Rabbi Sholom Tendler
Klal Perspectives, High School Boys’ Chinuch
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The Contemporary Yeshiva High School: The Challenge and the Opportunity
Among the many differences between contemporary life and that of previous times is that until the mid-1900s, there was no pressure for every child to stay in school for countless hours over many years. For example, an average non-Jewishfamily with four sons may have sent one son to school in the big city and another into the local village to apprentice in the hardware store, while the other two would remain at home to work on the farm. Each of these sons was guided by loving parents who understood that each child is different. Happiness prevailed, with each of the children devoting their lives to those areas in which they could excel.
Today’s society no longer allows for such choices, as all children are required to attend school throughout their youth. In fact, as of 2012, more than eighty percent (80%) of students in the U.S. successfully graduate high school1.Moreover, the National Student Clearinghouse Student Tracker Service reports that approximately seventy percent (70%) of high school graduates of upper income, urban families went on to post-high school education. From my experience, it is clear that the societal and cultural expectation that schooling will continue until at least the age of eighteen (if not beyond) is not beneficial for a significant percentage of the general teenage population.
Any educational problem that may exist within the frum world as a result of universal standards is not the making of the yeshiva community – it is society at large which has established an educational culture with unrealistic expectations. At the same time, of course, it is clear that the norm of extended education must be seen as a blessing for the Torah community. Academic studies through adolescence and beyond have introduced an era of Torah study that encompasses the broadest array of children within the observant community since the reign of Chizkiyahu Hamelech, when it could truly be said that “no Jewish boy was left behind.”
The challenge for contemporary mechanchim is to determine how to take advantage of this tremendous opportunity to extend substantive scholarship to the broader population. The fundamental challenge is to fashion an educational system that satisfies the needs of the broadest scope of students. How do we serve them all? How do we “turn on” students with lesser intellectual inclinations or aptitudes? How do we allow both weak and strong students to taste success? How do we cultivate the joy and allegiance of yeshiva students who are compelled to dwell in an academic environment despite being far more comfortable when engaged in physical rigor, creative arts or technology? Is our yeshiva system innovative enough, bold enough and healthy enough to meet this challenge?
The Current Yeshiva System
Before we take up these challenges, we must first recognize the incredible successes of the American yeshiva system. Not only has the yeshiva system managed to capture the allegiance of an unprecedented number of families, one need only walk into almost any traditional yeshiva high school Beis Medrash to be struck by the special nature of American Torah Judaism. The Torah roar of the “voice of Yaakov” may be no less powerful in today’s American yeshivas than it was in the great Torah academies of eras long gone. The palpable vitality is energizing. The geshmak of learning Torah is reflected on the faces and in the body language of teenagers debating with their chavrusos or inquiring of their rabbeim. I suspect that all mechanchim will agree that the key to success in chinuch in this or any generation is the creation of such an environment – the infusion of the vibrancy of yiddishkeit, the intensity of Torah study and the association with a chevra who are collectively and jointly striving to become Bnai Torah.
Over the past few years, however, communal honesty and sobriety have compelled us to recognize that this passion and vibrancy has eluded many of our talmidim who are not only being unsuccessful academically, they are also being alienated from Yiddishkeit in the process. In response, programs have been introduced outside the traditional yeshiva model and new and innovative approaches are being implemented in communities across the country.
But there is also a significant body of students “in between,” who seem to fit into traditional yeshivas but do not seem to be thriving there. These yeshiva high school students stay the course, attend the classes and remain steadfast within the Torah community, but do not develop a true connection with, or satisfaction from, their Torah studies. Unfortunately, such talmidim have not truly been on the communal radar screen. With these students in mind, we must ask ourselves: Can a single educational system address the needs of such a disparate array of students? Is the failure to do so until now the cause of the alienation of some and the dissatisfaction of many?
Certainly, it is difficult to accommodate the needs of every student. And a subject taught at any degree of sophistication will likely either elude or bore one segment of the class. In particular, the most commonly cited cause of the uneven accommodation of student needs is the dominant role of the study of Torah shbe’al peh, Gemara, in our educational curriculum. It is suggested that a dominant focus on Gemara is not appropriate for a substantial segment of the class, who are doomed to failure by a system that doesn’t seem to understand their needs.
