One afternoon this past spring, a high school girl from a major Orthodox Jewish community called the Ani Maamin Foundation (AMF). The girl, who attends one of her community’s finest Bet Yaakov schools, had an unusual request: a private seminar in Emunah – the fundamentals of Jewish faith – for herself and her classmates.
Rabbi Pinchos Jung fielded the request, paying a visit and conducting a low-key meeting with 35 girls. Rabbi Jung, a noted speaker and educator, is also the menahel ruhni of Bais Rachel, a large Bet Yaakov school in Monsey.
His presentation was followed by a lively question and answer period. He would go on to return four more times for additional presentations, discreet meetings in a private home in the shadow of the highly respected Bet Yaakov high school the girls attend.
Why would a group of Bet Yaakov girls reach out to strangers with such a request? Why with such secrecy? And why was the Ani Maamin Foundation the target of their call?
“There’s a very, very important piece missing in our hinuch [education] system,” opines Rabbi Dovid Sapirman, who founded AMF in 2009. In his more than 40 years in Jewish education– both in the classroom and in outreach– he’s encountered just about every question about Judaism, and he’s come to the disturbing conclusion that too many of our youth—even the best students in the best yeshivot—harbor serious questions or doubts about the basic tenets of Judaism. That’s why he’s been speaking for 30 years about the need to teach children Emunah.
“I was in the hinuch system, and I saw that the kids don’t have it,” he reflects. “[Too many of them] don’t know the fundamentals.”
Under the umbrella of the AMF, Rabbi Jung speaks frequently to Bet Yaakov high school girls. His remarks – like his remarks at all AMF presentations to youth – are geared toward instilling Emunah. But his seminars for high school groups are also structured to encourage the participants to ask questions – including questions that perhaps they had never felt comfortable asking before.
“This is how it goes,” Rabbi Jung explains. “I give a short presentation and then urge them, ‘Now it’s your turn. Let’s hear what questions you have.’ Or, I might tell them, ‘Whatever you ask—it’s off-the-wall, it’s outrageous—it doesn’t matter. If you ask it, I’ll answer it for you if I can.’
“It’s quiet at first, until one girl has the courage to break the ice. But when the questions start, it’s a flood.”
This “flood” consists of questions like:
“How do we know the Torah is true?”
“There are so many religions; how do we know ours is the right one?”
“Why does Hashem care if we do missvot?”
And these “floods” come even from the finest students in the finest yeshivot and Bet Yaakovs.
“It invariably works,” Rabbi Jung asserts. “Usually what happens is there’s not enough time. It is amazing; if you know how to package it and you do it positively, the kids drink it up.”
There Are Answers
“Over the summer,” Rabbi Jung continues, “we were in a Hassidic camp [for Shabbat]. After the evening seudah [meal], we started a question-and-answer session. We continued until 2:30 am, but that wasn’t enough for them, so we had to answer more questions on [Shabbat] afternoon.
“As always, there just was not [enough] time to get through them all. But all of these young people got to know one thing:there are answers. You are allowed to ask, and there are answers. Once we’ve delivered that message, a very important hurdle has been overcome.”
Ambassadors of Faith
In 2008, Rabbi Sapirman began a speaking campaign on the fundamentals of Judiasm, which included an impassioned presentation about teaching Emunah at that year’s Torah Umesorah Convention. That’s also how he was introduced to Rabbi Jung, who shared his passion for teaching young people Emunah. Their respective campaigns quickly morphed into a new organization, aptly named the Ani Maamin Foundation, referring to the famous “Ani Ma’amin” (which literally means, I believe) affirmations of the 13 articles of Jewish faith outlined by Maimonides.
Rabbis Sapirman and Jung now travel throughout North America and beyond, speaking to parents, students and educators. They have logged tens of thousands of miles over the last three years, speaking to more than 20,000 people in more than 120 individual presentations in cities across North America and Europe – either to speak to young people directly, or to address their parents and teachers and make the case for teaching children Emunah.
In November 2011, Rabbi Sapirman addressed the principals of several Sephardic yeshivot in Flatbush, explaining to them his views about the urgency of teaching Emunah. He was warmly received, and also addressed the students of each school.
Rabbi Amram Kuessous, Menahel of Yeshivat Shaare Torah, introduced a brief be’ur tefila (meaning of prayers) class at Shaare Torah, which he says was adapted mainly from Rabbi Sapairman’s work.
“We’re constantly designing new things to make the children feel very connected and engaged,” Rabbi Kuessous says. “There is no question I have to credit Rabbi Sapirman for coming and speaking to our school and inspiring me to do that.” The results have been striking: recently, 44 of his 75 middle school students – of their own volition – signed an agreement not to speak at all during prayer.
