Learning from our Past, Building our Future (Part 2):
How Jewish History teaches us to create a positive community for tomorrow
by Leslie Ginsparg Klein
Generations of Jews have grappled with the same issues that face our Jewish community today. Their experiences provide us with suggestions as to how we can create a positive Jewish community today and ensure the commitment of our children. Colonials Jews provided us with two suggestions: education and infrastructure. Two important innovators from the early twentieth century, Sarah Schenirer and Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, give us two more answers.
In late 19th and early 20th century Europe, the Orthodox community found itself losing its youth in shocking numbers. While both boys and girls assimilated, girls were leaving Orthodoxy in even greater proportions. Some members of the community, including an unknown seamstress who would go on to become one of the most famous personages in Jewish history, identified the cause as a lack of quality Jewish education.
In the decades before the founding of Bais Yaakov, the movement for Jewish education for girls, parents not only allowed their daughters to attend Polish elementary schools and high schools beyond the requisite years, but many encouraged the girls’ intellectual pursuits. Some wealthy Orthodox Jews, or those who lived in small towns without high schools, hired private tutors to teach their daughters Polish, French, mathematics and science. While it could be considered bittul Torah to teach a boy secular subjects, no such consideration existed in the education of women. On the contrary, Orthodox Jews considered it preferable that women should spend the time acquiring secular skills, so they could later use them to help support the continued learning of the men in their family. One rabbi, in looking for a shidduch for his sister boasted that she knew how to write Hebrew, Polish and German fluently and had knowledge of Russian as well. These were qualities that could get one a good shidduch in those days.
But as a result of their exposure to secular learning, girls experienced a great disparity between their intellectual engagement with secular studies and their informal training in the laws and traditions of Yiddishkeit. Studying secular subjects and attending secular schools introduced girls to a new and different set of values, which often led them to adopt changes in their lives incongruous with Orthodox Judaism and to leave their frum communities. Members of the Orthodox community, including Sarah Schenirer and various rabbis, blamed this development on the girls’ lack of any significant Jewish education. They believed that the home no longer provided an adequate Jewish foundation and that the messages girls received in secular schools undermined their informal Jewish education at home. They felt that girls possessed no tools with which to maintain their frumkeit once exposed to secular Polish culture and society.
While Sarah Schenirer saw boys and men involved in intense Jewish learning and gaining spiritual inspiration from their rebbe, she viewed women’s religious lives as empty. She perceived girls and young women growing disconnected from religion and tradition, and blamed this distance on their lack of Jewish education. She became determined to teach women and girls about Jewish tradition, and she did.
Bais Yaakov was phenomenally successful. Bais Yaakov introduced girls to a new world of studying Jewish subjects, to limudei kodesh, and trained them to be leaders and educators for the next generation. It provided not only an education, but a way to live a frum life in a challenging time and environment. It imparted a self-confidence and pride in being frum, as indicated by the story of the Bais Yaakov student who when teased about being observant, responded with pride (LINK TO PART ONE). It helped create a new generation of Torah personalities that went on to influence the following generations.
That is our third answer. Educating our children. Both as parents in the home and ensuring our children have the proper school and school environment to give them a strong foundation and pride in Judaism.
The experiences of the Jews of Colonial America and early twentieth century Europe illuminate the need for the fourth factor: infrastructure. A community need infrastructure. Schools. Institutions. Abigaill Levy Franks’ children suffered for the lack of it. Rebecca Samuels and Sarah Schenirer saw the need for it. But for hundreds of years, the American Jewish community did not have it. That changed, in large part, due to the efforts of Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz. He, like Sarah Schenirer, was a master educator.
When Rav Shraga Feivel arrived in America in 1913, he found an American Jewish community that had not built a strong infrastructure, especially in the realm of education. When large numbers of East European Jewish immigrants began arriving in the 1880s, most chose to send their children to public schools. Between 1880 and 1914, two million East European Jews immigrated to America and over two-thirds of this number settled in New York. By 1914, almost all of the 275,000 elementary-aged (6-14) Jewish children attended public elementary school.
Rav Shraga Feivel determined to change this reality. Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz was born in Hungary in 1886. Studying under leading rabbis in Hungary, he became inspired to try to teach those Jews who were not religious about Jewish life and traditions and attempt to bring them closer to frumkeit—a true forerunner of the kiruv movment. He married at age 22 and in 1913, moved to America. He taught at a number of Talmud Torah afternoon schools, but wanted to accomplish more than these programs allowed him to. In 1921, he accepted a position teaching at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, then an afternoon program that ended in 8th grade. He became principal, and under his leadership, the school improved and expanded. He successfully persuaded parents to keep their graduating children in the school, and gradually built a high school. This became America’s first Yeshiva-Mesivta high school, teaching Jewish as well as secular studies. But he wasn’t satisfied with building that one school alone. Before his death in 1948, Rav Shraga Feivel assisted in the founding of other yeshivos as well: Bais Medresh Gevoha in Lakewood; Chaim Berlin in New York, Telshe in Cleveland. He founded a kollel in a then unknown town called Monsey, and most significantly, he founded Torah Umesorah – the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools, the organization most responsible for building an educational infrastructure in America. He built the backbone of Jewish education in America.
