Addicted to School?

  • Are Hassidic Jewish kids in NYC and elsewhere so in love with school that they’re willing to get themselves ‘busted by the cops’ in order to go?
  • When I was the age of the students in the latest NYC bust, I’d be praying every day for a school closure to go on and on.
  • The ‘school’ I went to as a secular kid, and the ‘school’ these Hassids go to, are two different things entirely.

It seems puzzling. Are Hassidic Jewish kids in NYC and elsewhere so in love with school that they’re willing to get themselves ‘busted by the cops’ in order to go?

I mean, when I was fifteen, the age of the students in the latest NYC bust, I’d be praying every day for a school closure to go on and on (until my public high school graduation, at least).

I mean I was the guy – I hate to admit it – who’d fake being sick in the morning and to ‘prove’ it, I’d stick the thermometer my mom gave me while I was lying in bed next to a light bulb until it heated up to a respectable – but not ‘ambulance calling’ fever (talk about ‘lying’ in bed).

I was the guy who’d get up (several times) in the middle of the night when they’d predicted a snowstorm, and shine a flashlight out the window, hoping/praying to see a squall of those blessed, school cancelling flakes.

And these kids… These kids are willing to get busted to GO to school (as opposed to skipping it)?!

In the old movie, Cool Hand Luke, one of the signature lines, by a prison guard after ‘taking care’ of Paul Newman, the wisecracking chain gang prisoner, was a deadpan:

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

That’s exactly what we’ve got here; a failure to communicate.

Because the ‘school’ I went to as a secular kid, and the ‘school’ these Hassids go to, are two different things entirely, both factually, and more importantly, conceptually.

To the secular (at least adult) mind, school is a worthy social institution. It gives kids academic knowledge as well as tools to move along to a functional and successful adult life. It gives them a chance to interact with their peers.

A good thing; but nothing to take the slightest health or legal risk over.

School, or Yeshiva, to traditional orthodox Jews is something else altogether.

These schools, while devoting time to foundational secular subjects, are primarily schools in which Torah (Bible, Talmud, etc.) is taught and studied.

‘Very nice’, you might say. Religious schools, fine, I get it. But what does that have to do with pushing the envelope on openings?

The thing is that to these people, Torah study isn’t just another subject or field of study. In their world view, it’s literally the spiritual backbone of existence.

I’ll say it again. It is the spiritual backbone of existence.

Judaism believes that the Torah is no mere field of study, no matter how elevated, but the God-given blueprint of existence, that its unceasing study is not only the most important duty of a Jew, but in a mystical sense literally provides the spiritual energy that sustains not only its learners, but all life on the entire planet.

I’m not advocating you adopt their world view, but just understand it.

To them, preventing people, especially youth, from studying Torah is the equivalent of literally starving them. In that vein, one can’t compare their take on the school closure order to that envisioned by its order-ers, as a necessary inconvenience for a greater good. Rather it is as if people had been ordered to stay home and not buy or gather any food even if it has literally all run out.

How many people would stand up to that one, despite any shaming and hassles it might ensue?

To them, if you allow people to gather to food shop, you should allow them to gather to study Torah. Certainly, if you allow people to go to parks, banks or beaches!

Again, I’m not saying you need agree, but simply understand. (And while it’s true that it’s theoretically possible for youth to study Torah while staying home, this lacks the focused quality of the classroom setting with expert instructors, peer synergy, etc., and with generally large families in tight living quarters, it’s just not practical.)

On top of this, it’s important to know that the Jewish people have a very long history, and very long memories. They well remember centuries, millennia, when ruling authorities in many countries and climates, for what they considered very good, rational and popularly accepted reasons, forbade Jews to gather and study Torah.

The story of Hanukah is a very well-known example. The cute little custom of spinning the dreidel-tops is actually no mere holiday game. It’s a reenactment of a distressing time period when the ruling ancient Greek governmental authorities had banned Jewish children from Torah study—but not from game-playing.

Torah schools would illicitly meet and they’d post a watchperson at the door. When the police would arrive to bust them, the kids were trained to ditch their books and pull out the little tops and start playing.

You might say this isn’t an apt comparison to today. Perhaps not. But when these teens see their secular peers freely playing basketball together, while they are banned from Torah classes, the historical comparison might not be as off as one would think.

A more recent example was 20th Century Soviet Russia. There are those alive today who braved being busted – and worse – by the government in order to gather to study Torah.

No one is claiming the current US governmental authority have any malicious intent in their non-prioritizing Torah study. But their doing so, and their seemingly disproportional reaction to the pushback is a serious cultural lack of understanding, bordering on callousness.

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate”.

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soul foodie

Nesanel Yoel Safran is writer, chef and spiritual explorer. His writings range from the wisdom of Torah and Kabbalah, and Twelve Step Recovery, to offbeat humor and practical kitchen tips. Nesanel has been involved in life counseling for many years, mentoring others to overcome hurdles of destructive habits, relationship crises, mood issues, low motivation, etc. Nesanel believes that healing ultimately is rooted in a re-invigoration and re-centering of one's spiritual life.  You can visit him at his blog: Soul Foodie

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