Torah Checks and Balances

Confronting Chinuch Challenges From COVID, Curriculum and Beyond

By Sara Lehmann

At some point during their parenting years, every mother or father presumably refers to the concept of hiskatnu hadoros, the decline of the generations, and says, “We were never like this growing up.” But it seems that no generation has better claim to the veracity of that contention than the one raising children today.

The challenges of child rearing seemed to multiply during COVID. And the cultural challenges of an environment that had been hostile to Torah values before the pandemic accelerated at such a rapid rate that frum Jews now find themselves tangled in a morass of societal ills and cultural depravity encroaching on halachic parameters.

Suddenly we are confronted with a society bent on changing history, science, reality and the rules. We try to teach our children right from wrong, but civilization is veering so far from Torah values that the two systems are colliding.

It used to be easier to follow government authority and instill respect for our host country’s guidelines into our children under the precept of dina d’malchusa dina (the law of the land is the law). But that was when their guidelines were to some degree in sync with ours. During COVID, the restrictions that many governments enacted in mostly Democratic-run states ran afoul of our Torah values and way of life. Yeshivos and shuls were forced to open surreptitiously, and city and state rules that thwarted a Torah life were broken because there was no other choice.

As American society continues to fragment, frum communities are dragged into conflicts by dint of being part of that society and, as Jews, because we often become society’s scapegoats. The Black Lives Matter riots during the height of COVID not only left their violent marks on city streets but in people’s minds. In addition to teaching immorality in American public schools, teaching Critical Race Theory has moved from the theoretical to the practical as it affects Jewish lives. Hate crimes against Jews, especially by minorities and especially against identifiable Jews, are skyrocketing.

And now comes the threat to New York yeshivos by the New York State Board of Regents. Feverish campaigns and tireless advocacy did nothing to prevent this enormous intrusion into our chinuch system and into our lives.

All this has the potential to wreak havoc among the most vulnerable and valuable segment of our population — our children. Did bending the rules and rejecting government authority during COVID affect their sense of judgment and respect for authority figures in general? How does the pervading immorality affect the minds of our children? And how can we best confront the chinuch challenges of today?

I raised these issues with Rabbanim, mechanchim and parents, seeking answers to the fallout of the past few years, the dangers facing our children today and guidance for the future.

Harav Aharon Kahn, shlitah

Harav Kahn is Rav of Knesses Bais Avigdor, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Harav Aharon Kahn, shlitah, views the topic of how to approach government policies that contradict Torah values, particularly as they impact the area of chinuch, as a difficult and nuanced one. But the certainty of the vast chasm that has opened up between the two is indisputable.

Harav Kahn points to the past several years as having produced “a tremendous distance” between frum communities and the public policy of the federal government and especially the Democratic majority states. “It’s a neis that we had this transformation in the Supreme Court, but if it had gone in the opposite direction, it would be even worse now.”

The Rav underscores the huge disparity between our hashkafos and their hashkafos, which are “very leftist and focus on people’s individual freedom to the extreme.” And he thinks that many in our frum community are not goires (don’t realize or acknowledge) any of it, or even ask the question of dina d’malchusa dina. “They feel that they’re in a country that is a medinah shel chessed — but it is also Sodom. As the Gemara (Shabbos 119b) says, ‘Ein ha’olam miskayem elah bishvil hevel pihem shel tinoko shel beis rabban (The World only exists because of the breath [learning Torah] of school children. I think we Yidden, by keeping the Torah, are essentially preserving this country.”

Rejecting outside hashkafos and ensuing government regulations may have affected chinuch to the extent that it undermined children’s trust in authority. However, Harav Kahn believes it did not affect them in the same way as if, in a hypothetical example, they would discover that a prominent mechanech stole from his yeshivah, chas v’shalom, and that such corruption was ignored. That would cause much more damage. “If I see an eino Yehudi doing something wrong or I see that the whole society has turned upside down, I almost expect it. But a Jew?”

Furthermore, the Rav does not believe that children underwent any corruption of our values or experienced some dissonance because of the “very strong sense of integrity” within our own system that has not been damaged. “What has been damaged,” the Rav maintains, “is the relationship to the dina d’malchusa dina idea. We have become much more desensitized to the fact that we owe an obligation to the state. And we have become much more entrenched in the idea that we are actually a separate entity, so to speak. We are communities that have to make our own determinations.”

