Bright Stars On The Jewish Horizon: The Tikvah Program For Yeshiva Men
We could have called it “Litvish-America’s Got Talent.” For those of us weary of worrying about the problems that plague the Torah community we love, it was a reassuring hug from Heaven.
The seventeen participants (selected from a pool about four times the size) who completed the week-long Tikvah Fund Program for Yeshiva Men demonstrated that the Olam HaTorah possesses young people of exceptional promise who can help lead the next generation of observant Jews. As one of the conveners of the program, I could have drowned in nachas. As a member of an older generation that takes pride in the yeshiva world but is mindful of the road-kill it has left behind at times, spending time in the company of these young men was Paradise Regained.
Less than two years ago, I began speaking to the Tikvah Fund, a Jewish but nondenominational group committed to providing politically and economically conservative leadership for the future. They understood the importance of including the Orthodox, whose demographic importance is now beyond cavil. To their credit, they also understood that the haredi cohort of the Orthodox community could not be left out of any strategic planning. To attract yeshiva participants, I argued, it would be necessary to offer a separate program that played to their talents, while fully respecting their halachic and hashkafic sensitivities. Tikvah’s bright and learned (Orthodox) Senior Director took the idea and ran with it after the Board gave the green light. With only months before a bein hazemanim (the only time that bnei Torah could be assembled), Rabbi Mark Gottlieb put together a team of political and economic theorists, and worked with me to gather some talmidei chachamim and community figures who would introduce the participants to Torah thinkers often neglected in the typical yeshiva, in order to explore the place of the Torah Jew in carrying his values into the general community
We knew that there were students in every yeshiva who were curious about the yesh-chochmah-bagoyim of which they knew nothing, and others who were certain that the Torah had something to say about the greater world but hamstrung in their ability to conjure up a Torah vision for general society. Still, we had no idea who would apply, and were more than pleasantly surprised by the great response after a few weeks of advertising in frum outlets. (I will admit satisfaction in the number of applicants whose interest was piqued by previous pieces in Cross-Currents.)
Rabbi Gottlieb and I disagreed about the ideal applicant. He favored those who came with breadth of knowledge and variety of experience, who were surer bets as future leaders. I preferred those who were bright and curious, but lacked tools, background and exposure. My conjecture was that a well-planned program could ignite in them passion for new ideas, and that they represented a much larger potential pool for the future.
As a compromise of sorts, we took both. The former group was overrepresented by present and former talmidim of Shaar HaTorah and Ner Israel; the latter included those from BMG, Mir, various Brisks, and Riverdale. Some knew each other before they arrived, while others didn’t. If we can take their feedback seriously, they all gained from the materials covered (they read hundreds of pages in preparation, in both the secular that the Torah curricula) and from the many hours of informal discussion at meals and late night.
The general tenor of discussion reminded me of what I had heard decades ago about Slabodka. A group of friends had sought an interview with Rav Hutner, zt”l, to get a first-hand report on the famed mussar yeshiva. What he told them was different from what they expected to hear. Talmidim in Slabodka, he reported, were fierce individualists with healthy egos. Would anyone have deigned to directly order them to change their conduct, he would have been ignored – or mocked. The Alter (at least in public) spoke in general terms; students applied his wisdom to themselves individually. Participants at Tikvah similarly gave no ground to presenters. New material, old material, secular or Torah – the participants tore into every idea with gusto. They were polite and refined, but they arrogated to themselves the right of dissent. Sometimes acting like contrarians, they developed some of the most important ideas of the week by their own vigorous responses to Torah figures they greatly respected , who sometimes took positions they had to question. (The formal Torah presenters included R. Dovid Bleich, R. Hershel Schachter, R Meir Triebitz, R Reuven Leuchter, Jonathan Rosenblum, and myself. They held forth on halachic aspects of interaction with the non-Jewish world; on aspects of the thought of R Samson Raphael Hirsch, R Kook, R Soloveitchik, and Nathan Birnbaum; and on the theoretical overlap between Torah sources and the secular disciplines explored.)
