Rabbi Simcha Cook
Klal Perspectives, High School Boys’ Chinuch
To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.
Are Our Yeshiva High Schools Servicing their Charges?
My Rebbe, Moreinu Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, said many times that the methods of teaching Torah are unique and do not follow the guidelines of secular education. Teaching Torah is based on a core mesorah from which we dare not diverge. Nevertheless, what we teach, to whom we teach and how we set up our curricula has always been subject to change when necessary.
For example, incorporating secular subjects in an inappropriate manner was not acceptable in the Yeshiva of Volozhin,¹ even at the expense of closing it down. Yet here in the U.S., secular studies in yeshiva high schools were sanctioned by the gedolim of the previous generation. Much debate has swirled around the Torah Im Derech Eretz philosophy of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, but even those who did not accept it as a universally valid approach to avodas Hashem, nevertheless agreed that it was entirely appropriate for his time and place.
Aside from changes associated with secular studies, there have also been changes over the years in the method, style and format of the actual learning and teaching of Torah. For example, fifty years ago in Yeshivas Ner Yisroel, the entire day’s learning revolved completely around the shiur: the morning was a “layning” (preparation) for the shiur and the first two hours of the afternoon were devoted to reviewing it. Today, review has been relegated to night seder, and the afternoon is dedicated to learning a different subject in the same mesechta. Each of these changes was instituted by roshei yeshiva after careful deliberation about developments that had taken place in the Torah community over the course of time.
In light of this introduction, having been in chinuch for over forty years both as a rebbe and as a menahel, and having witnessed the incredible changes that have swept our community during these years, I would respectfully suggest that the time has come for our gedolim to broadly reexamine the preferred goals of a yeshiva high school. For instance: What type of growth do we want each bochur to achieve by the time he graduates? Do we just want him to acquire certain abilities in learning or do we want him to attain a certain level of knowledge? Is it the job of the high school to prepare bochurim for adult life in the outside world, or should that be the domain of the parents? Should menahelim and mechanchim make changes in our programming as we strive to stem the flow of the thousands of our youth leaving the fold of Yiddishkeit, or is that not the responsibility of a yeshiva ketana (high school)?
I would then suggest that our gedolim also meet with a cross-section of menahelim of yeshiva high schools, in order to determine what percentage of their talmidim are not making it through high school, how many students are using their time constructively, and how many are just going through the motions, etc. They should also find out how many young men are straying from Torah and Mitzvos soon after marriage and consider the possible effects of their high school experience. Once our gedolim have gathered this information, they could then decide if changes should be made to our present system, and what those canges should be.
Throughout our history, changes in education were made by great leaders to deal with the nisyonos (challenges) of their times – the creation of yeshivos, the Mussar Movement, the Bais Yaakov movement. I think that such a time has come and that we need great leadership to navigate the turbulent sea of today’s restless youth. I am fearful that if we do not address the issues, we are in danger of losing a generation – not just to the abandonment of Yiddishkeit by some but to indifference to the Almighty and the hashkafa of our Torah hakedosha by many more.
What follows are some of my personal thoughts in answering the four questions that have been posed to us.
In designing the curriculum, it is important for us to realize that the role of a yeshiva in today’s frum community is very different from what it was in pre-war Europe. Firstly, the concept of being a “teenager” between childhood and adulthood did not exist then, as adult responsibilities commenced at a very young age. Secondly, going to yeshiva was not standard fare, but rather a privilege. Thirdly, and probably most important of all, one could be a frum young boy even though he was not in a yeshiva.
Here in America in 2014, if a Jewish boy is not in a Mechina/Mesivta, the odds that he will remain frum are severely reduced. But not every teenage boy has the ability to follow a program that is designed for bochurim of high intelligence, or the desire to concentrate sufficiently on a demanding learning schedule.
There are flourishing yeshivos that cater to those bochurim of higher intelligence and “hasmoda” (diligence) and I think that they should be encouraged to do so. At the other end of the spectrum, there are yeshivos whose curricula are designed to attract and encourage those boys who are on the lower end of the intellectual scale.
