If you want to depress an Orthodox parent raising Orthodox kids, just remind them about the dark side of secular teenage life, things like drugs, sex and vulgar music. It’s no wonder many Orthodox parents send their kids to non-coed high schools like YULA — it’s their way of offering some kind of protection from the unpredictable ills of modern life.
As a result, these schools have rules. One of the rules at YULA, for example, is no private coed parties. If you’re a guy and you want to have a party on a Saturday night at your house, invite only guys. No girls.
It’s not a bad rule in my book. My daughter Tova spent four wonderful years at YULA, and she had plenty of all-girl meetings and parties at our home, which was informally renamed “YULA central.”
A few weeks ago, though, this rule led to an awkward incident that has been the buzz at many Shabbat tables in the neighborhood.
Apparently, a student at YULA Boys High School decided to have a New Year’s Eve party, and the word got out that — cue the haunting percussion — girls were invited! Of course, in the era of Twitter, Evites and Facebook, it’s not easy to keep secrets. When the heads of the school found out, the proverbial you know what hit the fan.
Now, if the boy planning the party had been quietly told to cancel the party and disinvite everyone, the story wouldn’t be worth a column. But the reason people are still talking about it is because of what happened next.
The boy was asked to announce in front of all his fellow students that the party was cancelled. Apparently, the violation was deemed serious enough to require a major public statement.
As a result, some people are now asking: Did the school go too far to make its point? Could it have handled it in a more discreet manner?
YULA is certainly far from being a bastion of Charedi insularity. The school is run by Orthodox rabbis with a modern sensibility, many of whom are true mensches (you won’t find a bigger mensch than the principal of their girls school, Rabbi Abraham Lieberman).
But beyond the question of how schools handle their internal affairs, the incident brought to light what I think is a silent but burning issue in modern Orthodox life: how to deal with leisure time for teenagers. This problem really hits home on a night when there aren’t too many religious or school obligations — like Saturday night.
For years, when my teenage daughter from YULA would go out on Saturday night, we had a running joke. Basically, there wasn’t that much to do in Pico-Robertson for Orthodox girls on Saturday night, so when I asked her where she would be later, she would give me this funny look which meant “You know, Bibi’s, where else?” Bibi’s is a hole in the wall on the Pico strip that makes great borekas, but it’s known mostly for staying open late on Saturday night.
And, of course, you can be sure there were boys hanging out at Bibi’s as well (I drove by with binoculars many times).
So try as the rabbis might to separate the boys from the girls, they still find ways to get together, if not at a wild New Year’s Eve party, then at least over borekas.
The problem, as I see it, is that in Orthodoxy, leisure gets no respect. The students are so imbued with the righteous values of hard work, mitzvot, Torah study, higher education, etc., that the whole concept of leisure time has become something to be tolerated or suffocated.
Leisure is seen as a problem, not an opportunity.
So here’s an idea to turn it into an opportunity: Instead of just having a “no coed party” rule for students and having them hang out aimlessly on Pico Boulevard or at the Grove on Saturday nights — or at home gossiping on Facebook or playing FarmVille or God knows what else — why not have the students organize some cultural activities for Saturday night?
The Museum of Tolerance is a gorgeous facility that’s adjacent to YULA Boys High School and whose leaders are intimately connected to YULA. Why not have YULA Night Live every Saturday night at the museum, where students might put on poetry slams and comedy nights and show student films?
And why not have musical acts? I’m sure there are great local bands like Moshav and Mongoose, and great musicians like Sam Glaser, Shmuel Levy and Craig Taubman, who would love nothing more than to try out their new material in front of the new generation on Saturday nights.
In other words, get ahead of the problem. Show the students that the tent of Orthodox Judaism is big enough to incorporate teenage fun, even when there are girls and boys in the same audience. This fun is a supplement to, not a replacement for, the deeper pursuits of Torah, mitzvot and building a career.
And if you decide to cater borekas at YULA Night Live, remember, at least you will have someone there to make sure they say their brachas.