Rabbi Yaakov Glasser
Klal Perspectives, Spring 2012 Symposium on Connectedness
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The Vital Role of Experiential Jewish Education
STANDING IN THE DINING ROOM of a vibrant Jewish camp on a Friday night, many parents would be shocked to witness their own children, who are adverse to any sort of singing or ruach in their home, exuding the most intense passion in embracing the Shabbos experience. Seeing them sitting on the floor of a youth group kumzits, parents would be astonished by the pensive introspection teenagers display in reflecting upon their struggles for meaning and purpose within their lives. Walking into the beis midrash of a summer kollel, parents and educators would be amazed to discover hundreds of teens studying Torah with eagerness and passion, despite the resistance more commonly experienced in trying to motivate their extracurricular learning throughout the year.
In my fourteen years working with teenagers in NCSY – including seven of them as an NCSY Regional Director – I have had the great privilege to experience countless such moments (much of the time with children of Orthodox homes) and so I believe in the capacity of the Orthodox community to create religiously inspired, spiritually meaningful experiences. The pervasive sentiment that connectedness is elusive to our generation is counterbalanced by a number of environments that successfully inspire our youth, providing paradigms for spiritual engagement that could be incorporated into mainstream religious life.
It would behoove us to explore the underlying elements of these contexts, to better understand what accounts for their success, and to evaluate how some of the strategies and tools can be replicated in other areas of Jewish life.
Over the recent past, the “tuition crisis” has generated a well-understood singular focus upon the needs of our formal educational institutions. Without depriving these venerable institutions of their well-deserved stature in the priorities of our communal resources, financial concerns have overshadowed the absolutely critical role that informal educational experiences play in the spiritual development of our youth.
Camps, youth groups, international summer programs, synagogue teen minyanim and countless other opportunities for teens to explore the broader gamut of their talents and abilities beyond the world of academics are essential in addressing the crisis of inspiration affecting our youth.
Many Orthodox communities have been remiss in investing the financial resources necessary to establish more attractive and sophisticated programs of this nature. The decline of overall parental availability and the proliferation of portals to the online world demand that our community seek innovative extracurricular opportunities for our teenagers that motivate and inspire their religious growth. There is a myriad of models that can harness the creativity of local talent and produce an impactful program for minimal financial cost. Community leaders are in a position to galvanize local parents, educators, counselors and countless other professionals to unite in implementing a quality program for informal education.
Religious Growth vs. Religious Achievement
Many teens perceive the academic environment of formal education as largely judgmental. The core experience of school entails achieving measurable results. Schools cannot divest themselves of their responsibility to take attendance at tefilah, assess performance in talmud Torah, and hold students accountable for their overall progress. There is, however, an element of incongruence in nurturing the personal initiative of religious passion within an academic environment premised upon quantitative accountability.
We are holding the proverbial mountain over the students’ heads and asking them to say naaseh venishma (voluntarily embracing the Torah). As a result, many students find personal and spiritual growth to be too challenging in their academic environment. Since there is a natural predisposition for teenagers to experiment and explore, these students turn their attention to other environments that seem more accepting of whom they are. This search, however, can often lead to artificial sources of affirmation and self-esteem that are inconsistent with positive religious growth.
While many schools have developed informal educational programming within the larger framework of their academic institutions, the evaluative and thus judgmental elements remain fundamental to the school experience. It is naive to suggest that schools can maintain a record of educational excellence absent a fidelity to the essential components of academic success. Thus, it is absolutely crucial that exclusively informal educational contexts be developed that focus upon religious growth and not religious achievement. Such environments would provide students with the opportunity to ask fundamental questions, challenge basic assumptions, and search for greater meaning and purpose in religious life.
Spirituality is a transcendent experience requiring one to focus upon something greater than oneself. Spiritual experiences are as diverse as the people grasping to embrace them. “Kesheim shepartzufeihem shonim, kach deoseihen einan shavos” – “as each human being is created with an individual face, so they have been endowed with an individual perspective” (See Berachos 58a).
