Tarbut Goes Topless

The letter whose text is reprinted below this commentary has been sent by the Administration of the Tarbut v’Torah Jewish Community School (TVT of Irvine) to its families.  It finally and formally brings to an end the charade that has seen TVT falsely promote itself as a suitable educational vehicle for the children of Orthodox-affiliated Jewish families in Orange County, California.  TVT has gone topless: it formally has adopted an explicit policy, reversing the policy that stood from its founding in 1991 until this Rosh Hashanah season 2012.  Beginning with the present semester, Jewish boys at Tarbut v’Torah no longer are required to wear kipppot (yarmulkas) at school throughout the day.

It long has been acknowledged as TVT’s embarrassing secret that the school does not teach even the most basic of Torah texts: Chumash and Rashi. There has been no real Torah at “Tarbut v’Torah” of Irvine for close to a decade.  As of this semester, there no longer will be much pretense of  Tarbut either.  The conjunctive “v” in “TVT” has nothing left to connect.  Call it “Jewish Conjunctivitis.”

The Jewish tragedy of Tarbut v’Torah of Irvine reflects the latest downgrade in a continued downward spiral of the school’s Judaic standards since Irving Gelman made the fatefully tragic and sadly myopic decision to pursue the trappings of a wealthy and lush campus, to pursue the allure of money, the fetching Color of Green, at the expense of the more modest possibilities that would have existed if the TVT school had remained true to its original tradition-based moorings.  Instead of having a smaller Jewish Day School that would incorporate the richness of both Tarbut andTorah, but which would have attracted fewer families and students to a more modest campus, he told me proudly in August 2005 that he saw that he could expand the school’s financial reach, reach non-Orthodox and anti-Orthodox millionaires, gain a more beautiful campus, and attract many more students by sharply diluting the Judaic content of the TVT school.

The tragedy of his short-sightedness now reaches its apex: a “Jewish Community School” that needs to mollify its anti-Orthodox wing by abandoning the simple expectation that boys at school wear their kippot (yarmulkas).  It is this very short-sightedness that has seen the Irvine Jewish community plagued by an inability to hold many of its finest young Orthodox families beyond the early years of a family’s growth.  As children reach ages 6, 7, 10, 11, the more deeply devoted Orthodox families move away from Irvine and to other communities, understanding their fundamental need to live within a community that has a proper yeshiva day school or “Hebrew Academy.”  While some move to Baltimore, others move an hour north to Los Angeles, where a rich choice of yeshiva day schools exists.  Even among frum young Single men in Irvine, as soon as they marry they move out to Los Angeles.  They do so because they and their new wives know there is not an acceptable Jewish educational vehicle in Irvine for any Jewish children they may have in their marriage.  Left behind within Irvine’s Eruv are the Fantasy League players who imagine that a comparably rich Jewish education and Torah-imbued childhood can be crafted equally proficiently with summers at Camp Ramah and with occasional non-Orthodox “Shabbatons” sponsored by a Federation agency whose leadership and programming is decidedly non-Orthodox and desecrates Shabbat as Orthodox Jews understand the Torah’s concept of Rest.

As an emergency stopgap, there is a small NCSY, but it is there in emergency for the benefit of families whose breadwinners have no choice but to relocate to Orange County, California for their incomes.  Yes, even a small NCSY is something.  My wife grew up in NCSY.  My children.  I was an NCSY rabbinic advisor for several years.  Moreover, a Rav tries his best, as we do at Young Israel of Orange County, to teach children privately, to teach some Chumash, some Rashi, in the hope that a seed will be planted for a future growth opportunity when that child moves on.  But it does not replace a Hebrew Academy, a yeshiva day school.

It is a tragedy of the most severe magnitude because the community had a yeshiva day school, albeit a very modest one, in place.  It had the makings of something that could have been something.  But the allure of riches and lush pastures, of expanded enrollments of rich families, beckoned with its siren call.  And so the shepherd led the flock to lie down in green pastures beside still waters.  And now no kippot, even as the emperor has no clothes.

This is the vision of the European secularist model of the Yiddishist Tarbut Schools.  Now, with the adoption of its new policy allowing boys to go topless — to go without yarmulkas in Irvine’s private Jewish school that charges $15,000-and-more per annum for a “Jewish education” comprised of “Tarbut v’Torah” — Mr. Gelman’s vision inches closer to its inexorable cliff.  Trapped inside the reeling bus as it rolls towards its Valhalla are the few children of Orthodox-affiliated families who had bought into the slick promotion of the “Jewish School that serves the religious needs of all denominations, even the Orthodox.”

TVT now is but a faded shell of what it was Judaically a decade ago.  It looks nice on the outside, but it is hollow in its core.  Much like a pretty balloon at a child’s birthday party, lilting loftily, yet one single pin-prick removed from reality. Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis saw and assessed this tragedy brilliantly when she was taken on the tour of the school years ago.  She saw the lush grass, the expansive soccer fields, the basketball courts, the high-tech classrooms — but where, she wondered, was the Torah?  Rabbis of the Rabbinical Council of California unanimously have expressed their similar perceptions.  And now the bare-headed truth is evident for all those who would see.  Two hundred scalps speak tomes about a school that once imagined itself Head & Shoulders above the rest.

