Saturday, February 11, 2012

Loco Parentis: Or How An Entire Generation of American Day School Parents Lost Their Minds and Sent Their Kids to Wacked-Out, Right-Wing, Repressive and Otherwise Insane Israeli Yeshivot

This afternoon, I was utterly mesmerized by Gary Rosenblatt's column in the recent issue of the New York Jewish Week.

Entitled, "Lessons from the Rav Bina Story" it was a follow-up piece to an article that appeared two weeks earlier, co-authored by Rosenblatt and Yedidya Gorsetman, a Yeshiva University senior and the younger brother of my friend Atara. The two presented a disturbing portrait of the charismatic but highly controversial Rav Aharon Bina, the head or rosh hayeshiva of Netiv Aryeh, a popular boys Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem's Old City, endorsed by many important Jewish institutions, including Yeshiva University. Netiv Aryeh is one of many Israeli yeshivot where Jewish high school graduates spend a year (or two) before starting college. The trend to send one's son or daughter to Israel before college has grown dramatically over the past two decades, becoming something akin to a religious obligation, a badge of allegiance to Jewish peoplehood, a way for parents to inoculate their nice Jewish offspring against the Sodom and Gemorrah of the American college campus...or so they think.

Returning to Rav Bina, the issue raised by Rosenblatt and Gorsetman in their well-researched article is his, um, unorthodox approach to education and discipline:
Supporters call it “tough love”; critics call it abuse. 
Credited with transforming many troubled American students who had been branded hopeless by other educators, and taking motivated young men to a higher level of learning, the 63-year-old rabbi is praised by several leading American rabbis as having been a wonderful educator for more than three decades. And his yeshiva, supported by prominent philanthropists, including businessman Ira Rennert, is a major — and approved — feeder school to Yeshiva University. 
But a significant minority of former students, employees and colleagues maintain that Rav Bina is controlling, manipulative and emotionally coercive in ways that would never be accepted in other schools. In what has become known throughout Israeli yeshivot as “Bina Stories,” he is said to regularly yell at, humiliate and insult students in public; threaten to expel them for seemingly no reason (and make good on that promise with a few every fall, sometimes without first notifying the parents); press psychologists he hires to share private information about the students he has sent them; and tell those in disfavor that they are cursed.
The January 27th Jewish Week article ignited a firestorm of response, some of it defensive, most of it corroborating the allegations of abuse. Rosenblatt's column in this week's paper opens with the nearly unbelievable Facebook message Gorsetman received from Rabbi Avi Fuld, also of Netiv Aryeh:
“I don’t know who you are and I am not trying to threaten you in any way,” the rabbi began. “I see that you are friends on FB [Facebook] with many Netiv guys and I hope they come to their senses and drop you like a dead fish. 

“I truly believe you are an evil person” for “trying to murder Rav Bina with your pen,” the rabbi continued, speculating that Yedidya, a senior at Yeshiva University and an editor of the school newspaper, “is not frum [observant]” and that he wrote the article because “you hate the fact that Rav Bina has such a positive effect on his kids [students]. 
“You are an evil immoral individual” whose intention “wasn’t the safety of the kids but how you can hurt Rav Bina.”
The sheer craziness of this missive from an educator, no less a rabbi, is utterly breathtaking and provides insight as to how far gone the judgement of those teaching at Netiv Aryeh actually is. As Rosenblatt writes:
And while I suspect defenders of the yeshiva will rationalize Rabbi Fuld’s deeply disturbing comments as an aberration, as they do decades’ worth of complaints about Rav Bina’s treatment of some students, I worry that this rebbe’s comments reflect, at the very least, the antithesis not only of rabbinic behavior, but of the foremost Torah value of seeing each and every person as created in God’s image.
The entire sordid matter unfolds now, in cyberspace -- the response to the response to the response...he said/he said. Former victims are coming forward, verifying, affirming, finding solidarity. And of course, Rav Bina's defenders are countering the charges. Yeshiva University, notes Rosenblatt, has remained silent on the matter.

Of course, I am in no position to gauge Rav Bina's guilt or innocence. No one I know went to Netiv Aryeh and frankly, it is one of the last places I would ever send one of my kids during their Gap Year.

Which brings me to the insanity that seems to have swept an entire generation of parents of kids enrolled in Modern Orthodox high schools who virtually trip over themselves to ship their teens off to single-sex Israeli institutions where modernity is the enemy, where secular colleges are sneered at, where repressive rules relate to their recreational lives and where, some say, they are brainwashed to break away from their families, forsake their former educational plans and pursue an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle.

I have sat at Israel Program Night at my kids' various high schools, open-mouthed with shock at some of the schools my peers are considering for their sons and daughters. Sitting at one such event held at the Ramaz Upper School several years ago, Middle Babe and I actually began giggling in the middle of the presentation made by a madly shuckling rabbi who depicted a school environment that sounded more like solitary confinement in a maximum security prison than a Gap Year abroad adventure.

As Middle Babe frantically tried to shush me, I cast my gaze around the room and saw seemingly hypnotized moms and dads nodding in appreciation of the program being described by the rabbi. I had to ask myself, at one point, whether I was the crazy one. What was I missing that these other people found so appealing? 

The only reason we were even in that session was that Middle Babe's outrageously nervy Jewish studies teacher insisted she apply to at least one yeshiva...despite my daughter's insistence that she preferred a more liberal, hands-on program of work, learning and travel. Ultimately she chose Young Judea's Year Course and had an enriching year without any extreme ideology, coercion or belittling from her educators. Once she got into trouble for sneaking her then-boyfriend's dog into her dorm. She got dehydrated and had to go to Soroka Medical Center for IV treatment. She had the typical year-abroad misadventures but she wasn't punished for having a boyfriend or for going out with friends or for wearing shorts and tank tops, which she donned every day as part of her three-month stint as a ranger at Ein Gedi. She wasn't told to rescind her registration at Goucher College and switch to Stern College. She wasn't told that her liberal Upper West Side parents were goyim. If we had a problem with the program leaders, it was that some of them were young and inexperienced.

In the original Jewish Week article, psychiatrist Michelle Friedman, also a friend, outlines the failure of critical thinking that occurs among some parents when they choose a Gap Year school -- or educator -- that raises red flags:
Dr. Michelle Friedman, a Manhattan psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who directs the pastoral counseling program at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, says she has heard a number of disturbing stories about Rav Bina over the years. 
She has written professionally about what she calls “the power and peril of rabbinic charisma,” and speaks of the need for a rabbi’s self-awareness about his or her control over congregants or students, as well as the importance of establishing boundaries. 
She questions why parents who are “so concerned about the quality of the food and laundry service” at Israeli yeshivas where they send their children are not more involved in choosing the right psychological environment. 
“You’re sending your child thousands of miles away for a year in late adolescence for an intense, isolated experience,” she said, and yet she finds “an unquestioning reverence for what goes on there. It just amazes me.” 
In regards to reports about Rav Bina, she asked: “Why are we so accepting? Are we so fearful of critiquing authority? Do parents think, ‘he’s doing a great job, and if we criticize it we’ll be on the outside,’ so they just say nothing?”
Actually, I think that Friedman nails it in her final comment. These Day School parents, typically so assertive when it comes to advocating for their kids -- let's face it, typically hovercraft, helicopter types -- utterly abandon their protective instinct based on the belief that the admittedly eccentric rabbi in the Israeli yeshiva has some secret trick, some magic method to make their kid a better Jew and, as a bonus, protect them from all the harm in the world.

It doesn't take a PhD to diagnose that kind of thinking as primitive.

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