As such, Harav Kahn does not think the chareidi response to COVID, in terms of opening yeshivos and having chasunos, had to do with their interpretation of the halachah of dina d’malchusa dina. “Rather, I think we simply felt that the government was not going to tell us to do things that will damage us to such an extent that we won’t be able to function as ehrliche Yidden, which is our prime directive. According to the Rambam (Hilchos Dei’os), the derech of human beings is to be social and therefore influence one another. If you’re in a society that influences you l’ra, then you have to get out of that society. These issues were dealt with in the abstract a long time ago.”

This negative influencecan be seen most clearly in the form of the looming New York State threat to interfere in yeshivah education and curriculum. In this, the Rav is clear about our values being at odds with a “culture that we don’t want to have anything to do with.” He also stresses that this culture is not new but is rooted in Roman culture and pagan traditions. It feels new only because the host country’s values, the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition, have been severely eroded.

Harav Kahn explains that historically Jews lived in ghettos for long periods of time, where they often ran their own government and systems with permission of the pope, local duke or emperor. Sometimes Jews were given religious autonomies and sometimes they were taken away. Sometimes they got the blessings of the government, as during the Golden Age of Spain, and sometimes they had tzaros and were chased out of countries. But in all that, Harav Kahn stresses, “there was never a hava amina that we should adopt the values of our host country.”

Regarding the threat to education, the Rav negates the claim that lack of learning is a burden on American society and cites, as an example, the significant percentage of Chassidim operating in the construction industry. “They are not floundering or falling by the wayside,” Harav Kahn says. “We are taught to think better than in Harvard, from the time we are six years old. You can’t beat that education system.”

In addition, there is the problematic curriculum content. “If they limited their intrusion to the realm of mathematics, it could be accommodated. If it were really pareve — that would be a different story — but it’s not pareve anymore. There’s the problem of putting things into textbooks for little children, such as that gender doesn’t really exist, or using a textbook that has no tznius in it. That’s basically asking us to betray the fundamentals of our faith. Yidden were willing to be burnt at the stake for that al Kiddush Hashem.

Such dangers have also caused many Americans in general to lose faith in institutions. When asked if this loss of trust carries over into our frum communities, the Rav says no. “There’s a difference between the Jew as opposed to some Southern Baptist guy from Alabama. He’s really becoming jaded because he basically believed that the country was cherry pie and the American flag, and suddenly he discovers that he’s not in that country any longer.”

Discrimination against Jews, including, of course, the horrors of the Holocaust, has long ago produced for Yidden a jaded attitude that continues today. “You have to be jaded when you walk into the U.N. and hear this constant spewing of misinformation and hatred against this tiny country that’s not bothering anybody. And you know deep down that it’s only jealousy. We have no reason to expect very much.”

The Rav does not believe that we have become one iota more cynical recently because “we live within our history.” And he refers to mipnei chata’einu galinu mei’artzeinu (and due to our sins, we were exiled from our land) and our belief in Moshiach, who is to gather us to Eretz Yisrael. “I think that we always feel that we’re guests in the end, strangers. And that we’re almost not entitled to be loved and cherished and treated nicely. The Jewish paranoia, if you will, doesn’t allow us to become more jaded than we already are.”

This is certainly true in the here and now, with the rash of antisemitic crimes against identifiable Jews.

“A guy comes up and punches a Yid in the face in Williamsburg and I’m going to get jaded?” Part of this also reflects upon our sense of integrity. “Why should I be so concerned about how I look in someone’s eyes when he’s bashing me in the face and no one is doing anything about it? There’s this sense of them and us that never really went away.”

In addition to physical threats, the spiritual threat is no less daunting. Harav Kahn cites the Baalei Mussar who warned against the lack of revulsion that results from constant exposure to an immoral culture. “They basically say you’re not going to accept perversion, but you’re not going to vomit.”