The foundation of freedom in the United States, and its emulating democracies around the world, is the elevation and centrality of individual rights. Great controversy erupts when those freedoms are curtailed, even when in the name of safety and security. Globalization and the Internet have further amplified individuality as a primary value within American society. Despite attempts to stymie the inculcation of “limitless personal freedom” into the mindset of the Orthodox community, we cannot escape being impacted by this influence. However, in order to balance the relentless strategies being employed to resist this infiltration, there is a need for an equally positive focus on the more structural elements of religious life.
Our generation’s meticulousness in observing halacha is manifest in the unprecedented proliferation of practical halachic manuals and classes, as well as in the trend to embrace more stringent opinions from among the spectrum of halachic debate. Solidifying the structure of halachic observance and narrowing the gamut of halachic options serves to protect against the individual autonomy that may challenge the system. Nevertheless, the culture of individuality has seeped into the more structured frameworks of our religious life.
This trend is evident in the reorientation of large cathedral synagogues to multiplexes, where each individual can choose the prayer experience which most resonates for them. Large and venerable yeshivos are often passed over for smaller institutions that cater to the student’s individual needs. Some yeshivos are addressing these demands by compartmentalizing to create smaller, more individualized student experiences.
Communal leadership would be well served to recognize and address the needs of adults, as well, for individualized modalities of religious expression within the parameters of traditional halachic standards. Just as informal educational programs allow teenagers to spend their Friday night studying Torah, singing at a tisch, enjoying appropriate recreational activities or “hanging out” with inspirational mentors, adults would equally benefit from an expansion of appropriate options of community religious programming that recognizes the diversity in current dispositions to spiritual growth.
Instilling spirituality within young children is generally accomplished through positive reinforcement and habituation. Consider the extraordinary positive feedback a toddler receives upon reciting a bracha – even one they do not understand and can barely pronounce. We transform bircas hamazon into a festive musical and constantly reward the ongoing performance of mitzvos. As their development progresses, we must strive to reorient these rituals into meaningful religious experiences. A recalibration must take place. Absent the elevation of habitual ritual into meaningful actions, Judaism becomes primitive and hollow.
Often, the adult struggle with connectedness and spirituality is a natural extension of this unresolved element of religious immaturity. I often receive calls from Orthodox families hosting baalei teshuva for Shabbos for the first time seeking explanations for basic halachic rituals they may be asked to discuss. These fully observant adults lack a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the underlying reasons for much of their observance, and, over time, such a void erodes passion and enthusiasm for religious growth. Aside from the current focus on what the halacha demands, adult education programming, shiurim, and drashos should be seen as opportunities to educate people of the depth and profundity that underscore our basic religious observance. The assumption that these fundamentals are addressed in our formative years is shortsighted and naive.
Parents, teachers, and rabbis are authority figures who play an essential role in the religious development of teenagers. However, adolescents exploring and asserting their independence often struggle with the notion of authority, in general. An informal mentor, however, can make invaluable contributions to the spiritual development of those less inclined to defer to formal authority. A mentoring relationship can develop naturally with an individual in the life of the teenager, or it can be established proactively through organizations and programs.
In either context, the mentor contributes three critical elements to a mentee’s development:
- Mentors model a value system and lifestyle;
- Mentors take an active interest in the life of the teenager beyond the framework of any particular program or goal. As a result, their insight and perspective is more palatable to a teenager than direction and guidance from an authority figure; and –
- Mentors validate the challenges facing the adolescent in developing their spirituality and religious commitment.
Informal educational contexts provide an ideal framework in which to introduce a mentoring relationship into the life of a teenager. Recognizing the benefits of mentorship as a vehicle for religious growth, a number of outreach organizations have developed mentoring models for the unaffiliated adult population. This paradigm, however, is equally suited for the frum community.
Numerous models of engagement could be explored that facilitate connections between adults and families who find religious inspiration more intuitive and those who are struggling to infuse their observant life with greater meaning and passion. Ceding the realm of religious inspiration to rabbis and scholars disregards the vast resources of community members who can play a guiding role in motivating others.
The humor and entertainment of modern culture is almost entirely devoted to the mockery of anything sacred. Religion, family and any type of authority figure are the most common targets of comic expression. This dimension of general culture has also infiltrated our own religious community. From the absurd comments often found on popular religious websites to the Shabbos table discussions of many families, one encounters an underlying sarcastic tone, and a penetrating cynicism towards many of our most sacred ideals.