What is sorely needed, and unfortunately there is a dearth of such institutions, are more yeshivos that maintain a high level program that caters to the brightest students but that also offers an adjusted though fully meaningful program for the less gifted and the less motivated.
Such an approach can be accomplished in several ways, even while maintaining an intensive focus on Gemora. The most obvious of these is simply tracking the students, but I have seen another approach that has been extremely successful in different high schools: providing older chavrusos to learn one-on-one (or one-on-two) with those boys who need the extra support. If necessary, the length and difficulty of the daily shiur can be modified, with the rebbe offering extra time to challenge his more advanced talmidim. The size of such a class is critical – 20 being optimal, 24 being the maximum. Less accomplished boys tend to take vital inspiration from being together with stronger boys, who very often generate more enthusiasm to learn and succeed than any other source of motivation.
An additional idea: Perhaps after 10th grade, a shiur could be offered in Gemoras that deal with topics more pertinent to everyday life, developing the Gemora with meforashim (commentaries) through to the halacha. Rabbi Yissacher Frand does this for post-high school boys in Yeshivas Ner Israel and it has met with much success. I think that such an idea could work very well in a Mechina/Mesivta and that it definitely deserves consideration. As a ninth grade rebbe, I implemented this approach in the weeks before Pesach and Chanukah, focusing on those topics. We learnt the relevant Gemoras and then the Halacha, starting with the Rosh, then the Shulchan Aruch and finally the Mishnah Berurah. It piqued the students’ interest and generated an involvement that was really exciting.
Perhaps more important than curriculum is the manner in which the shiur is presented – namely, giving the talmidim a “geshmak” (pleasure/excitement) in learning. This approach can ensure that not only will they want to be in a yeshiva high school, they will also be more likely to remain involved with their learning for the rest of their lives.
It is important to note that stressing enjoyment in learning should not come at the expense of basic learning skills, such as reading and following the arguments in the Gemara. On the contrary, the talented rebbe is able to teach the skills and at the same time make it “geshmak” (deeply enjoyable) The pool from which to draw rebbeim today is vast and we need to select prospects who are not just adequate, but have shown exceptional talent.
Iyun versus bekius (in depth study versus covering ground) has been debated since the time of the Gemorah. The approach of yeshivos today is to focus mainly on iyun,which creates the most enjoyment. The innate pleasure of resolving a contradictory Rambam and the satisfaction of following of an intricate teshuva (responsum) form Rabbi Akiva Eger are the backbone of a yeshiva. However, a serious bekius program offers another type of enjoyment – the feeling of accomplishment in amassing Torah knowledge, which many bochurim find to be their prime motivator in their commitment to learning. Such programs should include periodic testing.
Identifying Each Student’s Strengths and Talents
As mentioned above, those yeshivos that are catering to the higher levels of intelligence and motivation, serving as a feeding ground for the next generation of gedolim, poskim, roshei yeshiva etc., should not provide any program that could be a distraction from that goal. Yeshivos that are not of that ilk, however, need to give the bochurim who are talented in other areas an opportunity to express their talents and to give them a feeling of accomplishment in those areas. Yeshivos that have a General Studies program can offer courses in addition to the standard English, Math and History, in subjects that could be beneficial or perhaps even essential to the student now and later on in life. Examples of such courses include Public Speaking, Financial Management or Business Ethics – subjects that can be included in schools that do not have an official General Studies program.
Although many talmidim would benefit in some ways from extra-curricular projects such as chessed programs or a yearbook, which would enable them to develop other talents, these unfortunately result in far too much bittul Torah for a first-rate yeshiva. However, general studies classes can include practical projects to provide talmidim with these types of opportunities.
Unfortunately, some of our communities look aghast at the idea of a Secular Studies program in a yeshiva ketana, and this attitude filters over to our children, making it well-nigh impossible to successfully establish such a school in those communities. I believe, however, that things will change as the stark reality sinks in that husbands and fathers need to provide for their families and that there just aren’t enough jobs in chinuch and Rabbonus for the minions of capable young men waiting for them.