This invasion is most pernicious at the point where it affects children. The Rav points to the dangers of smartphones and the loss of respect for authority. “The concept of kibbud av va’eim in many circles used to be sacrosanct. Not anymore. And for those parents who are still saying no, the stakes are so much higher for the things you have to say no to today.”

Harav Kahn also blames the tremendous sense of entitlement in our communities. “Children aren’t satisfied. I don’t think that’s originally a Jewish thing. I think the attitude of the individual and his freedom has certainly made a tremendous impact.”

Just as destructive is the hefkeirus (lack of boundries) that has crept into our system. The Rav explains that today’s “irreverent pop culture” promotes a value system whose goal is to have hanaah (pleasure) and just enjoy life. This has eroded a sense of responsibility. “Many children don’t feel mechuyav (obligated) to do chores as a member of the family. Many people have maids and other parents decided it’s just not kedai (worthwhile) to start up.”

When asked for advice on how to foster respect for authority, Harav Kahn responds, “Our responsibility to our children is to not be copping out.” The Rav points to what he sees as a new phenomenon of parents being so afraid to lose their children that they are giving in. The Rav also cites the need to safeguard children from damaging influences, observing that we are not as isolated as we would imagine.

Harav Kahn concludes that “the real eitzah (solution) is to not only teach the halachos but to love the talmidim and talmidos. To really show that they matter the most in the whole world to the rebbeim, menahalim, hanhalah, and parents. And to convey, ‘I love you to pieces but this is what Hashem wants and we are ovdei Hashem.’”

Harav Gavriel Rokowsky

Harav Gavriel Rokowsky is a Maggid Shiur in Yeshiva Torah Temimah, Lakewood, NJ and formerly served as the Rav of Shaarei Torah in Los Angeles.

In what way do you think the frum community’s reaction to the conflict between government policies and Torah values, especially during the COVID crisis, has impacted children’s chinuch, and do you think there were any negative repercussions?

I would say that “Ein kol chadash tachas hashemesh — there’s nothing new under the sun.” It’s not like we suddenly find ourselves under new circumstances that never existed in Klal Yisrael before, that necessitate a new approach to deal with the government. The truth is that it’s just the opposite. Until the past couple years of government intrusion into our way of life, the last 50 years of non-intrusion in America has been the exception to the norm that Klal Yisrael had to deal with all the years.

These challenges date all the way back to the years of the Beis HaMikdash. There’s a Gemara that discusses how Yeravam ben Nevat decreed that nobody could go up to the Beis HaMikdash to bring bikkurim or bring firewood for the mizbei’ach. Chazal highly praised certain groups of people for devising ways of getting around the decrees. They covered the bikkurim with dried figs and lied to the guards by saying they were going to bake fig cakes. They also made ladders out of wood and told the guards they were using the ladders to get birds from nests. Then they broke down the wood to burn on the mizbei’ach.

We see that there are instances where it is even permitted to lie for the more important cause. If the government is doing something incorrect, then halachically it’s permitted to lie if that’s the only way to get around it. Nobody advocates outright lying. It is only done as the last resort, and even when you have to lie it should be minimized. If you don’t have to lie, certainly you shouldn’t. But if circumstances prevent us from fulfilling our obligations in a spiritual sense, then you’re permitted to do what you need to do. Obviously, circumstances differ, and you have to ask a she’eilah in every case. But the concept is not foreign; there is precedence for this throughout thousands of years.

Do you think this notion of outmaneuvering the system might influence children’s attitudes in other areas?

Young adults understand things and have to be presented with things the proper way. That’s the basic Chanukah story with the dreidelach and Gemaros. When the authorities came in, the Jews closed their Gemaros and pulled out the dreidel. Are we saying that children are going to learn how to cheat? No, but obviously you have to do it with sensitivity.

If you’re doing it in the context of trying to fulfill your true obligations of tefillah and learning Torah, then there’s a very positive aspect to it. Children realize the importance of Torah values as our first obligation, especially when people try to stop us. Obviously, we can’t do it in a scoffing way, with zilzul. To make the right impression on children, we have to impart that what we’re dealing with here is so important that we have no choice.

However, Lakewood was fortunate to be different from other communities during COVID. We only suffered under regulations for a short time — from Pesach to Shavuos. We used that time to assess the danger and act responsibly.