The atmosphere was electric with cross-conversations and with sentences that didn’t have to be completed, because most everyone could anticipate the rest. The secular presenters had been told that some of the participants lacked the general background to politics and economics that could have been assumed at other programs. But they left someplace between impressed and overwhelmed by the quality of discussion and reasoning.
In other words, it was just like being in a yeshiva with some very gifted guys. They dropped allusions that were picked up by most of their peers. They knew all the inspiring stories of gedolim, as well as some of the lesser-known ones that came from out-of-the box reading. It was not uncommon to hear throw-away lines about obscure events and personalities – obscure, at least to some of the participants. Essentially, there were three groups: those who could identify Calvin and Hobbes as religious and political thinkers, those who thought they were a comic strip, and those who had no idea what they were. What they all shared was superior intelligence, intellectual curiosity, years of yeshiva training, and firm belief in Torah’s ability to enhance any conversation about anything of value.
Different as the participants were from each other, the mixture made for deep and exciting informal conversation in the dining room and at late night discussions, especially as participants began to put pieces of the program together. There were vigorous exchanges about the limits of Maimonidean rationalism; whether Maharal was a rationalist or an anti-rationalist; and different conceptions of Daas Torah. We struggled to find models of dealing with the contributions of gedolei olam whose works are not generally embraced by the standard yeshiva world. We pondered the extent of change in non-Jewish attitudes towards Jews, and whether that might require more nuanced responses than in the past. We explored what we loved about the yeshiva world, as well as the key reasons for the discontent of some of its graduates. We traded observations about who was comfortable, and to what extent, with the approach of the Dor Revii to the development of Torah She-b’al-peh. We considered what, if anything, could be done to slake the thirst for a broader worldview in more traditional neighborhoods.
One participant pointed out what he saw as common traits of his fellow travelers, despite the wide range of backgrounds and attitudes. They were all happy people. Some of them were cynical – but they were still the happy variety, not the morose, damaged types.
Evenings were devoted to less formal presentations, often by guests who joined us for dinner. Dr. Elliot Bondi offered insights into the stance of gedolim to his forebear, R Samson Raphael Hirsch. R Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center traded fascinating anecdotes about advocating globally for Jewish causes with Shahar Azani, the Consul for Media Affairs at Israel’s New York consulate. The upshot was insight into the crucial role that frum Jews in particular have in creating allies in other communities. Jonathan Rosenblum (who also met with each participant to offer suggestions on writing skills, and was the only person who fully understood every reference the secular faculty made to pundits, their ideas and their works) teamed up with R Avi Shafran to consider the career of R Moshe Sherer. Moshe Bane joined for a few days, and offered the observations of a layperson as seasoned askan.
The most impressive take-away from an exhilarating week is that it predicts a bright future for the yeshiva world in times of rapid change. The Tikvah participants occupy a continuum of backgrounds, attitudes, and exposure. Some were quite typical, others out of the box. Despite the differences, they all share a love for the chief values and practices of the haredi yeshiva world, and are resolved to remain part of it.
The yeshiva world, and the Jewish community in general, will be stronger through their contributions.
I’m more interested in knowing how many of the references Mr. Rosenblum’s adult children would have understood.
Moshe Sherer is largely irrelevant to today’s Haredi/Aguda world. He was relevant to a Haredi world that still had a klal yisrael consciousness and most Haredim had first degree relatives who weren’t charedi.
That world no longer exists.
Why not post some of the presentations and discussions?
[YA – Several reasons. We could not post without permission, and since the back and forth was extensive, it would mean securing permission from all the discussants. That would put a chill in the future on the free-wheeling and open repartee that characterized Tikvah. Additionally, some of the presentations piggy-backed on each other in several ways, and should not be listened to individually.
You are not the first to make the request. As we do our post-event analysis, it could be that we may find one or two presentations that could be released for general consumption. But no promises.]
What, if anything, is meant to be the next step for participants?
[YA – We will be puzzling over that in the next weeks. We hope to link everyone through a listserv (easy) and then try to put together events that will bring the graduates back together from time to time. Tikvah does a good job in maintaining contact with those who complete its programs. They will want to safeguard their investment in the participants.]
