A few weeks ago, I covered an event sponsored by Yeshiva University in Israel for the Jerusalem Post’s In Jerusalem. The report appeared on Friday, February 2, and is reprinted with permission.
Yeshiva University Tackles the Modern Questions
By Hannah Katsman
Cholent and YouTube commencement videos were only two of the many topics that came up at a panel titled “Modern Orthodox Education in 21st Century Israel and America,” held at Heichal Shlomo on a recent Friday.
The event featured Yeshiva University president Dr. Richard Joel; Esti Rosenberg, head of the Migdal Oz Beit Midrash for Women; and Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, head of the university’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. Rabbi Assaf Bednarsh, rosh yeshiva at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, moderated; YU in Israel, the Office of Alumni Affairs and the YU Israel program sponsored the event.
According to Joel, 15 to 20 percent of YU graduates today make aliya, with 4,000 YU families currently living here. Yeshiva University alumni of all ages attended the event, along with a large representation of current and future students.
Three students here on winter break spoke to In Jerusalem.
Brianna Friedman, a biology major from Merrick, New York, attended YU’s Central High School for Girls. She was pleased with the level of her Hebrew education there, saying that when she arrived in Israel to study at Migdal Oz, “I was able to understand classes from the very first day.”
Queens, New York native Zahava Schwartz, Friedman’s cousin, studies finance at Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business. She was hoping to get insights on a career in Jewish education in either Israel or the US. Later, she said that the speakers had encouraged her. “There is a lot of good to be done.”
Their friend Yael Kaplan, also from Queens, came to hear Rosenberg, her former teacher at Migdal Oz. She explained why she chose Queens College over YU.
“When the representative from YU’s Stern College for Women came to Israel, she said negative things about Queens. My brothers had gone there, so I knew they weren’t true. That turned me off.”
Joel opened the discussion on a light note, reassuring the audience that he knows they are tired of Americans coming to Israel and telling them what to do. He spoke about YU’s philosophy of Torah Umadda (Torah and secular knowledge) as lehat’hila – a religious obligation, not a leniency due to circumstances. He emphasized that modern Orthodoxy has an important role to play in reaching the larger, unaffiliated American Jewish community, although he did not explain how that would be accomplished.
“Most Jews are not walking away from their Jewishness; they’ve never encountered it. They don’t think there’s something valuable [in it],” he said.
Regarding modern-Orthodox education, Joel expressed concern about “our children,” who accept “the whole package” but don’t have a deep enough understanding of mesora (tradition) and psak (the method of determining Jewish law). He urged parents and educators to discuss these issues with young people.
Other keys to educational success include Jewish education and integration of formal and informal education, with an emphasis on experiential education in the home. “Jewish camp is not enough,” said Joel.
Esti Rosenberg’s institution, Migdal Oz, associated with Yeshivat Har Etzion, provides high-level posthigh school Jewish studies for 120 Israeli and 40 American women. Unlike most Israeli programs for Americans, Migdal Oz completely integrates the Americans into the Israeli program.
Alluding to Joel’s opening comments, Rosenberg quipped that she welcomed the opportunity to tell Americans what she thinks about their education without even having to travel.
Rosenberg praised American day schools for providing their students with a challenging intellectual experience in high school in a wide range of subjects, including Talmud.
“American high school is much more intellectually focused, and the Israeli system is more emotional, spiritual, mushy,” said Rosenberg. “Before Rosh Hashana Americans want to sit in rows, take notes, and be taught the tractate of Rosh Hashana. Israelis sit in a circle and talk about their feelings, how do I prepare for Rosh Hashana, what advice can we give each other, how can we pray with intention for so many hours, which part of the prayer do I like the most.”
One reason for the differences between the two systems is that high-school students in the United States apply to colleges at the end of high school.
“I know this is a YU event,” said Rosenberg, “but they are preparing to go to Ivy League colleges.”
In Israel, high-school students do the army or national service, and study in yeshiva or seminary or start university at 21 or later.
The fact that college is so far away relieves academic pressure for Israeli high school students, compared to their American counterparts. But Rosenberg sees the difference as more fundamental.
“In Israel, the learning is the tool to get to the emotion. And in America, the learning itself is the goal. Our students need to balance their intellectual and spiritual growth.”
Rosenberg mentioned that she asked her mother for her thoughts in advance of the panel. Her mother, Dr. Tova Lichtenstein, is the widow of Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, the late rosh yeshiva of Har Etzion, and daughter of the late Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the recognized leader of modern Orthodoxy for many decades. In a reference to two of his best-known works, her mother said that the Americans took too much from the philosophy of Halachic Man and not enough of its counterpart, The Lonely Man of Faith.
Other speakers on the panel also tried to pinpoint the particular educational challenges for this generation of modern Orthodox students. Meir Soloveichik addressed the hedonism and lack of boundaries on college campuses, particularly surrounding sexual matters.
But he also noted something else, which can be seen by watching commencement speeches on the Internet.
The speakers typically urge students to throw off their past and tell students, “Be whatever you want to be.” “But while Judaism values individuality, from the moment you are born as a Jew, all of the previous generations are relying on you,” Soloveichick said. “But no pressure!” Soloveichik, who gave the opening invocation at the 2012 Republican National Convention, warned that “an ethical system not based on the eternal rules of Halacha is divorced from Judaism itself and, rather, reflects progressive views at the time.”
According to Soloveichik, one can’t divorce ethics from Jewish law. “We must take what we have learned and impact the wider world, especially American society,” he said. “We have to care when society is missing the moral and spiritual mark.”
All three speakers referred to previous generations of Jewish educators. Joel quoted at length his predecessors, former YU presidents Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel, Rabbi Dr. Samuel Belkin and Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, on the Torah Umadda philosophy.
Soloveichik described his grandfather, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik, making a point when teaching Talmud of including the Aggada, the often-ignored narratives interspersed within technical discussions of Jewish law.
He shared a story from Tractate Hullin about a miracle in which a river split to allow two Jews, who were involved in a mitzva, to cross. The river split once again for their acquaintance, a non-Jew, because leaving him behind would be inappropriate treatment for a fellow traveler. Rabbi Aaron believed that we must continue to show concern for all non-Jews, our fellow travelers.
Like Soloveichik, Rosenberg expressed concern about the ability of students to withstand the temptations of the secular world, saying that she used to think that the best thing that she could do for her students was to give them self-confidence as modern Orthodox Jews.
“Sometimes, I think we are literally crazy, sending our kids to face challenges that we and they don’t have enough tools to cope with,” she said. “The great ideal, that you can go to the army, to college, read any book you want, because we are the best, modern Orthodox, doesn’t stand up to reality. We don’t succeed as well as we should.”
Rosenberg now encourages her students to think carefully about their choices and what challenges they will face. “Maybe going to that university is not a good idea, or learning that subject.”
Moderator Bednarsh asked the panelists about striking a balance between educating women to be “empowered, but traditional.”
Joel said that YU is the institution outside Israel with the largest number of women learning Torah on the highest levels in the history of the universe. YU is the only Orthodox institution where women can get a master’s degree in advanced talmudic and biblical studies, or in Bible at the Bernard Revel Graduate School and in Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School.
Rosenberg criticized the moderator for leaving the discussion on women’s roles until the end, when the session had already gone over the time limit. “It’s like saying, can you discuss your whole life in two minutes, so I can go home and put on the cholent?” While she praised YU for the high level of Talmud education for women, she pointed out that Stern undergraduates still do not get the yeshiva experience that the men do. The differences between expectations for boys and girls within Orthodoxy causes a problem for some of her students.
“We tell them to learn just like the boys do. But then we say, don’t be a rabbi,” detailed Rosenberg. “We challenge them, then trust that they will be happy in their role as Gemara teachers, even though we’ve trained them for much more. We believe they’re going to stop in the exact place that we tell them, knowing Gemara, but not trying to be something that you shouldn’t be because you’re a woman. Many are [satisfied with that]. But other students say to me, ‘You pushed me, you challenged me, and you can’t blame me if I jumped over the line.’” Responding to an audience query about aliya, Joel asserted, “I don’t consider myself a failure, but I do consider myself incomplete” for not having moved to Israel, and said that American Jews have a role in sanctifying the name of God.
Rosenberg declined to address aliya directly but suggested a compromise with the Americans – of teaching Hebrew on the same advanced level that other academic subjects are taught.
“The level of Hebrew that American high-school students and adults know is painful for me as an Israeli,” she revealed.