Losing the connection

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Some weeks seem to have a theme; everything that happens revolves around the same idea. Last week was one of those weeks. The organizing insight: Too many of our young people lack the type of close connection to an adult role model that is crucial if they are to flourish and reach their full potential.

This suddenly hit me while speaking to the rosh yeshiva of a yeshiva ketana (in Israel, a yeshiva for boys of high school age). Because his yeshiva ketana is relatively new and outside the major chareidi population centers he has much smaller class sizes than in major population centers (where a class size of fifty is by no means unusual). Despite the small size, he mentioned that he had recently hired an educator with thirty years experience for the express purpose of talking to the boys and developing a close relationship with them. The younger rebbes provide the enthusiasm in learning. But only a veteran mechanech can fully appreciate the power to build a young man that lies in an encouraging word.

He also told me that he is wary of sending even his best students to one of the larger yeshivah gedolahs, in which the entering class can reach 150, for fear that they will be lost in the shuffle. At that point in the conversation, his brother, who is a rebbe in a yeshiva gedolah for formerly “at-risk” youth who are now returning to serious learning, added something a respected avreich had mentioned to him recently.

Even a serious boy, who is learning well, can often fall through the cracks in a large yeshiva gedolah, if he is not the kind to talk a lot in shiur or to actively seek a relationship with the maggid shiur. Such a boy can go for years in yeshiva without ever hearing a positive word, or even being taken note of by any of the respected authority figures. That lack of connection can eat away slowly at some bochurim.

Reb Yaakov Kaminetsky, zt”l, often remarked that that his primary rebbe in learning when he was in Slabodka Yeshiva, was not the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Mordechai Moshe Epstein. Rather it was an older bochur whose style in learning attracted him. And that was typical in Slabodka; the beis medrash divided up into smaller chaburos headed by the older bochurim so each talmid was part of a much smaller group.

In addition, each talmid was under the constant observation of the Alter of Slabodka, whose eagle eye missed nothing. As a consequence, it was a rare talmid in Slabodka who felt that no one ever took notice of him. Unfortunately, there are no more Alters of Slabodka capable of keeping track of the spiritual ups and downs of hundreds of bochurim.

The consequences of a lack of mentoring relationships with a respected authority figure are many. Last week’s Jerusalem Post carried the unhappy news that the number of chareidi divorces in Jerusalem had shot up by 10% over the last year. Rabbi Yitzchak Ralbag, the city’s marriage registrar, was quoted as saying that divorce has become so common that it no longer carries the stigma it once did in the chareidi world.

But why has divorce, especially among young couples, become so much more common? One of the reasons is that young men and women are not getting all the guidance they need about dating and marriage.

The Rosh Yeshiva of one of the top yeshivos for American bochurim in Jerusalem told me last week that no young man in his yeshiva enters shidduchim without first participating in a small vaad on shidduchim and marriage. But he is dealing with a beis medrash of 120 bochurim, only a small percentage of whom are dating at any given time, not one with nearly a thousand bochurim.

Preparation for marriage involves both an understanding of what marriage is about and working on one’s particular shortcomings. The latter requires someone who knows the young man or woman well. In this regard, the Rosh Yeshiva shared with me an important insight: Before someone can give effective tochachah, and point out to someone else the points that need work, he must first have gained their trust.

There must be a preceding relationship. Only someone who has offered encouragement when needed, a timely compliment, and shown a genuine interest is in a position to give the necessary guidance. And too many of our sons lack such an older figure.

Nor does marriage mark the end of the need for an older rav or mentor with whom there is a personal connection. At the recent convention of Agudath Israel of America, one of the tracks was devoted to the relationship between ba’alebatim and bnei Torah. At one session, a number of fathers complained of the fact that after years of learning in kollel, their sons or sons-in-law have no rav to whom they are personally close who can offer guidance as to when it is time to leave full-time learning, and in what direction they should look when they do so.

No matter what the age, it is a very rare person who cannot be built by positive reinforcement. Anyone who has worked with “at-risk” students knows the power of a positive connection. The greatest single predictor of whether a teenager “at-risk” will find his or her way back is whether some adult succeeds in establishing a deep, supportive relationship with him or her. That adult must be someone capable of seeing a rough diamond waiting to be polished where others see only a surly, defiant demeanor.

A little bit of positivity goes a very long way, something every one of us must know whether as parents, educators or spouses. A father related to me how a sixth-grade rebbe once told him that he had no idea what his son was thinking about or what motivated him. He suggested that the rebbe ask his son – a suggestion that the rebbe treated as an amazing einfal.

But he followed up the suggestion. And from the day he first showed a bit of interest, that boy turned from a puzzle into a consistently top student. The effects are still felt more than a year later.

We have all learned this lesson a hundred times (and too frequently forgotten it again.) Our task is to make sure that all our children are in frameworks that are conducive to close relationships with figures of respect whose praise – as well as occasional criticism – means a lot to them.

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10 Responses

  1. Jewish Observer says:

    “Reb Yaakov Kaminetsky, zt”l, often remarked that that his primary rebbe in learning when he was in Slabodka Yeshiva, was not the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Mordechai Moshe Epstein. Rather it was an older bochur whose style in learning attracted him”

    – what is the source, please?

