Sunday, April 7, 2013

"The Greatest Challenge We Face Today is Making Yiddishkeit and Torah Geshmak for Us and Our Youth"

"The Greatest Challenge We Face Today is Making Yiddishkeit and Torah Geshmak for Us and Our Youth" - Those are not my words but words from an interview with Rabbi Lieff, Rav of Agudas Yisroel of Flatbush, in the Pesach Edition of the Yated Neeman. I read that quote over many times because I was so excited to see an issue dear to my heart finally being brought out into the open. But all that excitement dissipated when I read the interview. Mainly, because the topic wasn't raised at all. For a caption that is labeled as the greatest challenge of our time I would expect a little more in depth examination.

The first question that would come to mind is how did we come to this realization. Just one year ago at the Agudah Convention our Rabbonim were determined that the greatest challenge of our generation was technology, not one word about our kids needing more of a geshmak in Yiddishkeit was mentioned. And now, a year later it seems we had it all wrong.

While that would have intrigued anyone, I was more bothered by the absolute silence as to what is being done to implement this Geshmak in Yiddishkeit. That would be the logical follow up question. To be fair, it did mention something about singing more Shabbos Zemiros and saying less pilpul from the Brisker Rav. If that is the whole plan, I think it better we not raise the question. This gave me the feeling that we don't have any answers and that really concerned me.

It was one year ago that I wrote an article about the importance of adding excitement (what you call Geshmak) into our chinuch system. I labeled them with E's. Excitement, Entertainment, Endearment, Exposure, Expression, Embracement and Enjoyment. I came to my conclusion not by reading the papers but from firsthand experience with teenagers and reading books that interviewed teenagers on this topic. I tried publishing it in the yeshiva papers but it was rejected as being too controversial. Reluctantly, I had no choice but to post the article on the internet. It went viral and within a week 30 other popular blogs reprinted it and it was translated into Yiddish and Hebrew. I received thousands of comments, emails and phone calls from parents, Mechanchim, and even Roshei Yeshiva. They all had just one thing to say. Thank you for bringing up an issue that was kept under the rug for too long.

This made me optimistic, but not for long. Because these calls were followed by other phone calls and those were quite depressing. These phone calls were also from Mechanchim, but these were educators who tried to implement the ideas I wrote about but found themselves completely knocked down by the system.

One after another they began to tell me their stories. Some were told there just wasn't a need for this kind of chinuch, others were told there was no money to invest in such activities. Another rebbe told me that after he presented a more exciting curriculum, one that would focus on loving Yiddishkeit and what it means to be a Jew, he was told that Yeshivos are not kiruv institutions. Community activists that gave freely of their time to incorporate out of school fun activities were not only ignored by the Yeshivos but sometimes felt they were fighting against the system. Even more disturbing was hearing from other writers who tried to bring awareness to this subject, were either turned down or told to edit out parts. These are just some of the mild things I heard. Roshei Yeshivas that didn't send out letters and sign bans were threatened with intimidation tactics. The pressure that I have seen in the frum world to those that want to raise real issues is similar to the mafia, and this is no exaggeration.

If I may, let me bring to light just some of what others have brought to my attention. Chumrus have gotten out of hand. We take some of most beautiful concepts of Yidishkeit and apply stringencies until we suck the Gishmak out of them. Tznius has become one of just rules and our girls have lost any appreciation for the beauty of modesty. We focus so much energy on outside appearances while character development and middos tovos have fallen to the wayside. It was during the Hurricane Sandy devastation that our Yeshivos had the opportunity to show our children what it means to help a fellow Jew, but instead Bital Torah was cited as an obstacle. It's Middos Tovos and Derech Eretz itself they foster and instill a love for Yidishkeit in our youth, not so much Talmud Torah.

Maybe this short story told to me by a Bais Yaakov girl will explain what we are facing. It was before Pesach vacation and the principal entered the classroom to make an important announcement. He brought a list of all the places the girls should not visit on Chol Hamoed. It highlighted about ten places that weren't appropriate for a BY girl. After he finished a girl raises her hand and asks the principal if instead of mentioning all the places they can't go why not give them some ideas of where they can go. The principal takes a few moments acknowledging the question and tells the class he will get back to them. It's now after Pesach and she is still waiting. It's pretty simple what's going on, outside entertainment is not allowed and even Jewish entertainment is frowned upon and sometimes outright banned.

