“Turbulent times” – Zurich style

Last week found me speaking for the Jewish Boys School of Zurich on “Educating Children in Turbulent Times.” But as far as Zurich goes, these are not particularly turbulent times – at least not yet. Those with whom I spoke could not remember more than one or two young people from the chareidi community leaving the fold.

The natives took a modest view of their achievement. A number quoted the late Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik’s, zt”l, observation that every trend in the Jewish world arrives in Zurich twenty years later. The communal rabbonim and leaders are clearly eager to do what they can to avoid the problems that have been experienced by larger communities in Israel and abroad. Recently an expert from Baltimore was brought in to lecture on the perils of the Internet.

Many of the reasons for the Zurich community’s success with its youth may be explained by factors that are unique to Zurich. And it would be a foolish on my part to claim any expertise about a community that I was visiting for the first time. Yet certain observations perhaps have wider application and could be adapted to different communities.

The chareidi community of Zurich is large enough to support a host of communal institutions: two boys schools – one primarily chassidic – until around age 15, a number of shuls, a kollel, and even the production of cholov Yisroel products. Until a few years ago, most boys and girls went abroad to continue their studies after age 15, but in recent years, Yeshiva L’Tzeirim, and Machon Chen for girls have offered the possibility of remaining at home for another two or three years.

But Zurich is too small to support a host of competing schools, each seeking to prove itself the most elite by catering only to the “best” boys or girls. The schools are run as communal institutions by a board of governors, not as private businesses. Thus there is less pressure to maximize the amount of material covered. The principal of the Jewish Boys School told me that boys from Zurich are generally somewhat behind their peers in their mastery of Gemara when they go abroad, but the orderly habits of mind they have developed and typical Swiss industriousness generally allow them to catch up quickly.

Because the schools are not competing, rebbes and teachers have the “luxury” of worrying about such topics as ahavas haTorah, yiras Shomayim, and middos tovos. The story is told of a group of mechanchim who approached the Brisker Rav for a beracha for the new cheder they were opening in Bnei Brak. They showed the Brisker Rav their carefully planned curriculum, with the hours to be devoted to each subject and the material to be covered at each level.

But instead of a blessing, the Brisker Rav told them, “If I did not know that you were fine, upstanding bnei Torah, I would throw you out of my home. You sound to me like maskilim, whose only concern is mastery of the subject matter. What about instilling in our children ahavas Torah, character refinement, and yiras Shomayim? The problem today is that children do not experience the sweetness of Torah.” That exchange would not have taken place in Zurich.
The relatively small size of the schools – one of the boys schools has 140 students, the other around 70 – means that classes are small, and no student gets lost in the shuffle. After my speech, one of the teachers, who grew up in Bnei Brak, told me with amazement how he has witnessed the entire educational staff of the Jewish Boys School meet to discuss a single student.

NO FRUM JEW IN ZURICH ever forgets that he is part of a small minority. There are no neighborhoods that are primarily chareidi – not even many blocks or even apartment buildings. Everywhere a Jewish child looks he sees the larger non-Jewish society. Yet this too has a positive side.

The awareness of being members of a small minority means that children have to constantly think about their identity as frum Jews. In addition, they are constantly aware of themselves as representatives of Torah Jewry wherever they go. The Kiddush Hashem imperative does not have to be taught; it is something that each child instinctively feels.

ANOTHER ADVANTAGE SWITZERLAND possesses is a plethora of kosher activities that can be experienced by the entire family. The country’s famed natural beauty is everywhere visible, and scenic walks and bicycle rides are easily accessible within an hour of Zurich (which itself nestles between mountains and has a beautiful lake.)

Jewish parents and children spend a lot of quality time together. Family excursions are a regular event on Sunday afternoons. Most families spend a couple of weeks in the summer in rented quarters in the mountains, where minyanim spring up like daisies, and a shorter period during the winter school break. An old chavrusah described to me coming to an open meadow at the end of a mountain climb and finding a large chareidi family standing there reciting Tehillim.

Sports are participatory in Switzerland, not a matter of cheering teams in stadiums. Everywhere we went, we encountered hikers, bicyclers, and runners. The activity starts young – often in a pack on the mother or father’s back – and continues into old age. My wife and I were passed by more than one octogenarian on winding alpine trails.

