“Educate a child according to his path, he will not turn from that path even as he grows old” (Mishlei 22:6).
We are failing too many of our frum boys.
When we stop teaching limudei chol, secular studies, to boys after middle school, we are doing a disservice to them, to ourselves, and to our future.
I’ve been teaching high school girls for nine years, and I’m the father of the fiercest 13 year old girl south of the North Pole, so I know there is a whole slew of girls’ issues, academic and otherwise, as well. And there’s plenty of crossover concerns, obviously. This is all well known and worth further exploration and exposition. Here, though, I’m focused on the young men.
Because too many communities are failing too many of their boys. And I almost failed my own.
When I say “too many,” I do so without statistics because just one is enough and we all know it’s more than just one.
And when I say “communities,” I mean we’re all involved in this failure – wherever we live – until we make the changes needed to better serve the educational needs of each individual child.
And when I say “my own,” I mean my son, who spent one year in a mesivta, a boys’ high school with no secular studies, one year that changed everything.
Now, to be clear, this is no manifesto. I am not writing a clarion call to break down systems, customs, or traditions. Rather, I am inviting consideration to build on what already exists.
The evidence is clear. You can find stories all over the internet or right next door. There are many graduates unsatisfied with the results of their investment in time at yeshivas that didn’t include learning skills taught in the secular subjects. Many holy Yidden live in poverty, dependent on charity and the government. Some of them I know have super gumption and get by any and every way they can. But they could be just as holy if they were taught the skills and developed imaginations to support themselves in or out of the community system with some level of acceptable gratification.
We meet boys in their late teens and early twenties looking for something to do and having little idea of their options. Gratifying employment prospects are slim. They don’t want to teach, go on shluchis, or run a teen program. Many of them discover that the road to a certain goal will be longer for them than everyone else because they lack basic skills or knowledge in vocabulary, writing, science, or mathematics. This can be disheartening and dispiriting, though there are the naturally determined or financially privileged who travel the road undeterred all the way to achievement and success.
And yet I’ve heard stories of frum young men meeting educated frum young women whose intellectual prowess astound the men sometimes to shame, discomfort, and even defensiveness.
This is not a depiction of everyone or even a majority. Many boys thrive in a deeply chassidishe environment dedicated 100% to limudei kodesh. And it’s beautiful to be with these boys, to hear how they speak of Torah concepts, of Chassidus, with reverence and delight. Some of these boys will be wonderful teachers and rabbis. Some of these boys have natural talents and proclivities like writing or mathematics that they were fortunate enough to have been given support in developing at home or well enough at the day school level. They thrive in the yeshiva environment and find ways to make satisfying livings doing what they love, Gd willing, or just doing what they have to in order to “make it.” These boys, though, shine with an inner light no brighter than that of the other boys.
The other boys who want to be video game writers. The other boys who want to learn about how economics work. The other boys who want to start businesses. The other boys who look at the world around them in awe and have too immature a vocabulary to define it clear enough to express in a direct or even artful way. The musicians, psychologists, doctors, researchers, painters, writers, entrepreneurs, engineers, filmmakers, lawyers, the boys with undiscovered, undeveloped, untapped potentials waiting to be cracked, watered, rooted, and sprouted. Their lights shine bright as well.
Given the opportunities to develop their inherent talents and goals, their light can also shine forth to illuminate Gdliness in this mundane world.
We need to be there for them early on, though, and show them the way with our best resources.
The sooner religious boys’ schools across the board offer options and opportunities for studies in limudei chol and trades, the better it will be for them, ourselves, and our future.
From late August to mid-June, my name is Mr. Karpel or Mr. K or Mista K.
These last nine years teaching English and Social Studies to the 9th thru 12th Grades at a Lubavitch girls’ high school in South Florida have been some of the best years of my life as a teacher, as an adult, and as a continuously struggling Yid.
When a student analyzes the symbol of blood in Macbeth through the prism of Tanya I know something special is happening in my classroom.
When a student pipes up to discuss the characterization of Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451 in terms of the “garments” of his soul – his thoughts, speech, and actions – my heart does a little jig of joy.
When a student writes about a hot-button topic in politics and compares and contrasts the laws of the Constitution to the laws of Torah in examining and analyzing the issue, I imagine her bringing a jury to their knees in submission to her summation before she goes home to teach local women a Chassidic concept and then bake challah for that Shabbos.
When a student bursts, literally explodes like blooming fireworks with newfound glory, energy, and verve for everything she’s learning in limudei kodesh because she’s begun to finally find the words and phrases and voice to express them in verses and in prose that bring her classmates to cries and cheers, verses and prose and discussion that awe her teachers and that brighten her face with a gazillion watts of light, I know she’s going to bring that light out into the world and kindle many more flames as she goes.
Some of my former students have gone on to be shluchas around the world. Some have gone into nursing. Some are teachers. Some are artists. Some are entrepreneurs.
The longer I had taught girls at the high school level, the more graduates I had, and the closer my son got to graduating middle school, the more I learned about the differences in academic opportunities between the boys and girls.
If a family wants their son to develop burgeoning interests in math, science, or the arts, their options are extremely limited. The regular school hours prevent any serious after school dedication to online courses. Schools that offer dual curricula are few and far between.
What happens when your son thrives in both limudei kodesh and limudei chol and finds no sense in having to give up either one of them?