Rav Hirsch says it like no one else. "Israel is required to be a shining example, demonstrating that one who would lead a spiritual and moral life, completely dedicated to duty is not necessarily obliged to renounce the enjoyment of earthly happiness; rather the highest degree of morality is entirely compatible with the greatest measure of earthly happiness". A child must feel that his religious lifestyle is as pleasurable as that of the outside world. Bringing Torah values into our everyday life is what makes us unique".
When you do the reverse, when you give children the impression that the Torah life is one of boredom and restrictions then we are in for a disaster. Rabbi Yitzchok Feigenbaum clearly spelled this out in his impactful essay. "Been There, Done That: Why Being Frum Is So Boring". Whether we like it or not teens see the outside world and it looks even more glorious from the outside, as the heart desires that which it cannot have. Most kids will do these things anyway and they will begin to associate a fun and exciting life as something that’s in contradiction to the Torah way of life and that can have long term detrimental effects on their outlook towards Yiddishkeit.

So what's in plan to make Yiddishkeit more exciting? This Chol Hamoed I glanced at the shul bulletin board to see what was on the agenda. Every other sign was about another Chol Hamoed learning program. This has been the trend for some time, any vacation time our children have they are encouraged to sit in front of a Gemarah and learn. We need to examine whether these methods are part of the problem.

I remember one time a prospective parent called my father about registering their son for camp and wanted to know how many hours of learning we had each day. My father replied "10 hours". After the parent realized my father was being facetious, my father explained to the parent that learning isn't just about sitting at the Gemarah but is in fact a full day activity. Whether it's hiking through Ein Gedi where they learn about Dovid Hamelech hiding from Shaul or at a midnight Kumzits where the campers hear stories that inspire them or just seeing the beauty of Eretz Yisroel, these are all learning experiences.

I could list many ideas that are out there and that work, but in order to make a difference we need to revise our educational system, not just hand out a couple of more lollipops. We can bring back some of the pirchei trips my father a"h used to do. We can add swimming and recreation, and inter-school leagues. Ask any Rebbi that uses an interactive smartboard and he will tell you the boys get so excited. Kids love the latest gadgets and if you show them that they can do their Gemara review over Skype with a friend and see the Gemara on the side, you have made it exciting for them.

Torahlive in Camp Sdei Chemed
We need to implement the latest and greatest technologies into our classroom like But this technology does not come cheaply. And so we need to encourage our givirim to give money to the right places. Will their names to be seen on a new fancy bais medrash or will it be stamped on the latest Artscroll iPad for kids? Will they support a new Kollel institution or a new exciting recreation center for our teens to enjoy? You can support the Kollel center now but in 20 years you're not going to have anyone to fill it up. We have today the highest quality Rabbeyim the Jewish world has ever seen. We have the mechanchim that want to bring change. All we need is for more Rabbonim to encourage and speak out on the subject.

At first I believed things would change, with so much of a positive response to my article how could it not. But over the past year it seemed things were just getting worse and It began to feel like I was just preaching to the choir. Many more important issues were brought to my attention and not one of them even got a mention in the frum press. It felt like those making decisions are not living in the same reality as the klal.

I'm fully aware that most of the pressure against any progress is from fanatics but sometimes it feels like they are the ones in control. And just as you have those whose one goal is spreading loshon hara about Rabbonim, you have on the other end a large group of people that survive off attacking those who try and bring important issues to the table. They love gossip just as much as the first group and they contribute nothing to society but hinder progress.

Unless this was a misprint, it seems we have finally realized that excitement in Yidishkeit is a problem that needs attention, and that is a major milestone. This headline gave me hope that this topic will be taken seriously. I beg that the solutions proposed are real solutions and not quick fix solutions that are ineffective.

Update: There was a beautiful and lengthily discussion based on this article on facebook. Feel free to read and add to the conversation. Link 

Dovid Teitelbaum
Director, Camp Sdei Chemed International



  1. chaim from brooklynApril 7, 2013 at 12:59 PM

    Bravo! I hope this gets the attention it deserves!