It took a month or two to recognize what is considered safe and unsafe and to also recognize that certain governments do not necessarily have our best interests in mind. The government that sent thousands of people to their early deaths by decreeing that any elderly person that was sick with COVID must be admitted to nursing homes, which were ill equipped to take care of them, and to separate them from the rest of the community was the same government that was lecturing us about how to be safe. So, they basically lost all credibility as far as coming from a good place.

More and more Americans are losing faith in the credibility of our institutions. How do we prevent this disillusionment in the outside world from disillusioning our children?

I think it’s a bigger danger to live in the outside world thinking that there is a lot of credibility there when, unfortunately, it’s being run by people who don’t have credibility at all. That’s not the way the American government operated in previous years. It was definitely a country based on very good values for a long time and started off that way. But when you reach the point that that’s not the case, and you can no longer have faith in people in authority, then it’s much healthier for children to be aware of that.

If people have faith in officials in authority who say things, as the passuk in Tehillim (144:8) says “Asher pihem diber shav v’minam yemin shaker,” and there’s not a word that comes out of their mouths that you can believe literally, then children need to be cognizant of that. I think it’s better for children not to have blind faith in such a government than to one day find out the hard way that it was undeserved.

I’m not saying that right now we’re in a situation that Jewish people are being singled out more than other people. But I do think that it is healthy for children to understand that we’re not in a secure environment, that things can change on a dime.

Do you think a lack of respect for outside authority figures has caused any decrease in respect for authority figures within the community?

During COVID, I personally did not see any resultant lack of respect among my talmidim. On the contrary. I think that the connection between those talmidim that the Rebbeim was strengthened because the talmidim saw how the Rebbeim took on a double role, so to speak, as mentors who were mechazek them, allayed their fears and encouraged them. There was an extra facet of connection that doesn’t normally exist in the Rebbi-talmid relationship.

Can you point to outside influences, besides COVID, that might negatively impact our children?

Everything has an effect. It’s hard to measure to what extent, but there’s no question that whatever goes on in society affects us as well. Just because someone is frum and lives in a frum world, that doesn’t mean they don’t become affected by what goes on around us. This is true even if we may live a sheltered life with our own mechitzos.

And the things we need to focus on when we speak to talmidim have to do with what’s going on in society. If the problem in society is that everyone has a hippie-like attitude, then that’s what needs to be spoken about, because it can start creeping in. If the problem in society is technology, then that’s what needs to be spoken about. Certainly, if society starts losing complete respect for authority, we have to assume that will creep in and must be addressed.

What advice would you offer to strengthen our communities and try to maintain a healthy balance between the outside world and Torah values?

I think the most important thing is that, even though we definitely need to impart the message that we have no faith in what the outside world has to say or wants to sell us, it can never be done in a cynical way. It has to be in a way that emphasizes that our values are values that we stick to, this is the world that we live in, and this is what we need to be careful about.

There are two types of yetzer hara. There’s the yetzer hara that comes from within, which is a person’s own inclination, and then there’s the yetzer hara that comes from the outside. If you go through the parshiyos in the Torah, the majority of Moshe Rabbeinu’s rebuke to Klal Yisrael centers on outside influences. There’s very little mention of the personal yetzer hara from within. And at the conclusion of Sefer Devarim, Moshe Rabbeinu predicts that after his departure from this world, Bnei Yisrael will end up following the ways of the non-Jews around them. From this we learn the importance of keeping our eyes wide open to all the different ills of society and the importance of speaking about them. But whenever we do so, it cannot be done with cynicism.

Rebbetzin Zlata Press

Rebbetzin Zlata Press is the High School Principal of Bnos Leah Prospect Park Yeshiva, Brooklyn, NY.

Many yeshivos functioned during COVID in ways that defied government regulations, upon the realization that they harmed children’s welfare. How do you think this might have affected students, who saw that in order to follow one set of rules they had to bend another?

I don’t think our students have seen us playing fast and loose with government regulations. When the epidemic hit us, and the rules were first announced, we were all in a state of not knowing. We went out of our way to follow all safety guidelines carefully and faithfully to enable us to keep our school open.

