It’s Not What the Neighbours Say

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“The plural of anecdotes is not data” goes an old saying. Yet when one attempts to examine a wide variety of social phenomenon in the Israel Torah community, hard data is hard to come by.

One of those phenomena would be disaffected youth. How widespread is the problem? What are its causes? Is it possible to identify youth who might be at risk in coming years at a young age, and what types of early intervention might be effective? These are just a few of the critical questions worthy of investigation.

This past week I finally found someone who has been studying all these issues and collecting hard data in order to create effective early intervention programs. In the course of our long conversation, he observed that the “drop-out” rates in so-called mixed communities, like Petach Tikva, Rechovot, and Haifa, are dramatically lower than in all chareidi communities, like Kiryat Sefer, Beitar, Elad, and Bnei Brak.

That remark was far from the focus of our discussion, and we did not dwell on it. But it is still worth asking what are some of the differences between growing up in a mixed community and an all chareidi community.

The biggest difference between mixed and homogenous communities is that the former force children to define themselves; their identity is not taken for granted. A close friend who raised half of his children in Tel Aviv and half in Bnei Brak once told me that he felt that the children raised in Tel Aviv had a much deeper sense of themselves as Torah Jews because that identity was reinforced everyday in juxtaposition to the surrounding environment.

A friend from Haifa offered a seemingly small example. When he and his siblings picked up candies thrown in shul as youngsters, they never just stuck them in their mouth; they always ran to their father first to ask if they were appropriate to eat. In such continual little ways, they were constantly reminded that they were different and of what that difference consisted.

I’ve noticed a similar thing among children of out-of-town rabbis in America. Sometimes there is not a single other family in the congregation at whose home the parents feel comfortable letting their children eat. The kids go to birthday parties of their schoolmates, for instance, and do not eat anything. Needless to say, this can be hard on the kids. But it also reinforces their identity on a constant basis.

Growing up going against the flow often brings out kochos hanefesh that do not develop when everyone is assumed to aspire to the same things. The great gedolim produced in pre-War Europe grew to maturity in a society in which yeshiva bochurim were widely disparaged as “bench-warmers.” Their commitment to learning was a positive choice – and much more intense on that account – than that of those who are just going with the flow and doing what everyone around them is doing.

In mixed communities, parents are under no illusions that they can leave it to the “street” to raise their children, since that street is so obviously antithetical to their values. They know that they have to work hard to develop a positive identity as frum Jews in their children, and that it will not come by osmosis. Parents in such communities are more likely to know where their children are and with whom. They make no easy assumptions that the “street” is safe.

The more homogenous the community the greater the social pressure. “What will the neighbors say?” often seems to replace the question “What does the Torah say?” When children perceive their parents to be terrified of the judgment of their neighbors, they may come to view their parents’ actions as superficial and externally dictated. In the process, their parents’ status as role models in their children’s eyes is lessened.

To some extent social pressures can be positive. No Englishman, for instance, would jump in a queue, for such things are just not done. And every child has to start with a certain sense of things that are “not done,” even prior to the age when he can understand the deeper reasons for expected behavior. But when social pressure becomes too intense life begins to be experienced as a pressure cooker, with many popping out of the cooker.

On a recent flight back to Israel, I was speaking to one of the leading mashpi’im in the Torah world. He travels frequently and has wide knowledge of Jewish communities around the world. He told me that as a general rule the more closed the community the higher the “drop-out” rate. On the same flight was another one of the greatest mashpi’im of our generation, and when I related to him what the first had said, he gave me a withering look, as if to ask why I was bothering him with something so obvious, and told me, “zeh kol kach pashut – That is so obvious.”

Finally, even within the chareidi community in mixed cities, there tends to be a much greater diversity. Children growing up in such cities have many more life options in front of them. Where only one option exists those who do not feel that they will ever succeed in that particular role or that they are not suited to it will come to feel trapped. Where only one option appears available, our young may come to feel that rejecting that option automatically entails rejecting Torah society in toto.

I do not really know if these explanations of lower “drop-out” rates in mixed cities are correct or whether other factors might be more significant. I would be interested in hearing from readers their own thoughts.

