Last week, a good percentage of people in the Five Towns packed out of town, as most yeshivas gave students and faculty a few days off to refresh for the second half of the school year.
Let’s calculate all this for a moment. I know people who traveled to Israel, Puerto Rico, Miami Beach, Punta Cana (in the Dominican Republic), Houston, and Los Angeles. Those with kids in school feel pressure to travel somewhere, anywhere, with their children during the time our schools are closed.
Critics say that this just unnecessarily adds to the social pressures already present when it comes to going away either before or after camp in the summer, over Sukkos and Pesach, and so on. Perhaps we have learned to handle those time periods, but it seems that there is something extraordinarily intense when it comes to figuring what to do over this period of time wrongfully characterized as “Yeshiva Break,” when it should be more aptly referred to as “Break from Yeshiva.”
A little vacation for families in the middle of winter is a smart and even great thing for many, though not exactly a new concept.
The more contemporary yeshivas give a generous intersession period at this time of year, as they’ve done for decades. The more right-leaning yeshivas throughout the area have wanted to introduce the notion of a midyear break for a long time, but have been contorting themselves and their schedules in order to figure out a way to do it without subjecting themselves to criticism for introducing or encouraging the idea of time off from Torah study. For quite a few years, they have been giving students and staff time off but not calling it that.
Needless to say, it is a sensitive issue given the concept of “Talmud Torah k’neged kulam,” that the study of Torah and the time spent toiling in that study outweighs all other distractions that anyone can conjure up.
But slowly but surely, as we entered the 21st century and began to question some of the old thinking, the social pressures also began to evolve, giving way to the idea that our kids should also have a break between fall and spring terms in school just like many others do.
At first there was broad and unified resistance to the idea, and the fact that there was no ten-day break between elementary or high-school terms was what distinguished some yeshivas from others. There were those who took a break from all learning and those who steadfastly refused regardless of whatever pressure was brought to bear.
The idea for an extensive or longer-than-a-few-days midterm break is still being defined. At first it was introduced as a longer-than-usual weekend off. That usually meant a Friday and Sunday off, which translated into a mini-intersession, short enough that it did not qualify as a real, official type of midyear vacation.
Giving students off from yeshiva, especially the younger impressionable ones (actually, they are all very astute and impressionable), was considered poor policy and not something that was encouraged. But then things began to change. First of all, the girls had an increasing number of days off from all schools regardless of philosophical outlooks and positions. As time moved on, families found themselves unable to do things or go places together because, come Sunday, morning the boys had to be in yeshiva.
There are several other dimensions to this dynamic of time off from school at a period on the calendar when we are not accustomed to our children being home. Most of the concerns are more about image than substance. Plainly and simply stated, it’s about high-school-age boys and girls being off at the same time and fraternizing with each other — or even potentially being able to — along with other concerns associated with the mingling of the two in a relaxed, vacation-like social environment.
That concern created a policy that produced a series of different problems. One obvious solution to this perceived problem was to accede to the need for a week or so off during winter, but to make sure that the boys’ and the girls’ schools are off on different days so that the two vacations do not overlap. That meant that we still had the same issue — families could not vacation together.
Then there was the matter of vacation destinations. Even if your school was giving kids vacation for three to 10 days, there would be places yeshiva policy would not allow them to travel. This was instituted mostly by the right-leaning boys’ yeshivas whose policy regarding off-limits vacation destinations can pretty much be summed up in two words: Miami Beach.
The summer months are difficult enough, when the weather gets warm here on the east coast where a large segment of America’s Orthodox Jews reside. It’s challenging because the societal dress-code standards get lowered as the outdoor temperature around here rises. What this midyear break means is that the summer problem for yeshiva boys and girls suddenly makes an unscheduled appearance smack-dab in the middle of winter, as winter coats and gloves are cast aside to make way for khakis, T-shirts, and swimsuits.
It is important to point out that this is not just about time off from learning or from the relatively controlled environment of yeshiva, because there is an important exception to this policy — and that is when a family travels to Israel during these designated time-off periods. That, of course, makes sense because the reality is that the kedushah of Eretz Yisrael is the focal point, on many levels, of our davening and Torah study, though not all agree with that.
This is a multifaceted matter. On one side, the decision to officially close the Gemaras and Chumashim for a few days to a week and a half is a difficult one. This is contrasted with the fact that our students are not just encouraged but coaxed into going the extra yard to put in that additional effort and sacrifice for the beauty that is the proper study of Torah.
The issue we are dealing with at present is that there is a contradiction here that our leadership has to reconcile at some point.
The latest response that attempts to deal with this inconsistency is the position that closing school down for a few days will give both teachers and students the opportunity to emotionally and physically refresh themselves, which will add new vim and vigor and enhance the spring term of education and Torah study.
For the time being, this may be the most sensible approach. No one is forced to pass judgment on any individual, family, or institution, families get to spend good and meaningful time together, and all are content and satisfied.