Crisis! Uninspired Jews

Print pagePDF pageEmail page

Vosizneias posted (with permission) a recent article in Mishpacha magazine about uninspired Orthodox youth (link). After discounting the required denunciation of secular culture and the occasional crime against the English language, the article is fairly good. It offers some concrete suggestions on how to turn your children on spiritually. What I find troubling in the article, though, is an attitude that I’ve seen elsewhere.

Most readers know that I have adopted and adapted Dr. Alan Brill’s observations on the development of what he calls Post-Orthodoxy. He has also written about teenagers from the heartland of Modern Orthodoxy keeping what he quotes them as calling “half Shabbos”, which includes texting on the holy day (link 1, link 2). This is troubling and is similar to what the Mishpacha article says is happening in the Yeshivish world.

I grew up in the heartland of Modern Orthodoxy and I am saying that this isn’t new. And from what I understand from my peers in the Yeshivish community, it isn’t new there either. Just look at the term used by the Mishpacha article to describe the phenomenon — mitzvos anashim melumadah, thoughtless observance out of habit. It is a biblical term! Heshy of FrumSatire coined a more humorous term — Lazydox (link). Consider the behaviors he lists there. Do any of them strike you as particularly new? Can it really be the case that teenagers in the Orthodox community — from the finest families and schools — are suddenly discovering temptation?

Lazy Jews, including but not limited to teenagers, who care more for their own pleasure than their religious obligations is an old story. I grew up with Jews who kept kosher, except for eating some things at the diner up the road from high school or at the mall across the street (for just one example), who tried to get away with as much on Shabbos as their community and consciences would let them, and who didn’t think twice about experimenting with drugs or the opposite sex. These weren’t rebels who rejected religion but rebels who were exploring their boundaries and breaking some rules. This isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s what some have called MO-lite, a cultural Modern Orthodoxy devoid of religious passion. The same “lite” phenomenon exists in the Yeshivish and Chassidish worlds.

The real question is whether it is growing. Experts are telling us that it is but I remain skeptical. The Orthodox community loves a crisis and this seems to me to be just the latest alarm. I’m not suggesting that the experts are lying, only that they are basing their claims on personal, anecdotal experience which can present them with a distorted picture. Since my last post criticizing Mishpacha magazine was misunderstood, presumably because of the crisis of deficiency in judging others favorably, let me be clear. I am not saying that the educators and experts quoted in the article are anything less than the most righteous people on the planet. I am also not saying that we should do nothing to prevent deviations from religion. All I am saying is that we should not blow this out of proportion.

Let’s get real. This isn’t a crisis or the development of a new movement. It’s the old phenomenon of uninspired Jews, a sad state of affairs that needs to be addressed but no cause for any more alarm than it deserved twenty and forty years ago.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.


  1. Brill wrote: “I have seen rabbinic kids here who wear black hats admit that they text on shabbos.” I don’t think this is referring to the “heartland of Modern Orthodoxy” (whatever that is). He is referring to haredi kids too. Now, perhaps you aren’t, but Brill was pretty explicit that it is more than just a MO problem.

  2. I thought I was pretty explicit that I was speaking about MO because that is where I grew up but the phenomenon exists in Yeshivish and Chassidish communities as well.

  3. Gil,
    What post by R. Brill are you referring to. The only relevant one I know of (the one you linked to), he talks about “Rabbinic kids who wear black hats” and does _not_ mention Modern orthodoxy as well, heartland or otherwise.

  4. The problem with the Mishpacha article, as I see it, is that those so-called educators place blame on everyone except themselves. The home of the Hareidi-lite of the article, or outside influences, are considered at fault – not, of course, the educational institutes that they attend. How could such a thing be even contemplated when we follow the dictates or our gedolim?

  5. Michael Feldstein

    Gil is right…the phenomenon is not new. However, I think there’s a big difference between 14-year-old kids in high school (who have not fully developed their religious identity) experimenting with religious boundaries and twenty-somethings who are making a conscious decision that it’s somehow OK to text on Shabbos and still be considered within the Orthodox fold. You cannot lump these two situations together.

  6. Y Aharon – I agree 100%. Rabbi Y Horowitz has often said about ‘kids at risk’ (I hate that term!) that they don’t go out looking, they are pushed. It is the internet! It is rock music! It is TV! etc. but never a school, a teacher (a parent) who cluelessly do things to push a kid out.

    I have often heard it said that kids do not rememebr the 95% of things that went well, but will remember the 5% that didn’t. My only school recollections are the times my rebbes embarassed me in front of the whole class for not knowing the gemorah. Yeah, that is a great way to get an 11 or 13 year old to want to stay in the fold – embarrass him into it!

  7. MO Lite. I can see the commercial now. “less chumrot!!!” “More fun!!!”

  8. Scientists tell us that the teenage brain is not fully developed. That teenagers “rebel” is as old as humanity itself.
    Hashem,in His Infinite Wisdom, took cognizance of this by not punishing one for “sins” committed before the age of twenty.
    One can argue that what a teenager does is not considered a sin. This week’s Rashi on Sarah’s Twenty Years.

