Clarity, depth, and passion in Judaism
By Chandrea Serebro
They say that kids are like sponges, and it is very true in many ways. Take Judaism. We show them a love for it and they live it their young lives, learning all the songs in nursery school and delving deeper as they go along their school career. But, one day, they wake up as young adults, and they start to question the things they have been taught and always knew to be true. And, very often, they find that they don’t have within themselves the answers, or the knowhow, to back it up. They know what they believe, and they may or may not doubt it, but they don’t know why they believe it. They find that their whole world is in question, and the stability of everything that they are and know to be true is shaken. That is a scary place to wake up; made even scarier if they find themselves having to motivate an answer to their peers, to strangers, or to the critics in their lives.
“Teenagers today quite commonly have real life questions, which they may be hesitant to discuss. The questions range from ‘how do we, as Jews, know that we have the true religion?’ to ‘why do the innocent suffer?’, ‘what is the place of “fun” in Judaism?’, ‘what is the Jewish concept of afterlife and moshiach?’, and ‘does Hashem really care if I pray to Him or not?’,” says Rabbi Chaim Veshnefsky, director of Yesodei Hadas, an organisation that opens students’ eyes to the beauty and glory of Yiddishkeit, providing intellectually satisfying answers to commonly asked questions, and instilling in them pride and confidence.
Rabbi Veshnefsky was approached by a Rosh Yeshiva who had a problem that he was unsure how to solve. “He had so many bochurim who had questions, and the rabbeim didn’t know what to say to these students.” They were questions about emunah, about the veracity of the Torah, and about contemporary issues that bochrim think about. “Here is a frightening fact,” he says (based on a 2016 survey by Mark L. Trencher for Nishma Research): “Over 80% of people who leave Yiddishkeit do so because of the frustration of unanswered fundamental questions.”
Once Rabbi Veshnefsky started seeing this, he realised that young people need answers in order for them to sustain their belief in the Torah that they were being taught, as well as to continue in its observance. Seeing this need was so prevalent that Rabbi Veshnefsky drew on his love for teaching and for his students, as well as his love for the Torah and undeniable knowledge of its veracity, to develop (among other educational programmes) Yesodei Hadas, which looks to answer the questions regarding which young people seek answers, in a candid, satisfying way.
Rabbi Veshnefsky uses PowerPoint presentations to give over the material in interactive sessions, which involve historical, archeological, scientific, and psychological evidence of the veracity of our mesorah (the chain of transmission stretching back to Moshe Rabbeinu). These lectures have been presented throughout the United States and Europe to thousands of teenagers and adults (both to yeshiva/Bais Yaakov students or graduates, as well as those with a lesser Jewish education), and are great stimulators of Jewish growth. “The lectures provide opportunities to see that we, as Jews, are living a life which is backed by a truly solid foundation, supported by logical and satisfying information which touches both our minds and hearts.”
“When these young adults have questions, if you don’t give them concrete answers that will get them to walk away having had any and all doubts eradicated, then you are in big trouble,” says Rabbi Veshnefsky. “Yesodei Hadas was created in order to give rock-solid answers to all these questions (and more) in a stimulating, fascinating, and enjoyable manner. The results are amazing. The presentations give true clarity, which empowers participants to feel passionate about being Jewish and gets them fired up about their fulfillment of mitzvos.”
“Every facet of their adolescent and young adult mind is dealt with, without fear or taboo. Yesodei Hadas ensures they have a clear and thorough understanding of the foundations of our mesorah, giving them a perspective on how Yiddishkeit enhances all aspects of life. We answer contemporary questions about men and women’s roles, tznius (modesty), and more, laying to rest niggling doubts and giving them a deeper understanding of the performance of mitzvos, addressing the issues of myth vs historical fact. But, importantly, we always look to bring it down to the level of those who are listening, so the kids don’t feel like we are preaching or forcing anything on to them.”
One twelfth-grade student, named Tovah, says: “In the past, if someone had asked me why I am Jewish or to prove my religion is real, I would have had a scared and foolish feeling. I probably would have stuttered and said something foolish. It is ironic to think that I believed in Yiddishkeit, yet sort of blindly followed the religion. Of course I believed in all that the Torah said and followed the mitzvos, but now (because of the seminars at Yesodei Hadas) I have so much evidence of my religion. What also impressed me was that someone could give me an answer for every question.”
This unstinting ability to face head-on every question that a young person might have, no matter the contention or the ignorance inherent in the question, is what makes Rabbi Veshnefsky’s work so valuable to so many students, educators, and parents. “Many people view Judaism as being very restrictive. It regulates the way we dress, eat, work, etc. The Yesodei Hadas lectures provide a proper perspective on discipline vs restrictions. The truth is that Judaism enables a person to have more enjoyment in life – not less. It is so important today to make sure that we understand the truth and value of Jewish life, as we face the numerous challenges that we will encounter as Jews. Someone who is confident in his Yiddishkeit will know that the Torah is G-d’s absolute truth, and a blessing for us all.”
“I feel that it is very important that parents never shut down a serious question from a teen,” explains Rabbi Veshnefsky. “In most cases the question will not go away, but rather it will fester and possibly become worse. It is okay to say ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out’. But then you need to go and get the answers.” Another twelfth-grade student, named Chani, who has taken the Yesodei Hadas courses, says that there are times in a person’s life when the passions, excitement, and emotions for Judaism become lessened or burned out. Such a person can find himself on the wheel of mindless observance, having forgotten why he is there in the first place. But, says Chani, as long as a person listens and understands the seminars at Yesodei Hadas, he will always have the cold, hard facts he has learned on which to fall back – which will help him to navigate these scary and often vulnerable times. “Besides being an interesting and informative set of classes, they also obligate us to act based on the information we learned. If one knows and understands that the Torah is Divine, there is no excuse to be lax in fulfilling what the Torah requires of us.”
Yesodei Hadas also provides training for parents and educators, enabling them to become proficient in answering teenagers’ questions with confidence. The methodology empowers the participants with absolute clarity about the truth of Judaism and deeper meaning of Jewish observance – with no apologetics. “By presenting students with the timeless wisdom of Chazal (our Sages), we try to ‘inoculate’ them against poisonous doubts, at the same time as empowering them to face and overcome the nisyonos (challenges) that they may face throughout their lives,” says Rabbi Veshnefsky.
For more information, visit: yesodeihadas.org or contact firstname.lastname@example.org