Aside from the intruding values of outside culture, cynicism within the frum community has evolved organically, as well. In our zeal to edify the substance of our particular philosophical approach to Torah Judaism, we often turn to condemnation and ridicule of other approaches as a tactic of ideological rejection. Furthermore, in our paranoid fear that we might be perceived as validating an unacceptable approach, we choose to dismiss any alternatives to popular understanding rather than to engage such ideas maturely and debate them honestly. The internal communal attitudes of dismissiveness, reinforced by the culture’s trivialization of anything sacred, has metastasized cynicism to many areas of religious life. We filter the guidance and direction of our leaders through a lens of skepticism, often undermining their gallant efforts to guide and inspire our community.
Leaving aside the pitfalls of this developing culture for adults, its ills are particularly toxic to the spiritual development of adolescents. Teenagers engage the world through a polarity of extremes. Their developing abstract thinking produces strong convictions, but their lack of life experience restrains their appreciation for nuance. They may laugh along with the conversation taking place mocking the rabbi’s speech or the gadol’s most recent proclamation. However, they are internally constructing a characterization of hypocrisy relating to the world of religious life. This cycle further exacerbates the adolescent’s natural suspicion of authority, and ultimately erodes their confidence in the sincerity and veracity of religious life.
Youth groups and camps often provide an oasis from this cynicism. They are strategically constructed environments that celebrate and reward connections to authentic spiritual moments. Creative programming and music provide an atmosphere in which a teenager can express spirituality without the fear of mockery and sarcasm. The experimentation of religious focus and fervor is met with reinforcement from role models and peers. Most importantly, the environment provides teenagers with the opportunity to break beyond the parameters of perception that often develop within the home and school regarding their expected level of religiosity.
Similar environments could be creatively developed through synagogue and community programming that empowers adults searching for a more inspiring and reverent religious environment. Ultimately, it is through the active choices of individual families that a tone can be established that repels cynicism from their homes, thus fostering an environment that promotes religious growth.
The quest for authentic spirituality requires confronting the issues that challenge an individual’s belief in themselves, in G-d, and in their capacity to connect the two. Our educational system celebrates questioning and innovation in the realm of textual analysis, but is less tolerant of such critical thinking in the realms of dogmatic philosophy and halachic standards. Within a few hours, a teen may be lavishly rewarded for innovation in his approach to a sugya (Talmudic topic), but then denigrated for raising similar questions about the halachic systems and belief structures that we hold fundamental to religious life.
This inconsistency generates an internal feeling of religious inadequacy in balancing the reality of these questions with the community’s disapproval of such fundamental doubts. In a world that encourages and celebrates unlimited intellectual inquiry, it is essential that we establish contexts for the exploration of fundamental religious ideals. While, it is not spiritually healthy to encourage the pursuit of every question and doubt to its absolute conclusion, the incongruence between the dogmatic approach to religious ideals and the critical thinking that underscores most academic and professional endeavors risks creating an unintended and often intense crisis of faith.
Forums are needed to address these issues, and to validate curiosity as a mature and passionate dimension of religious growth. For teenagers, informal educational programs provide these opportunities within a structure that can ensure the proper follow-up mentoring that transforms a challenge to religious ideals into a journey of discovery and growth. For adults, programs and opportunities should be innovated that provide non-judgmental environments for raising fundamental questions, and receiving guidance and direction in their resolution. Most importantly, our community must progress in validating this questioning as an authentic reach for deeper religious meaning.
Our goal in this discussion is to explore the factors that inhibit connectedness and spirituality within our community. I believe that communally addressing these impediments requires the innovation of local organizations along with ongoing programs that can address these critical issues. Nevertheless, each one of the elements discussed can be confronted and applied within the framework of an individual family as well. Encouraging religious growth, individuality in religious identity, maturation of religious ideals, the role of mentorship, expelling cynicism and embracing questions as an authentic search for religious meaning will all contribute to cultivating a more spiritual and connected religious community.