A Different Chinuch Roundtable

From afar, it seemed that there was a very animated conversation taking place between him and the girls. My curiosity got the best of me and I inched over. Trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, I began to listen…

 

FROM SHMITTAH TO EMUNAH AND ON…

 

The discussion revolved around the mitzvah of Shmittah, the mitzvah that begins the parsha of that week, Parshas Behar. It may have started with the mitzvah of Shmittah, when one lets his field lie fallow and completely relies on the bracha of Hashem to address his material needs during the Shmittah period, but it spiraled into a practical discussion. The discussion metamorphosed from bitachon and what constitutes the parameters of relying on Hashem and personal hishtadlus to a discussion spurred by the rapid-fire questions from the girls about the fundamentals of emunah in Torah min haShomayim and Hashgacha Protis.

 

What transfixed me was that these girls – who were serving as babysitters at the convention – were truly ehrliche bnos Yisroel. The way they conducted themselves, the way they acted, and their appearance all pointed to girls who had absorbed the Torah way of life from their homes and schools. They were serious about their ruchniyus. They were girls who davened regularly, said Tehillim, did chessed, etc. In short, they were ehrliche Bais Yaakov girls…but with questions. Lots of them.

 

The Chassidishe Yid was Rav Pinchos Jung, menahel ruchani of the Bais Rochel School for Girls in Monsey. The totally impromptu, unscripted discussion over which he presided in that relatively empty tea room made it clear that he was filling a massive void. Here was a person, a mechanech, who was not only answering questions, but was projecting the feeling that he welcomed their questions – any question that was bothering them. With dignity, warmth, restraint and humor, he answered questions and got into discussions – important discussions, and perhaps long overdue discussions.

 

The sight brought to mind some of the early Bais Yaakov leaders in Poland, such as Rav Yehudah Leib Orlean, Rav Yosef Begun and Dr. Leo Deutschlander. Rav Orlean, a fiery Chossid of the Gerrer Rebbe, the Imrei Emes, who advised him to teach bnos Yisroel, realized that the call of the hour was to imbue bnos Yisroel with Torah and emunah, for otherwise Yiddishkeit would be lost. Thus, this deeply pious Chassidishe Yid became one of the most prominent baalei hashkafah in the fledgling Bais Yaakov movement.

 

OF QUESTIONS, EXISTENTIAL QUESTIONS… AND ANSWERS

 

One could see from the sheer volume of questions and the serious, sometimes passionate ensuing discussions that these existential questions, these questions about the yesodos, foundations and fundamentals of our emunah, had been percolating in the girls’ minds. One could see how they were looking for answers. They were starving for someone – a baal hashkafah, who was qualified and not intimidated by questions – to engage them in that discussion. And Rav Jung, a veteran of chinuch habanos, recognized the need. The seemingly spontaneous discussion was a product of Rav Jung’s response to that need.

 

Especially notable and moving was the fact that, in his presence, the girls clearly felt comfortable raising questions. They were not intimidated, nor were they made to feel inferior because they had questions. On the contrary, they were bright girls, thinking girls, who naturally had questions, and in Rav Jung they found a person who validated their questions and, simultaneously, had the knowledge and patience to answer them. It brought relief and hatoras hasfeikos, resolution of doubt.

 

Standing and listening from a slight distance, I kept thinking, “Halevai that my daughters – when they grow older – should have such a role model, such a person who can answer their questions. Halevai all bnos Yisroel would have a teacher, a menahel or the like – a role model who cares and can answer their questions.”

 

In this generation, we cannot afford not to answer questions. There is so much competing for the attention of our children. There are so many yeitzer haras beckoning. If their emunah is not rock solid, how can we expect them to have the strength and the spiritual fortitude to withstand the onslaught?

 

Kids today, perhaps more than in previous times, and especially thinking young men and women, have questions. Their questions must be taken seriously and addressed. Before long, these young women will marry and will be the mothers of Yiddishe kinderlach themselves. How can we expect them to infuse their own children with emunah, with ahavas Hashem and with yiras Shomayim, if they themselves have unanswered questions about the fundamentals of emunah?

 

NO APIKORISHE QUESTIONS, ONLY APIKORISHE ANSWERS

 

After the discussion, I approached Rav Jung, introduced myself and asked him how he came to fill this unique role of a person who teaches high school girls about emunah. He explained that in his role as menahel and teacher of older girls, he spends a good part of his day answering such hashkafah questions posed by girls. He said that he came to realize that a very large number of the questions and difficulties that girls – solid, G-d-fearing girls – are asking are basic questions of emunah. Almost all the questions are variations of just a few basic themes addressed by the Rishonim in their seforim. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency among some educators to avoid addressing these questions and, in some unfortunate cases, to feel intimidated by and denigrate the asker. This causes untold damage and totally unnecessary damage to the spiritual welfare of the girls (or boys) asking the question.

 

Rav Jung related that he had given a workshop at the convention on addressing the emunah questions of teens. He encouraged educators to educate themselves in how to answer these questions rather than become flustered by them. It is vitally important to validate the question and, if you don’t know the exact answer, tell them that you will get back to them and go ask someone.

 

“The worst thing an educator can do is tell a child that his question is an apikorishe question,” Rav Jung exclaimed. “Rav Shlome Wolbe would say, ‘There are no apkiorishe questions. There are only apikorishe answers,’” Rav Jung said emphatically.

 

QUESTIONS THAT ARE ANSWERS HAVE NO ANSWERS

 

When asked if perhaps some young people are just trying to find an excuse to indulge in forbidden conduct but are not really interested in answers, Rav Jung cites the famous story with Rav Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk. Rav Chaim was once visiting a town when he met up with a former talmid of his. This talmid had discarded all vestiges of Judaism and matter-of-factly informed Rav Chaim of his current, irreligious behavior. When Rav Chaim asked him what had happened, the former talmid replied, “I had questions.” Rav Chaim countered, “When did the questions come, before you discarded Yiddishkeit or after?” The former talmid answered honestly that he first indulged in sin and only then did he begin to have questions. Upon hearing this, Rav Chaim exclaimed, “So you don’t have kushyos (questions), you have tirutzim (answers) – answers and excuses to explain why you are not observing mitzvos.I can give answers to questions, but I can’tgive a tirutz to a tirutz. You have answers. And for an answer I don’t have an answer.”

 

ANSWERING QUESTIONS, SOLIDIFYING EMUNAH

 

“It is clear,” says Rav Jung, “that the vast majority of our youth with questions are good, ehrliche, wonderful teens, the future of the Jewish nation. We live in a generation when people no longer take things for granted. Whereas in the past it might have been sufficient for a parent or teacher to tell a child, ‘This is what we believe,’ in today’s environment we would be negligent and remiss in our obligation as educators if, when they ask, we do not provide the answers that they seek.”

 

The stakes are far too great to be complacent. The world and all its enticements, as false as they truly are, seem real. They beckon our children, enticing them to taste from the forbidden fruit. We must be there for them and answer their questions. Indeed, one girl was overheard saying, “I wish I could have someone like him (Rav Jung) to answer my questions in my school.”

 

As for me, watching that spirited discussion at the round table in the tea room, I whispered a quiet tefillah to Hashem, “Yirbu kemoso beYisroel! Halevai my children and all Jewish children would have access to such a wonderful informal chinuch roundtable, when they need it.”