Admittedly, I was gung ho about my son attending mesivta, at first. I had romantic, Jedi ideals of his Torah training giving him access to the Force and that such access would enliven his neshama and drive him to strive through the yeshiva, zal, shluchis, and semicha system and bring that glorious light of his beautiful punim shining with love of Hashem and Torah and Chassidus out into the world to guide Yidden everywhere from every path back to mitzvahs.
Psychological projection, perhaps? Did I want for him what I didn’t have and couldn’t be?
It soon became apparent that the hours upon hours of Torah study without any guided secular reading and continued learning in basic writing skills, as well as the absence of any scientific and historical teaching, left our son wanting, unsatisfied, frustrated, and soon quite angry.
I should have known. My wife knew, but went along for my sake. And then she was able to say “I told you so,” but thankfully didn’t.
Before he’d even attended, we had plenty of opportunities to interact with bochurim. Having a few over for a Shabbos meal became a great way to learn about what goes on at the mesivta. We met boys from Manchester, Johannesburg, various cities in Israel, and various North American cities as well.
We learned that these boys weren’t much different than the girls I taught – except their secular education ended at the very age that the secular education for girls advanced.
Some of them were perfectly fine with that. They were confident their future was shluchis. Some of these bochurim read surreptitiously on their own, had side interests in musical instruments, sports, or even politics. They had a healthy outlook and a natural drive to learn in and out of school.
We also met boys who were frustrated. They were not so sure that shluchis was in their future. Other options, like working as a clerk in someone’s business, learning about kashrut and shechting to get into the food business, or other directions didn’t interest them. They wanted to learn programming or about history so they could better understand current political quagmires, imbroglios, and shenanigans. They wanted that which wasn’t available to them: classes where skills and information they believed they needed to succeed were taught by qualified teachers.
One boy did have a real drive to learn how to write. He was convinced, rightly so, that writing well, communicating well, would open up many doors of opportunity for college and career choices after he finished yeshiva. With his parents and the yeshiva’s permission, this bochur came to my house once a week for a few months to learn how to write various kinds of essays.
Today, that young man, as frum as ever, has graduated college and joined the workforce in the world of finances. Speaking to him recently, I asked him his opinion on the topic of secular education for yeshiva boys. He said, “At the very least, boys in yeshivas should be required to submit proper essays on the material they’ve learned. These essays should be graded on structure, grammar, and content. It will be difficult to change the system, but students who want to learn secular studies privately should be given the ability to do so.”
After a difficult first year at mesivta, where my son loved some of his teachers but felt stunted academically, we took the opportunity to send him last year to a Chofetz Chaim yeshiva that offered a dual curriculum. We’re nearing the end of the summer and he is looking forward to getting back to school. He finally feels as if he’s being given the opportunity to thrive in his learning.
But the experience also changed us as a family. Without a quality option in a chassidishe environment near home, our son’s exposure to and love of Chassidus suffered. That is most definitely our fault as parents, our burden to bear, but neither of us is educated enough to handle it on our own. And both of us were just ecstatic that he was finally happy at school.
As the school year quickly approaches with the coming of Elul, teachers like me are already in work mode. That includes performing a solution based self-reflection by looking back on my experiences last year and taking a pedagogical approach to a cheshbon hanefesh:
What did I do that rocked and how can I make sure to keep rocking?
What did I do well and how can I do those things better?
In what areas do I need improvement and how can I improve?
In what areas did I fail? How will I not fail in those areas again?
And so on, as long as the goal is to improve so that my students will learn more and will learn better, and so they will be able to apply what they learn in their life experiences.
And it is now, during this time of looking back in order to more preparedly look forward, of going over my checklist of questions and reflections, that once again the state of frum education (especially for boys) and adherence to educational standards is in the news in New York.
I do not believe this to be a problem solely relegated to the boroughs of New York.
I write here with an obviously biased voice in support of providing better options for all students everywhere. Frum families and students need more choices in educating their children. And these alternatives should come without disparagement or judgment from others. Providing options simply makes educational and moral sense.
Religious boys deserve an education because religious boys shouldn’t be ignorant boys. Although it is widely understood by now that there is no one right way for every child or every family, many frum communities have not enhanced their educational options to meet the growing needs of many teenage boys.
Most graduate from middle school to a yeshiva that most probably does not provide a limudei chol curriculum or opportunities outside of limudei kodesh at all.
In the last decade or so, that has changed somewhat. Yeshivas in Miami Beach and Pittsburgh, for example, provide secular education classes, some online with supervision, and some with certified professional teachers who know and love their subject as well as the students themselves. There is also JETS, the Jewish Educational Trade School in California, which provides limudei kodesh and limudei chol curricula and education in trades, an innovative program that has just completed its tenth year as a school and which impresses me as something to look more into in a future post.
Now it is time for communities everywhere to take stock of their academic institutions, to reflect upon their actual successes and, Gd forbid, failures, to look deep in a community-wide, bluntly honest cheshbon hanefesh, and wonder about our boys:
What did we do that rocked and how can we make sure to keep rocking?
What did we do well and how can we do those things better?
In what areas do we need improvement and how can we improve?
In what areas did we fail? How will we not fail in those areas again?
We will have to come to the conclusion and acknowledge that too many of our boys are under-served by the system in place and are not being given the education they need and deserve.