Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg
Klal Perspectives, High School Boys’ Chinuch
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Winning The Peace: A New Fifty-Year Plan
The gedolei Torah of pre-war Europe, sensing the destruction of European Jewry from without and American Jewry from within, set about the gargantuan task of saving Torah from what appeared to be imminent destruction. The strategy they pursued included the modification of the advanced Torah educational system from the more elitist nature it had assumed in Europe to a (hopefully) populist movement. In the very limited and selective system of pre-war Eastern Europe, the vast majority of children from even very observant families did not pursue an advanced education, and even the largest of the few yeshivas had student enrollment numbering only in the hundreds.
In the face of significant religious and cultural challenges to sustaining Torah Judaism in America, Torah leadership undertook to expand the spectrum of students appropriate to yeshiva enrollment, extend the age of Torah study for the typical bochur through adolescence and beyond, and imbue the communal culture with a broader expectation of advanced Torah study among community youth and young adults. By any measure, the strategy has been a spectacular, perhaps historical, success.
Through the remarkable success of the day school movement, it is now almost unheard of for a child from an observant home to not attend a full-time Orthodox school. Through the energy and grandeur of a burgeoning kollel system, it is no longer unusual for an Orthodox boy to aspire to post-marriage Torah study, or for a young woman to look askance at a prospective shidduch who does not designate Torah study as his aspirational preoccupation. The large yeshivas (Beis Medrash Govoha in Lakewood and the Mir in Yerushalayim) now number students in the thousands, and almost every North American Orthodox community of even modest size boasts a kollel. In fact, there are currently more people studying Torah at an advanced level than at any period since the time of Rav Yochanan ben Zakai.
Unfortunately, in the midst of this astounding success, a variety of significant and painful challenges have developed. In fact, many of these challenges are not despite our success, but rather the product of that success. Many successful businesses fail because they cannot manage their own growth. Many countries have won wars, only to lose the peace. Does the Torah community now fall within that category?
It is possible that the challenges we now face, no matter how painful, were inevitable. As I once heard from Rav Nachman Bulman, zt”l, “The fight for Torah is a war and in every war there are casualties and collateral damage.” It behooves the community to consider very seriously and deliberately whether such damage, while perhaps inevitable, now could be reversed, at least in part, if we were to consider a system of minor revisions to our current approaches to Torah study.
Collateral Damage – An Alternate Form of Elitism
As noted, it is now almost universal for every young man and woman within our community to pursue a post-high school Torah education, and for many this extends even beyond marriage. The introduction of this norm was viewed as necessary to replenish the treasure trove of Torah scholarship decimated in churban Europe, and was mandated by the need to create a significant pool of Torah scholars from which the next generation of the community’s rabbonim and mechanchim could be drawn.
Precedent for this approach is often derived from the frequently quoted statement of Chazal that אלף נכנסים לבית מדרש ואחד יוצא להוראה – “A thousand students enter the Bais Medrash and only one goes out to hora’ah” (i.e., to become a Torah authority). In actuality, this statement seems to accurately describe the current cheder to kollel educational system, in which many, many students enter, but only few ultimately achieve true scholarship or otherwise disseminate Torah. Ironically, the shift from an elitist yeshiva population to a system that is intended to include all students has bred an elitism of a new kind.
If the objective of filling yeshivas with students is to produce the rare and select successes, it is no wonder that normative yeshiva high schools trend to elitism, seeking only the most advanced bochurim who appear capable of emerging as the ideal products of their yeshiva. One prominent rosh yeshiva recently observed that contemporary high schools screen applicants for the “Eisavs” among them. Eiasv was so named because he was born עשוי, completed. So too, high schools are looking for fourteen-year-old boys who are already finished products. No longer is there an eagerness to attract the diamond in the rough or the boy who has yet to find himself. Certainly, there is little appetite for the bochur who has yet to find the geshmak (deep enjoyment) in learning. The likelihood that such candidates will evolve into the superstar is simply too remote.
The Alter from Kelm explained Chazal’s command that tochacha must be delivered “even a thousand times” to mean that a thousand steps may be needed to advance a bochur. In my years as an elementary and middle school menahel (principal), I have rarely met mainstream high school educators who view it as their job to help all levels of boys grow and stretch, step by step, to be the best they can be. Students who are simply “average” enjoy little attention, and even less encouragement, and rarely achieve an enduring sense of satisfaction from their learning. The norm is for yeshiva high schools to gear their shiurim to those most academically advanced, leaving the “regular” talmidim to manage on their own.
