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Summer 2014: Questions

For the foreword to this issue, click here.

As in any population, there are some students within the Torah community who excel academically, while others tend to be particularly challenged.  Most, however, fall somewhere among the many levels within the broader spectrum of academic abilities and interests.

This issue of Klal Perspectives invites leading mechanchim of teenage boys to consider whether the current approach is meeting the academic, religious and social needs of the vast majority of teenage boys who find themselves at neither end of the spectrum, and to either suggest changes that can be implemented within the current system or propose a new approach that could earn the support of Torah leadership.

Torah study is the bedrock of authentic Judaism. Its prominence pervades the life of many Orthodox families, and engagement in serious Torah learning provides both access to the deeper meaning and purpose of Torah Judaism, as well as the religious engagement and focus necessary to resist the onslaught of non-Torah influences. The Torah community’s education of its children is, thus, expectedly and necessarily focused on imbuing our youth with an eagerness to master Torah study, as well as providing the skills and knowledge base necessary for a life of involvement in Torah study and observance.  It is, therefore, also not surprising that we create for our sons a teenage experience focused significantly on Torah study.

To some degree, the contemporary approach to Torah education for most American teenagers, and particularly for high school boys, appears to have become overly uniform.  While the many yeshiva high schools clearly differ in certain respects, the distinctions among them are often minimal, particularly within the same religious/cultural segment of the community. Curricula tend to be relatively similar, with limited variation in the degree of emphasis on non-academic dimensions of Yiddishkeit, or in the approach to extra-curricular activities.  While this system is extremely effective in many regards, some have suggested that there are numerous gaps and improvements that are begging for consideration.  Most frequently noted is the need to break out of the “one size fits all” approach.

The urgent need for an honest and objective review of the boys’ high school system is further compelled by the sense that the current system does not fully reflect the preferences of the community’s Torah leadership. In fact, gedolim and leading rabbonim often lament that the community has failed to seek their guidance sufficiently in formulating the proper approach to educating high school boys. Clearly, the details of educational pedagogy are not, as one might hope, painstakingly crafted and designed by leading gedolim and mechanchim, but are often influenced by factors such as popular expectations, organizational expediency and fear of change.

This issue of Klal Perspectives seeks to review the community’s current approach to the chinuch of teenage boys.  We invite our contributors to address the questions below, considering both the realities of existing institutions and the theoretical opportunity to start from scratch and to develop an ideal yeshiva high school – with the ideal family and community support system – that would provide our teenage boys the foundation they need in order to live full and successful lives as bnai Torah in today’s world.

1.        Curriculum:   The curriculum of boys’ yeshiva high schools, particularly those within the right-of-center and right-wing communities, is focused almost exclusively on the study of Gemara.  Some yeshivas place more emphasis on bekius and on “covering more ground,” while others follow a slower pace, focusing on depth of analysis (iyun).  But other than yeshivas specifically catering to academically challenged students, every yeshiva focuses intensively on Gemara study in some fashion, to the almost absolute exclusion of other dimensions of Torah study.

This approach to Torah reflects a long tradition, and is a practice that has successfully produced legions of significant Torah scholars of varying degree.  But is this almost exclusive focus on Gemara appropriate in an era in which yeshiva is attended by almost all of the community’s teenage boys, and not just those who are particularly gifted, or otherwise likely to become Talmudic scholars?  What percentage of contemporary teenage boys are intelligent and committed to Torah and yiras Shomayim, but do not find enough satisfaction within today’s Gemara-only curriculum to keep them constructively engaged throughout their high school years, with obvious implications for after graduation? On the other hand, what might the impact of broadening the curriculum’s spectrum be on those bochrim for whom it is not necessary?

2.      Identifying Each Student’s Strengths and Talents:  The current system places significant value on a relatively narrow range of personal talents and interests. Only those teenagers who happen to enjoy these particular strengths are viewed as belonging to an upper echelon among their peers, or are ever afforded the opportunity to discover within themselves the individual blessings they enjoy.

Would it be appropriate to expand the array of talents that the community values, and to provide affirmative encouragement of the development of a broader range of strengths?  If yes, how would that be accomplished? And, would such an introduction pose a threat to the Torah-study value system that has so successfully permeated our community?

3.      Ruchnius:   In a recent article in Dialogue (“Observant but not Religious, Fall 5774/ 2013) HaRav Ahron Feldman, shlita, of the Moetzes Gedolei Torah of America, addressed the paucity of ruchnius in our community. He lamented that “something so indispensible, so utterly central to our existence as Jews continues to go wanting in the lives of many: the emotion of the heart, the forethought of the mind, the commitment of the spirit.” Addressing the high school years in particular, he opined that “Without an active nurturing of an appreciate for the inner mitzvos,” immersion in the study of Gemara will not alone create the connection to Hashem that will carry him on to responsible Jewish adulthood.

What do you believe we ought to be doing to sharpen and intensify our students’ connection to Hashem? What should be done for them to appreciate ruchniyus more, and to find satisfaction with their personal stake in it?  Does the community need to be wary of any changes contemplated in this direction, and how can such concerns be allayed?

4.      Free Time:  While certain unique teenage boys can successfully spend most of their day in Torah study and academic pursuits, most teenagers cannot.  Even very bright and committed bochrim encounter difficulty in spending fourteen or fifteen hours a day in a classroom or bais hamedrash.  Contemporary society, however, is saturated with distractions and opportunities that are quite harmful to the development of a Ben Torah and, absent appropriate diversions and preoccupations, represent allures to the typical teenager.

How should a yeshiva student be encouraged to spend his time outside the bais hamedrash?  What are realistic activities that might capture a teenager’s attention and interest, and also be appropriate?  Is there a downside to suggesting that non-Torah study of any type is an acceptable endeavor, and how can such concerns, if any, be ameliorated?

CLICK HERE for the responses from our contributors.