Rabbi Dovid Katzenstein
Klal Perspectives, High School Boys’ Chinuch
To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.
The Educational Needs of Today’s Talmidim
The present yeshiva system in the United States has produced many great people – with both the ordinary greatness of the average ben Torah and the extraordinary greatness of the leading gedolim. It has developed leaders in Torah, leaders in chesed and leaders of shuls and countless organizations. Shaped by the gedolim of the mid-twentieth century according to the age-old principles of the mesorah, it has stood the test of time over multiple generations.
For many reasons, however, the time has come for a comprehensive review of our methodologies. For one thing, there is growing belief throughout the community that our educational system is not succeeding at its stated goals and that changes are needed. This is not a reason to institute changes, necessarily, but it is a reason to seriously review our efforts. If parents are concerned, mechanchim must be concerned, as well.
Additionally, our yeshivos serve a far broader spectrum of boys than they did in past decades, representing a wider variety of backgrounds, homes, needs and interests. The guiding principle of chinuch – chanoch lanaar al pi darko – compels us to consider the “darkei hanearim” – ways of the youth – of our generation and to tailor our approach to chinuch to their reality.
More specifically, my experience as the Rosh Yeshiva of a yeshiva high school convinces me that in subject after subject, more can be done to reach our children, and that the urgency for meeting the challenges of our times is only increasing. While Gemara is properly the central limmud of a yehiva curriculum, today’s students seem to be getting less and less of an education in the other vital areas of Torah, such as Chumash, Navi, Halacha, Hashkafa and Tefilah. In this essay, I will review each of these subjects, offering suggestions for systemic improvements in each one based on the needs of today’s talmidim.
Concerning Gemara, I will make only a few points, as others have addressed this topic thoroughly, both within this issue of Klal Perspectives and elsewhere. For the very driven, bright boys, our present system works very well, but there are many that are not “turned on” to this type of learning and are being left behind. I believe it is time to consider learning more halacha-oriented mesechtos, such as Berachos, Shabbos, Sukkah, Beitzah, Megilah and certain parts of Menachos and Sotah. This type of learning, which is more practical, more relevant and less analytically demanding, has a value of its own and is generally more accessible to and appreciated by a wider range of talmidim. For some yeshivos, the best approach may be to add a second track learning these mesechtos.
Regardless of the approach taken to Gemara, there is so much that yeshiva high schools can offer to our talmidim in other vital areas of learning that will provide them the satisfaction and confidence they need to be successful bnai Torah throughout their lives. Too often, these areas get neglected in favor of Gemara, despite the extraordinary benefits they have for all talmidim. Though each yeshiva is unique and will have its own approach to each of these areas, I believe that most yeshivos would benefit from considering the steps below.
It is important to stress that these steps should not come at the expense of serious Gemara learning, although some amount of time and emphasis will need to be shifted from Gemara to other subjects. And while some yeshivos will find that there is no room in their schedule for all the additions suggested, I believe that every yeshiva can benefit from investing at least some additional attention in all of these essential subject areas.
Tefilah: After learning Gemara, there is no part of the yeshiva schedule that takes up as much space in the student’s lives as davening, yet little if any time is devoted to learning about it. Aside from leaving talmidim ill-prepared for a lifetime of davening three times a day, spending so much time on something most students don’t appreciate does not bode well for the rest of their yeshiva experience. Too many bochurim start, pause and end each day mumbling words in the siddur, just because that’s what they’re all expected to do.
To help make the full yeshiva schedule meaningful to our talmidim, we must spend more time teaching the meaning, nuances and deeper understanding of tefilah – both specifically (going through the primary tefilos) as well as generally (the notion of turning to Hashem in prayer). There should be a curriculum based on grade level to translate and give deeper meaning to each of the primary tefilos, and to take advantage of the opportunity to develop the hearts and souls of our bochurim, and not just their minds. The soul of a Jew wants and needs to express itself to Hashem but it must learn how.
I highly recommend the teachings of the שפתי חיים, published by his sons, in which he offers both brief explanations of the tefilos and more elaborate ones. His ideas can help each bochur relate to tefilah in his own way – something that should be a staple of a yeshiva high school education.
Chumash: Many boys do not know how to approach learning a pasuk in Chumash, such as how to break it up and identify the salient points. They don’t appreciate the questions that arise in each narrative or mitzvah or even why there are so many perushim (commentaries) and what each one seeks to accomplish. For too many bochurim, Chumash remains just a series of individual divrei Torah instead of the infinitely rich learning experience it really is.