Bnos Leah Prospect Park Yeshivah has large, spacious interconnected buildings. We were able to create four self-contained areas, one for each grade. Each grade had separate entrances, locker areas, and eating areas. We installed plastics and insisted on masks. We did everything right, with great investment of time, money and effort. The students never saw anything that would have them raise their eyebrows. Our parent body and most of our teachers took COVID precautions very seriously. We are rule followers.

We played the game very straight until we stopped. Like so many others, we started doubting the rules. They seemed excessive, unnecessary and arbitrarily imposed. Yes, eventually weariness and cynicism set in for many, and we were certainly part of that.

Do you think the lack of trust and rejection of government authority has caused children to have a diminished regard for their own authority figures?

Once the powers that be, governmental and cultural, came out in strong support of Critical Race Theory, much of our trust in government authority dissipated. We would have been very hard pressed to argue in favor of respect for any authority that could make no distinctions between right and wrong, truth and falsehood.

Children understand very clearly the difference between respect for authority based on Torah truths and, for that matter, on truths that were universally accepted by all cultures until ten minutes ago. Now the “authority” represents fabricated truths and twisted reality. If I can’t trust it on matters that are so clearly obvious, what authority does it have with me on anything else?

Ten years ago, if we had had this discussion, I probably would have felt more strongly about dina d’malchusa dina and respect for government authority. But there’s so much that’s being foisted upon us that it’s very hard to make that case anymore.

Current studies point to the harmful lasting effects of lockdowns, vindicating those who disregarded government regulations. Does that give rise to the notion of taking the law into our own hands in the future?

That is a problem for all of us when a country cries wolf and assumes the colossal right to close us down and we go along with it, including the shuls and yeshivos. The next time around it might be a harder sell. But we did trust our own frum doctors and authorities, and they all said the same thing. We were working with the best information we had at that point.

Is there a long-range loss of any kind of trust in authority, which in fact might turn around to bite us at some point? It’s a good question. The answer is that the authority has so abdicated any reason for us to trust it. When the news came out that Cuomo red-districted all the frum areas in Brooklyn, Monsey and Rockland County as being danger zones, and we find out that it was simply an act of anti-Chassidim and antisemitism, you’re right. It becomes easier and easier for people like me,  who love the country and believe in American exceptionalism, to roll our eyes. And you’re right — that is happening.

Can you comment on the New York State Board of Regents intrusion into yeshivah curricula as it affects the students?

In terms of what we do in our school, I dread the day that a New York State Regents exam will require discussion of what they call civil rights and we call sin. I imagine, like many others, that we may well feel forced to reconsider our relationship with the N.Y. State Board of Regents.

This is a case of not trusting the non-Jewish government. If they were merely limiting their intrusion in the realm of regulations applying to literacy or mathematics, we would have to grudgingly agree to the validity of their points. But we cannot trust them to limit their agenda to those basics. By their own admission, the regulations include the mandatory inclusion of subjects not limited to literacy and math and provide for anyone “aggrieved” with the system to file an appeal against the yeshivah.

So, going back to your original question, will this lead students to disrespect authority? No, only the anti-religious stance of the government.

Going forward, how would you best advise teaching children to maintain Torah values in such a milieu without causing them to become jaded?

I think you’re saying something very important. Cynicism is avi avos hatumah (primary source of tumah). Amalek “cooled off” the bath water, and they earned our eternal enmity. “Let us disobey,” if we have to, but in a serious manner, without mockery or cynicism.

Baruch Hashem, we have Rabbanim and Torah observant professionals who are themselves in constant contact with our Gedolim. Agudas Yisroel can always be relied upon to offer guidance as to how to maintain the correct balance between adherence to Torah and dina d’malchusa dina.

Rabbi Jonathan Bienenfeld

Rabbi Jonathan Bienenfeld is the Rav of the Young Israel of Cherry Hill and a Rebbe at the Mesivta High School of Philadelphia.

Can you comment on the schism that has grown over the past couple of years between government policies and our frum communities, especially during COVID?

First of all, I think that this has been an iteration. We are very blessed to live in a country where it is not de rigueur to have tensions between who we want to be as halachic Jews or Jews in general. Certain aspects of government policies are somewhat hypocritical, but I don’t think a government interest exists that tries to specifically harm the Jewish people or frum communities in a way that has taken place in our history.