The composition of the yeshiva high school curriculum also reflects an elite-focused system. Universally, yeshiva high schools have but a single focus with a single measure of academic success – Gemora learning. Or, in what is often the case, the mastery by age 15 of Reb Baruch Ber on Rav Chaim on the Rambam on the Gemora.
Let us for a moment compare this system to our community’s girls’ education. I recall my daughters’ Bais Yaakov graduations, where each girl was called up by name, accompanied by a list of her involvements, such as chesed project, year book editor, B’nos leader, head of dance, head of song, Aishes chayil award winner, and on and on. Were such lists to be offered at a yeshiva high school graduation, they would be limited to how much Gemara learning each boy fit into his day. Chazal taught, “Raise up many students.” How can one have many students if there is only one definition of success? This competitive, rather monolithic approach has been producing too large a pool of also-rans in its effort to produce the handful of successes.
Another result of this “one goes out to hora’ah” approach is the nature of praise meted out by rebbeim and roshei yeshiva. The focus on producing the singular superstar results in enormous emphasis being placed on natural talent and ability. “Baal kishron” (intellectually powerful) is the praise most frequently sought and heard, surpassed only by the occasional approbation of “iluy” (genius).
The flaw in a system valuing talent and ability above all else, however, is that it is not in line with Torah values. Perhaps most effectively articulated by Rav Yechiel Yaakovson in his outstanding work, “אל תחטאו בילד”, a person’s talents and abilities are on loan from Hashem. They are not one’s innate possession. Praising someone for talents makes no more sense than praising a virtuoso pianist for his rented piano. In fact, encouraging a focus on talent and ability runs the risk of students becoming baalei gaavah (haughty people) who believe the praises, or depressed individuals who view such praise as phony and beyond their reach.
What then should be praised? Hard work and good choices. As taught by the Rambam at the end of Hilchos Shmitta and Yovel, life’s goal is לעבדו ולשרתו, to work for and serve Hashem. Being a baal kishron is not mentioned. Nor is it mentioned in the Mishneh Berura when the Chofetz Chaim counsels parents on the requests to be made to Hashem when davening for their children’s success. A parent is advised to pray that their children become לומדי תורה, יראי שמים ובעלי מדות טובות (Learners of Torah, G-d-fearing and of fine character). To be a baal kishron is conspicuously absent.
Yeshiva high schools have fallen into the same trap that snags colleges and universities, which admit students based primarily on Grade Point Average and SAT scores. Research reflects, however, that the greatest indicator of academic success in college is resilience, which is hardly measured by such scores.
Very few of our sons are likely to become roshei yeshiva. But, IY”H, they are all most likely to become husbands, fathers, employees, employers, community members, etc. It is their degree of success in these non-academic areas that will define them, as well as measure their real success as a bnei Torah. Sadly, when our sole criterion for success is status as a learner of Gemora, we tend to devalue and even neglect these truly central dimensions of avodas Hashem. Moreover, an almost exclusive focus on Gemora study leaves little time for teaching character building or relationship skills that should be the quintessential measures of the success of one’s academic endeavors. Hoping that these skills will be absorbed by osmosis, or in a perfunctory fifteen-minute mussar seder, is not a sufficiently credible plan of action.
The Source of the Error
When adherence to a famous teaching of Chazal translates into a practice that seems inconsistent with Torah values, it can typically be attributed to a misreading of Chazal’s message. A closer reading of Chazal’s advice that a thousand students must enter to produce the single Torah scholar will reveal that the application described above is indeed not supported by Chazal.
The actual statement of Chazal reads as follows: “A thousand bnei adam enter to Mikra (study of Tanach); of the thousand, one hundred enter to [study of] Mishna; of the one hundred, ten enter to [study of] Talmud; and of the ten, one enters ho’raah.” Chazal did not advocate or advise that one thousand students should focus their study on Talmud to produce the single Talmudic giant. On the contrary! The single Talmudic master is produced only when each student finds his own place in Torah, at a level and in a discipline appropriate to him. This teaching may actually be cautioning that forcing all one thousand students into Talmud may actually inhibit the production of that single Talmudic great.