  2. Dovid, thanks for an awesome and so well written article!!! If our "leaders" (dare I call them that) were more with the program, I (and my colleagues) wouldn't need to be in business. Kol Hakavod!

  3. Thanks. And thanks for the amazing work you guys do. Part of my plea is to get more money invested into the kind of activities you guys can provide.

  4. Great post. Rav Weinberger said a similar thing at his 2010 Shabbos Shuva drasha.

  5. Great job Dovid. I am honored and proud to use my real identity to applaud you for, my good friend who i am so proud of, for yet another great article. We need more ppl like you to stand up and speak the truth. If only those who were making the rules would be as level headed and clear minded as you, I would not worry along with you as to the future of our children.

  6. What a fantastic article! I just forwarded it to many of my friends. Thank you for being so articulate on this unbelievably important issue. It goes to the very heart of how unhappy so many parents are with the education their kids are receiving in the Bais Yaakov system (and its male counterpart) these days.

  7. It's not just the geshmak that's gone; it's the neshama, too, in some places...First step in the right direction I've seen in a long time from this part of the frum world.

  8. if you don't make Judaism fun or relevant, it will just be rules and regulations and don'ts. no one loves a rule book. that said, i don't think yeshivish rabbis have even an inkling in how to achieve that with the growing youth at risk issue. the more bans that come out, the less frum kids down the road.

  9. what a sad state of affairs he's describing.
    I'm going to just close my eyes and hope this is limited to the yeshivish environments.

  10. I think he is dead-on with this.
    So sad....

  11. This has been the case since Yiddeshkeit first started, and we have dealt with the problem with varying degrees of success... How many of our greatest tzadikim had children that to put it mildly did not follow in their fathers' footsteps? The issues change with the times, but the problem remains the same, and probably will until Moshiach sorts things out...

  12. I like the "ban everything" clip art.

    Sums it all up.

    Great article.

  13. I agree with your general points but I don't think you should be cynical against rabbanim not nice and not kavod also, I don't think you should have criticized Rav Lieff. He was just responding to an interview and if one reads the whole thing, that wasn't really the focus of the interview at all- the writer liked that one line and used as the title

  14. I wasnt cynical I was asking legitimate questions. I also wasn't criticizing Rav Lieff, I was happy that he brought up the topic. Rabbi Lieff is the one that said it is the Greatest Challenge we face today so it's not like the writer just picked one line. The rest of the article might be great but why did the interviewer skip over the "Greatest Challenge"? I think thats a normal question to ask. Asking questions should never be considered as not respecting someone.

  15. Asking questions yes, but one thing you have yet to learn is style matters and you often write, as you did here, very cynically. Just one example of a cynical, lack of kavod, line:

    "just one year ago at the Agudah Convention our Rabbonim were determined that the greatest challenge of our generation was technology, not one word about our kids needing more of a geshmak in Yiddishkeit was mentioned. And now, a year later it seems we had it all wrong."

    you could have made the same point in a respectful way

  16. I think it's important to highlight this fact. This is a question that should be addressed. Why were the rabonim so misinformed as to what the real issues are and what problems we are facing. I don't believe asking tough questions is a lack of Kavod. The answer to these questions might tell us something about what is going on and the major disconnect with the leadership vs the people. I'm sorry that I care more about Klal Yisroel than what people say about me. I can't help it.

  17. Question, How do you think we can fix this problem, and how are we going to
    make the adults aware? What should the mechanchim, the rebbis in cheder do and
    what should be done to make klal yisroel know that we must fix this? Should we
    go around the world and make seminars for frum adults?

    Or is it a lost cause?

    This question really deserves a long winded answer to address it fully, but
    I'll attempt to be concise and give you a short explanation.To sum it up in a
    few words: We need to open our own schools and yeshivas.
    Allow me to explain why this is the way to go.

    First, how did all cultures and
    beliefs come into existence? Did they come from one another? Or did they change
    from within?. If your answer is that it came from within, could you give me an
    example of that? I doubt you will find one in any religion or sect. For example,
    the Satmar sect, Litvish lifestyle, yeshivish oilem, as well as the scores of
    subsets of Christianity etc, all started by people going out on their

    Now let's go through some of the heimish cultures around here, i.e Satmar,
    Litvish, yeshivish etc. When Satmar guys from Monsey decided their cheder wasn't
    frum enough for them, what did they do? They went ahead and opened one of
    their own, the Noam Elimelech.