In order to remain solidly on the right derech for the long term, high school bochurim have specific ruchnius needs that must be met. Namely, they need to develop over time a personal appreciation of what avodas Hashem is all about. They need to discover what it means to have a relationship with their Creator and to find expression for that relationship in their daily activities. Today, this requires much more than a weekly shmuess. It requires ongoing conversations at appropriate times about the wide range of hashkafa issues and questions that are most relevant to teenage bochurim.
While there are many bochurim who find that their hashkafik needs are being amply met, there are unfortunately many more who feel (whether during high school or sometimes only afterwards) that the standard yeshiva high school system does not (or did not) meet these needs. As a result, they feel lost long after they have left the protective cocoon of the yeshiva. It is imperative that besides the weekly shmuessen that are delivered in most yeshiva high schools, all the boys be encouraged to meet with rebbeim or capable avreichim to keep an open dialogue about matters of hashkafa. They should have the invaluable opportunity to discuss the issues that are facing them and learn how to deal with them.
It is also extremely important to create warm, trusting relationships between rebbeim and talmidim. It is through such close connections that talmidim can be inspired to raise the level of their religiosity and begin to feel a personal kesher (connection) with the Ribono Shel Olam.
Banning instruments of mass ruchnius destruction is a losing battle, but we must seize the initiative and start talking openly about today’s issues to our talmidim, preferably in small, informal settings. Our natural reticence about talking about these matters needs to be revisited, being that we already live in a society that has bankrupted every moral standard that once served as the basis of family and community. Yeshiva high schools still need to impose restrictions on what is and is not allowed in their schools but they must be coupled with teaching bochurim how to deal with their temptations. Forums should be set up where menahelim, mashgichim and experts in this field – together with psychologists and therapists who work with talmidim in these areas – can get together and discuss ideas of how to deal with these issues. Perhaps a future Torah Umesorah convention would be an appropriate venue.
As much as we try, we no longer can shelter our children from the outside world – we’ve got to do our best to help them live in it as morally strong, G-d fearing Jews.
Every young bochur in a yeshiva high school needs to have time during the day to relax and take a breather. I have witnessed too many times when “shtarker” (strong) bochurim have maintained a schedule in which they allowed themselves no breaks – much to the admiration of their rebbeim and peers, but only to come crashing down in a broken heap requiring years of therapy to repair. Normal sleep and exercise are as important as food and drink to a young Mechina/Mesivta bochur. Stories of gedolim who grew up in yeshivos depriving themselves of sleep don’t tell the whole story. How many bochurim tried the same thing and never made it, and how many gedolim were not able to learn at all because of their ill health induced by a lack of sleep? In a famous letter written by the Steipler Gaon, he advocates eight hours of sleep for a typical yeshiva bochur.
Playing sports, jogging and doing exercise are all healthy outlets, and fit into the Bartenura’s interpretation of Derech Eretz in the Chazal in Avos of “yaffa Torah im derech eretz.”
Having a gym in a Mechina/Mesivta provides an on-site facility for boys to relax. However, gym hours should be carefully monitored to avoid taking serious bochurim away from after-hours learning. Like everything else, moderation and guidance are needed.
Playing a musical instrument is something to be encouraged, especially if the bochur is talented. Reading Jewish books can also be a source of relaxation; indeed,the right book can often be inspiring. As much as we want to encourage hasmodah (constancy), and find it gratifying to see boys learning late and during their free time, the rebbe/mashgiach/menahel must be alert to signs that a boy is overdoing it. Hasmodah is defined not simply by how many hours you learn, but how you learn during those hours.
Many of our youth are soaring to great heights in their learning and growth in avodas Hashem – but we must always be cognizant of those that are not making it. They so desperately need our help in devising programs to lift them onto a spiritual journey to becoming close to the Almighty and to serving Him with all their hearts. We must not fail them.
Rabbi Simcha Cook is the Menahel of Mechinas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore, Maryland.