This approach is supported by a statement of Rashi in Shir Hashirim (7:12-13), when Rashi explains that Hashem rests his Shechina (presence) on the batei kenesios and batei midrashos wherein the baalei mikra, baalei mishna and baalei Talmud each are nehene from that Shechina.
In earlier eras, it was common to find within a single community the Chevra Shas, the Chevra Mishnayos, the Chevra Chayei Adom, even the Chevra Ein Yaakov. When Chazal noted that only ten percent advanced academically, the limitation was not due to class size restrictions. Rather, most did not advance because it was in the interests of their particular role as an ovaid Hashem (servant of G-d) to recognize their place and their personal definition of success. And perhaps it can be argued that when an educational system fails through its curriculum to convey the importance of each student taking pride in their own respective role and achievement, the system is less likely to produce greatness in anyone.
Several decades ago, the community was forced to battle for Torah survival. There was a desperate need to produce gedolim and to re-invigorate Torah scholarship. The adopted strategy was to devalue non-Torah pursuits, or even Torah disciplines other than Gemara. But the passage of decades has taught that there are great pitfalls in presenting higher Talmudic scholarship as the single avenue to Torah study for all students. In fact, it is increasingly clear that the desired result can and must be achieved while avoiding these pitfalls. In fact, we have discovered that our goals may have a greater chance of success if the educational system would adopt a broader outlook, infuse more patience, and emphasize the need to develop the educational skills necessary to help boys grow instead of seeking to teach an already finished product.
Chazal say that one who learns for five years and does not see a “siman bracha” (sign that his efforts are being blessed) will never see one. I heard from Rav Wolbe, zt”l, that the referenced five years begin after yeshiva gedola/Mesivta and that if one does not then see the bracha he should focus primarily on Tanach, Mishnayos, and Halacha. “And a person who knows those three areas of Torah is very far from being an am haaretz,” he added.
High schools are currently failing to afford students the time to see whose hard work and desire might be rewarded with true success and growth in learning. Those who do not succeed, unfortunately, are left with the impression that Tanach and Mishnayos are so second rate, that they would never pick them up after leaving yeshiva. It is better to sit through a daf Yomi they cannot appreciate, they believe, which is at least Gemora, than to dedicate learning time to other areas of Torah.
Twentieth Century world history may provide a road map for getting us back on track.
Merely twenty years following the Allied victory that concluded World War I, the world found itself embroiled in yet a second world war. The peace could not be held because the victors had no plan to manage that peace. By contrast, World War II was followed by years of prosperity with even the Allies’ greatest enemies becoming intimate trade partners and sources of economic growth. The distinction, of course, was that World War II was followed by the introduction of the Marshall Plan, which harnessed Allied resources to allow the defeated countries – while disarming them – back onto their feet. By so doing, the Allies won the peace.
Judging by the success of the day school movement, and the enormous accomplishments of institutions of higher Torah study, Torah Judaism has won a great battle. And now a plan must be implemented to win the peace. The chinuch world is in need of a chinuch plan, ומצאתי עזר מקודש(I have found support from a holy source).
A dear friend of mine conveyed to me a profound insight that the current Belzer Rebbe, shlita, had shared with him. The Rebbe commented, “I recently changed my goals in chinuch. For the last fifty years, the gedolim after the war saw it as their mission to replace what was lost, and some say it was replaced and some say it has superseded what was lost. The mission of the next fifty years, I believe, is to avoid losing even a single neshama – and this new goal is much harder than the previous one.”
More significant and profound than the specifics of the new goals noted by the Admor of Belze is the very fact that he has recognized the need for a new vision and a new fifty-year plan. He recognizes that today’s challenges are not the same as those of yesterday. I am humbly adding that perhaps today’s challenges may have actually been triggered by the successes of yesterday.
So how do we reenvision a yeshiva high school system that once saved so many neshamas as one that will no longer be the cause of lost neshamas?
- Distinct Education for Distinct Students. To begin with, I think we need to take Chazal at their word and create yeshivos and curricula that will enable talmidim to find their chelek in Torah, whatever it may be.
- A More Thought Provoking Classroom Methodology. Rav Chenoch Leibowitz, zt”l, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim, was wont to remark that high school talmidim of today suffer primarily from two dysfunctions: an inability to think, and burnout. I suggest that one depends upon the other. Instead of sitting through daily lectures, high school talmidim should be presented with shiurim that take on more of a tone of a guided chavrusa, in which students are encouraged to learn through the sugya (subject) together with their rebbe. True, the pace might be slower, but the thought processes would be energized. As Rav Hutner, zt”l, put it, brains respond to pleasure waves, and “thinking” is pleasurable, which would help reduce burnout, as well.