    Let's highlight one specific example. Did the Satmar rebbi sit down and
    kvetch and cry about changing the cheder and school system in his time to
    educate about the dangers of Zionism? Did he attempt to control Viznitz to
    change the teaching according to his standards? No, he started his
    own system from the ground up, instead of fighting his
    way from the top down.

    There is virtually no precedent in history for a culture that
    changed its way from within (without violence). (That is, indeed, what Chanukah
    is also all about, in regards to the cultural battle between Hellenism and
    Judaism.) This is not the place or time to go into why that is the case, but the
    fact of the matter is, it just can't be done, without the use of force.

    So why are people always complaining that we must effect change from
    within? That is because they don't want to accept that the school
    system is a religion/culture by itself. As soon as people start accepting
    that fact and viewing it as they do any other culture, i.e Litvish, yeshivish,
    Sephardic etc, the solution will become all that much clearer.

  18. You're taking a very interesting approach but I don't agree with you and mostly because this change happened from within already going the other way. When I was a child (35 years ago)
    things were different and things changed and Im not sure why.

  19. Dovid Teitelbaum, your blog post is important. Programs like Sde Chemed which DO integrate Torah and Jewish history with nature, and movement are fundamentally important to a lot of kids who would otherwise not recognize the interrelationship of Torah with the world around them. It may seem like baby steps, but the reality is that it might just be an experience like that which keeps a young person engaged until s/he matures enough to pursue knowledge and understanding on its own terms and can choose Torah with a full heart. Some of the keys I think are to provide ways to nurture the opportunity to develop intrinsic motivation as opposed to shoving extrinsic rewards (bribes -- 'treats' which ultimately do far more damage to kids' bodies and further remove them from a good relationship with their physical selves, etc.) at kids and hoping that 's a good enough band-aid to obscure the deficits of how/what is being taught; and to also release everyone from the strictures of 'success by standardization.' Whether it's high stakes (state-sponsored) testing or some kind of definition of 'black & white' Judaism, standardization excludes by definition the ability to be critical thinkers and to ask the very questions that define the gift that Hashem gave humans -- free will. Free will is meaningless if it isn't exercised, and worse, our system discourages the kind of skills which allow a person to ask the questions that bring us to choose Torah for its inherent value rather than 'because I was told.'

    It's crucial that we not give up because 'editors' and others who are cornerstones of maintaining the status quo might be offended at what we say. Speaking up for Torah -- and for children -- sometimes requires a great deal of fortitude and willingness to be a lightning rod of controversy. The groupthink that currently defines much of Orthodox Judaism and the unspoken (and sometimes spoken) risk of negative social consequences (i.e. shidduchim problems, inability to get kids into schools, etc.) is a very dangerous, antidemocratic, and dare I say tyrannical phenomenon. It is simply not acceptable for tens of thousands to be cowed into submission by fear of what amounts to cherem for daring to speak out. There *are* people who have, and continue to, raise issues others would like shoved under the carpet. The spiritual health of our kids (and their physical, emotional, and intellectual health) is important and those of us who want to see change are up to bat. I give you enormous credit. Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazek.

  20. I think this article (and the earlier one that he wrote) raises some important points about what can be done to make Judaism "Geshmak".

    Still, I'd like to take issue with one point. He think there is not enough "kosher" entertainment. I think there is too much. Specifically, I think the emphasis should be put on finding meaning in Judaism, as opposed to fun. Whereas meaning transforms the one who experiences it, fun is just a temporary diversion.


  21. we have to embrace what our ancestors embraced. That is, using the technologies available to make Judaism relevant and real in the lives of our kids. From the printing press five hundred years ago to the dawn of the internet to the nes gadol that is Facebook, we have always used the most advanced and sophisticated modes to bring substantive Torah into our and our young one's lives.