This wholesome physical activity has not passed by the Jewish community. Virtually every boy, including those in Yeshiva L’Tzeirim, ride bicycles or small scooters to school. Teenage boys have plenty of healthy ways to work off excess energy.

AS I SAT DOWN AFTER SPEAKING, the rav next to me mentioned one more thing that he felt made Zurich special: the decades long presence of Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik, zt”l, a world renowned Torah giant. Rabbi Soloveitchik was famed for his open heart and ear for any Yiddishe tzoros, and most members of community felt a personal connection to him.

His word was respected by all the rabbonim of the different subgroups with the community – a very distinguished group in their own right. As a result, a spirit of harmony reigned in the community as a whole. The absence of machlokes in the community shielded children from the destructive impact on their middos of an environment of communal strife. They did not grow accustomed to hearing other frum Jews disparaged and distinguished Torah figures spoken off dismissively.

That spirit continues to prevail after Rabbi Soloveitchik’s passing. Yeshiva L’Tzeirim is perhaps unique in that its student body is almost equally divided between Chassidic and non-Chassidic bochurim, and the rabbis of the Chassidic boys school attended the dinner at which I spoke.

The special circumstances of the Zurich community cannot be artificially recreated elsewhere, but there are enough positive points that can be emulated to bear further study.

This article appeared in the Mishpacha, on July 23, 2008.

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11 Responses

  1. joel rich says:

    Interesting counterpoint to R’YA’s preceding post – perhaps R’JR should collaborate wiyh him in a presentation to the leaders of the society discussed in R’ YA’s post?


  2. sima ir kodesh says:

    “There are no neighborhoods that are primarily chareidi – not even many blocks or even apartment buildings. Everywhere a Jewish child looks he sees the larger non-Jewish society. Yet this too has a positive side”.
    Sounds like a dream society, are the only Jews that live in Zurich belong to the Chareidi fold, are there non observing Jews also?, any kiruv going on?, any Israeli organizations? sounds very black and white with loads of leisure and wholesome activities..

  3. Rachel W says:

    You also did not mention the school calendar. No long 10 week summer vacation. Instead there are two shorter breaks – one in summer, one in winter (besides for the YOmim Tovim) in which most families go to the mountains (as mentioned). So there are no down times in which kids go crazy with boredom and get into situations that could have been avoided.

    Also, with such a relatively small community, they don’t have a “holier than thou” attitude. Every one is appreciated for the contribution he makes.

    One more point: There is a tremendous feeling of “Kavod Rabbonim” that surely filters down to the children. At the “Hachtara” (Induction ceremony?) of the new Rav of the “Yekke Shul” there was a tremendous turn-out of all factions of the community – from Chassidish to more modern types. This attitude can only be good for the kids to imbibe. It certainly makes them less cynical about Yiddishkeit. Something for all of us to consider – My Rav doesn’t feel superior to your Rav – no matter who he is. Why should I give my kids the feeling that the Rav we follow (if we are lucky enough to have a Rav we are close to) is better than any other Rav. An attitude like that does not improve anyone’s outlook or Hashkafos.

  4. Neok says:

    Thank you for echoing my sentiments from when I visited Zurich. I was even more surprised by an identical situation (albeit on quite smaller scale) in the smaller community of Basel, Switzerland, where the Shuhl (IRG) and its school are a beautiful harmonious blend of Frankfurt Yekkes and all kinds of Chassidic and Litvish individuals – and also living in cooperative harmony with the larger Gemeinde Shuhl and its institutions. Truly a role-model for other communities.

  5. ClooJew says:

    It’s great to see positive news for a change on the J-blogosphere.

    I have always believed, lulei demistafina, that US Jews face certain problems because they are Americans. (The same can probably be said about Israel/Israelis.) For example, the concept of community is attenuated by a society that worships individualism.