Rabbi Sapirman has also delivered two lectures at the Sephardic Torah Center in Deal (also known as Rabbi Diamond’s Kollel).
“You’d be shocked how many people with big white beards can’t answer simple [Emunah] questions,” observes the Torah Center’s Rabbi Bentzion Kaye. “We cannot be assured our children are automatically through osmosis getting the emunah and mesorah [tradition] the way we got it from our parents. Rabbi Sapirman is doing a marvelous job. We’ve had only positive feedback to his presentations.”
Teaching Faith in a Cynical Generation
Rabbi Kuessous emphasized the particular need for teaching Emunah today. “When we were children, there was a certain sense of emulating your rebbe. This is a fast-paced generation. There are so many distractions, whether it’s the cell phone, the computer… You can’t focus on the first mitzvah, which is Ani Hashem Elokeichem (I am Hashem your Gd).”
Rabbi David Cohen, Rosh Yeshiva of Ohel Torah, concurred. “There’s no question it’s important. We need this more than anything else. As the Gemara says, the last of all the nisyonot [tests] is the emunah that we’re going to have. We have to prepare the children for the next generation.”
“We’re living in a very cynical, skeptical generation,” Rabbi Sapirman observes. “Who’s afraid to say, ‘My parents could be wrong,’ ‘My Rebbe could be wrong,’ or ‘Why should I believe it’s true?’? And that’s exactly what they’re doing. Times have changed dramatically. In earlier days, youth absorbed emunah messages at home. Many of today’s parents don’t know how to do that. Further, the atmosphere of the secular world is actively contradicting our Torah values; we must pro-actively reaffirm them.”
Rabbi Sapirman adds that today’s youth do not hold their parents or rebbeim in awe as did the youth of earlier generations. And this generation must therefore open the door to earnest emunah questions, both at home and in yeshiva.
Their ambitions are far reaching, but there are three main planks in AMF’s agenda:
- Encouraging educators to be open and receptive to questions about Emunah
- Answering young people’s questions directly
- Helping teachers incorporate Emunah lessons into their existing curriculums
The rabbis emphasize that AMF operates harmoniously with schools, working with educators and administrators only where they are invited in.
Breaking the Stigma
To underscore the problem his organization seeks to address, Rabbi Sapirman often relates a story of a certain Torah scholar who came home one afternoon and was surprised to see his teenage daughter at home during school hours. She explained that she had been sent home from her Bet Yaakov because the teacher objected to a question she asked during Humash class.
The rabbi asked her to repeat her question, which she did. After hearing the question, the father said, “The Ramban also would have been sent home from yeshiva, because the Ramban also asked that question.”
That story is just one of many heartbreaking accounts of children who have been labeled, castigated or even expelled from their yeshivot… just for asking honest questions about basic tenets of Jewish thought. One yeshiva student was called an apikores (heretic) in class for wondering aloud during a Halacha class why the Mishnah Berurah (classic halachic work by the Hafetz Haim, 1839-1933) was important. A girl confided to her principal that she lacked conviction in some Jewish beliefs, and asked how we know the Torah is true. The girl’s parents received a phone call that night advising them to find another school for their daughter.
No wonder those Bet Yaakov girls turned to AMF in secrecy.
“We are delivering, whenever we can, a desperate message to teachers,” Rabbi Jung expresses with some noticeable passion in his voice. “Please respond positively to your students’ questions.” (See sidebar for more guidance on this.)
“I keep reminding teachers: you could be a perfectly competent Halacha teacher, but you’re not a philosopher. If they ask you some deeper hashkafah (theology) question that’s out of your area, it’s quite okay. But please, please don’t condemn them for asking. It’s an innocent question from an innocent child.
“I have to tell the world the news: the average teacher cannot be expected to answer Emunah questions effectively. A senior teacher in one school said to me, ‘Sometimes we make up the answers.’”
Last winter, the rabbis presented a 12-hour, eight-part webinar, Teaching Emunah Today. More than 70 educators participated, male and female, connecting from 14 locations including Los Angeles, Montreal, Cleveland and Brooklyn. They heard about the urgency of teaching Emunah, and learned many practical tips for incorporating Emunah messages into the curriculum for any age group.
The organization has also produced several valuable resources for educators. AMF’s flagship audio product is Rabbi Sapirman’s 27-hour, three-series course in Emunah, a whirlwind tour through the foundations of Torah life, history and thought. The first series, entitled Know What to Answer to Yourself, lasts ten hours and delves into fundamental theological subjects such as the existence of Hashem, the Divinity of the Torah, and the indisputable truth of the Revelation at Mount Sinai.
