Shmuley Boteach doesn’t get it

letter-447577_1280

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.

You may also like...

17 Responses

  1. Yaakov Menken says:

    I thought my response in a second private email was sufficient, Mordechai — it was sent well before you posted that you “have not heard a response” so I wonder if you received it. Nonetheless, since you didn’t give your last name, no one (but me) knows who you are, so you needn’t worry about the blow to your credibility.

    As you yourself stated in your email, “The student in question was part of what I called the ‘flake brigade’ which were those students who lived at the yeshiva but hung out and never went to classes.” In other words, there was more than enough reason to expel him. That being the case, there’s nothing left to ask — it would be inappropriate for me to call them and inquire years later. As I told you first by private email, I am sure the administrator was unwilling to tell you, a third party, that the student deserved to be expelled.

    What you have told us is that the student was expelled “for the right reasons,” and, in observance of hilchos Lashon Horah, no one in the hanhalah was willing to tell you so. They even preferred you believe a story that paints them in a negative light, than tell you the student deserved to be shown the door.

    Simply as a matter of demographics, this student was hardly the only epileptic to come through Ohr Somayach. Have you ever heard of Ohr Somayach expelling a diligent student for “epilepsy?” Me neither.

  2. mordechai says:

    I responded to Rabbi Menken’s e-mail to me and have not heard a response. I would like to know the response he found in his research as my credibility has been publically questioned on this board.

    BTW if he thinks it isn’t rational to believe schools expel students I found a public charedi source stating how little children will be expelled from school unless they and their families follow the extremes of the charedi community

    “There are families that do not meet modesty standards and when the time comes to register their children in educational institutions they encounter difficulties getting accepted at the educational institutions and then they turn to Vaadas HaRabbonim LeInyonei Chinuch with various pledges. We hereby declare in the name of Vaadas HaRabbonim that all of these families must start conforming now at the beginning of the year rather than crying out after the fact, for those who do not conform to the directives of rabboseinu gedolei Yisroel forfeit their right to make demands of the city’s educational institutions…”

    http://chareidi.shemayisrael.com/abeitarvrh67.htm

  3. Jewish Observer says:

    “I strongly believe that a year or two in a yeshiva or seminary in EY is mandatory, especially for students whose backgrounds at home or in high school is less than stellar but also for the high school all star who also needs a shot of spiritual inspiration on a daily basis.”

    – have you seen first hand what goes on there?

  4. Jewish Observer says:

    “I simply do not believe this story, nor do I think it rational to believe it.”

    this attitude is not helpful to the charedi cause. refusing to believe that mistakes like this can heppen paints us into a corner in the event that they actually do happen; making it impossible to offer up the “they are only human and made a mistake” terutz. we cannot afford to eliminate the possibility of this terutz.

  5. Yaakov Menken says:

    As one who studied in Ohr Somayach, I have to challenge the accuracy of the comment by Mordechai. I simply don’t believe it, not with a Johns Hopkins logician and a diabetic on the faculty.

    Epilepsy is hardly a rare ailment — “almost 10% of the population will experience at least one epileptic seizure in 80 years of life.” Hundreds of students pass through Ohr Somayach each year, which means, on average, at least one active epileptic each year. During my two years of studies in Ohr Somayach Monsey, the child of one of the Rebbeim had a seizure at home, while the son of another local Rav had a seizure in the Beis Medrash on Tisha B’Av. I personally watched and assisted when a man experienced a grand mal seizure (tonic-clonic) two nights ago.

    If Mordechai will write me privately and communicate the name of the R”Y in question, the year, and the first name of the epileptic student, it will not be difficult for me to call and find out. Until then, I simply do not believe this story, nor do I think it rational to believe it.

  6. mordechai says:

    Yeshivot do expel people. Just not for the right reasons. When I was in Ohr Samayoch a friend of mine was expelled for having epilepsy. When he told me it was happenning I couldn’t believe it and spoke to administrator who expelled him, who told me they were expelling him because someone might catch epilepsy from him (It’s not a contagious disease) I then went to speak to the rosh yeshiva. Soon after I was summoned to the administrators office told I had no right to speak to the rosh yeshiva and I could either apologize or leave the yeshiva myself. I proudly left.

  7. L.Oberstein says:

    The problem of substance abuse is one that can no longer be swept under the carpet. In Baltimore, the Vaad harabonim is very cognizent of the problem. The solution is more complex. E.g. should we have drug education in our frum high schools? Professionals say yes, schools say it would make people think it is a serious problem when it is only a few who are affected, they think. We are still most worried about shiduchim for our daughters and thus are willing to sacrifice other children to keep the secret. Sending the off the derech child away may also be a way of hiding the problem from the community so as not to affect his sister’s shiduch possibilities. Don’t rush to judge if you aren’t in their shoes, it is a real dilema.

  8. YM says:

    Great article.

  9. Steve Brizel says:

    I strongly believe that a year or two in a yeshiva or seminary in EY is mandatory, especially for students whose backgrounds at home or in high school is less than stellar but also for the high school all star who also needs a shot of spiritual inspiration on a daily basis. This is especially the case for graduates of MO high schools, regardless of whether they have been on family trips to EY. OTOH, parents delude themselves if they think that EY can serve as a spiritual rehabilitation or insurance policy for a child with substance abusen or other mental health issues, such as anorexia. FWIW, Atid, an MO think tank held a symposium on these and related issues with speakers from yeshivos and seminaries across the hashkafic spectrum.

