because they don’t have a clue as to what they could do other than to stay in kollel. This point was made in the previous Newsletter; to a surprising extent, it struck a positive chord.

It’s likely also that our basic institutions will continue to struggle and they will rely even more on the coercive power they have over parents who can scarcely afford what is being asked of them. Even if this arrangement remains economically viable, it will take an ever-increasing toll in terms of sholom bayis.

We must continue to respect kollels, without falling prey to the wrongful notion that little else in Torah education merits communal support. I seem to recall that Chazal taught, “Im ein gediyim, ein tayashim.” If there are no young students, there cannot be scholars.

Staten Island Jews

We won’t vouch that the just-released statistics on New York Jews are fully accurate, if only because population studies of this kind can scarcely avoid being errant. We aren’t surprised, however, to learn that the Staten Island Jewish population has risen above 40,000 and that it is still climbing. If anything, the survey’s estimate of 42,000 may be on the low side. In any event, Staten Island is one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the United States.

For us, the numbers are a challenge and, in a way, they are also scary. There are two good Jewish high schools on Staten Island, mainly serving students who live elsewhere. There are also four kollels. At the elementary school level, we are it. There are 800 students in all, a nice number to be sure, but far too low in view of the number of Jewish children of school age. Of course, there are Staten Island youngsters who commute to schools elsewhere, but that hardly alters the key point that there are many Jewish children who are receiving no meaningful Jewish education.

The situation is complicated because Staten Island may constitute the least affluent concentration of Jews anywhere in North America. Furthermore, Staten Island is, with one or two exceptions, treated as a backwater by New York’s Federation and other communal agencies. In short, very few people outside of Staten Island care about what is happening there and not enough people inside of Staten Island are doing enough to help.

It’s fascinating how we hear constantly about Orthodox-sponsored kiruv activities in far off places, some with few Jews, while our own more Jewishly-populated backyards are virtually ignored. It might be a good idea to give both kiruv agencies and our Torah leaders a lesson in basic American Jewish geography, as well as in the statistics of American Jewish life. One of the findings of the New York survey is that in this neck of the woods the intermarriage rate is far below what it is nearly everywhere else in the United States. In practical terms this means that there are far more halachic Jews to be reached out to in Staten Island than in more distant communities.