The second series, The Oral Torah: Divine and Eternal, is a nine-hour presentation explaining the origins of the Mishnah and Talmud. It helps explain, for example, why Ashkenazic and Sephardic practices often differ; how halachot are derived from the Torah; and why the Talmud’s integrity as a record of Jewish law and thought is unimpeachable. The third series, Unraveling the Mysteries of Divine Providence, spends another nine hours answering some of Judaism’s thorniest questions: Why do the righteous suffer? How do we understand a Holocaust? How does prayer help?
All AMF audio sets are available in CD or MP3 format from AMF (animaamin.org) and some retail locations. Thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor, Know What to Answer to Yourself will be available for free download by December 2013. Rabbi Sapirman’s landmark 2008 Torah Umesorah presentation is also available for free download.
The booklet Why and How to Teach Emunah, first released at the Torah Umesorah Convention in 2009, has since been re-released in a revised and expanded edition entitled, Emunah at Home and in the Classroom. It features endorsements from Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky, Rabbi Shlomo Miller (Toronto), Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Lowy (Toronto), and Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Levin of the Telshe Yeshiva, Chicago. (Rabbi Levin explicitly endorsed AMF at this year’s Torah Umesorah Convention.)
Rabbi Shmuel Adler, a rebbe in a Lakewood yeshiva, was deeply impressed with Rabbi Sapirman’s three-part Emunah set. “I listened to it, and I felt that every single [Jew] needs it,” he recalls. He asked AMF for special permission to resell it in Lakewood, and remembers, “The first time, [AMF] sent me 30 sets… I sold out. Then I ordered another 50 and I sold out; then another 75 and I sold out. The response is tremendous.”
Rabbi Adler recalls that one maggid shiur who knows the entire Talmud argued with him that he didn’t need the series. “But after listening to this, he came over to me and told me, ‘You saved my life.’”
“Just this week,” Rabbi Adler continues, “there was a lawyer. He didn’t want it… ‘Not for me!’
“I told him, ‘I’ll give it to you for free.’ He came over to me just two days ago: ‘This CD is amazing,’ he said ‘what else do you have?’ Stories like this happen every single day with this program.”
Education and Inspiration
“A very important part of being a ben Torah is having clarity that everything is min hashamayim [from Heaven],” says Rabbi Kaye. “When people feel they have the Emunah, they can handle anything in this world. Even though people look the role and walk the role and talk the role, you’ve got to make sure the inside is really in the role… That means being ready to be thrown into the fire” for one’s convictions, like Avraham Avinu was.
Rabbi Sapirman adds, “If kids don’t really believe [in the Torah], it’s only a lifestyle. People have to know that: [inadequate emunah] might not be the direct cause of their going off [the path of Judaism], but without a foundation of emunah they have nothing to come back to. There are many cases where kids had questions and were very turned off by the fact that either they were rebuffed or ignored, and there were no answers forthcoming. The focus now has to be to inspire, not just to educate.”
“Our [religion] cannot survive the onslaught of the secular world, media, and technology unless we illuminate it properly,” Rabbi Jung continues. “We have to be able to explain to them the beauty of it, the value and the meaning of it, to give them the [faith] in a positive package. They have to be shown that the lure [of the outside world] is only a mirage. Every yetzer hara [evil inclination] is a mirage; it looks real but it’s total sheker [falsehood].”
Does it work? Rabbi Jung says two things happen when teachers answer Emunah questions: “Number one, the kids are relieved that you’re willing to hear their questions and answer them. Number two, they see there are answers. They think, ‘Once I know there are answers, I know that this is sound.’ They won’t go ‘off the derech’ because of one detail or question which bothers them. But they might just, if they get yelled at for asking, or if they get the feeling that this whole thing is a hoax. It doesn’t take much to prove to them that it isn’t and that everything else is.”
There Are No Bad Questions
Rabbi Jung’s advice for educators:
We’re not here to protect ourselves and to pretend we know it all, or to reject a question because we don’t know the answer. If a kid has got a question, we need to give them an answer. If a teacher doesn’t know the answer to an Emunah question, we give you a formula to follow: V.O.R.
First, validate the question. You can tell the student, “That’s an interesting question.”
Next, offer the best answer you can. Try, “Well, one answer might be…” Or, simply tell the student, “Well, I never thought of that,” or “That question never bothered me.”
Finally, either research it – which is always interesting and exciting – or refer the questioner to someone who knows more about that topic.
In England, by the way, V.O.R. means vehicle off road: the parts are needed urgently. That’s what’s happening here: the vehicle is coming off the road and the parts are needed urgently, right?