  10. Moishe says:

    Igoros Moshe Paskens that the only time one is halachically able and indeed obligated to expel a student is if he is having negative influences (obviously severe ones) on the other students.
    The Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote many times that expelling a student from a Torah environment is “Dinei Nefashos” a Capital issue.
    While I am personally not familiar enough with the situation In Israel, from my many trips to Israel and strolling along Ben-Yehuda etc. it is obvious that there is a serious problem with Frum youth finally on their own in a permissive society, finely equiped with a gold, platinum or even black Amex card. and it doesn’t look like we’re only dealing with prior substance abused kids.
    Kudos to the educators who are trying, but realistically how much can they handle in a merry go round year, they are just too many one year stints they can track.

    Without validating Boteachs point There definitely are institutions who in their quest to populate their institutions with (well paying?) students, who indeed are not equiped to handle this relatively new phenomenom.

  11. DMZ says:

    “However, we would be fooling ourselves to think that bumminess is not found among students of our supposedly non problem yeshivot. It has gotten to the point that many American parents are thinking thrice before allowing their 18 year old to go learn in what in my day used to be an environment of purity and spiritual growth. Now, they are davka worrying about the opposite.”

    Maybe it’s just time to admit that a year in Israel isn’t for every just-graduated high school student, just like how not everyone is prepared for college right out of high school. Living on your own presents new situations and issues, and many young adults are just not ready to be successful in the face of those new challenges.

    Anecdotally, there is a lot of pressure from the day schools and yeshivas to go to Israel no matter what. While I’m not saying they’re responsible for the underlying problems, they do aggravate them somewhat.

  12. JoeCool says:

    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.

    Is that really true? How could R’ Schach have time to do that?

  13. Harry Maryles says:

    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.

    And

    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.

    I wish it were so. But it’s not universally so. Unfortunately I know of two very sad cases in 2 prominent Yeshivos where young students were expelled (or nearly expelled) while others who committed similar or worse infractions were totally off the hook… because of parents who were big financial supporters of those schools.

    It pains me to this day when I think about it, I therefore wrote about this in more detail on my blog today:

    http://haemtza.blogspot.com/2007/01/expulsion-money-and-greater-good.html

    I can’t let these comments stand without challenging them.

  14. Jewish Observer says:

    I agree in the main with RJR’s point. I believe it was the Chazon Ish who compared throwing a sinner out of yeshiva to throwing a sick person out of a hospital.

    However, we would be fooling ourselves to think that bumminess is not found among students of our supposedly non problem yeshivot. It has gotten to the point that many American parents are thinking thrice before allowing their 18 year old to go learn in what in my day used to be an environment of purity and spiritual growth. Now, they are davka worrying about the opposite.

  15. Jewish Observer says:

    “Rabbi Eliezer Schach”

    – Though he was known affectionately as Reb Leizer, typically a nickname for Eliezer, I am fairly certain that Rav Shach Z”tl’s name was Elazar (as in Aharon HaCohen’s son) not Eliezer (as in Tzitz)

  16. Gary Shuman says:

    My comment: “To me thats more important than learning in Israel.” refered to hatzalos nafashos, saving lives.

  17. Gary Shuman says:

    Did you say Rabbi Boteach supports zero tolerance? Is he not a product of Lubavitch yeshivas where an occassional lchaim is ok at a fabrengenen. OK we are talking about a girls seminary. My younger daughter told me that it is not tznius for girls to drink in the prescence of boys. I accept that.
    All jokes aside why would any parent with an IQ beyond moron want to send a seriously sick child, anorexic or alcohol/substance abuser to Eretz Yisrael for a year of study????????? OK Limud Torah is the best refuah they will say. I don’t buy that. Sending them to Israel gives the parents a vacation. Out of sight out of mind for their juvenile delinquent or ill child. To me its escapism at best covered by an excuse of social acceptance, a blessing from rabbis and teachers and peer pressure.
    The kid will say GREAT. He will do anything to get freedom. Make believe he frummed out just to get away from parents trying to parent. Once he is 6000 miles away its party time, booze drugs sex and rock and roll. The parents can then face their friends and say my kid straightned out and is in learning. What a cop out.
    Parents need to be parents and not lackeys. They have a G-d given responsibility to take care of their 17 18 19 or 20 year olds. Such kids must be attended to 24/7 by Mommy and Daddy. The next step is professional help followed by rehab.With Siyata Dshmaya hopefully he can avoid jail probation or a mental hospital. Once a kid is away from home for a year he can never be disciplined again by his parents. I say that for a good kid. Kal vchomer for a troubled one. OOPS all kids are good and should be most loved by their parents.This is hatzalos nafashos as proven by this girl’s death and the boy who overdosed last year from California learning in a boy’s yeshivain Eretz Yisrael. To me thats more important than learning in Israel. By the way if limud Torah is the best refuah learn close to home where parents can keep tabs on thir druggie budding talmid chachum.