Gemara, Gemara, and more Gemara
But is the dominance of Gemara study really the problem? Let us please be careful not to bash the prevailing culture of yeshivos, whose primary emphasis is Gemara and always has been Gemara. In fact, based on my three-plus decades of experience, I can only conclude that this is the only way to teach Torah. I have encountered no method in which the dynamic and vibrant Beis Medrash environment described above has been created other than by shteiging (growing) in Gemara. It is the unique product of Gemara study that is reflected in the kol Torah (sound of Torah study) and pilpul chaverim (collegial debate) which nurtures ayeshiva bochur’s neshama. I have simply yet to meet the talmid who was turned on to Torah learning by any medium other than Gemara.
But what then of the many talmidim who are not being inspired by Gemara? After all, it is no stretch to conclude that different endeavors of study will favor the skill sets and inclinations of different students.
As an educator, it is clear to me that a student’s lack of inspiration in a particular discipline or activity is almost always connected to his feeling that he is not, and perhaps cannot, be successful in that effort. After all, whether teenager or adult, no one likes to be engaged in efforts that do not lead to success. Even in the most popular activities, most teenagers tend to shy away when their skills are not up to par. How often does the poor athlete choose an alternative to playing sports? How often does the musically challenged student give up playing an instrument? Not only do activities in which one is weak tend to be flat and uninspiring, they frequently become a source of frustration and embarrassment. When a student’s intellect and personality do not lend themselves to excellence in Gemara, or even to an ability to keep up, it is inevitable that his connection to Torah study, which is so crucial to his development as a Jew, will suffer.
The obvious response (from those willing to consider change) is to suggest introducing alternative spheres of Torah learning for talmidim with differing intellectual inclinations and strengths. Perhaps a feeling of success and connection can be achieved for some students, they argue, through the study of Tanach, hashkafa, halacha or some other discipline. Unfortunately, I have found that this is not the case at all.
Though it has been attempted, an emphasis on other segments of Torah is simply not effective at capturing the interest of a community of students. The intensity and engagement engendered by the study of Gemara simply cannot be replicated through any other discipline.
The yeshiva high school where I serve as Menahel boasts what I believe to be a particularly well-rounded Torah curricula, which include a very intensive Tanach program, classical hashkafa, halacha and mussar. On an individual basis, encouraging an interest in any of these subjects can be a first step in building up a talmid’s sense of self-worth in Torah.Nevertheless, as I have observed, the only study that can transform a student into a yeshiva bochur is Gemara.
More Gemara, but Perhaps with a Spin
We are thus left with a conundrum. While we must acknowledge that our Gemara classes are not reaching a significant portion of our student population, we cannot escape the reality that the study of Gemara is the most vital religious experience in becoming a Ben Torah. The solution must lie in an approach to Gemara itself that incorporates varying teaching methodologies, targeting a wider range of students with varying aptitudes and personalities.
As implied by the famous verse “chanoch l’naar al pi darko” (educate a student according to his way), “one size does not fit all.” The amazingly stimulating derech halimud that currently prevails in yeshivos today is obviously not for everyone. This is by no means a breakthrough idea, as it is already recognized by every yeshiva, to one degree or another. It is, in fact, for this reason that larger yeshivos typically track high school classes, assigning talmidim in accordance with their respective needs. It has been my experience, however, that this approach fails to address the true needs of the students, and in certain ways creates new problems.
In its typical implementation, tracked classes are simply the same content and style delivered in differing degrees of complexity and speed. The “regular” shiur is basically a watered down (translation: “dumbed down”) version of the “advanced” shiur. This formulation misunderstands the true nature of the academic distinctions among students. It assumes that it is a bochur’s weaker intellectual capacity that deems him unable to be successful in the advanced Gemara class. More often than not, however, that is a complete misdiagnosis.