A more deliberate and methodological classroom experience would afford many students the opportunity to bloom a little later in their learning, especially if rebbeim were trained and equipped with true chinuch skills, and not just explanation skills. The rebbeim and roshei yeshiva would have a greater opportunity to track the developmental levels of their students and guide them in meeting and rising above their age appropriate challenges, step by step. The end result will be a larger pool of talmidim staying in the game longer to see if they will see success in the five years that follow.
- Extra-Curricular Activities and Treatment of Secular Culture. The developmental needs of high school bochurim demand opportunities for them to release their energies and entertain themselves in a Torah-approved manner. Boys need to be encouraged to eat well and to understand the need for exercise. If they do not release their physical energy in a kosher way, their bodies will cause the energy to be released in a non-kosher way.
Speaking of kosher, we should not be so naïve as to believe that even most solid high school bochurim will always find Gemora review to be an engaging form of extra-curricular entertainment. Playing music, creating art, participating in sports activities, developing hobbies, etc., provide kosher “yeses” in a world in which there are so many traife “nos.” Indeed, it would behoove high school educators to refrain from treating all manner of secular culture with disdain. If the message is that there is no difference between Rachmaninoff and rappers, why not choose the lower end of non-Jewish culture when testing the waters?
In addition, demeaning and dismissing secular culture as meaningless can actually result in a diminishing of Torah. We teach our students that Torah is the incomparable superior of the entire world’s thought, values, ethics and creativity. But of what significance is this contrast if all other pursuits are totally empty? In Rav Wolbe’s words, “The Rambam said that Aristotle was one level below ruach hakodesh. Yet we know that we can put all of Aristotle into a single line of the Rabbeinu Yona. How great must then the Rabbeinu Yona be! If, however, all secular knowledge and activities are nothing and yet we assert that Torah is better, then all we are actually saying is that Torah is better than nothing.”
- Teaching Life Skills. One of the yesodos (principles) of Rav Yaakovson (quoted above) is that most children, and particularly adolescents, are not especially interested in being “educated.” They are very interested, however, in learning about how life works. Moreover, we now recognize that “on the job” is not the appropriate venue in which to first learn how to be a husband or father. Therefore, to avoid losing neshamos (and allowing these lost neshamos to take other neshamos down with them), we need to develop a curriculum of “life skills.” These basic skills include resilience, handling or coping with a “down” or failure, embracing the benefits of delayed gratification, resisting the tendency to blame others,assuming responsibility, developing a vision for the future, time management, interpersonal skills, conflict resolution, health and hygiene, public speaking and writing skills, and others. Perhaps the value of possessing these skills will not necessarily emerge in the beis medrash, but does anyone doubt that they will be essential in our students’ future homes and families?
As in all change, we need to approach our new fifty-year plan from a positive perspective. Remember, our challenges are a sign of our successes! Tisha B’av began because Klal Yisroel said, “Hashem hates us” (b’sinas Hashem osanu – see Devarim 1:27). We need to know, as Rashi says there, that really He loved us – it was we who hated Him! And maybe we hated Him because we hated ourselves. So yes, we need to improve the education of our adolescent boys. Yeshivas need to offer more opportunities for all kinds of kids to feel successful. We need to give young men the tools to build strong marriages and be effective parents. But we need to give ourselves a break, too, because many of the issues that we struggle with are the result of a Torahdik, frum society that rose from the ashes in record time to rebuild a world of Torah that was given up for lost. We have all of these problems because of the great talmidei chachomim who led us, and because of Hashem who loves us! We need to love ourselves for what we have managed to accomplish and for who we are, walking-wounded though we might be.
Maybe that is why the period from Tisha B’Av through Elul begins with “Hashem hates us,” but transitions to “Ani ledodi vedodi li” — He adores us and we cherish Him. This is a perspective that will give us strength, inspire leadership and guide us to find our equilibrium as a nation. Our students will no doubt derive great benefits as we better manage our community’s growth, striving to solidify our victory and find our way to win the peace.
Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg, who lectures widely on the subjects of educational leadership, parenting, kiruv and personal growth, has served as Menahel of Yeshiva Aharon Yaakov Ohr Eliyahu in Los Angeles for the last 23 years.