  6. L Oberstein says:

    Zurich may be similar to other communities that I have observed. The story starts with one orthodox shul and one day school. Many kids from non frum homes influence their parents to become more frum, to become part of the shomer shabbos community. In time, the orthodox community grows and then there is a split. There is a “Torah” Day School because the Hebrew day School doesn’t have the right mix of students, then there is a “Torah” High School because the other one has boys and girls together, kids who are not completely frum,etc. So, you have a frum community that grows and another community that no longer has the hashpaah of those students and parents in their school. Then the next stage is that the “Centrists” rebel and want a zionist modern orthodox school and shul as the one shul is too full of “crazy baal teshuvas” who don’t say the prayer for the Medina, although many of them make aliyah in greater numbers than do the sophisticated and worldly Centrists. So, i nstead of one community, you have several and they are at odds with one another. Can you picture this scene, I have seen it in more than one communtiy and I really think that there is no way to prevent it from happening. There is a growing divide within orthodoxy and the one size fits all shul and school is becoming extinct.

  7. Sarah Elias says:

    Sima, you can relax. There are Jews of all stripes in Zurich. There’s a kiruv organization that reaches out to the not-yet-frum, which include lots of Israelis. There are those who work with youth from marginally observant families. There’s Chabad, too – and the great thing about Zurich is that everyone gets along and no one shuns other groups, regardless of their level of Torah observance.

    L Oberstein, why do you say that Zurich is like other communities you’ve observed? What makes you so sure it’s going to split the way you describe? The trend you note of some people becoming more observant is about 50 years old in Zurich and so far the community has managed to stay together.

  8. Chaim Wolfson says:

    “There is a growing divide within orthodoxy and the one size fits all shul and school is becoming extinct.” (Comment by L Oberstein — July 24, 2008 @ 2:05 pm).

    Rabbi Oberstein, divisions between Jews is not a recent phenomonon. “Five Jews, five views” has always been true, and although not necessarily always hashkafa-based, has caused divisions nonetheless. My aunt’s father came from a tiny “shtetl” in Lithuania that had twenty-five Jewish families and two shuls!

  9. LOberstein says:

    I have no knowledge of Zurich , so I never claimed to be describing that community. It is possible that there is something about European Jewry or Switzerland that is unique and that the USA culture is different. For example, Rabbi Wein said on a tape that he once spoke in South Africa and there were 1,500 people in shul Friday night and 28 on Shabbos morning. Everyone belonged to the orthodox shul and went Friday night but were not really that strict. Here in the USA, these same people would have been Conservative, but there they were orthodox.

    An officer of one of the shuls I belong to bemoaned to me that many people in our neighborhood daven in the large shul during the week but don’t belong or financially support the shul because they prefer to go to smaller shuls (shibels). He said that it would be wonderful if we could all support the one kehila and thus pay our bills. I told him that this is the way it is and I dont see anything we can do about it, anybody can open up a shul in his rec room and serve chulent and get a bunch of people who then don’t contribute the operating expenses of the large community shul. It’s the way it is and I don’t see anything we can do about it.

  10. DF says:

    Most big cities, which is where most observant Jews live, have what you called “kosher” activities within an hour of their homes, usually far less. There are parks and hiking areas everywhere. But for some strange reason – probably worth an essay of its own – many frum Jews dont take advantage of them.

    It’s very odd. Lots of frum Jews I know go to baseball and basketball games for recreation. Many go to theme parks, go-kart tracks, ski-ball emporiums, bowling, or things like that. But comparatively few go boating, go on hikes, nature trails, berry picking, and things like that. There’s a lot of going to man-made recreation [often which are pretty costly] but it seems to me a lot less experiencing Gods beauty, [many of which is free]. One would think in a religious community it would be exactly the opposite. Somthing to think about.

  11. Sarah Elias says:

    So in Zurich that’s less of a problem, because everyone belongs (or is supposed to belong) to one of the three official kehillos – one for the yekkes, one for the “Poilishe” and one for everyone else who identifies as a Jew (i.e. the kehilla is Orthodox, but most of the members are not shomrei Shabbos – like in South Africa, it seems.) You can’t be forced to join a kehilla but if you don’t and you have the misfortune to die, then you can’t be buried in any Jewish cemetery in Zurich. By law, the kehillos can tax their members based on their income, and they do. The frummer kehillos are still not rolling in gelt because their members are mostly not so rich, but there is some money there.

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