As I mentioned in introducing last week’s article, “Cancel Culture Comes to Orthodoxy,” I believed that the article would be my most important to date, albeit the most controversial. I was prepared for an onslaught of biting emails and attack pieces. After all, in the article, I confronted some of the bedrock issues of the chinuch system within Modern Orthodoxy. I had suggested a radical overhaul in the way Torah is taught and values imparted in the Modern Orthodox world.
Instead, I received numerous approving emails plus “y’shkoiachs” in the streets. One American/Modern Orthodox rabbi from Israel wrote me that the article was great, but “you weren’t tough enough!”
Of course, I did receive a number of semi-critical emails, but they were mild compared to what I expected. One woman wrote me that, as opposed to my statement that no kids from Modern Orthodox yeshivos attended the Night Seder America’s learning program, her son, who is enrolled in a very reputable MO yeshivah in Queens, did in fact attend. Some young marrieds wrote me why they feel justified in not attending minyanim anywhere at this time. Other respondents wrote that they have seen a few people from the young generation in minyanim, albeit none at any Zoom or in-person shiur. Yet other people familiar with the entire Orthodox landscape told me that the chareidi world has similar problems relating to apathy among the youth, but on a much smaller scale. As I mentioned in the outset of my article, I was not here to discuss the chareidi world at this time. And yes, undoubtedly there are problems in the yeshivish/chasidic world; but on issues of transmitting their teachings, and the energy for Torah, they pale in comparison.
The most stinging email came from a wonderful former member of our Young Marrieds minyan of years ago, now living on Long Island. He felt that I should not be rebuking the young generation, but should be in touch with them during these most difficult times and offer them encouragement instead. They are undergoing unprecedented stress.
I responded to him that, first of all, I did not rebuke them directly. I was calling into question the education system that got them into the situation at hand. Secondly, I assured him that indeed I had been in touch with our shul’s Young Marrieds as a group and twice communicated to them that if anyone was undergoing financial stress, they should let me know. Our shul, thanks to a generous benefactor, is here to help, specifically young families. I did receive a number of responses and was able to offer assistance.
More importantly, I wondered why is it that the young generation cannot handle the stress to the point of not attending minyan, while the older generation, which has a lot more to fear from the virus, is attending in much larger numbers?
Above all, the fact that this person felt that today’s generation is not ready to handle rebuke also cuts to the heart of the matter. In truth, I am keenly aware that they get very itchy with any musar (religious rebuke). I ask, however: Is that what we have raised – a generation of snowflakes to whom you can’t suggest anything that runs against their own comfort level? That itself is very problematic.
What stood out is the fact that the few critical emails I did receive were quite mild, thankfully. This despite the warnings I received from family and neighborhood friends that the big guns in the Modern Orthodox world were going to “cream me.” This underscores the fact that, for the most part, what I argued was factual. There wasn’t much to disagree with.
So, what are we going to do about it? Well, as a result of my article, a certain rabbi living outside of Queens, who is a veteran of institutional Modern Orthodox life, met with me in the park across from my house. He feels exactly as I did and found it refreshing that I was willing to grapple with the issue head on. He very much wants to do something to address the matter on a national level and is hopeful to be provided the platform to do so.
I hope the relevant Orthodox organizations work with him and others to make a real difference. Having forums to discuss “The Future of Modern Orthodoxy” is very nice to fill an agenda. But the time for talk (or in our vernacular, hock) is over. I hope some organization heeds this rabbi’s call and addresses the issue with tachlis in mind. Changes must be made, radical as they may be.
Canceling a culture is never easy.
As I was about to submit this article, I received two emails from two people hailing from chareidi backgrounds, one making it clear that he is chareidi, the other the founder of a very successful kiruv organization on college campus. They both felt I should be more forgiving and understanding of today’s young generation. We debated the issue, with some degree of success on both of our parts.
One of them pointed to the parents being the problem more so than yeshivos. No doubt there is a lot of truth to that. Perhaps by forcing parents to deal with a more demanding school curriculum, the parents will become more responsible, as well.
What is important is that the kiruv person wants to chew the issues with me via a Zoom exchange. I look forward to that. The more I can do to broaden the discussion, the more I feel I’ve accomplished something.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.