And even if all these points were correct, I would not expect a single family to move from Bnei Brak, Kiryat Sefer, Beitar, or Elad on that account. The benefits of living in a Torah community would probably outweigh whatever slightly greater risk there is of “drop-outs.”

But those of us living and raising our children happily in more or less homogenous communities can still derive lessons from those living in more “mixed” communities that may have important implications for our own child-rearing. And chief among those is the necessity of developing in our children a positive identity as Torah Jews that has nothing to do with what the neighbors will say.

This Article appeared in Mishpacha On 25th October

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38 Responses

  1. Barzilai says:

    Please note that this issue is alluded to in the Torah portion for this week, Parshas Toldos. The difference between Yitzchak’s and Rivkah’s reactions to exposure to the wicked wives of Eisav highlights just this point.

  2. Jewish Observer says:

    “I, too, subscribe to the theory that growing up with firsthand knowledge of upstanding citizens in the Jewish and secular world—but who are not, um, kollel material—gives youngsters an alternative role model and a way to be comfortable with who they are, and who they are not.”

    – in ,in fact RJR believes this too, and I suspect he does, how does he reconcile with charedi gedolim who ostensibly do not believe this? this isnlt only a kushya on him, I ask it on myeslf too

  3. Michoel says:

    Harry,
    “Mayim Genuvim Yimtaku” (not a gemarra but a pasuk in Mishlei) might be more of a consideration for those that regularly exposed to that which is forbidden. A teenage boy with freinds that go to movies may feel much more longing for it than a boy that has no such freinds.

  4. Gershon Seif says:

    See RSRH on the posuk just after Sedom was destroyed and Avrohom moced away from a metropolis (having lived together with Aner, Eshkol & Mamrei) in order to prepare for raising his son Yitzchok away from the influences of the “big city” and yet the Torah teaches us that he dwelled in Grar. RSRH explains that in order to prepare his child to deal with (and brace himself for) the outside world, he needs to have some exposure as part of his education. Check it out! Not the kind of stuff they talk about in Yeshiva!

  5. Ari says:

    Kudos to RJR. He makes profound and true points. I, too, subscribe to the theory that growing up with firsthand knowledge of upstanding citizens in the Jewish and secular world — but who are not, um, kollel material — gives youngsters an alternative role model and a way to be comfortable with who they are, and who they are not.

    (At first blush, I gloated that RJR had capitulated to the philosophy of Torah umada. On further inspection, he seems to be saying that there is much to admire “growing up Torah” in a “umada neighborhood.” But hey — I’ll take what I can get. :>) It’s progress. It’s also an encouraging and worthy follow-up to his excellent piece on das Torah and their handlers.)

  6. joel rich says:

    Micha,
    I didn’t blame him, just raised the question of what his reaction would be. Actually if one studies Michtav Meliyahu one gets a much mnore balanced impression than the one one gets from hearing the quotes often used (including the obvious one you mention). One example is that he discusses the many drachim one can take in learning.

    However, as one of my friends is fond of quoting (against the academic study of talmud) – we don’t care what the historical Abaye thought, we care about how what he was understood to have meant by later chachmei hamesora.

    KT

  7. Micha says:

    Joel,

    Stop blaming Rav Dessler for this one. He didn’t believe in insularity. He did believe we need (needed, post WWII?) gedolim badly enough to risk 999 in order to produce that 1-in-1,000. But R’ Dessler writes proudly of his father making him read Uncle Tom’s Cabin (in Yiddish). Kelm, which produced the Rs Dessler, had a HS with secular studies at a time the gov’t didn’t force them to — just because it was the right thing to do (in the Alter’s opinion) given the era they were in. Even Rav Yisrael Salanter agreed to the idea, as long as the Alter was there to keep the risks involved in check.

    Volozhin was a hotbed of Isms (complete with competing Religious Zionist groups!), and people were expected to pick up secular studies — as long as they did it on their own time. The current level of insularity was actually quite rare in the Lithuanian Yeshiva they are trying to emulate.