While there are certainly certain students who are, generally speaking, intellectually weak, most students have varying strengths and weaknesses. Often, they fail to thrive in certain disciplines because their intellectual make-up does not match the intellectual skill set necessary for success in that field. This is readily observed in the secular arena, as some students thrive in sciences but are at loss in literature. Some are mathematical whizzes, but are weak in history. Each person’s mind is unique, and the hope is that each student will discover the discipline that most appropriately complements his strengths
In our current yeshiva system, not only is Gemara the sole true focus, but the approach and style of its study is exceptionally uniform. While this style is perfectly accessible and comfortable for many bochrim, it can be very challenging even to bochurim with equal, or even greater, intellectual capacity, but with a different orientation. It is time for us to begin to explore multiple approaches to the study of Gemara, identifying along the way approaches that play to the strengths of different bochrim.
For example, learning mesechtos l’halacha (for practical conclusions) requires a different intellectual make-up than learning classical lomdus (analysis). It need be no less sophisticated than lomdus, nor any less intellectually challenging. But it would challenge different dimensions of the student’s intellectual profile, and thus interest a different type of student.An approach based on covering more ground, focusing on the primary rishonim, and tracking the development of the halacha from the Gemara to the Tur, the Beis Yosef and on, is a bona fide, traditional approach that often appeals to bochurim otherwise lost at sea in a typical shiur. In addition, the sense of pragmatic accomplishment in learning can be a strong motivation for continued serious Torah study after leaving yeshiva.
The Critical Role of an Individualized Rebbe/Talmid Relationship
In addition to providing a bochur with an academic base for life-long growth in Torah study, the yeshiva should provide each bochur with the tools for life-long personal growth. Nothing plays a more effective role in advancing this goal than a true rebbe-talmid relationship. Class size has to be reasonable to allow for individualized attention for each talmid. Rabbeim need to be selected based on their natural ability to relate to their particular constituency of talmidim. Professional Development sessions by appropriate psychologists and mechanchim to further enhance the rebbe’s counseling skills can be very beneficial.Every talmid needs to know that his rebbe truly cares about him and, most importantly, respects him. To quote one of my mentors, HaRav Naftoli Kaplan, shlit”a, who is one of the primary mashgichim in Eretz Yisroel today, the talmid has to know that “his rebbe cares more about him than he cares about his yeshiva.” This is true for every bochur, during strong periods and weaker periods. It is all about acceptance and self-esteem.
By developing a close personal relationship with the talmid, a rebbe will identify the talmid’s attributes and potential. By both lauding and cultivating these talents, the rebbe will give the talmid the self-esteem to survive those dimensions of the academic environment in which he may be weaker, and will also lead the talmid toward finding his own personal place in Torah learning. The student will become not only a survivor of the yeshiva system, but also a life-long learner.
In ruchnius (spirituality), as in academics, one size simply does not fit all. Consequently, it is imperative that the personalized rebbe-talmid relationship allow the rebbe to tailor an individualized approach for each talmid’s growth in ruchnius. Such individuality does not, however, diminish the need for every yeshiva to implement universal and objective standards of conduct for all their talmidim. Such uniformity need not be inconsistent with a personalized program of spiritual growth for each talmid. For example, I have seen wondrous results from asking talmidim to keep private “cheshbon hanefesh” (self-analysis)diaries in their own chosen areas of avodas Hashem, allowing each talmid to select the dimension of avoda in which he is motivated to improve. The talmid thereby understands that he can feel spiritual growth in his own personal life without being compared to others.
Self-esteem in the talmidim may also be fostered by identifying and encouraging each individual’s special talents. No doubt, each talmid has unique strengths, perhaps in art or music, and these endeavors can be encouraged during the talmid’s spare time and at parental expense. Or, a bochur may be particularly well suited to excelling in chessed activities, or perhaps tutoring younger students. Certain bochurim have exceptional organization skills; identifying roles within the yeshiva that allow for the display of these skills will enable talmidim to earn increased respect of their peers and elders – and, most importantly, increased self-respect.
Need these talents be developed and nurtured at the expense of Torah learning time? Such a question – forgive me – is actually a non-starter. The enhanced self-esteem a student acquires through the recognition and cultivation of his talents will invariably increase both the quality and quantity of his Torah learning.
