Shmuley Boteach raises a serious issue in a recent Jerusalem Post column (“Keep an eye on our children,” January 7): the supervision of post-high-school-age American students studying in yeshivot and seminaries in Israel. The issue has already been widely discussed in the Orthodox press.
Boteach’s criticism of various institutions, however, betrays a serious lack of understanding of the phenomena he purports to be discussing. Part of the confusion results from the fact that the term “yeshiva” is used today to describe a spectrum of institutions almost as broad as the spectrum of individuals calling themselves “rabbi.” These “yeshivot” range from institutions for public school students to those for students who have been in Orthodox institutions their entire lives.
In some of these institutions, the first order of business is to turn the students, many of whom arrive with serious substance abuse issues, into functioning human beings, then into good Jews, and finally into students of Talmud. With respect to such institutions, it is ridiculous to compare the standards of student behavior to those that prevail in yeshivot patterned on the classic Lithuanian model, or to what Boteach remembers from his days learning in yeshiva in Israel.
BOTEACH IS outraged that a certain seminary refused to adopt a “zero-tolerance” policy toward a girl who spent the evening with a group of boys and girls who were drinking heavily. (She was not drunk.) But he does not ask any of the questions that the heads of that particular seminary no doubt asked themselves: First and most important, is this young woman having a negative influence on other girls? Is she growing religiously, or declining? Is she contrite about the particular incident in question?
Even in the classic Lithuanian yeshivot, the decision to expel a student is typically treated as one of life and death, and certainly never to be undertaken lightly. When Rabbi Eliezer Schach, the leading Lithuanian Torah authority, was alive, few roshei yeshivot anywhere in the world would expel a student without consulting with Rabbi Schach and his investigating the matter.
With respect to the most troubled youth, it is ridiculous to compare the level of supervision in Jerusalem to some imaginary higher standard at home. (Incidentally, every one of the girls’ seminaries with which we are familiar has a nightly curfew, and it is strictly enforced.) If those kids seen drinking in downtown Jerusalem were at home, or, more likely, on some college campus, their parents would have equally little idea of where they were at any particular moment.
Many of them arrive in Jerusalem with full-blown drug or alcohol problems. Those problems rarely start for the first time in Israel, though many parents are in denial about the extent of their children’s problems.
In an earlier article Boteach wondered what the rabbis of a 17-year-old seminary girl who died last October of an anorexia-exacerbated illness were doing while she “slowly wasted away.” Obviously no girl developed full-blown anorexia between her arrival in September and her death a month later. Nor could her parents have been unaware of her condition.
BOTEACH DOES a serious disservice to the various institutions dealing with troubled youth by suggesting that they are dealing with problems for which they are totally lacking in competence. He writes, “It is arrogant for these yeshivot to believe that they can help teenagers with serious drug and alcohol problems when they are not equipped to do so.”
But contrary to what he seems to think, these institutions do work with professionals in the area of drug and alcohol addictions, and many of the staff members have a great deal of experience dealing with youth who have serious substance abuse problems.
Moreover, his suggestion that the decision not to expel students with drug and alcohol problems is financially driven insults a group of highly dedicated educators. The faculty-to-student ratio in these institutions is typically extremely low, and a large percentage of the students are on partial or whole scholarships. Far from being money-making propositions, the heads of the institutions must fund-raise abroad every year to make up for the shortfall from tuition.
There is nothing unique about the belief of the rabbis in these institutions in the power of Torah to dramatically transform the students entrusted to their guidance. They have seen the results of their efforts in hundreds of students who have passed through their institutions and gone on to live productive lives, establish stable families and maintain an ongoing commitment to Torah learning, in some cases even becoming serious Torah scholars.
Those who are capable of seeing a rough diamond waiting to be polished in every Jewish soul are in most cases rewarded for their optimism, though no one would claim that the process is an easy one, or that there are not many bumps on the road.
WHILE I (Hershel Brand) have never gone to a student’s room to teach him Torah, I have worked together with many rabbis who do so. Boteach’s scoffing at such methods as making a “mockery of what a yeshiva should be” again reflects his total lack of understanding of what these institutions are doing.
The love and concern the student feels when his rabbi sets aside his own honor to come to learn with him in his dorm room often makes a deep impression on the recipient of this individualized attention. In addition, the student has a concrete demonstration of his teacher’s passion for Torah.
Far from being well-intentioned nincompoops, these rabbis are committed educators with a long track record of success. If Boteach doubts that, let him come to the final banquet at any one of these institutions and listen to the students describe where they were at the beginning of the year, where they are now, and their hopes for the future. And let him hear the students’ heartfelt expressions of love for their teachers.
Co-authored by Rabbi Hershel Brand.
Originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post, Jan. 23.