Shortchanging Our Children

Elul is a month devoted to deepening our connection to HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Ultimately, that process must take place on the individual level. But, as the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Yisrael Salanter each recognized, in response to spiritual crises in their times, it also has a communal aspect.

A short book by veteran mechanech Rabbi Dovid Sapirman, A Mechanech’s Guide to Why and How to Teach Emunah deals with one such contemporary communal aspect. Published by Torah Umesorah, the booklet carries the haskomos of two of North America’s leading poskim, Rabbi Shlomo Eliyahu Miller and Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Loewy.

Rabbi Sapirman begins with a startling statement: “Emunah is not usually included in the curriculum of our educational system. Yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs rarely address the thirteen ikarim (principles of faith), and most students don’t even know what they are.”

These subjects are not taught, he asserts, because it is assumed, wrongly, that our children have somehow absorbed emunah by osmosis, as a consequence of being raised in “homes permeated with emunah, trained in Torah institutions, and immersed in a frum atmosphere.”

The result is that our children “accept the doctrines of emunah superficially, because this is all that they know.” But they have not internalized those doctrines and made them their own. “A large percentage of our youth are religious only because they were brought up that way, and they believe only because that is what religious people do,” writes Rabbi Sapirman.

To the extent that our children lack firm convictions in the basics of our faith – Hashem’s existence; Divine Providence, the truth of every word of Torah – they are handicapped. Even if they sail along perfectly comfortable as frum Jews – we are denying them the excitement of an intense relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu.

The effects of the absence of a deep connection may only manifest themselves later in life. The much discussed phenomenon of “adults-at-risk,” generally results not from any particular trauma, but from waking up one day in mid-life and suddenly discovering that one has no idea of why one is doing the things that one has been doing all one’s life. Rabbi Sapirman describes speaking to many people of various ages who are tormented by fundamental emunah and hashkafah questions that could and should have been answered shortly after the age of bar mitzvah.

If our children have not internalized the fundamentals of emunah, they are vulnerable to the myriad temptations with which they are bombarded. The average bochur in his late teens, for instance, says he believes, “but truthfully he neither believes nor disbelieves. He is simply moving along the conveyor belt that leads him from cradle to kollel.” While he may continue on the belt indefinitely, “woe to him . . . if he is every confronted with fundamental questions. . . . Woe to him, too, if [he is] ever faced with a serious nisayon, like the temptation for something immoral or dishonest.” Confronted with temptation, the simplest path is to succumb and console oneself that he doesn’t really believe – especially if, in fact, such belief as one professes is not the result of any serious reflection.

The accuracy of Rabbi Sapirman’s analysis was recently confirmed by a maggid shiur in one of the major yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael. We were discussing a recent controversy concerning the impact of of learning in Eretz Yisrael on American bochurim. He stressed that the negative consequences of the freedom afforded many bochurim in Eretz Yisrael is almost always a reflection of their weak grounding in the basics of emunah and hashkafah. They have heard many shmuessen on ameilus b’Torah (striving in Torah learning), he told me, but have only a very hazy knowledge of the principles of our faith.

As they grow older, many students feel that they are actively discouraged from asking questions, and fear that they will be labeled apikorsim (heretics) if they do. That perception, writes Rabbi Sapirman, is unfortunately often correct. He devotes much of his book to refuting various justifications for this defensive attitude on the part of teachers and principals.

That defensive attitude exacts a great toll. An angry response to a student’s question leaves the particular student at whom it is directed suspicious that the rebbe or mechaneches does not really have an answer, perhaps even that there is no answer. And it raises similar suspicions in those who did not ask as well.

There is no justification for rejecting questions just because the one asking is no longer a child. Certain questions only arise with increased intellectual sophistication, and sometimes answers that were satisfactory for one age are no longer satisfactory for older students. As the great mashgiach of our generation Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe used to say, “There is no such thing as a heretical question, only a heretical answer.”

Even the classic expression of Jewish faith given by our ancestors at Sinai – na’aseh ve’nishmah (we will do and we will understand) – only came after Hashem had revealed Himself, His Divine Providence, and the truth of Moshe Rabbeinu’s prophecy to them through the awesome miracles in Egypt. Our children have not witnessed those miracles, and it is unfair to expect such affirmations from them without having given them the means to absorb the lessons of Egypt.

Any question that will be asked has already been discussed in one of the classic Jewish texts. If the greatest Torah thinkers thought it necessary to respond to these issues, why should they be considered beyond the pale? (Just knowing that the questions have been considered worthy of response by the greatest Jewish thinkers, the Steipoler Gaon writes, is often an important element in strengthening the questioner’s faith.)

Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz taught in Torah Vodaath all the classical works dealing with the basic issues of belief, including The Kuzari, Chovos Halevavos, Sha’arei Teshuva, and the major works of the Ramchal. He knew, following Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, that the only way to defeat negative forces is with a more powerful positive force.

