Unintended Consequences of Compelling Strategies
American Torah Jewry is a small and emerging community, still in the relatively early stages of its development. Nevertheless, the community has expanded significantly over the past several decades, and can be compared to a start-up business entering its second stage of growth. Business ventures that fail to adjust their internal culture and focus as they mature risk faltering, since early-stage attitudes and skills may be ill-suited to their subsequent stages of development, and may even be detrimental to their success.
An expanding business must not only repeatedly reevaluate its strategies and culture, it must also consistently reexamine the skills and expertise both of its leadership and of its leadership infrastructure in order to ensure that they continue to evolve alongside its needs. Similarly, the American Torah community’s impressive explosion mandates a deliberate and critical review of its incumbent strategies, infrastructure and culture.
No doubt, the recognition of the unassailable wisdom and eternal values of the great Torah leaders who sculpted much of the community’s success will influence a conclusion that much of the community’s current approaches and strategies are as appropriate today as they were when first implemented. Nonetheless, the dramatically changing and increasingly intrusive societal influences now confronting the community, and the significant alterations in the composition and nature of the community itself, compel a study of the community’s current approaches. Such a review may indeed reveal that the very wisdom and value systems that mandated certain approaches many decades ago dictate different strategies and approaches today. Undertaking a fulsome reassessment does not imply communal or leadership deficiencies – it is the natural follow-up to their enormous success.
If concerns regarding the community’s future would need to be reduced to a single source, it would not be any one of the myriad challenges that demand attention. Rather, the single source of concern would be the absence of any review and reassessment of communal strategies, approaches and infrastructures. Further exploration and discussion is needed regarding how the suggested review should be conducted and by whom, as well as how resulting conclusions might be considered. But a review exercise would surely improve the focus of communal efforts and priorities, and would likely elevate weakening community respect for communal leadership.
The spectrum of issues worthy of review and consideration is extremely broad. For illustrative purposes, set forth below are three representative topics, one in the area of family dynamics, one in the sphere of communal attitudes, and the third addressing basic infrastructure.
The Decline of Fatherhood
In recent years, increased communal recognition and attention has been paid to the numerous sociological, psychological and emotional challenges we face. Each challenge requires the community’s sophisticated consideration of strategies that will be informed by the unique values and attitudes of Torah Judaism, and each challenge warrants specific attention. Underlying many of these problems, however, may be certain general communal characteristics or behaviors that play a role in instigating, or that frustrate the remediation of, many of the challenges. One such underlying communal characteristic is the waning of fatherhood as a dominant familial and religious function.
While Western culture has witnessed the fragmentation of the nuclear family, and has generally suffered a decline in parental involvement and influence, the Torah community has historically maintained an exceptional focus on parenting responsibilities. Both halachic imperatives and sociological needs mandate that parents play an intimate role in the educational and emotional development of their children. Mothers, in fact, continue to provide that critical role, notwithstanding the increasingly imposing demands upon them, as many women serve as the family’s second (and occasionally primary) breadwinner.
While mothers wage their valiant battle to retain their magnificent and essential role, fathers, by contrast, often substantially cede their paternal role and influence shortly after their child enters high school. Each weeknight, offices and batei medrash are filled with Torah observant fathers, struggling to fulfill either the duties borne of large families in an economically demanding world, or their personal obligations of limud haTorah. Consequentially, fathers are frequently absent from the weekday dinner table, and leave to others, if to anyone, the roles of assisting with children’s homework and chatting with them about their day. A father’s choices among competing demands reflect practical priorities, but also religious value judgments. Perhaps the increasingly challenging and intrusive environment confronting today’s children mandates a reconsideration of how we allocate our limited time.
There is another factor that may be influencing many fathers to refrain from investing in an intense, focused and time-consuming relationship with their children: the expectation that educational institutions and rebbeim will satisfy that function. Rebbeim and Roshei Yeshiva are not only expected to educate children, they are also expected to inculcate in them Torah values and pristine middos. Rebbeim and Roshei Yeshiva are expected to learn the character, skills and interests of each child, and thereby to direct their respective academic and career strategies and help fashion their lifestyle. Most significantly, rebbeim and Roshei Yeshiva are counted on to instill in each child the self-confidence and emotional security that paternal love and attention are intended to provide.
These expectations, however, are today wholly unrealistic, as Roshei Yeshiva and rebbeim cannot possibly play these numerous paternal functions. Each educator is responsible for many students, and is also laden with myriad attendant responsibilities and distractions. It is humanly impossible for them to focus adequately on each student in so many regards. In fact, with so many pupils under their charge, the classical role of educating each child is daunting in and of itself. Only a parent can possibly learn and address a child’s nuanced educational, emotional and hashkafic needs, and only a parent can be expected to expend the requisite time, attention and nurturing necessary to enable their child to blossom and endure life’s challenges.
While demands on fathers’ time is often extensive and distracting, if not consuming, such demands may not be the sole source of the current attitude of many fathers within the community. The ceding of their paternal obligations to the rebbe may also reflect the lessons that they learned themselves while still bochrim in yeshiva. In many cases, they were taught that the rebbe, not the father, is meant to be a child’s primary source of inspiration and influence. They absorbed the deliberate and apparently quite effective message that even the unique love and devotion, and even intelligence, their father may offer fail to compensate for his being, simply, a baal habos.