    Why are the Orthodox especially the Charedim so hard on their teens.?

  9. Let me add an addendum that I think wasn’t clear: I am not debating that there is a new movement developing. I am only saying that this “half Shabbos” thing isn’t part of it. It’s just part of the MO-lite that has been around for decades if not longer.

  10. Again, Gil, R. Brill was referring to chareidim. Why do you keep referring to MO-lite?

  11. Because I read his blog regularly and know that he is referring to MO-lite. See, for example, this post:

  12. Fotheringay-Phipps

    I remember an incident from when I was a kid in summer camp (probably about 12-13 or so). Someone’s jacket sleeve got dirty on Shabbos and another kid nicely helped him out by brushing it off. I pointed out that this was forbidden on Shabbos. The guy didn’t skip a beat. He said “you shouldn’t have told me, because now I’m a maizid”, and kept on doing it. I was shocked.

    This kid went on to learn in a major charedi yeshiva and later in BMG in Lakewood. I wouldn’t describe him as super yeshivish – more of a ba’alebatish type guy. He runs an apparently succesful business these days, and is affiliated with a shul known for the sincerity and dedication of its members.

    I also know of one kid from a charedi family who decided at a young age that he was an atheist (or so he claims now). He kept everything when he thought he might be caught and nothing otherwise. As he grew up and became more independent, he was able to keep less and less. But to this day most of his immediate family is unaware of it, and they think he’s MO.

    But I don’t believe there’s more than a handful of people in charedi circles today who keep everything other than texting on Shabbos. (There are a lot of “at-risk” kids who are lax in all sorts of things.) In general, people active in certain fields like to exagerate the “crisis” in their field so as to exagerate the importance of what they’re doing and to gain support for whatever changes they would like to make to the current system.

  13. Gil,
    I also read his blog. just because he talks about MO-lite elsewhere, doesn’t mean he is talking about it here. Indeed, I think it is clear that he is not, and that that is why he found the phenomenon comment-worthy.

  14. More specifically, in the post you link to, even to the extent that it is talking about MO-lite, it is only Steve’s comment that ties it to half-shabbos.

  15. Noodle said:

    “Rabbi Y Horowitz has often said about ‘kids at risk’ (I hate that term!) that they don’t go out looking, they are pushed.”

    “My only school recollections are the times my rebbes embarassed me in front of the whole class for not knowing the gemorah.”

    Noodle is right on here.

    I wonder if we went to the same yeshivah.

    In fairness, though, I think elemntary school yeshivah educations have become more sensitive to the fact that 7-12 year olds are children than they were in my day (the 70s).

  16. Shachar Ha'amim

    As has been pointed out elsewhere on this blog by a few commentators this phenomenon is not new – indeed in the inter-war years in Europe it was common to see Jews dressed in “haredi” garb smoking on shabbat or buying meat at treif butchers.

    it would seem that orthodox judaism does best when it’s truly in the middle class – too poor or too rich drives people away from it.

  17. “Rabbi Y Horowitz has often said about ‘kids at risk’ (I hate that term!) that they don’t go out looking, they are pushed.”

    I think most kids are pushed. I don’t think a teenager really knows enough to go looking.

    But some do. And I think it’s just as much an avoidance of the problem to pretend that there aren’t people out there who have real logical issues with (Orthodox) Judaism. Granted, most kids who *think* they do really have no idea. But I think it’s a mistake to act as if there’s a “root cause” (be it the Charedi buagboos like the internet or causes like the way a yeshiva or rebbe (mis)treats kids) that can be easily addressed without getting too philosophical and/or heretical.

  18. Shachar Ha'amim

    after re-reading Gil’s post I want to stress that my suggestion that this is an old phenomenon – even one that goes back to various religious communities in Europe – does NOT mean that I agree with his assessment that “Let’s get real. This isn’t a crisis or the development of a new movement. It’s the old phenomenon of uninspired Jews, a sad state of affairs that needs to be addressed but no cause for any more alarm than it deserved twenty and forty years ago.”

    it was a sad state of affairs then, and is sad now. it just shows how over the last 150 years or so the rabbinical and lay leadership of the religious community has largely been unable to deal with – irrespective of the situation (poverty, oppression, wealth, abundant knowledge)

  19. I think the problem is intensifying in the chareidi world for several reasons. The hyper-strictness is leaving even less breathing space. In the past when people wanted to be looser they were. Now they outwardly conform and inwardly rebel. Teenagers are acutely sensitive to hypocrisy and are responding to it.

    There is also a crisis of leadership. More and more folks in the chareidi world, including absolutely conforming true believers, are growing disillusioned with their leadership.

    The internet and messaging increases the ability to privately circumvent the closed official channels of communication. Think of the internet as haskalic literature on steroids with 24/7 availability.

