In Soviet Russia, where my parents are from, there was a famous saying amongst the working class: "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us".
Somehow the employer and employee each thought they had the upper hand by cheating the other and this allowed for the system to continue. As a result, nothing ever got done. It was a lie, but a lie that everyone was comfortable with, so it continued on until the country imploded.
Today, the Yeshiva day school system is continuing a similarly comfortable and convenient pretense. The parent body and school system pretend to provide their utmost in giving their children the best Jewish and secular education possible, while the children go along with the system, playing the role that the day school system expects of them.
Once it's time for college, the pretense is exposed. Looking back at my high school class 17 years after graduation, most of my peers are no longer shomer shabbat, and of the minority that stayed Sabbath observant most have become Open Orthodox - basically neo-Conservative, even if they now call themselves Modern Orthodox. Very few of my high school peers maintained the true Modern Orthodox lifestyle, where scrupulous adherence to Torah comes before Derech Eretz (taking an active part in the professional, scientifc and academic world) of their parents as personified by Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik's students. A small sprinkle “frummed out” and became hareidi.
I don’t have an axe to grind with the American Yeshiva Day School System. In fact I am grateful that they agreed to take in a young Russian boy like myself from a non observant family, something that would probably never happen in a more yeshivish school. Also, the rigorous study discipline that I experienced in my yeshiva day school made my college workload feel like a walk in the park. Nevertheless, there is a major problem that exists in this system with tragic consequences and it needs to be brought out in the open.
The main crux of the problem in yeshiva day schools is that it is abundantly clear to everyone, although never outwardly expressed, that the real priorities of the system are intended to produce students that will one day achieve success in the secular world. This means getting into great colleges and eventually getting great jobs. The system is extraordinarily successful in this regard.
That being said, all parties in this system, including the parents, the schools and the students all know that this is and was the real priority - and it isn’t spiritual growth. Although publicly the schools preached an uncompromising dual commitment to Yiddishkiet and academic excellence, no one was under the illusion that these two priorities were somehow equal. No state of the art beis medrash (study hall), Our school preached love for Israel and commitment for Israel. We waived our flags and we marched in the parades. However, when it came to practically making Aliyah, there were few takers.
inspirational lecture series or 10 day trip to Poland or even Israel could change that simple reality. Material success is what truly mattered when I was a student in yeshiva day school, and I suspect not much has changed in 17 years.
Children smell hypocrisy from a mile away..
And there is another example regarding which our education failed. Our school preached love for Israel and commitment for Israel. We waived our flags and we marched in the parades. However, when it came to practically making Aliyah, there were few takers.
When young people see that we can say things and pretend to be one way, but act in a contrary way, they pick up on it. Why does it then come as a surprise that our children play the part while they are young, but drop like flies when they are given the free choice to act as they please once they are grown up?
The issue is not one that is unique to the Modern Orthodox community.
Gone are the days of real ideological disputes between misnagdim and hasidim, Modern Orthodox and yeshivish. Those were for the simpler times, when Jews were still poor and sidelined members of society. Today, when we have reached the pinnacles of success in the secular world, the hashkafic distinctions that once defined us are no longer real.
Today there are two types of people. There are people who are primarily focused on the material, and others who are primarily focused on the spiritual. There can only be one true priority. This dilemma of spiritual vs material priorities holds true for not only the Modern Orthodox, but for the hareidi world as well. What separates the hareidi wall street daf yomi lawyer working 70 hours a week from the Modern Orthodox one? The color and fabric of his kippah?
There are hareidi materialists and Modern Orthodox ones. There are also poor materialists and wealthy spiritualists and visa versa. What distinguishes us is not our type of kippah or the size of our bank account, but where our priorities lie.
If we want our primary focus and our children’s primary focus to be spiritual, ruchniyus, we need to take action to make it so. There is no greater practical expression of Emunah and yearning to come close to Hashem than foregoing all of the comforts and conveniences of life in America and coming to live in Eretz Yisrael. What other mitzvah proves where your true priorities lie? You can be a Jewish materialist and send your son to Brisk and visit Israel three times a year for Yom tov. It's harder to be a materialist and actually live in Eretz Yisrael.
Schools and Jewish educational organizations recognize that the Israel experience is the most successful educational experience that can inspire, uplift, and re energize our children and rededicate them to their Judaism. The yeshivish send their kids to Eretz Yisrael to learn before and after marriage, the Modern Orthodox send their kids to study for a year or two after high school, while the non affiliated send their children on birthright to hopefully inspire them to marry Jewish.
Eretz Yisrael has the effect of connecting the Jew to his roots across all religious spectrums. Educators try to bring the Israel experience to America in any way that they can to try to rekindle the spark of our Jewish youth’s souls.
The Israeli Religious Zionist school system has much the same problems, with similar dialectics between religious and secular studies and a too high rate of non-observant graduates (known in Israel as datlashim - formerly religious). However, there is a very large selection of Yeshiva high schools, among which there are a good number where it is clear to the students that Yiddishkeit and spirituality come first even when secular subjects are on a high level. In addition, these Yeshiva high schools work hard to have students go into a higher Torah learning program such as hesder before army service, so as to create a post high school spiritual atmosphere with no other distractions. Yeshiva high schools measure their success by how many students chose that extra period of Torah learning before the army, and in the case of hesder, students they also return for another year of Torah after their army service.
Maybe it's time to reconsider our logic in America. Instead of bringing the Israel experience to America, why not do something simpler. Lets give our children more of an Israel experience in Israel, by bringing them there - with us - and making our homes here.
The longer we wait the more difficult it will become.
Avraham Shusteris is an accountant in Ramat Beit Shemesh. He made aliyah from Monsey with his family in 2018.