The new TVT Policy (again, please see the letter, from TVT’s President to the Parents of students there, at the bottom of this post) was brought to my attention by several individuals within YIOC.  Because this policy change touches on a profound matter of public Jewish Community Concern that affects the Jewish community of Orange County, and that will affect it for years to come if the policy is not reversed, I have shared it with the members and supporters of Young Israel of Orange County, and I now post it for the greater public.  I believe the letter speaks for itself and validates once again our family’s unanimous decision made several years ago to send our son to Hebrew Academy of Huntington Beach (25 minutes away) for elementary school and junior-high, and then to YULA (75 minutes away) for high school rather than to the school that was in our backyard . . . and to encourage others with school-age children to do likewise.

For those who heard our son layn the Torah a few weeks ago, conducting the entirety of the Rosh Chodesh morning services while I was participating out-of-town at a wedding, juxtaposed against the substance of the TVT President’s letter below, I am certain that it is understood once again why a Rav sometimes has to speak Truth and sometimes has to act, albeit reluctantly, and lovingly to advise the members of his community with the courage of his conscience.  Sometimes a Rav has to speak the Truth even at the risk of incurring enemies whom he would rather have counted as friends, even at the risk of his having them determined to drive him and his family out of the city.  Sometimes a Rav must have the courage of conscience, to speak Truth to Power.  We have done so here — and, indeed, we have been threatened directly by those who would run us out of Irvine.  Our response to the most recent nastiness is to post this document on the internet.  Rav Yisroel Salanter is quoted as having said that a Rav who does not have enemies in his community is no Rav, but that a Rav who gets run out of his city is  no man.

So far, so good.

From down the block from YIOC, certain bitter individuals have sought to defame the voices of those who have led the protest against TVT’s decision to turn the Tarbut v’Torah Jewish “Community School” topless.  It has been personal, nasty, vicious — and has not at all addressed, by the by, the underlying issue:  How can a school promote itself to Orthodox-affiliated Jewish parents as a suitable venue for educating their childrenthrough the twelve years of elementary and high school, when that school: (i) offers virtually no Torah studies of note, (ii) fails to teach davening, (iii) fails to teach Talmud, (iv) fails even to teach Mishnah, (v) fails even to teach Rashi, (vi) fails even to teach Chumash, (vii) fails even to teachNavi, (viii) fails even to teach halakhah — and basically is put to shame by the adjacent Mariner’s Church, whose pastors and congregants, to their credit, know and continue to study far more Bible than do the TVT descendants of those who received it all at Mount Sinai?

I count the founding and the subsequent flourishing of Young Israel of Orange County — now celebrating our fifth year of High Holiday services — as one of the three or four greatest blessings in my life.  It is a shul where a Rabbi can speak the Truth forthrightly about Jewish values and issues, even in Irvine, without fear of repercussions for speaking the Truth. It is a shul that is blessed with the finest members and supporters that any Rav could ask for.  Our current Annual Membership Campaign is proceeding robustly, with an exceptional response so far this season, the best we ever have had.  We are blessed with the preciousness of a membership of outstanding individuals and community leaders and activists, successful degreed professionals and exceptional entrepreneurs and artisans, homemakers, seniors and younger households, retired individuals and those actively employed, men and women — all united in a love of Judaism, a love of Torah, a commonality of spirit and purpose that sees our shul spared the internal strife and bickering that sometimes has plagued Jewish communities elsewhere.  And a love of the Truth, even when it sometimes is painful to speak . . . or even to acknowledge.

Our Torah classes have become one of our hallmarks, with (i) Chumash-and-Rashi now regularly attracting twenty or more focused and devoted people who sit 90 minutes to learn Torah in the text, (ii) Talmud now at our maximum feasible attendance, as we learn Gemara every Thursday evening for some 75 minutes, (iii) Sunday Morning Women’s Continental Coffee and Torah Learning that consistently has attracted maximum attendance and where women have learned and discussed Torah text as never before imaginable in Orange County, (iv) Siddur Navigation class that has seen several people gain the facility to lead services publicly — and then to go ahead and do it, (v) our new Shabbat afternoon class inMishneh Berurah and Shulchan Arukh, (vi) our class in Beginners Hebrew Reading, and (vii) our classes for young people ages 12-18 in Talmud, and Chumash and Rashi.  Along the way, our Shabbat minyanim and Sunday Morning minyan have been consistently successful in a manner that we never before had enjoyed.  It has been a successful and robust experience, as we have learned to focus on doing what we do best, a Boutique Shul teaching Judaism and touching lives one at a time.

And not being ashamed to ask gentlemen and boys kindly to wear a kippah — always — when within our institutional setting.