Will there be a report on the women’s program?
[YA – Only if someone writes one and asks us to consider it as a guest contribution. I had nothing to do with the women’s program, but am as curious as you to find out how it went!]
Dear Brooklyn refugee shaygitz,
As one of the 17 participants, I take issue with your comments and undertone of cynicism. I attended center-right “chareidi” yeshivos my whole life and I and many other participants knew most of the secular references (though not all). People have a view of the yeshiva world as uneducated and narrow and this program proves both those accusations to be mostly untrue. The participants were a well read group of people and as to your Moshe Sherer point, a group of ppl who passionately care about the klal and want to make a difference in educational, organizational and socio-economic concerns that face klal yisroel.
R Adlerstein once again destroys an urban myth and sterotype about the Litvishe American Yeshiva world.
Many of the comments here assume that a familiarity with references to secular culture is an unmitigated plus. But is that really so? Familiarity on a superficial basis is hardly likely to deepen ones understanding of human nature or of anything else. Familiarity in a deeper way means that a significant amount of time was invested in the study of secular culture. Whether that investment was worth while given “time’s winged chariot” should not be assumed. (For example the phrase “time’s winged chariot” was used by R. Aaron Lichtenstein in a lengthy article. Undoubtedly it is a reference to some well know item in secular culture but I have no idea where it originally appears . Is it worth my time trying to find out?)
“despite the wide range of backgrounds and attitudes. They were all happy people. Some of them were cynical – but they were still the happy variety, not the morose, damaged types.”
I would respectfully suggest reconsidering this phrasing – it detracts from an otherwise optimism-inspiring article. People who are not “happy” should not be called “damaged,” as if their mood makes them irrevocably lesser people.
R Adlerstein once again destroys an urban myth and sterotype about the Litvishe American Yeshiva world.
>>>> or, found 2 dozen yechidei segula exceptions to the ‘urban myth’ that is factual….
[YA With very little lead time, and no real idea on how to get the word out, we received over 60 applications. All but about five or six would have been good candidates. While we don’t know how many, there are certainly more out there. The real question is how many more might be a half-step away, and could benefit from a week of broader exposure within a Torah framework, for the purpose of developing leadership ability.]
Shmuel – I too attended such yeshivas. Albeit more than a generation ago. Since I am the oldest in a rather large family my impression has been that since my time in such yeshivas they have only become even more narrow minded and restrictive than they were in my day.
Regarding your point that you were part of “a group of ppl who passionately care about the klal and want to make a difference in educational, organizational and socio-economic concerns that face klal yisroel.” can I ask you a simple question. If what you say is true, then why did your group of people require a special tikvah fund session separate from all the other leadership seminars which brought together the rest of am yisrael? why couldn’t you participate in the general sessions?
“young people of exceptional promise”, “In other words, it was just like being in a yeshiva with some very gifted guys”
Was intellectual acuity one of the primary competencies used to choose participants?
[YA – Yes. It was an academic program, with lots of reading and listening]
Brookyln refugee shaygitz – I appreciate your response. I am the second youngest of a large family so perhaps my perspective is different :). But the terms you use “narrow minded” and “restrictive” are both subjective and if I may say so, slightly offensive. Yes, Ner Yisorel (my almamater) does maintain a degree of measured insularity from the world at large (though many of its talmidim pursue a higher secular education at the same time) but so does YU, its a matter of degree. There is needle to thread here and you do not seem to be doing a good job at it. Regarding why there was a need for a separate program, you happen to be talking to the wrong guy b/c I am probably the only participant who has also applied to standard Tikvah programs. But irrespective of that, the people and issues that were discussed (e.g. the worldview of Reb Yisroel Salanater or the excessive reliance of welfare in Chareidi circles) would be best addressed by ppl who are knowledgable on those issues and live in that world. Most standard Tikvah fellows are not intimately familiar with many of the issues discussed. Think of it as a hesder program just for Tikvah instead of the IDF. And finally, for better or for worse the regular tikvah programs are co-ed. Most participants in this program would have felt uncomfortable in such a setting, which is why they made a Plessy v. Fergusonesque decision to have separate but equal programs. Though the lack of getting to know the female participants was much to my chagrin 🙂
Every generation in Jewish history has had a small but critically important nucleus of “yechidei segulah” whose role is the smashing of urban myths and stereotypes.
