Alumnus of the Year

I cannot recall the last time an opinion piece in the mainstream media generated as much dialogue within the Orthodox community as Noah Feldman’s now in famous ‘Orthodox Paradox’ essay from last week’s New York Times Magazine. I assume there’s no need to rehash the issues or link to the numerous blogs, discussion forums, and media outlets which have covered this phenomenon from pretty much every angle. I’ve been very impressed with some of the responses, and less than impressed by some others. One can write a book on the issue and the controversy it’s generated, and I have no intention of doing that. I don’t think that the issue is a new one; the tension between universalism and particularism has been present forever. It’s a theme that I intend to discuss on an upcoming series of posts on the Book of Ezra, which I’ll be teaching second semester this year.

As my regular readers know, I am generally a critic of formal education (see, for example, here, here, here, and here). It’s a Procrustean Bed (or a Sdoim Bettle, as Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky reportedly called it) and always has been. The ideal relationship between schools and homes is that the schools provide the tools and skills to develop the values that the student imbibes in the home. If Shmuely Boteach is right that Prof. Feldman can layn any parsha at the drop of a hat, then Maimonides can be proud of the training that they gave him. Of course, they are not proud of him, because schools always have ambition to do more than reinforce and develop the parents’ values. They wish to mold a particular product, with specific attitudes and values, or at least aim for their alumni to fall within a certain defined spectrum of belief and practice. Maimonides, far from being the exception, set itself a goal of producing graduates who would be as comfortable with Shakespeare as with Tosafot. I’d recommend An American Orthodox Dreamer: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Boston's Maimonides School to get a picture of the founding vision of the school. It was built on a very particular ideological vision.

This brings us to the attitude of schools toward alumni who do not ‘toe the line’, and this can even mean things that are examples of egregious and flagrant violation of the school’s ideology or values. Schools make an effort to inform and maintain relationships with alumni only to the extent that this information furthers the school’s aims and advertises its culture and mission. Basically, it’s for recruitment and fundraising. These newsletters are marketing material, no more and no less, and the school is trying to market itself as a supplier which can produce a particular type of product. I had the good fortune of taking a graduate school class in the history of Jewish Education with Prof. Shaul Stampfer. His emphasis on community-driven ‘market forces’ as a major determinant of the success or failure of educational institutions was truly eye-opening. Every educational institution in the world makes ‘business’ decisions about what alumni accomplishments to take pride in and what not. Every announcement and every photo in their publications and on their websites are part of this general promotion of their product. News concerning alumni which does not promote the school’s vision in some way will simply not be advertised. News which really provides an example of the type of alumni achievement that the school strives for will be celebrated.

For example, my brother-in-law recently completed a Ph.D. in Talmud, and is now doing postdoctoral work at Yale, where he earned a prestigious fellowship. Had he graduated from the Maimonides School, these accomplishments would, no doubt, be noted and perhaps celebrated. Perhaps they would invite him to travel to the next state north to speak to the highest-level Gemara class. But, alas, he graduated from Ner Israel, where he earned both his high-school diploma and his Bachelor’s degree (that’s right, Yale postdoc with a BTL from NIRC). I would be absolutely shocked if the institution would acknowledge his achievements in any way at all. By the same token, his marriage, ke-das Moshe ve-Yisrael, would be duly noted in the ‘Mazel Tov’ pages, if they exist.

A few years ago, my closest friend from high school (TA of Baltimore) was honored as ‘Alumnus of the Year’ at our alma mater’s annual dinner. He is a great guy, without a doubt. But his selection as alumnus of the year spoke volumes about what the school strives for. This friend was a good guy in school – a good ball player, a good friend to many, and a respectful student. He worked hard and got solid grades, but was not a valedictorian. After a few years in Yeshiva, in Israel and in Baltimore, he married the daughter of a talmid chacham and became an accountant. He now works as an accountant, is kove’a itim, bought a house in town, and sends his sons to our alma mater. He’s not the wealthiest graduate from those years, nor is he the smartest or the biggest talmid chacham. He is living the school’s dream, though, and in many ways, the ‘Baltimore’ dream. He learns, he supports Torah, he started a family, he identifies with a more yeshivish outlook and lifestyle, and he earns a nice livelihood through an umanus nekiyah ve-kallah. That’s exactly what the school loves to see! Those of us who have achieved success in various aspects of our lives, even if we’ve achieved greater success by most standards, can really have no qualms about the school’s selection; the job of the school is to market those products who best serve as its ambassadors (Indeed, the school celebrates alumni such as Rabbi Aharon Feldman, Rabbi Yisrael Newman, and even Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, but not Rabbi Menachem Liebtag or Rabbi David Samson, whose grandfather was principal for many years). Similarly, school carefully choose to display only those achievements which seek to reinforce its values and mission; would any other business advertise its failures?

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