    -Micha

  8. HILLEL says:

    TO ORI AND JACOB:

    EXCELLENT POINTS!

    Here is my thinking on the subject:

    1. The Torah specifies that the first purpose of LechLacha was negative– to LEAVE BEHIND Abraham’s most intimate connections–Birthplace, Family, and Parents–to BREAK LOOSE. In fact, G-D did not speak again to Abraham until Abraham’s nephew Lot, who had accompanied Abraham on his journey, finally separated himself from him.

    2. The Torah then specifies that the second purpose of LechLecha was positive–to enter the Holy Land–“El Haaretz Asher ArEka.”

    3. True, there were idol-worshipping evil Canaanites in the Holy Land, but Abraham had no ties with them; he was totally independent. He could take full advantage of the spiritual power that is present in G-D’s palace, His Holy Land. Today, this would be equivalent to someone’s entering a sheltered spiritual enclave, like a Kollel, to pursue excellence.

    However, we cannot draw an exact parallel to everything that Abraham did, because we must remember that Abraham was, first and foremost, the world’s pre-eminent original thinker, philosopher, and innovator. He could confront anyone, anywhere, without being influenced in the slightest from his convictions. Can we say the same about ourselves.

  9. ES says:

    …it is well known in the chareidi world that a chareidi person going to YU is at greater risk of going off the derech than a modern orthodox person

    That’s because they go there without friends. All the other students come in with 10, 20 or 50 others coming from the same post-hs Israeli yeshiva. It’s another variation of no model to follow for the working charedi.

    By the way, seeking out a mixed community in its own right does have a certain awkwardness – just imagine a community with quotas to balance the religious and irreligious population. What if one of the irreligious asks to come to your Shabbat table, would the community allow it?

  10. LAWRENCE KAPLAN says:

    Excellent article. It would still be good to have a rigorously reseached study, defining what “mixed” means, what “drop out” means, etc.

    A very uscientifc anecdote: I was eating a Shabbat meal in Jeruslam at the home of a prominent modern Orthodox Rav. He grew up a city in NE US where there was no Yeshiva High School, and he attended the local public high school. (He was tutored in limudei kodesh by his father, a very learned layman, and by various private tutors.) He then went to Yeshiva College and eventually received semicah from RIETS. His family was one of only about a dozen shomer shabbat families in the Orthodox shul. He remembers all the challenges and temptations– the football games on Shabbat, non-kosher parties, etc. His children grew up in mixed neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Some of his married children moved to dati-leumi yishuvim, where everyone looks and thinks (almost) the same. One of his younger grandchildren came visiting him in Jerusalem for the first time on a Shaabat, and hearing all the cars on Friday night (still relatvely few) he commented “I didn’t realize that there are so many sick people in Jerusalem.”

    The Rav comented to me. “I am not sure my grandchild is better off than I was.”

  11. Benzion Chinn (www.izgad.blogspot.com) says:

    I am one of those Rabbi kids who grew up in a small town, Columbus OH and always had to ask if something was okay to eat. I have an older brother who is no longer religious. The funny thing though is that it was going out of town to study in Scranton and South Bend that made him irreligious.

    I would suspect that at risk kids are more noticable in Haredi communities because they are more likely to act out. Growing up I had a solid secular education and a sense of self not solely defined in terms of Orthodox Judaism. If I ever wished to leave I could have done so while still being a functional citizen. A Haredi youth who does not want to be religious is trapped. You are setting yourself up for the type of anti-social even crimainal behavoir that gets outside notice.

  12. Jacob Haller says:

    Hillel wrote:

    “At a cerain point in the spiritual progress of a Jew, he must focus on achieving excellence and stop diverting his resources to battling the hostile environment and definiing himself.”

    What is the focus of that statement?

    Why the dichotomy between achieving excellence and diverting resources to battle a hostile environment? Avraham Avinu’s passed the 10 Nisyonos by doing both so I wouldn’t define battles against a hostile environment as a diversion of resources but rather an investment of them.

    Even after the 10th one (Akeidas Yitzchak) and thus conclude that excellence was achieved, Avraham Avinu nonetheless had to contend with a not so ethical salesman to acquire Machpelah. Apparently the battle against hostility never ceased in the life of our primary Patriarch.

  13. Ori Pomerantz says:

    HILLEL, are you saying that Cna’an was less sinful and hostile in Abraham’s period than either Aram or Ur? What is your basis for saying that?

  14. David says:

    Rabbi Rosenblum,

    Is this hard data and the supporting information going to be made public as some form of study?

  15. tzippi says:

    “Many of us…went to public schools saying the Pledge of Allegiance and even singing Christmas carols…Did it hurt us?” – and there were some Bais Yaakovs saying the Pledge 30+ years ago too. Definitely didn’t hurt me either. (I learned the carols from the TV I’m now raising my children without.) I would say that the over 50 crowd you refer to may still have lived in a culture that valued Uncle Sam, motherhood, apple pie et al enough that the damage was less than the under 50 crowd suffered, without the Pledge and carols.

  16. Mordechai Cohen says:

    I think that although the chareidi ideal would be ‘all-chareidi communities without outside influences’,
    the reality today is that there is no way to block ourselves from outside negative influences
    (even if we may try to fool ourselves into thinking that we can insulate ourselves)

    Mixed communities (as a result of the alternate pple, ideologies, etc that they are forced to interact with)
    naturally create pple that are better able to handle outside negative influences , etc

    As a mashgiah of a major rightwing YGedola once told me; ‘it would be better not to have to work with contagious diseases,
    but if you are going to, make sure you are inoculated first (even if the inoculation will make you slightly ill)

    Or as someone once told me, that it is well known in the chareidi world that a chareidi person going to YU
    is at greater risk of going off the derech than a modern orthodox person.
    (note for YU supporters – this is not meant to be a putdown of the the maalos of YU)

  17. HILLEL says:

    Here is my contibution to this debate:

    The Torah tells us that Abraham spent many years among idol worshippers, resisting their failed notions of how the world works. He steadfastly held to his observation that there is but one G-D who controls and coorsinates all the phenomena of this world, and he endured all kinds of abuse for his beliefs.

    But, at a certain point, G-D revealed Himself to Abraham and told him “Lech-LeCha MeArtzeCha, UMMoldTaCha, UMeBais AveeCha”–leave your sinful country, and your sinful family–“El HaaRetz ASher ArEKa”–and go to the Land towards which I will guide you.”

    At a cerain point in the spiritual progress of a Jew, he must focus on achieving excellence and stop diverting his resources to battling the hostile environment and definiing himself.

  18. L.Oberstein says:

    What is the solution, considering that the ruling authorities consider this to be a good outcome?C omment by Bob

    I visited the pre army academy in Eli two years ago and the dean told us that serving in the army was a major mitzvah and an intrinsic part of being a good Jew . This was before GushKatif was destroyed. The confusion and anguish in the settler community after GushKatif is itself a cause of some backsliding. I think that Religious Zionism has a greater mission than claiming each hilltop, it is to add a religious dimension to the State of Israel. This was neglected and the settler movement both invigorated the youth for a while but alienated everyone else in the country who see the settlers as trouble makers. The reason the National Religious Party fell apart is because it got to be mono-maniacle about one issue. If the chinuch in the mamlachti dati schools was better then there would be fewer soldiers leaving the fold. The most important issue now is saving our future generations for Torah and mitzvos,not turning all of Judaism into one mitzvah, settling the hillsides of Judea and Samaria. Bring back the true MIzrachi, what is now is not what the founders dreamed about.

  19. Shlomo says:

    A very good article.

    However I wonder how we know what the dropout rates are in the various charedi communities. Perhaps the rate in Beitar, Kiryat Sefer etc. is no higher, yet the dropouts there are more apparent, because they have no secular surroundings to blend into?

  20. SBH says:

    It’s interesting to note that in the completely insulated community of New Square, NY the ‘drop-out’ rate is close to zero (according to a recent Mishpacha article). There is obviously more to the equation, and I think it has a lot to do with the general attitude in the community toward outsiders.