That aside, the truth is that I taught in two different schools and they took really different approaches. One was very compliant; the other took a very different stance. For example, they didn’t adhere to the mask mandate when it got to the point that it hindered children’s chinuch and social interaction in a way that really prevented living our lives according to Torah values and creating a Torah society.

In those communities where restrictions had to be sidestepped, do you think the concept of dina d’malchusa dina has been compromised in the eyes of talmidim with respect to their view of authority?

Dina d’malchusa dina is a halachic she’eilah. It was never meant for us to respect the government because the government is necessarily worthy of respect or to view an elected official as the arbiter of emes and sheker or morality. It’s more utilitarian. Government plays an important role in controlling society, but there’s a distinction between elected officials and our Rabbanim, Rebbeim and Gedolim. I think we’ve portrayed that concept pretty well from what I’ve seen, because we haven’t had a wholesale loss of trust.

But this is an old problem. What happens when you are a community that lives by a certain value system within a society with a different system? It is a wonderful brachah when the host society has picked up on certain Jewish values and has more or less attempted to construct a society predicated on some of them, but we shouldn’t be surprised when they are at odds with one another. At the same time, we’ve been in this position for thousands of years — we don’t look to government officials as being the bearers of the mantle of our value system.

Our sense of decency and tznius is not the same as what’s deemed to be appropriate for public consumption in our country. But I haven’t personally felt that this suggests that there’s no sense in having respect for any authority. I think that this was another iteration of our community recognizing that the people we trust to be the bearers of our mesorah don’t necessarily jive with those running our society in a political capacity.

It’s very important to make the distinction that we respect the political office but not necessarily the politician. It’s always been the case that we that we see the difference between the president and the Rav, Gadol Hador or Rosh Yeshivah. We certainly should be striving for more in terms of our own role models.

In other words, children have the ability to distinguish between social truths and Torah truths?

Yes, with the acknowledgment that there is seeping from one into the other. We live in a society that runs on gashmiyus, so now the frum world more and more runs on gashmiyus. There’s always some osmosis from the host society into our own.

To some degree, society has almost helped us with this. For example, political officials are lampooned and ridiculed in secular society. But our Gedolei Hador are not, chas v’shalom. And I think that our community has always been able to make a distinction between the two. However, this can lead to the broader problem of living in a world where you can pick apart anything that someone says and view that as heroism because you’re “telling it like it is.”

I find leitzanus is a much bigger problem among both talmidim and baalei battim. And I think the experience of COVID exacerbated it. Conversations about the best COVID policies were necessary, but there was also a lot of demeaning and dismissive talk about people who were in the other camp. People were mocking and insulting and then turning around and saying it was only in jest. I generally find that to be much more harmful and damaging in terms of middos.

Do you think this negative atmosphere has impacted our children?

That does start to impact. If people at large become more flippant toward their authority figures and very freely poke fun at elected officials, that’s not a positive development. On the other hand, what is born out of that is a realization of whom we are ultimately going to trust.

There is something to be said when people in the frum community see that some of these government regulations, which have gotten totally absurd, are called out by their own spiritual leaders, who say “ad kan v’su lo (until here and no further).” I think it creates much more of a sense that we will go to these leaders for our hashkafos hachayim.

The fact that the government tells me I have to wear a mask and my menahel tells me I don’t have to, because at a certain point it’s ridiculous, what does that mean? It means that I’m giving greater credence to my menahel. If anything, it only helps the conversation that you’re bringing up. It furthers the notion that there are people who present themselves as being bearers of the value system simply because they’re in a position of leadership, but they’re really not. There’s something that carries more weight in terms of values and truth.

COVID has been an exercise in being able to say that simply because something is the law doesn’t mean it’s right. We as Jews always operate on two levels — we have to be mindful if something is inherently right, and we always have to be very conscious of what it looks like to everybody else.

Does this attitude prevail in other areas of our frum communities when it comes to resisting acculturation in the greater society?