To reach high school students, it is important that we explain the concepts of Chumash to them in terms of how these concepts relate to their lives – present and future. Bereishis, for example, must include מעשה אבות סימן לבנים (i.e., the events of the forefathers foreshadows the future) to show how the story of Yishmael and Yitzchak is playing out in the Middle East and throughout the world, how the relationship of Eisav vs. Yaakov has developed throughout history and continues today. They must see a timeline from Bereishis to understand the events and the development of the Jewish people. We must make the Avos real so that the boys can relate to them and see how all their actions have a ripple effect until today.
We must emphasize the teachings in the Chumash about integrity and sin in human life and how Hashem and the Torah deals with them as part of who we are. We must teach the parshiyos about the future of the Am Hashem (G-d’s People), as seen through נצבים, האזינו, and זאת הברכה, as well as through the blessings of Bilam. It will not take a major time commitment or a distraction from the current, vital schedule of Gemara – just an appreciation of how much Chumash has to offer, especially during the high school years.
Navi: In addition to the benefits of learning Chumash, there are unique benefits to spending time on Navi as well, such as learning to appreciate the places in Eretz Yisroel and the key events that unfolded throughout the land. This context is extremely important for developing a sense of the history – and the future – of our People in our Land.
It is important to teach about the map of Eretz Yisroel, as many bochurim know very, very little about the cities and regions and where they are on the map and, as a consequence, have difficulty following the accounts in the Navi. Their education needs to include visual placements of events, such as אליהו בהר הכרמל and others, so that they can piece together a better understanding of what the Navi is intending to teach. Having nothing at all to do with a school’s political outlook, if talmidim don’t develop a feeling for the land, Navi will remain foreign to them, and the idea of Mashiach and returning to the Land will feel distant and even unrealistic.
History: We must also teach more about Jewish history beyond the period of the neviim, all the way to our own times. There is perhaps nothing that strengthens a bochur’s emunah more than tracking the miraculous journey of our people and of the mesorah through the generations, right down to his rebbe and to himself.
Halacha: By the time talmidim finish high school, they should be comfortable looking up a halacha in the Shulchan Aruch, and not just the Mishna Berura. This means being familiar with the content of all four sections of Shulchan Aruch as well as the primary nosei keilim (commentaries). For example, they should be able to look up a halacha about priorities in tzedaka, knowing where to look in Yoreh Deah and how to read and apply the Shach and the Taz.
Although many assume students will develop these skills in the normal course of learning Gemara, it has become rare indeed to find a student entering yeshiva who possesses these skills. In fact, many students are not even comfortable with the most basic, practical halachos in the Mishna Berurah. We will be doing our students a great service if we make a point of teaching them the workings of halacha during high school. Aside from better preparing them for their continued growth in learning, it will help answer many of their questions about the sources for common practices and how rabbis answer halachic questions.
Hashkafa is a broad category that covers the Jewish outlook on everything, but it is essential that yeshiva high schools have a well-developed approach to teaching it. One of the most basic texts that has so much to offer is the ספר החנוך, which teaches the שורשי המצוה (ideas behind all the mitzvos), providing a thorough foundation for understanding and appreciating the life of a Torah Jew. There are so many talmidim who are sorely missing this sort of background, and whose connection to Torah suffers as a result.
It is also vital that yeshiva high schools offer some approach to understanding and developing midos. It is not enough to leave it for mussar seder or to bring it up in the occasional schmooze. Students need to understand the central role midos play in their lives and in their growth as Jews (as the Gra famously said, all service of G-d depends on developing midos), and they need guidance from their rebbeim in meeting the challenges they face in high school as well as those they will confront in the future – especially in their roles as husbands and fathers.
Secular Studies: The secular programs of many yeshiva high schools were developed for previous generations, when students generally did not go to college. Today, there is a need for a redesigned program that will best prepare our talmidim for their futures in today’s world. In general, courses need to be more practically oriented, with the skills they will use both as their education progresses and in the course of their professional lives.
As important as all these suggestions may be to the curriculum of our yeshiva high schools, there remains nothing more important than developing and strengthening the rebbe–talmid relationship. This requires an environment in which the rebbe can be totally dedicated to the yeshiva and to his talmidim. Every student needs a close, personal relationship with his rebbe – not only in his learning, but in the great ideas of Torah and of derech eretz according to Torah, both during his teenage years and after he ultimately moves on. The bonds built during these key years will stand by the student throughout his life.
As mechanchim entrusted with the neshamos of our talmidim in truly perilous times, it is our great responsibility to ensure that our yeshivos will give them the preparation they need to thrive in the world that awaits them outside our doors.
Rabbi Dovid Katenstein is a Menahel and Rebbe at Yeshiva of Greater Washington.