The good news, according to Rabbi Sapirman, is that the vast majority of our young people expect to be frum all their lives and are eager, even desperate, to believe. If we fail to provide them the tools to do so at a deep level, we are seriously shortchanging them.

Published in Mishpacha Magazine, 4 September 2009

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9 Responses

  1. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    In this area the national-religious yeshivot and seminaries in EY have a better record because of example set by Rav Kook, the Nazir, Rav Charlap and others after them. In America today the Jewish outreach is present but sorely lacking in Torat Eretz Yisrael, which is the only way to internally answer the challenge of millions of marching footsteps of Muslims. You don’t have to be a Zionist to appreciate the connection of the Gra and Besht to Eretz Yisrael. Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l said that America is the last golus. Lehavdil the American poet Robert Frost said that home is the place that when you have to go there, they have to take you in.

  2. Moshe says:


    Can you define “Torat Eretz Yisrael” for those of us who are not familiar with the term?

  3. Rabbi Daniel Mechanic says:

    Kudos to Jonathan Rosenblum for yet another insightful and accurate article highlighting the critical issues our chinuch system must immediately address. But I am profoundly puzzled and disappointed by the quote of an inaccurate statement at the beginning of Rabbi Sapirman’s fantastic book – “Emunah is not usually included in the curriculum of our educational system. Yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs rarely address the thirteen ikarim (principles of faith), and most students don’t even know what they are.”

    But surely Rabbi Sapirman and Rabbi Rosenblum are aware that hundreds of Yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs have for years indeed included in their curriculum shiurim that address this very issue! 13 years ago, with the Haskamos of numerous Gedolim and Roshei Yeshiva, I founded Project Chazon. Our staff presents comprehensive Hashkafah shiurim on the Yesodei HaEmunah to Yeshiva and Bais Yaakov high school students AND teachers throughout the United States, Canada, England and, recently, Israel. To date, over 1800 programs have been presented to over 140,000 students in 325 schools!! These multi-series seminars cover a wide range of issues basic to Yiddishkeit including the classical approaches to Metzius Hashem, Torah MiSinai, Torah She’Bal’Peh, Tzaddik Verah Lo, Tachlis Hachaim, Bechirah, etc.

    Our yearly six to nine hour appearances in hundreds of schools, have proven to be incredibly effective – as evidenced by countless personal anecdotes, and the letters and calls extolling the program that arrive daily from school principals, parents and, most significantly, the students themselves.

    But it’s still not enough. The students need more – and cry out for more! These types of shiurim need to be presented on an ongoing basis throughout the year. After speaking and listening to the questions –and sometimes doubts– of thousands of Yeshiva students, I can attest to the fact that this problem is broader and deeper than we tend to think. I recently invested a great deal of time analyzing correspondence received from over one thousand Yeshiva high school boys and girls and found the following question to be the overwhelming favorite: “How do we know that we are right?” It would seem that the challenge of growing up in a society increasingly driven by science, technology and all manner of newfangled “modern sensibilities,” demands that we provide our children the ability to effectively articulate to themselves, and to others, the truth and relevance of Torah.

    Project Chazon is not in the business of being meorair shailos. We are there, however, to provide the reassurance of direct and compelling responses to the crucial Hashkafah questions of today’s Yeshiva students. Hopefully, with great siyata dishmaya, Project Chazon will continue to assist the schools in reinforcing and strengthening the Shmiras Hamitzvos and Avodas Hashem of their students.

  4. Shua Cohen says:

    The issue of “emunah” is, I sincerely believe, the overarching one of our day.

    As a ba’al teshuva I came to yiddishkeit at the age of 30 as a purely intellectual endeavor, fascinated by the ethical challenge presented by Torah as “law.” G-d had very little to do with it. When I went to yeshiva and was introduced to Gemara, G-d did not seem at all present in the Beis Medresh. I was not at all uncomfortable with this reality, as I had scant ability to relate to the notion of a personal G-d and, during the years of raising my five children, would have been embarrassed to talk to them about “G-d.” I assumed that my discomfort would be compensated for by their Rebbes and Morahs, acting in my behalf. I was wrong. I look at my grown children today and sadly see that they, as I at the beginning, have no personal relationship with G-d. I didn’t provide them with the means to establish any emotional connection…and alas, their schools did not do it either.

    Certain traumatic-life events acted as the catalyst to my ability to develop a personal relationship with the Ribbon Shel Olam. But it took twenty-five years to happen. I can only pray that my children will not have to suffer similar tragic events in their lives in order to make the crucial and necessary connection to their Maker.

    Normally, children replicate the growing-up experience of their parents. But as FFBs, my children’s Jewish-life experience unavoidably created a degree of disconnect from their ba’alei teshuva parents. They will never know what it’s like to experience one’s formative years in a secular society and to seek Judaism as a self-motivated effort. And there is no compensation for this by having grown up as FFBs, with Judaism being handed over to them as the “norm.” For their experience also seems to reflect the spiritual malaise so symptomatic of the FFB world to which they belong. As a result, they have experienced a far more serious disconnect, not from their parents, but from G-d. So sad.