Many would argue that in earlier years such lessons were appropriate, or even critical, since parents were then less committed, if they were at all, to Torah observance and study, or they were reared during the war era without their own parental models. These lessons result, however, in many fathers currently viewing their children’s rebbeim as the appropriate bearers of paternal responsibilities. And even those who do not deliberately cede their fatherly role to others find their parental efforts stymied, since they were never taught how fatherhood is a primary dimension of their personal avodas Hashem.
An assessment must be conducted in order to consider whether a reorientation of the role of fatherhood should be encouraged, and to what degree Roshei Yeshiva and rebbeim should continue to assert parent-like influence. Factors to be considered include whether and to what extent fathers will in fact assume a more intensive and effective parental role if encouraged to do so and the capacity of rebbeim and Roshei Yeshiva to be responsible for essential functions beyond educating – particularly in light of the increasingly high rebbe/talmid ratio.
Equally important will be a consideration of the variables of contemporary American society, and the intrusive influences and psychological challenges confronting today’s children. These alone may mandate a reconsideration of the degree of attention and the amount of time that are practically necessary for a parent to provide their children with the requisite emotional and psychological support as well as the appropriate hashkafic values. Such reallocations would necessarily come at the expense of competing functions, such as personal Torah scholarship. These are the very tensions that deem such study and review so necessary.
The Consequences of Isolationism
During the decades before and immediately after WWII, the select few deeply-observant Jews in America strategically engaged in isolationism from secular and non-traditional Jewish influences. Not only did the community distance itself from the secular world, denigrating gentile wisdom and culture, the community also successfully erected social and attitudinal barriers, separating the frum community from less- or non-observant Jewish individuals and institutions. Organizational barriers were imposed between the Torah community’s mosdos and other Jewish institutions, and interaction among the leaders of the respective communities was discouraged. Similarly, except in the case of Chabad and a few others, the allocation of resources to educating or reaching out to the less observant was preempted by the dire need to allocate the frum community’s meager resources to the building of Torah education and to establishing a basic community infrastructure.
Simultaneously, and perhaps reflecting the personality developed by an isolationist strategy, the Torah Jew’s individual mode of avodas Hashem also was very self-focused. The student seeking religious growth was instructed that introspective self-development and “Torah L’shmah” were the supreme achievements, trumping chesed, middos, and even teaching Torah to others.
Some Torah leaders viewed this attitude as an interim deviation, necessary to elevating a vulnerable Torah community to an unprecedented expansion of Torah study. Many other leading Torah thinkers advocated, by contrast, that this approach to avodas HaShem is actually eternally appropriate. At this juncture, however, the implications of continuing these self-focused communal and personal strategies are worthy of reevaluation, and attention should be paid to the impact these strategies have had on both the broader Jewish community and on the frum community itself.
As a result of these strategies, the general American Jewish community has paid a stiff price in being deprived of access to Torah education and Torah values, and the frum community has paid a price in having developed a communal personality that is self-absorbed and dismissive. Notwithstanding these costs, an examination may well conclude that the benefits of the current approaches outweigh their negative consequences. But the passage of time and the plethora of changes that have evolved since the community first imposed these strategies mandate consideration of whether the application of the very same values and considerations influencing the original strategy would still compel the identical decisions today.
In addition to reevaluating the community’s behavioral and attitudinal norms and strategies, there is a desperate need for review of the community’s leadership infrastructure. Despite the community’s significant growth and increased complexity, the past few decades have seen minimal change to the basic communal infrastructure. National organizations have failed to capture the imagination and affinity of today’s generation and have idled in form and agenda as their influence and creativity significantly wane.
Attendant with the expansion of the population and its affluence, local educational and service organizations have blossomed – but without coordination or objective consideration of communal priorities or implications. At the forefront of communal failures has been the virtual absence of even the effort to engage in deliberate, long-term planning, except in extremely select, localized instances. Despite the increased sophistication and affluence of the Torah community, communal decisions are made incidentally and with virtually no accumulation of data or infrastructure expertise. At the same time, the community confronts increasingly complex and serious social and educational challenges – challenges which are expected to grow.
Similarly, the community fails to engage, or even encourage, efforts at evaluating community priorities or eliminating duplication and inefficiency. Institutional transparency and economic and programmatic accountability remain elusive, as even active and influential philanthropists decline to impose such basic expectations on the beneficiaries of their largess. Similar to a local candy store that has evolved into a national, retail chain, the community desperately needs a significant systems upgrade.
The community’s cultural personality likely plays a debilitating role in frustrating the maturation of a sophisticated communal infrastructure. Contemporary leaders of yeshivas and mosdos tend to be internally focused, consumed with the funding and operation of their own respective institutions and projects. Lay leaders are no different. The community’s affluence has allowed for impressive increases in philanthropy and an unprecedented cadre of affluent, Torah-educated baal habatim. But, the community’s internally-focused personality results in a failure to inculcate community members with a passion for, and commitment to, global communal responsibility, beyond each person’s own institutional affiliation. An almost express discouragement of lay leadership creativity and independent thought further discourages talented baal habatim from assuming roles in communal activism, leaving many of even the most committed philanthropists with the attitude that gift giving is their sole appropriate role.
The community will, I’YH, undoubtedly continue to grow and flourish. The challenge of upgrading the communal infrastructure is not one of survival, but rather is a concern of efficiency and effectiveness. However, it is also a challenge to the community’s collective, self-focused personality and value system. If not to increase efficiency and effectiveness, perhaps a revamping of the communal infrastructure is needed as an expression of aspiration for a more lofty, communal personality.