As someone who is simply too old to have been accepted, I am envious of the opportunity these young men had, and remain confident in the ability of the yeshiva-world to continue to produce the future leaders of the Klall. I myself was given a chance to learn and interact with great leaders and visionaries of Klall Yisroel in attendance at a different but comparable type of course run by Rabbi Shaya Milikowsky back in the day. Kudos to Rabbi Adlerstein for his work and vision, and not letting all the naysayers hold him back.
That’s what I guessed, I’d just point out that leadership requires a lot more than that (I’m not sure that is the primary differentiator in leaders). Look at US presidents (or why Moshe and Yehoshua respectively were selected for their jobs)
Something to think about
a familiarity with references to secular culture is an unmitigated plus— Definitely in the world of Kiruv, partners in Torah, etc.
Rav A. Lichtenstein’s vocabulary and word usage is on a post Masters Level so to use him as an example as a ‘reference to secular culture’ is out of the norm. Sounds like a worthy program and glad it was well attended.
A very interesting and exciting program. Congratulations are due to Rabbi Adlerstein for his key role. Maybe there is some hope left for the Haredi community.
I was wondering, Rabbi Adlerstein, if you might expand a bit on the interaction between the “secular” presenters and the group of students.
[YA – Everyone was pretty happy with everyone, but there were some surprises. The secular presenters were throttled at times when they realized that some cultural references (e.g. popular television shows) did not register with the audience. They were surprised that some of the participants had no familiarity with some basic names and assumptions. On the other hand, they were intrigued by the vigor with which the participants took part in discussion, and enjoyed having fly-on-the-wall status when the guys spoke/argued among themselves.
The participants made good use of the presence of the presenters, including them in spirited discussion at meals. I think they related best to Ryan Anderson’s material because his natural-law approach, so foreign to modern minds (other than Robert George) resonated with similar approaches in the rishonim. (And yes, quite a few were aware of the exchange between R Yaakov Emden and Mendelssohn on the matter.) What intrigued them in particular was the depth of their commitment and faith as observant Catholics, and their dogged insistence that if G-d commanded it, then it behooves us to try to support it rationally.]
Jacob Suslovich asked,
““time’s winged chariot” was used by R. Aaron Lichtenstein in a lengthy article. Undoubtedly it is a reference to some well know item in secular culture but I have no idea where it originally appears . Is it worth my time trying to find out?)”
Maybe. Think, Shir Ha Shirim meets Kohelet or vice versa.
How about at least posting the materials that they read in preparation for the seminar? There are many out here who would appreciate well-organized writings on these types of issues.
[YA – I’ve passed along the suggestion to the powers that be.]
Shmuel: And finally, for better or for worse the regular tikvah programs are co-ed. Most participants in this program would have felt uncomfortable in such a setting
Ori: But if they are to interact with people outside the Charedi community, as leaders have to, they’d have to get used to co-ed settings.
Joel Rich wrote on August 26, 2014 at 2:50 pm, “That’s what I guessed, I’d just point out that leadership requires a lot more than that (I’m not sure that is the primary differentiator in leaders). Look at US presidents (or why Moshe and Yehoshua respectively were selected for their jobs)…”
Please don’t look at just any US Presidents!
As an aside, there are concepts and buzzwords from the secular academic culture and the secular street culture that seminar participants might have to understand on some level, but should not use.
Concerning whether it worth the time to acquaint oneself with secular culture, I am reminded of the story about R. Ya’akov Kamenetsky when he was at yeshivas Torah ve-Da’as, and being shocked, when he made a reference to Anna Karenina, that none of his students knew what he was talking about. Apparently R. Ya’akov did not feel that it was bitul zeman to become acquainted with works of secular culture, even ones as untzniusdik as a novel about an adulterous relationship.