    My only comfort is the hope that perhaps their’s is the generation that will experience the wonders of the final geula. By directly witnessing the Ribbono Shel Olam’s hand in history they will re-inherit the birthright of Emunas Hashem.

  5. smb says:

    I agree that many individuals have an external belief, and are religous because they were brought up that way, but have not internalized it. I think that only when a person internalizes it and makes it their own, do they start to have a strong foundation. Without this strong foundation, their belief call fall apart, G-d forbid. Plus, I agree that they should be allowed to ask any questions and receive answers in order to strengthen their emunah. The Torah has No holes, there’s nothing to hide. We are meant to use our brain and think about the information that is given to us and learn more info and come to our own conclusion about the truth of Truth of Torah. That’s how we make it our own and build a strong foundation

  6. tzippi says:

    Rabbi Mechanic, may you have the koach to continue your incredible work.
    Apparently the teachers need some exposure too, based on all the letters I read from kids who are afraid to ask questions because their teachers will label them apikorsim.
    B”H my kids have teachers who love good questions, including a few teachers with extensive kiruv experience.

  7. Shades of Gray says:

    “Certain questions only arise with increased intellectual sophistication, and sometimes answers that were satisfactory for one age are no longer satisfactory for older students”

    Jonathan Rosenblum touches upon the issue of individuality when it comes to questions on yesodei hadaas.

    Besides the differences between children and adults, there are differences among adults themselves. There is a difference between a FFB adult who reads Hamodia versus someone who had read, say, the New York Times; between a BT who had exposure to popular secular culture, and between someone who has exposure, great or small, to “maskilic” issues, l’mineihem. The last group of individuals might be a minority within the frum community, but the sophistication needed for them might be the greatest.

    A second issue relating to the idea of questions and individuality is discussed on YU’s Tzelem website:

    “Often there is no Jewish response, from within yeshivot, to provide a Jewish approach to sexuality and relationships, and children are left with the impression that Judaism has either nothing to say about the subject, or, that it only has negative things to say. Additionally, even in the absence of a highly sexualized modern culture, the total void of any systematic education which addresses such a fundamental part of personal development within a Jewish context is problematic. Children and teenagers in yeshiva day schools require more information, guidance, direct conversation and opportunities to ask questions about issues of intimacy and Judaism that are so often on their minds”

    An educator I recently spoke to agreed about the importance of parental discussion(see also Rabbi Simcha and Chaya Feurman’s current articles on the topic in the Jewish Press, available online), however mentioned that classroom education can be problematic due to the different maturity levels of children. Again, the issue of individuality.

    Finally, a personal story on the topic of questions. A few years ago, I met with a respected “moderate” charedi Rav on issues relating to the Science/Torah controversy. From the outset, I told this rav that when it comes for example to “daas Torah” , my nature is to “never accept it without thinking and questioning”. His response, I assume trying to be helpful and probe my background, was to ask “how did I ever survive in Yeshivat XYZ”, and “whether my parent’s were always frum”.

    Despite that initial roadbump, the conversation, overall, was pleasant and satisfying. In fact, I have a perhaps perverse sense of gratitude to both R. Slifkin and his opponents, for were it not for the controversy, I would never had thought of meeting this person in the first place!

  8. cvmay says:

    Rabbi Mechanic, yell it from the rooftops, till all the yeshivos and bais yakov schools open their doors & allow you to enter. Mosdos are under the wrong assumption that by inviting Project Chazon to address their talmidim it is a reflection that they are not teaching correctly or that their talmidim are ‘at risk’. My teens who have heard Rabbi Mechanic on numerous occasions return home refreshed, enlightened positively and confident in their avodas hashem.

    “The Kuzari, Chovos Halevavos, Sha’arei Teshuva, and the major works of the Ramchal” are found on every shtender at Mercaz Harav and its affliate yeshivos. Most American bochurim have not opened the KUZARI and are still discouraged from dealing with ‘torah issues of philosophy’.

    Rabbi Shaya Cohen has innovated and encouraged a movement to ‘Teach Emunah’ and include it within our curriculum of kodesh. Kol Hakavod.

  9. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Torat Eretz Yisrael, in answer to Moshe’s request, is the understanding of the Torah as it was given, to be practiced lechatchila (ideally) in the Land of Israel. We see that many mitzvot of the Torah can only be practiced in EY. We also see that the ideal setting of the Jewish People is to serve Hashem not only as individuals or communities, but as a Torah nation in its land, with a Torah-mandated form of government. We should be very proud of that form of government because it is the source of government by law with separation of powers today. The Torah was the first document to put controls on the power of kings and priests and armies. BTW, we should also be proud of the Torah because it has shown the world how to frame the week of work with a purposeful leisure (Shabbat), and has also educated the world that human beings should be treated with respect and not cruelly enslaved (Pesach), and that there should be limits on unbridled seeking of pleasure (Brit Mila). But for us as a nation with self respect and the respect of others, the proper context is as a Torah nation in the Land which Hashem chose for us.

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