That is a huge problem. But I think it seeps in less because of government policy and more because of the kinds of people that teenagers, especially, and even adults tend to look up to today, such as social media figures and influencers. That’s more problematic. If you ask who is going to hold greater sway in the eyes of the average frum teenager — the governor of Pennsylvania or Harav Shmuel Kamenetsky, shlita, — I’m convinced that it’s Harav Kamenetsky. But if you ask me who holds greater sway — Harav Kamemetsky or the influencer they are enamored of, that’s a much more difficult battle.

The cultural threat is much more sinister and creeps in, in a much more insidious way. It’s like “asher karcha baderech.” The first time you see something it’s shocking and horrible, but then you get used to it. And it’s everywhere — on billboards, on the streets, when you go shopping. And the more it’s seen, it normalizes the whole experience. This is a problem, but I don’t know that we ever believed that making such things into law might make them right.

As a mechanech and a Rav, how do you suggest we combat this?

We need to insulate as much as possible, especially if we’re talking about kids. First of all, we need to wake up and recognize that the more we’re exposed to those kinds of things ourselves the more it has an impact. We have to be very, very careful about what we assimilate into our own life, and that’s truer for kids.

The amount of leeway that I find parents will sometimes offer their children to make up their own minds and figure things out on their own, with respect to technology or just consuming popular culture, is mind boggling. Parents say, “I trust my child.” You can trust your child all day long, but teenagers have a notoriously poor track record for making the correct types of decisions about where the limits should be set and how much they allow it to impact their lives.

We always prided ourselves on being “Am levadad yishkon (a nation who dwells alone).” All the more so now, when the host society has become so pernicious, in terms of standing at odds with our own value system.

Can you share any words of chizuk?

I think this is not a total mahapeichah from everything we’ve been trying to build until now. We were here yesterday and we’ll be here tomorrow. We tend to over-exaggerate any given crisis de jour as an existential one. These are challenges, but it seems to me that as much as any other subgroup of society emerging from COVID, I think the frum community is doing pretty well. Our institutions are very solid. When we were forced to take a break from schools, our homes were very strong. I think our value for having those institutions put them back on line very quickly.

We’ve been through all these things before, during the Haskalah and the Reform movement. We need to try to double down and reach people and find a way to ensure that Torah is relevant and meaningful without capitulating.

Mr. and Mrs. Jack Weiss

Mr. and Mrs. Jack and Chaya Weiss live in Brooklyn, New York.
Mr. Weiss is a real estate attorney who gives a weekly Gemara shiur.
Mrs. Weiss is a former Jewish Studies teacher with a Masters and doctoral work in Jewish History.

Can you comment on whether the aftermath of COVID impacted your child and if there were any lingering effects on her behavior?

Mrs. Weiss: One of the biggest effects I found was tangential. Because school was being conducted remotely, it introduced technology at an age I never would have thought of earlier. This has become a new challenge in many people’s homes.

How did your daughter react to any inconsistencies she might have seen in government policies during COVID as they related to the Jewish community?

Mrs. Weiss: Initially, when COVID first broke out, no one knew what was going on. For example, everyone wore masks and the school was very strict about COVID protocols.

After a while people realized that there were a lot of inconsistencies. They saw that the government was discriminating against some yeshivos for taking off their masks, while allowing mass demonstrations without masks during the George Floyd riots. When you saw the discrimination, then you realized that the authorities who were enforcing the laws were prejudiced.

Mr. Weiss: It was extremely evident at the levayos of major Torah personalities, like the Novominsker Rebbe, zt”l, and the Verdaner Rebbe, zt”l. In spite of trying to maintain as much social distancing and masking as they could, there were many police and manhandling everywhere and total disregard for the solemnity of the occasion. And then we saw the mayor and his wife leading the parade when it came to mass protests and rioting in Midtown Manhattan.

That was very hard to explain to an 11-year-old. She kept asking why we had to do this and no one else had to. We explained that it’s discriminatory. She understood very clearly that they were discriminating against Jews. To her, it was very simple: she understood that if you’re Jewish you have one set of laws and if you’re black you have a different set.

Culturally, immorality is creeping into the environment at an alarming rate. How has that affected her thinking?