    Based on what I am hearing Mishpachah is not exaggerating the phenomenon. It is just missing the boat on the fundamental change that will eventually be required to deal with it.

    For decades chareidim have insisted that unlike the MOs and liberal Jews they have virtually no defections. Naturally that was never completely true and they did often cover up the phenomenon when it happened. But now it has reached the level where it can no longer be covered up. That is why a publication like Mishpachah is talking about it.

    This is very different from the deviance in the MO world that can occur without threatening the foundations. For chareidim, the triumphalism they inferred by their growth is now an edifice that they fear will collapse.

  20. R Gil deserves a Yasher Koach for a well nuanced exploration of this issue which avoids easy condemnations and discusses a sociological phenomenon that knows no hashkafic boundaries.

  21. Look at the issue this way. At least Mishpacha and the now defunct JO, brought the isssue to the forefront of the entire Torah world. One looks in vain for any serious discussion of the issue of kids at risk in any MO publication or organ, (other than some discussions at Atid and the hand wringing in and dismissing the problem in some letters to the editor in an issue of JA), over what is worse-a kid off the derech , or a kid who has flipped out to the Charedi world, which is still unfortunately the subject of conversation at many a Shabbos table.

    There seems to be little, if any, concern within the MO world about teens and college aged students whose behavior shows that they have basically become Mchallel Shabbos,eat non-kosher food and whose conduct as to other aspects of halacha can only be imagined in this forum. Bemoaning why kids either flip out or drop out is hardly a detailed investigation of the issue.

    Perhaps, one can surmise that it is a radical act for a Charedi youth to R”L turn on a light on Shabbos, whereas a kid from a MO background would find it less problematic, especially if he or she engage in other problematic behavior.

  22. It’s just the opposite, Steve. The MO world has been dealing with this for decades. The Charedi world has been in denial for a long time and only recently accepted it. And the way they deal with it is by calling it a crisis and putting all resources into it for a while.

  23. R Gil-Please provide me with some proof that the MO world has been dealing with kids at risk “for decades.”

  24. I am neither a scholar nor a sociologist. However, I am able to see things with my own eyes. As I live in a mixed community (with both Chareidi and MO families that get along well for the most part, B”H)I do observe many things. It was shocking to me the first time I encountered a group of teens, in their Shabbos clothes, smoking in the park under the gazebo on Shabbos. I stopped taking my kids to the park. Yet, I know that some of these teens grew up to be fine Jews, perhaps thanks to a good EY experience or a rebbe/mentor that clicked with them. The problem of disaffected teens may stem from different reasons or stimuli, but it cuts across the Orthodox world.

    The last two strictly MO weddings I attended, though they had the obligatory dance floor mechitza of varying efficacy, both wound up with a flurry of mixed dancing to great enthusiasm. These were not teenagers, but young marrieds and their parents. This is a taboo that was long ago crossed by the MO. It makes no sense that after a ceremony that declares to the world that Abe and Sarah are now legally exclusive to one another, they join hands with other couples in dance. There are no serious halachic rulings that allow for that.

    My point? The reduced level of observance of serious halachic issues (as opposed to whether you wear longer tzitzis or the color of your hat) is not a teen problem. Teens see the same things you and I do. And they see a lack of seriousness by adults as to their own religiosity.

    I don’t want to pick on MO. It affects the chareidi side as well, though the term chareidi becomes the ultimate oxymoron. The general lack of seriousness and decorum in many of our shuls by adults belies their lack of understanding or caring for their belief in the concept of having a conversation with Hashem. How many are checking their emails 3, 4 or 5 times during a 12 minute mincha? Wouldn’t you question the importance of the whole exercise if you were an impressionable teen?

    Worse than that, we countenance all sorts of repugnant individuals in our kehillos kedoshim. There is no easy answer to the problem of husbands cheating on their wives, of white-collar theft and dishonorable business practise and other equally serious breaches of areas of yiddishkeit that used to be (maybe only my romanticized youth) no go areas for the frum. True, not everyone knows all details (though rabbonim often do). But any revelations of such brings a kehilla down. And when that is followed by business as usual, where the guys get a slap on the back and a wink from their buddies, don’t think it doesn’t register with our youth. There is a possibility of direct cause here.

    But what of poisoned atmosphere – the metaphysical – that drags down a community. Need there be a lightning bolt to tell us that something is terribly wrong? I urge you to look up the famous story of the hesped of the Rama in the holy city of Krakow to get an understanding of how even one evil person can effect a frightful tragedy on an entire kehilla. You may begin to understand why the cloistered and sheltered communities of Lakewood and B’nei Brak and Meah Shearim are not only not immune from these problems but may really be headed for epidemic proportions.

    Avrahan Avinu said “Rak ein yiras Elokim bamokom hazeh”. Don’t you ever get that feeling. Our youth get it. If we adults do not get it, it is we who have the problem. Teenagers are only the symptom.

  25. Yasher Koach to Dave for an extremely cogent post and reminding us that we can see the problem if we only look in our own mirrors.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: