Headlines scream of atrocities committed by a vile organization. We would think that all decent human beings would recoil in horror at their brutality. But then we are taken aback at the steady stream of young “recruits” who are galvanized to join them. We are further stunned as we learn that these young people have grown up in western society.
The question of “why” is one we are all forced to contemplate. What would lead young men and women to leave their homes, to abandon their western values, to embrace this violent and relentless scourge known as ISIS? We might think that these are the disenchanted, the disenfranchised, alienated, and deprived.
But the reality is that many are from affluent homes, having been afforded all the comforts and luxuries that their society offers. They are mostly educated, having bright futures ahead of them.
Even more, why is the answer to this question one that should matter to mechanchim? How is any of this relevant to chinuch in our yeshivos, Bais Yaakov’s, and day schools?
The people who flee their own comfortable existence to live in tents and to fight and destroy do not see themselves as marauders and murderers. They see themselves as part of a glorious movement, they see themselves as being transformational. They see themselves changing the world in fundamental ways. They picture themselves in a new light. They feel that by joining this movement they will matter. And here is the crux of the issue. The lives they lead in a modern world of comfort and ease is all about materialism. It leaves them empty; it leaves them searching and needing more. They are not escaping poverty and desperation; they are running away from emptiness and a despair born of a meaningless life.
This murderous movement attracts people with their heinous acts. They glory in the deaths of their “enemies” – the more gruesome, the better. They offer a life that lives in the shadow of death – the death of others or their own martyrdom. And they think that this will mean that they will leave a mark on the world. So each additional horror serves as a recruitment tool to bring more and more of these lost souls to join.
This all sounds foreign, so strange as to be incomprehensible. But let us look around and consider what we see around us. Recently, there have been discussions and articles about “adults at risk.” We have graduated from the “teens at risk” to the grownups. Who are they? Why are they at risk? Are they the teenagers now at a new stage in life? Or are they adults who glided through their younger years, making no waves, and now suffer their own crises in how they live and why they live this way?
The old adage “Azoi vi es goyisht zich, azoi Yiddlet zich” – loosely translated as that which happens in the non-Jewish world finds itself in our world rather too quickly – holds true. And this means that the emptiness that drives these people is one that is part of today’s society. It is in the air, it is part of the zeitgeist – the spirit of the times. Ask the mechanchim and mechanchos, certainly the veterans, of how different today’s students are from those of forty and fifty years ago. (I am not of the school that holds that everything was great then and that berates the youth of today. Their challenges are different and, in fact, more difficult to contend with. Their successes and triumphs are to be celebrated.)
A very important difference between then and now is that once upon a time we argued over the various “isms.” They ranged from communism to Zionism and feminism; they engaged the minds and hearts of the different sides. People saw themselves engaged in a debate about the meaningful issues of life. They would argue, passionately, as they debated the merits of every side. When they did so, this meant that they were thinking, they were going beyond their immediate circumstances and they were looking at their lives and life in general on a more global scale. When this was so, we could engage them, we could convince them… we could open their eyes to the greater truths of a Torah life. And they came to understand and to love what they could now embrace.
I have spoken with women who appear, outwardly at least, to epitomize the standards of our community. But when you speak to them about anything beyond the practical aspects of their day to day living, the simchos they are making, or their community involvement, there is an emptiness. More than one has said that she doesn’t really understand much about what we – and they – believe. They go through the motions, because this is what is expected if they are to be part of the community – if they will belong. But this is a problem – because these very same women are entrusted with the responsibility of forging the next link in the chain of the mesorah. It is up to them to hand over the mantle of Jewish womanhood, of the role of the akeres habayis, to their daughters. And they really cannot. They cannot because they don’t know what that role is; they know its trappings, they know how it should appear. They don’t understand how essential that role is, they don’t value themselves because they don’t have a deep enough understanding of what Yiddishkeit is all about. And so they are vulnerable, they are easily swayed by whatever they read in the media about Jewish women. Instead of rejecting the negative images painted, images that are far removed from their own lives, their own experiences, the seeds of doubt are sown.
So how do we answer this situation? What response can we offer that can fill the void, not allowing a vacuum to exist in our talmidim and talmidos that is ready to be filled with all kinds of negative things? How do we let them in on our secret – that a life lived on a different plane, l’maalah min hashemesh – above the sun… above this material world, offers the promise of a fulfilling life, of potential reached, of making a real difference?
Many years ago, as I was opening my own school, I asked Rebbetzin David about finding an excellent teacher to teach X. The answer she gave me then is one that still resonates and one that I have tried to follow. She said, “First comes the “who,” then comes the “what.” And she was so right – the Who, the teacher who is inspired will inspire, the teacher who lives and loves what he or she teaches will engage the students. (If nothing else, they will be curious about what it is that makes this rebbi or morah so excited about what they teach. They will want to taste it too.)
For young men, they need to come to relish the sweet taste of Torah. They need to feel connected; they need to know that a life of Torah is joyous. For young women, they need to understand how to take each lesson they learn and incorporate it into their lives. They need to appreciate the sweetness of Torah living and to understand that it is they who will build the homes where those lessons will be learned, will be absorbed in the very walls, as they construct their own oases of purity and elevated living, no matter what the latest trends in society.
Throughout time, challenging times that are fraught with danger, and more placid times where the pitfalls are not so easily recognized, one thing has remained constant. People want to make a difference – they want to matter. The word “kavod” does not only mean honor; it comes from the root of “kaved” – having weight, taking up space. Every person wants to feel that their being there means something. They would like to believe that they will leave something behind even when they are no longer there. They need purpose in their lives. Shlomo Hamelech tells us in Koheles (9:10) “kol asher timtza yadcha laasos bechochacha aseh…” He tells us to take what comes our way and to give it our all – to do our best in all situations, to make the most of every moment.
The difference between our approach and the approach of movements such as the one we described is that the Torah tells us “va’chai bahem” – Torah is about life, it is about sweetness. The Chofetz Chaim gave a famous mashal to explain. He tells of a diamond dealer who sends someone to pick up his case with his goods from the station. The man comes and is groaning under the weight of the case. The diamond dealer experiences chalishas hadaas – he is overcome with weakness. That cannot be my case, diamonds are light. That is Torah – it is light, it is sweet. It is our job to make sure that our talmidim and talmidos know that joy and that sweetness. That will enable them to grow into the men and women of our community who can share that same joy as they impart the precious lessons of Torah.