Last week found me speaking for the Jewish Boys School of Zurich on “Educating Children in Turbulent Times.” But as far as Zurich goes, these are not particularly turbulent times – at least not yet. Those with whom I spoke could not remember more than one or two young people from the chareidi community leaving the fold.
The natives took a modest view of their achievement. A number quoted the late Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik’s, zt”l, observation that every trend in the Jewish world arrives in Zurich twenty years later. The communal rabbonim and leaders are clearly eager to do what they can to avoid the problems that have been experienced by larger communities in Israel and abroad. Recently an expert from Baltimore was brought in to lecture on the perils of the Internet.
Many of the reasons for the Zurich community’s success with its youth may be explained by factors that are unique to Zurich. And it would be a foolish on my part to claim any expertise about a community that I was visiting for the first time. Yet certain observations perhaps have wider application and could be adapted to different communities.
The chareidi community of Zurich is large enough to support a host of communal institutions: two boys schools – one primarily chassidic – until around age 15, a number of shuls, a kollel, and even the production of cholov Yisroel products. Until a few years ago, most boys and girls went abroad to continue their studies after age 15, but in recent years, Yeshiva L’Tzeirim, and Machon Chen for girls have offered the possibility of remaining at home for another two or three years.
But Zurich is too small to support a host of competing schools, each seeking to prove itself the most elite by catering only to the “best” boys or girls. The schools are run as communal institutions by a board of governors, not as private businesses. Thus there is less pressure to maximize the amount of material covered. The principal of the Jewish Boys School told me that boys from Zurich are generally somewhat behind their peers in their mastery of Gemara when they go abroad, but the orderly habits of mind they have developed and typical Swiss industriousness generally allow them to catch up quickly.
Because the schools are not competing, rebbes and teachers have the “luxury” of worrying about such topics as ahavas haTorah, yiras Shomayim, and middos tovos. The story is told of a group of mechanchim who approached the Brisker Rav for a beracha for the new cheder they were opening in Bnei Brak. They showed the Brisker Rav their carefully planned curriculum, with the hours to be devoted to each subject and the material to be covered at each level.
But instead of a blessing, the Brisker Rav told them, “If I did not know that you were fine, upstanding bnei Torah, I would throw you out of my home. You sound to me like maskilim, whose only concern is mastery of the subject matter. What about instilling in our children ahavas Torah, character refinement, and yiras Shomayim? The problem today is that children do not experience the sweetness of Torah.” That exchange would not have taken place in Zurich.
The relatively small size of the schools – one of the boys schools has 140 students, the other around 70 – means that classes are small, and no student gets lost in the shuffle. After my speech, one of the teachers, who grew up in Bnei Brak, told me with amazement how he has witnessed the entire educational staff of the Jewish Boys School meet to discuss a single student.
NO FRUM JEW IN ZURICH ever forgets that he is part of a small minority. There are no neighborhoods that are primarily chareidi – not even many blocks or even apartment buildings. Everywhere a Jewish child looks he sees the larger non-Jewish society. Yet this too has a positive side.
The awareness of being members of a small minority means that children have to constantly think about their identity as frum Jews. In addition, they are constantly aware of themselves as representatives of Torah Jewry wherever they go. The Kiddush Hashem imperative does not have to be taught; it is something that each child instinctively feels.
ANOTHER ADVANTAGE SWITZERLAND possesses is a plethora of kosher activities that can be experienced by the entire family. The country’s famed natural beauty is everywhere visible, and scenic walks and bicycle rides are easily accessible within an hour of Zurich (which itself nestles between mountains and has a beautiful lake.)
Jewish parents and children spend a lot of quality time together. Family excursions are a regular event on Sunday afternoons. Most families spend a couple of weeks in the summer in rented quarters in the mountains, where minyanim spring up like daisies, and a shorter period during the winter school break. An old chavrusah described to me coming to an open meadow at the end of a mountain climb and finding a large chareidi family standing there reciting Tehillim.
Sports are participatory in Switzerland, not a matter of cheering teams in stadiums. Everywhere we went, we encountered hikers, bicyclers, and runners. The activity starts young – often in a pack on the mother or father’s back – and continues into old age. My wife and I were passed by more than one octogenarian on winding alpine trails.
This wholesome physical activity has not passed by the Jewish community. Virtually every boy, including those in Yeshiva L’Tzeirim, ride bicycles or small scooters to school. Teenage boys have plenty of healthy ways to work off excess energy.
AS I SAT DOWN AFTER SPEAKING, the rav next to me mentioned one more thing that he felt made Zurich special: the decades long presence of Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik, zt”l, a world renowned Torah giant. Rabbi Soloveitchik was famed for his open heart and ear for any Yiddishe tzoros, and most members of community felt a personal connection to him.
His word was respected by all the rabbonim of the different subgroups with the community – a very distinguished group in their own right. As a result, a spirit of harmony reigned in the community as a whole. The absence of machlokes in the community shielded children from the destructive impact on their middos of an environment of communal strife. They did not grow accustomed to hearing other frum Jews disparaged and distinguished Torah figures spoken off dismissively.
That spirit continues to prevail after Rabbi Soloveitchik’s passing. Yeshiva L’Tzeirim is perhaps unique in that its student body is almost equally divided between Chassidic and non-Chassidic bochurim, and the rabbis of the Chassidic boys school attended the dinner at which I spoke.
The special circumstances of the Zurich community cannot be artificially recreated elsewhere, but there are enough positive points that can be emulated to bear further study.
This article appeared in the Mishpacha, on July 23, 2008.