Is the Modern Orthodox Jewish Community Killing Itself – Part 2

When I was recruited for a professional position in New York, a consideration of our move was the vast array of day school options available to us as we prepared to move to Long Island. Since my wife and I view our children as our most precious commodity, visiting day schools and interviewing their principals was an important pre-move activity some thirteen years ago.

What we learned was not just surprising, it was outright shocking. One meeting went like this:

Notorious: So, tell me about the backgrounds of your teachers. Are
they all credentialed, or licensed, or have advanced degrees in education?

Principal: Well, of course, we do not hire anyone uncredentialed, other than student teachers, who teach under the supervision of a veteran teacher.

Notorious: I am so glad to hear that. Having lived in communities that were much smaller than New York, it was always so hard to find teachers who had the Hebrew and Judaic background as well as the education background.

Principal: Wait. You were talking about limudei kodesh teachers? I was talking about our general studies teachers.

Notorious: You mean your general studies teachers know their subjects and know pedagogy, while you’re Judaic teachers only have to know their subject matter?

Principal: Well, you know there really aren’t ways for Judaic teachers to study for licensure in the area.

Notorious: Thank you for your time.

Now, I can tell you exactly how a Hebrew/Judaic teacher gets licensure or other credentials. I’ve helped teachers to attain it in places that a native New Yorker would consider galut (diaspora). Yet a principal actually tried to convince me that, in the largest Jewish community in the galaxy, a teacher of aleph-bet or Talmud could not manage to get a teaching certificate. Sorry, no dice.

The next school we tried was known for higher academic standards, so we were on to that interview. Thankfully, they were a bit more reassuring in terms of using professional teachers, at least on the elementary school level. We fully expected that this particular school, known nationally as an outstanding modern Orthodox day school, would have teachers who were themselves role models, embedded in the modern Orthodox community and trained at places like Yeshiva University. Wrong again! We were soon to learn that the rabbis teaching there, particularly on the high school level lived, for the most part, in distant communities in Brooklyn, the Lower East Side, or at closest, Queens. And less than a handful had been ordained or trained at what would generally be considered modern Orthodox institutions.

Worse than that, some of the teachers, and even a few administrators, were openly disdainful of the institutions in which they were teaching. One friend of mine sent his son to a modern Orthodox day school. His son was an outstanding student, excelling so much in the study of texts that his rabbi/teacher suggested that he should really leave the school and go to a “real yeshiva.”

So the modern Orthodox community, at least in my little slice of New York suburbia, has been its own worst enemy. It has entrusted the Jewish education of its students to teachers who do not live in the community, are role models of a type of Judiasm that does not reflect the school’s stated philosophy, and are likely to not even have the educational background necessary to teach.

I know that this is not the case everywhere. My daughter is, thankfully, now in a school in which the educational approach appears to be fully consistent with the stated philosophy of the school and most teachers across the curriculum have outstanding backgrounds. Yet, too often, such is not the case.

By not demanding more of its day schools, and by not asking the right questions of those who direct these schools, the modern Orthodox community has found yet another way to assure its disappearance.

More to follow.

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