  22. Judiasm is not intended to be "fun". Yes, there are pleasures in this world that we are meant to enjoy, but that has nothing to do with religion per se. So to make it "geshmak" for 4 year olds so they have positive memories of growing up in a jewish atmosphere is important. However, if a teen is drawn only by the "geshmak" then the second they leave the yeshiva bubble they will have nothing left to attract them to frumkeit. They should be teaching that an individual can be "geshmak" while still living the guidelines of the Torah. Trying to pretend that the lifestyle itself is "geshmak" will only set the students up for disappointment and potential rejection. Showing that the lifestyle has a positive, albeit not as exciting, impact (as you mentioned, chesed and machshava) will accomplish a lot more than sugar coating what it's really about until it is no longer the yeshiva's problem,

  23. I dont think its about making it geshmak as much as it is cutting out a lot of the hypocrisy and emphasis on chumros while the meat and potatoes of yiddishkeit (along with a proper understanding of why its beneficial to be frum) goes completely unaddressed.

  24. Judaism is multifaceted and different approaches are needed to for people to stay religious. I don't think "fun" is what is spurring me to continue to want to grow as a religious Jew. I think that it can be compared to Running or exercise in general. I don't know if people would describe Running as "fun" necessarily, I think that most people use it as a means of staying healthy, setting goals, challenging themselves, and socializing among other things. There is so much involved in running that isn't fun including being aches and soreness after runs, blisters, dedicating hours to it, expenses of shoes and gear. Its is the sense of accomplishment and well being that keeps thousand of people running as often as they can. I think this is similar to Judaism because, although, it is difficult and isn't always easy there is a sense that it is worth it because we feel its necessary, we feel a sense of fulfillment, we like to see continual growth in our relationships, behavior, and intellect. I decided to attend Yeshiva in Israel next year because I feel that I need a year to focus solely on my Judaism because I am frustrated with the level I am on and my lack of knowledge, I am not going because I think its going to be "fun". That is the problem with depending on fun or inspiration to attract teens and everyone to Judaism. Judaism isn't always fun or inspirational; going back to Running for a moment, sometimes we get blisters or we see a decrease in time or distance or we exercise in uncomfortable weather, but we continue because we aren't satisfied with what our level is. Making Judaism fun will not solve the problem. Making it worthwhile and fulfilling is. And this leads me to the fact that not everyone enjoys running, but people can achieve similar benefits from other activities like biking, swimming etc. that is the way Judaism should be, different aspects attract different people but the end goal of each aspect has to give that individual a sense that what they are doing is worth while.

  25. More people are motivated by what they enjoy than by meaning. I would even submit that being motivated by meaning is just motivation by the pleasure(fulfillment) of knowing you're doing something of consequence. There is too little fun in the frum world. A recent example I can give is the sign for "yeshivas chol hamoed" I saw this past yom tov. I see so many yeshivish people walking around with pensive looks on their faces. How is that supposed to attract people, and by people I mean frum people.It's nice to say that it's not necessary to have fun, that it's foolish. But that's not reality. Most people do need it. We idolize gedolim who are able to sublimate their nature. We teach that "Vil Nor, Gaon!" But it's simply not true. The Vilna Gaon was who he was because that's who he was. If you're not the type of guy who eats crusts of bread and drinks water and is satisfied, you're just not that guy.

  26. once again, you need to learn how to write respectfully and w/o cynicism and anger. I showed your piece to a few pple w/o showing him who the author was and they all said the same thing. Decent points for discussion but he's way too angry and bitter and disrespectful

  27. Sounds like such an easy way for getting off topic and not trying to deal with the issues. If you knew me you would know that I'm not any of the things you accuse me of, far from it. If I sound angry in my
    post then maybe its because I'm angry that nobody else seems to care. If I sound bitter in my post then maybe its because I am bitter that anyone who tries to make any positive change is ridiculed. If I sound disrespectful, its disrespect for a system that cares more about its good name than about the people its supposed to help. If the people you showed it to can read what I wrote and all they have to say is the writer sounds angry and bitter than they either haven't understood one word I wrote or they have no heart. But I really don't care much what they think about me, why don't you, or some of the people you showed it to, write it over in a more polite way and see if you can get some discussion going on because thats what it's all about.


  28. Like I said, style is very important as important as substance next time don't write so angry and disrespectful as far as the issues, I have had lots of discussions and practical ones too


When posting please be careful about Loshon Hara