Mrs. Weiss: We explain to her that that is what the public schools are trying to promote. Most kids know what’s going on, on some level. They hear of things in school, in camp. Even taking your kids to the library now is risky.

Mr. Weiss: That’s the problem. You have to steer her away from exposure as best you can, but that’s becoming more and more difficult, if not impossible. I think it’s important that when you’re confronted with something shocking, it needs to be explained. At this point, she’s mature and intelligent enough to understand, at least on a basic level, what we’re trying to convey, how things are degenerating beyond anything anyone could imagine. We are witnessing a public display of depravity and immorality not seen since ancient Greece.

We have to stress that this is not our way of life. The Torah calls this an abomination. It is completely against what we believe in, and she understands it. I do not want her to be tolerant here. Unfortunately, in this world, there’s no middle ground anymore. You are either for it or against it. Torah-true Judaism cannot be PC anymore.

Do you feel that the schools are treading lightly here or are they having an impact?

Mr. Weiss: I don’t know if the schools are doing enough.

We have the threat of government intrusion in our yeshivah curriculum. Public schools teach and promote gender distortion as not only acceptable but desirable. We have to do the equivalent and teach the Torah understanding of what it is, and how it is antithetical to everything we believe in, and how to protect yourself when you see it. This message should come not only from the parents but from a Torah figure of authority. For a 10- or 12-year-old, that means a teacher or principal in a school setting. If the message comes only from a parent, a child may feel that he’s already told not to do a whole bunch of other things, so he can’t do this either. It might not be effective.

Mrs. Weiss: The schools are definitely addressing the threat of technology. However, in terms of the environment we’re living in, I think they might be afraid to address the issue directly for fear of being metameh (sullying) the students. But when you walk down the street, you can’t help but see what’s going on.

What do you feel are the biggest challenges in raising a child today and what you think the best child-rearing methods are to confront them?

Mrs. Weiss: Technology is a big challenge, but so is just being alive and walking down the street today, where you have all kinds of toeivah (abominations) — unless you live in a vacuum, which is impossible. The only thing we can do to counter it is to underscore how important it is to be a Torah Jew.

I tell my daughter that there’s no such thing as ethics or morals without the Torah. I explain to her that it could degenerate and tell her to look at Nazi Germany. They redefined what murder is by saying that Jews were not human beings but parasites. They said they’re not murdering because parasites can be killed. I try to drive home the point that only Hashem can make morals. She understands how everything is now being twisted around.

Mr. Weiss: I think that the biggest danger is that there is absolutely no filter, no privacy anymore. I don’t think there’s a secular equivalent of tznius. There’s no concept of modesty, of propriety or impropriety in the outside world, and that includes everything and anything. There are absolutely no holds barred. You can do anything you want in whatever way you want. There’s no one, starting from the top down, telling you that it’s wrong. In fact, they are promoting an agenda that says toeivah is right and that’s the way it should be.

The Torah is built around safeguards. Everything we do from the minute we wake up until the minute we go to sleep is choreographed by the Shulchan Aruch. The outside world has no such thing. We are a very, very structured and regulated society, because the Torah is very regulative versus total absolute freedom. You could not have two more antithetical systems competing against each other.

You’re suggesting doubling down on our Torah way of life to combat these threats?

Mr. Weiss: That’s what we’ve been told throughout our history. The greatest example that we know of is the Yeshivah of Volozhin. It was the first yeshivah and the model for all yeshivas for the last 220 years. When the Czarist government wanted to impose two hours of state designed secular education, the leading Torah figures of the day convened and decided to close the yeshivah. They left the country and made many different satellite yeshivos. This is one of the things now being discussed if this happens in New York — the possibility of every yeshiva closing and moving out of New York.

This is the example we have before us. This happened. It is nothing new. It is more extreme and invasive and extensive now, but this is what happened 130 years ago. The Netziv, the Bais HaLevi, and the greatest people we had at the time got together and discussed the issue and decided there was no way to allow any intrusion into the yeshivah curriculum and course of study. “If we can’t do it our way, we don’t do it,” and they closed. Shortly thereafter, the Netziv was niftar. He could not bear the heartbreak of what happened, he but never regretted the decision. That had to be done and was done. We are now facing the exact same situation on steroids.

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