  21. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “When children perceive their parents to be terrified of the judgment of their neighbors, they may come to view their parents’ actions as superficial and externally dictated.”

    Bernard Baruch(no relation) explained why he wasn’t terribly concerned about choosing the seating arrangements of dignitaries attending his parties, saying, ” I never bother about that. Those who matter don’t mind, and those who mind don’t matter”.

    There are limits to this attitude, of course, and within reason a person should either “fit in”, or else look for a more “mixed” community.

  22. Yehoshua Mandelcorn says:

    Some Charedei communities may be more successful because the boys who do not have the desire to learn full time have positive role models of non Kollel men who work in various jobs and professions, are religious, set regular time for Torah study and are respected in the community.

  23. Bob Miller says:

    LOberstein said,
    “A large number of kids enter the army dati and leave chiloni.”

    This is not a new problem. What is the solution, considering that the ruling authorities consider this to be a good outcome?

  24. Sarah Shapiro says:

    A great article.

    As one who was raised not in a mixed Jewish community but in a virtually Judenrein town, I can attest to the fact that my joy as a young woman upon discovering my Jewish identity was experienced in precise proportion to the emptiness I had known previously, growing up without it.

    But since this particular joy is not one that we baalei teshuva would wish on any child, least of all our own, many of us who consequently chose all-haredi Israeli communities in which to build our families found a beautiful compromise: live in an all-Orthodox society but maintain close relationships with our non-Orthodox relatives, and open our homes, as well, to secular Jews for Shobbos meals.

    In such a fashion can some degree of balance be attained. Our children can enjoy the incredible benefits of childhood in an all-haredi community, while receiving periodic immunization through the years against secular values and worldviews.

  25. joel rich says:

    If you raise children you know that nothing substitutes for tefila and siyata dishmaya and lots of unconditional love.

    Comment by LOberstein
    =============================================
    True but hard work is imho a requirement for this formula (or as Avi Mori Vrabbi ZLL”HH always taught me, Your Hishtadlut is a precondition for HKB”H’s Hashgacha pratit)

    KT

  26. LOberstein says:

    Another inssightful article. I hope Jonathan doesn’t get into trouble for his willngness to address these issues. I remember when the Jewish Observer printed an article that described how difficult the transition is when American Chareidim try to live in the world of Israeli chareidim. Even though everything he wrote was true, the next edition of the JO had angry letters decrying him for spellng it out. The drop out rate for charedim is very noticible because they come from a different world. However, numerically, the real disaster area is the dati leumi community. A large number of kids enter the army dati and leave chiloni. No one group has a monopoly on kids at risk, the secular schools in Israel are violence prone and the standards of education lower than in the past. If you raise children you know that nothing substitutes for tefila and siyata dishmaya and lots of unconditional love.

  27. Yossi Ginzberg says:

    A brilliant insight, albeit one that most of the out-of-towners have always suspected.
    Apropos of Joel Rich’s wonderings re R. Dessler, I daresay that the proportion of out-of-town raised gedolim is actually significantly higher than that of the more insular communities. I have a photo of the campers at Camp Moshava, in Wisconsin, from 1957, and it has an astonishing number of today’s “choshuv” roshei yeshiva in it. Of course, it’s safely in a vault.
    I would add one caveat, though: In addition to all the factors mentioned, one needs to be aware of the severity levels of non-compliance in the home. i.e., if the kid comes from a home where they value that he wears a kipa, as opposed to the home where going out without a black hat is the same as chilul shabbos, impacts heavily on his relationship to the religion. Out-of-town families usually realize this more than the insular communities, and also have less of a “what will the neighbors think” mindset, leading to less resentment of the strictures.

  28. David says:

    Kar, et al: Let’s go one step further. Many of us American tinuk sh’nishbas over 50 went to public schools saying the Pledge of Allegiance and even singing Christmas carols every December. Did it hurt us? Maybe… but I couldn’t explain exactly how.

  29. HILLEL says:

    Now that we’veall extolled the advantages of growing up in a “mixed (diverse?) environment,” it’s time to look at the other side of the coin.

    What are the advantages of growing up in a protected environment?