David Glasner’s comment reminds me of the recent row when ArtScroll published an English translation of Rav Zalman Sorotzkin’s “Aznyaim LeTorah.” In the original Hebrew, in Parshas Metzorah, Rav Sorotzkin mentions the novel “Robinson Crusoe” about the effects of isolation. The comment was excised in the English translation published by ArtScroll. When I asked one of the senior people about it, I was told that the English translation was furnished by Rav Sorotzkin’s family and was presumed to be accurate.
Rabbi Adlerstein: Thank you for your enlightening response to my question. I was particularly struck by your last sentence. However, in light of the deep and strong religious Catholic faith of the “secular presenters,” isn’t “secular” a rather spectacular misnomer? Better simply “non-Jewish presenters.”
[YA – It may be a misnomer, but probably less than spectacular. By “secular presenters” I meant those who presented the secular curriculum, in contradistinction to the Torah curriculum. Those secular presenters went about their duties from a completely secular perspective – even thought they revealed in the Q&A that they were committed Catholics, and explained that it is their faith that motivates their involvement in the areas that they teach.]
Why not invite the participants to each write a guest contribution to this website?
[YA – They know that such contributions will be welcome. One has already penned a piece; we are mulling over where to place it. There still are a few people out there who don’t read Cross-Currents….]
To mb , David Glasner , cvmay
My point was not that familiarity with secular culture is (or is not) a plus. My emphasis was on it being an “unmitigated” plus. There are trade offs to most things and spending time studying secular culture (literature, philosophy, etc.) is no exception. It may be worth while, perhaps even essential, if one plans on devoting himself to kiruv, although how much familiarity is needed is questionable. But the posts here seem to ignore the downside.
As a participant of the program & someone who currently learns in BMG I totally disagree. There are many in my circles that would enjoy & appreciate such a program including a friend who upon recognizing my face in above picture called me for info & expressed interest in applying next yr. Many are currently interested (as can be seen in the fact that Agudah’s PCS programs are growing rapidly amongst many other indications) and many as RYA said are a half-step away. As word gets out that Tikvah trully is intrested in catering to all parts of the Yeshiva community I predict that more & more ppl from the Lakewood community will apply.
Jacob Suslovich, Well, perhaps, but if we credit the story about R. Ya’akov, it would seem that he expected more than a passing knowledge of secular culture from his own talmidim, regardless of whether they were going into kiruv.
Jacob Suslovich said
” It may be worth while, perhaps even essential, if one plans on devoting himself to kiruv, although how much familiarity is needed is questionable. But the posts here seem to ignore the downside”
And that is where the 2 “sides” differ. You see a downside, I(and my teachers) do not.
“Dr. Elliot Bondi offered insights into the stance of gedolim to his forebear, R Samson Raphael Hirsch”
A granddaughter of R. Zalman Sorotzkin discussed his Hirschian approach as well as the mention of Robinson Crusoe (“RC”) in Oznayim Letorah, mentioned above.
“As a granddaughter of R’ Zalman who grew up right there at his feet, I am reading with both awe and amusement the attributions made here to what he might have thought, imagined, believed or knew about RC. Mostly, I want to say, he was a man who lived Torah, ignited the fire of Torah, and had outstanding bekiut of the stories and lessons of the entire Tanach, and sought ways to bring younger people to love and connect to them. He was always interested in what we were learning in school, in every subject, and found ways to ask us and make us think of the relevance of everything around us to the lessons of the Torah. It is totally pashut that he would use a commonly known story to make a Torah point more obvious and connected to human experience.
As far as the omission of the story by Artscroll, it may help clarify that when they took on the translation, it was made clear to the family that only parts of his prolific work would be translated from the source, and the selection was left in the hand of the editor/translator. If you really want to study the Oznayim LaTorah, get the gishmak it holds, learn it in the Hebrew. It has so much more tochen and ta’am than the diluted translation.