Like the Bais Yaakov student who was told she must be the only girl of her generation to be observant, Reb Shraga Feivel was criticized for being old-fashioned. When chided for not living in the 20th century, he responded, “You are right. I am a man of the 21st century.” Indeed he was a man of the future. He understood that to build a future, a community needs infrastructure. He created that.
Sarah Schenirer & Rav Shraga Feival saw the problem. They saw disengagement and assimilation. And they formulated a solution: education and infrastructure. They asked the question, how can we create a positive Jewish community for our children? And they answered: education and infrastructure.
They both saw that the community’s approach to education was no longer working, and while remaining staunchly traditional, pushed for innovation and creativity. They show us that tradition and innovation are not mutually exclusive. A commitment to tradition does not preclude an understanding that if we remain complacent and don’t continue to move forward with respect to giving our children the best educational opportunities—the best educational grounding to address the challenges of the modern world—we will be failing them.
Like with attitude and environment, education needs to be a positive experience. Parents and educators should not constantly harp on what children are doing wrong. And while scare tactics might work in the short term, they won’t engender a positive approach to mitzvah observance. Boys are told that a recent tragedy occurred because they talk in shul. Girls are told that Moshiach is not coming because they wear their hair too long. This is not a helpful form of chinuch today. Even if these statements are true, the impact can be far more destructive than the gain. How is the boy who struggles with davening going to feel about his self worth? Will the girl with long hair feel inspired or feel ashamed and angry? Will they view their teachers as loving role models or view them as out-of-touch? Will children feel happy and lucky to be frum after hearing a speech designed to guilt and shame them into observance? Or will they chas v’shalom feel that they don’t belong in the frum world, that they’ll never be good enough so why bother? Judaism is a beautiful, all-encompassing lifestyle, but I fear our children are not getting that message. Instead, they are learning to associate frumkeit with criticism and negativity.
Certainly there are times for discipline and for tochacha, but remember that the Gemara says, smoel doche v’yamin mikareves. For every small reprimand, there should be an even greater act of love. Psychologist and parenting expert Sarah Chana Radcliffe describes an 80/20 rule. To build a healthy relationship, where the child wants to emulate and accept the values of the parent/educator, 80 percent of communications should be positive, whereas only 20 percent should be negative. Oftentimes, instead of criticizing behavior, the same goal can be achieved by presenting a good alternative. Parents and teachers should focus on presenting a positive, compelling vision of a Jewish world that children will want to be a part of. And when they do deliver tochacha, do so with sechel and common sense.
Infrastructure is still a priority and a problem. Whereas in the past, there were barely any institutions, today, in some areas, there are more than the community can afford. To have a truly strong infrastructure, the Jewish community needs to think seriously about funding priorities and be smarter about defining what the community needs. Too many organizations have built grand structures only to not be able to afford them when the economy worsened. Other communities have suffered when groups splintered, competing for communal resources and drawing those resources away from organizations that need them.
Why are there so many breakaway organizations? At times, those in charge refuse to consider other voices and be inclusive. Other times, those who disagree are too quick to breakaway. Both sides are not trying hard enough to make it work. But even worse, at times groups splinter not because of legitimate ideological differences, but because of personal animosity.
Whatever the reason, there are cities that have multiple schools when they don’t have enough students to properly support one. The ones who most suffer from this are the children. I don’t think one school or shul fits all and there are communities that desperately need more institutions. But in order to have a truly strong infrastructure, the number of institutions should be proportional to the population and what it can afford.
Jewish history does not have all the answers to contemporary questions, but it certainly makes some powerful suggestions. If we want to have a successful community tomorrow, we need to work on our environment, attitude, education, and infrastructure today. Those are the factors that have made the difference between success and failure in our past and would likewise positively impact our future. I hope that by seeing ourselves in the Jews of the past, learning from their mistakes and triumphs, we can, with Hashem’s help, raise happy, successful frum children and create a healthy Jewish community for tomorrow. [n]
Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein is the Dean of Secular Studies at Maalot Baltimore. She previously taught at Touro College, Hebrew Theological College, Gratz College and has lectured internationally. She holds a Ph.D. in Education and Jewish Studies from New York University.
[n] For the history of Sarah Schenier and Bais Yaakov, see my doctoral dissertation, Defining Bais Yaakov: A Historical Study of Yeshivish Orthodox Girls High School Education in America, 1963—1984; for Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz, see Rav Shraga Feivel by Yonason Rosenblum.