    Only then can we properly do a cost/benefit analysis!

  30. zalman says:

    “The benefits of living in a Torah community would probably outweigh whatever slightly greater risk there is of “drop-outs.”

    1. Initially you wrote: “the “drop-out” rates in so-called mixed communities…are dramatically lower than in all chareidi communities.” How did a “dramatically lower rate” become only a “slightly greater risk”?

    2. Although it is not the focus of your article, it is worth noting that the calculus of where to live may/should also include the benefit to the heterogeneous community of having chareidi members in that community. (A benefit which you have noted on other occasions.)

  31. Jacob Haller says:

    The tone of article leaves the definition of “Mixed Communities” open to interpretation. For example how would it apply to Chutz L’Aretz where outside of perhaps New Square 100% homogeneity is nonexistent. Gateshead’s Jewish area is entirely Orthodox while the rest of the city is non-Jewish.

    Passaic might be considered homogenous by U.S. standards since every synagogue is Orthodox. However another observer might tag it otherwise since there’s a Young Israel plus other shuls where the Rabbeim learned in Lakewood. Even areas of Monsey have Kollel families, small business owners and corporate attorneys sharing streets.

    There are several communities in Eretz Yisroel where such diversity is unheard of.

  32. kar says:

    This proves the inanity of the thinking that our precious children can’t go to school with kids who come from homes that are not exactly like theirs. Maybe the parents have a tv, maybe the mother does not dress in accordance with school guidelines etc Most adult haredim in the US grew up going to schools with kids from mixed backgrounds, and what harm did it do? It benefited us.

  33. BB says:

    Please define drop-out. For a family living in a diverse community the definition may require more extreme behavior; as you point out, there are more options. When the defintion of drop-out is that you didn’t fit in the tiny hole, of course there will be more drop-outs.

    If there are several options, or even a slight spectrum of an option, obviously, more children will fit in.

  34. HILLEL says:

    I grew up out of town (with Yissochor Frand), and I can personally attest to the truth of this insight.

  35. Harry Maryles says:

    Another great article from Jonathan Rosenblum.

    I suspect that many of the phenomena he mentions are indeed explanations as to why the dropout rate is higher in the more exclusively Charedi neighborhoods than they are in the more mixed neighborhoods.

    I would like to suggest another aspect of such neighborhoods that contribute to the problem: The fact is that children all Charedi environments are overly sheltered from the world. When young people are not exposed to any other aspect of the world other than their own narrow slice of it, everything else becomes the forbidden fruit. Natural curiosity takes over… and that becomes more interesting to them. They want to find out what all the fuss is about. And they will find ways to do that. The Gemarah tells us.
    Mayim Genuvim Yimtaku (Stolen waters are sweet).

    When they discover this ‘new world’ they may come to feel they have been denied valuable resources of information… or harmless enjoyment and feel then will come to believe that they’ve been lied to by their parents, teachers and everyone else they’ve come into contact with. This can easily result in a rejection of everything they were religious lesson they were ever taught.

    There are many other reasons that the religiously cloistered environment is more conducive to dropout. IMHO whatever benefits there are in living in exclusively Charedi neighborhoods …is far outweighed by the detriments discussed in this article.

    But I suspect that this article will fall mostly on deaf ears as communities like Kiryat Sefer continue to increase exponentially as time goes on.

  36. joel rich says:

    Firstly kudos to R’JR on his last 2 posts – I think we may be having an impact on him after all :-)

    Question-Would R’ Dessler say that the greater drop out rate of the insular (even if it were X times as great as the mixed group) is worthwhile (and the mixed should come back home) because the probability of generating a “gadol” (even one) is much higher in the insular world and that is our ultimate goal?

    KT

  37. zalman says:

    if your take is correct, it should apply to homogeneous dati leumi communities as well.

  38. Calev says:

    The same principle applies, it seems, on a wider scale: everyone knows someone – or of someone – who made aliyah as an observant Jew only to see them after a short time in Israel a lot less observant. Once in the Jewish State many people feel they don’t have to make quite so much effort defining themselves as Jews.