BTW, Rav Zalman did not only appreciate a good literary piece but himself was a poet. For my Bat Mitzvah he gave me a sefer which just then came out for the first time in Hebrew, a translation of R Shimshom Refael Hirsch on Tehillim. He was very excited about it and he wrote me a beautiful poem as a dedication on the book. I will be happy to scan and share if there is interest.” (On the Main Line , 10/6/10, “Where in the world is Robinson Crusoe? On Artscroll’s translation of Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin’s Oznayim Le-torah.”)
There is also an article about Oznayim Letorah and about R. Sorotzkin published this Sunday on the Seforim Blog(“The Creative Craftsman: Adorning The Torah, One Crown At A Time”).
Do you truly not see any downside against which the merits of studying secular culture must be weighed? Does not time spent on one thing (study of secular culture) leave less time for others (whether those others are completing or reviewing shas or volunteering to visit lonely people in a nursing home)? Have not some who have studied philosophy suffered a loss of religious adherence? Only someone who recognizes the pluses and minuses of a particular course of action can judge between those pluses and minuses. Would you accept the recommendation of a surgeon who recommends surgery who does not recognize even the possibility of complications and therefore factor that possibility into the equation ? I can not believe that your teachers do not see a down side. Who are they?
Jacob, it didn’t seem to bother the Sforno (University educated in science) or Arbravenal (a master of Greek and Roman literature) or Chief Rabbi Nathan Adler who was the first Orthodox Rabbi to get a Phd (actually he got 3 of them, and then went on to found Jews college, a Rabbinic training college that made it mandatory to get a degree from a university before getting Semicha.
Shall I go on?
Do you make any distinctions between the secular studies or secular studies approaches that are suitable for believing Jews and those that aren’t suitable? If so, what are some current examples?
Rabi Adlerstein: “Secular presenter” seems to me to characterize the personality of the presenter. Would you call a frum professor of say mathematics or physics who presents a purely mathematical or scientific lecture a “secular professor”? The correct term would have been “academic presenters.”
[YA – You win. I’m hoisting the white flag. I’m no match for a genuine “academic presenter.” In fact, you are more than welcome to proofread all of what I publish….]
You are conflating two issues. 1-If the time spent earning a secular education is worth the time NOT spent on Torah Learning. 2-if a moral person is allowed to immerse themselves in a college/university environment in todays’ world where the lack of any semblance of tzniut, and the immorality and atheistic mindset of the average professor has shown itself to be very challenging to any frum jew. I, for one, think that the latter is a far more serious issue than the former.
Bring proof from what people did 100 or 300 years ago is meaningless for the latter issue.
Bob Miller, if you believe as I do, that God is the source of all wisdom, then no, I don’t. Discerning minds can separate the wheat from the chaff.
Benshaul, my proof from 300 years ago, actually 500 years since the Sforno and Abravenal, and 150 since CR Adler, was a response to Jacob Suslovitch who asked “Is it worth my time trying to find out”(secular knowledge)
And once again, secular knowledge is Torah. Clearly you disagree. So be it. But for life of me I can’t comprehend studying Rashi and not being able to find his birthplace on a map or understand the influence of that environment on his thinking. Or how one can possibly understand most midrashim without knowing the historical basis of them. So go ahead study your version of Torah and nothing else, that’s asceticism, and you’ll have a community of ascetics. Beautiful, but remember this, no ascetic has ever found a cure for disease, or been able to feed a hungry child, let alone, be productive enough to create employment for others.
My astonishment was directed at your statement that “You see a downside, I(and my teachers) do not.” There are few things in life that do not have any downside at all even if that downside is eclipsed by the upside of a particular course of action. But if you are afraid to even acknowledge the downside that clearly exists in immersing oneself in secular studies, then you cannot balance the pros against the cons. I am sure that those whom you mentioned as being knowledgeable in secular culture were fully aware of the disadvantages and dangers involved and were therefore able to make an informed decision.
Sorry Jacob Suslovich, but the downside is in rejecting God’s wisdom.
I grant there is risk in anything ventured, but a much larger risk in nothing ventured.