Parental Responsibilities, Including Choosing the Correct Yeshiva High School
Need every yeshiva provide alternate tracks and encourage talmidim to attend music and art classes? Of course not. The “free marketplace” of yeshivos will always ensure that there are yeshivos of many different flavors and styles. Moreover, many mechanchim will never consider introducing any of these suggestions into their yeshiva, as they are wholly wedded to what they view as the strictly “Brisker Derech,” with no distractions. Gevaldik! The community is richer for having such yeshivos.
But the community also needs yeshivos with broader strokes, as painted above. And attendance at these yeshivos ought to include students with strong as well as mid-level academic capacity.
It is the critical responsibility of parents to spend the necessary time and focus to really get to know their sons. Absent such honest and thorough understanding, it is impossible to guide them to the yeshiva that is truly appropriate for them as individuals. Eighth grade rabbeim and menahalim must have the true best interests of the talmid at heart when guiding them, and not their institution’s prestige, as measured by how many of their graduates are accepted into the most yeshivish or exclusive mesivtos. Communication between parents and their son’s eighth-grade rabbeim and menahel is crucial. Parents should reach out to whomever they feel can give them the most objective guidance in making this critical choice.
Two words of caution: To parents and eighth-grade rabbeim: it is essential to recognize that a talmid succeeding in a very yeshivish high school does not ultimately reflect the realization of the talmid’s greatest potential. Over the long-term, many students enjoy much greater and more profound achievements when growing in a less restrictive environment. Know thy son and know thy talmid!
The second word of caution is to those creating and supervising yeshivos with a broader environment. No yeshiva high school can achieve its goals without the creation of an overall environment of intensity and love of Torah learning. The introduction of an appreciation of individuality and expansiveness will fail, and will certainly fail to attract motivated talmidim, without an intense and central focus on Torah study. And without the inclusion in the yeshiva of truly energized talmidim, it will be impossible to create the atmosphere of intensity and love of learning necessary for all the complementaryofferings to be effective and purposeful.
A Healthy Child Needs a Family
It would be inappropriate for me to take sides in the “dormitory vs. in-town yeshiva” debate, since that choice also varies by child and family circumstances. In any event, however, one cannot over-emphasize the importance of family life in the development of each bochur. While family influence for younger children is obviously critical, it is equally, if not increasingly, important for teenagers in an era in which bored teenagers so readily gravitate toward all types of technology with their inherent dangers.
This is true for even the most exceptional talmid, and even when attending an in-town yeshiva high school. For example, a talmid has a seder with his rebbe before Shacharis. He has chavrusos during lunch and supper and he learns an additional seder after Maariv. What are our expectations of this talmid when he arrives home at 10 p.m.? Chances are he wants to “chill.” Where are his parents and siblings? Are the parents in their rooms (father wakes up early to go to work, or to a shiur before davening)? Where are the siblings? Are they in their respective rooms doing homework? What will our excellent talmid do? Not only is he being deprived of healthy family relationships, but there is also an excellent chance that he will find access to technology, somewhere, somehow.
Parents cannot cede their children’s development to the yeshiva, but must rather partner with the yeshiva in their child’s chinuch. Parents must provide an active and nurturing family life. Popcorn and cocoa are good. Schmuessing is great. Reading healthy books in the same room is invaluable – relationships grow by just “hanging,” even without talking.
The parental role is all the more demanding, and more critical, for the talmid who does not stay for a seder after Maariv. And even more so for the student whose yeshiva experience is not proceeding in the most optimum manner. Teenagers need parents to provide a family life and, perhaps, constructive and healthy endeavors in consultation with the talmid’s rebbe and menahel.
We are living in a time of a true renaissance of Torah. Yeshivos are booming. This is miraculous and wonderful, b’chasdei Hashem, but it presents us with tremendous challenges. B’siyata d’shmaya, we will rise to the occasion.
Rabbi Sholom Tendler is the Rosh HaYeshiva of Mesivta Birkas Yitzchok in Los Angeles.