  2. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Ahron: I think there’s no question that the trends of centralization and “efficiencies of scale” that have become so popular in Western societies—e.g. centralized healthcare, powerful central governments, centralized sources of media, books & information, merged and centralized corporations, mass-production and distribution, etc. etc.

    Ori: Western society seems to be going the other way – back into decentralized information distributin. See, for example, http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1401302378?tag2=thelongtail-20 .

    However, western society can do it because it’s a free marketplace of ideas. Of course, that doesn’t mean the truth wins every time, it just means that the most attractive ideas, true or false, tend to win.

    Once you set up a certain group in charge of deciding what views are “beyond the pale”, it is almost impossible for members of that group not to abuse their position. Yetzer haRa loves to masquerade as doing good, such as protecting people from falsehood.

  3. Elozor Preil says:

    How about the young man’s father as a role model?
    KT

    But when the young man goes away to yeshiva, perhaps as young as 13 or 14, and thereafter has limited contact with his parents and much more with his rebbeim, some of whom may denigrate the lifestyle and choices of the parents (if they are not full-time “learners”, but are rather “earners” who pay tuition and the rebbis’ salaries), how much of a role model will the father still be? And this phenomenon is exacerbated when the young man goes to Israel for a year (or more).

  4. Ahron says:

    Does a Rav need to agree with Rav Elyashiv in everything? Is it possible that a Rav who is an independent thinker will agree with Rav Elyashiv in everything? Obviously not. Yet, to the eyes of the youngsters, this Rav is arguing with the “Godol Hador”, and as such, deserves to be marginalized.

    I think there’s no question that the trends of centralization and “efficiencies of scale” that have become so popular in Western societies–e.g. centralized healthcare, powerful central governments, centralized sources of media, books & information, merged and centralized corporations, mass-production and distribution, etc. etc.–have come to the Jewish community also. The same trends of deindividuation, homogenization and blandness that are often the fruits of centralization for society, are also the tested and predictable fruits of centralization in our “velt”.

    Most of frum society is not willing to even acknowledge this (after all we’re (somehow, magically) supposed to be “immune” to the trends that affect the rest of humanity…) Some sectors of the wider society do acknowledge it but even there, there’s no real program to address it.

  5. Aharon Hakohen says:

    I could’t agree more with Yonatan’s observations regarding the present state in yeshivos regarding the Rebbi-talmid relationship. Looking back at my years in a yeshiva and mechina, I have come to recognize the limitations that a good yeshiva education provides when it is in an atmosphere of detachment between the educators and the students. Although learning skills can be developed in such a system, the warm flavor of Yiddishkeit doesn’t get transferred adequately. The importance of Tefillah and reliance on the Almighty’s favor and help are not stressed , in favor of developing Iyun (in depth analysis) skills in Talmud. These components of a Jewish education are required to strive beyond one’s time in Yeshiva, yet yeshivos often don’t deliver them.

    looking forward to my own son’s time in Yeshiva, I consider these issues and hope, with the help of the Almighty, that he finds a yeshiva that values and delivers these goals.

  6. Joel Rich says:

    How about the young man’s father as a role model?
    KT

  7. Tzipporah says:

    Maybe this shows that the Chareidi/Israeli shidduch system is showing some wear and tear due to the materialistic pressures (the price to pay) for a good groom. Between the “dira” and everything that comes with it, funding a suitable mate is becoming more and more based on external factors than what really matters. Marriages based on business deals don’t have much substance.

  8. Maran says:

    The Rosh Yeshiva of Slobodka was Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, not Mordechai Moshe.

  9. Steve Brizel says:

    This is an important article on a topic of grave importance. WADR, IMO, Vaadim for any young man and woman in this parsha should by no means be limited to the very important halachos, chumros, kulos and hanhagos of Hilcos Nidah, etc but also focus on the views of Chazal and Rishonim on how to be a spouse and a true partner at all times and Bchadrei Chadorim-at the most intimate moments-which Chazal in many sugyos and Rishonim ( Raavad and Ramban in Igeres HaKodsh and Baalei HaNefesh)dealt with in very clear and unabashed detail. We need to remember that a Torah based life neither is hedonistic nor Victorian in nature. There is a wonderful vignette in D S Heilman’s book on Charedi life that underscores this issue in full detail.

    Today, given the size of most Batei Medrashim in Yeshivos Gdolos, sometimes one is better off verifying the bona fides of a young man with his peers or someone slightlty older who is a Kollelnik or Rosh Chabura than a RY or Mashgiach.

  10. Moshe says:

    Possibly, a factor that accounts for these issues is globalization. At one point, each Rav was the ‘Godol Hador’ of his town or city, and had the utmost respect of all those involved. Nowadays, there is one or a handful of “Gedolei Hador”, and everyone else is diminished. That leads to a lessening of Kavod HaTorah, as the myriad of excellent Rabbonim who are not considered the “Godol Hador” are not given the proper respect and honor that they deserve.

    Does a Rav need to agree with Rav Elyashiv in everything? Is it possible that a Rav who is an independent thinker will agree with Rav Elyashiv in everything? Obviously not. Yet, to the eyes of the youngsters, this Rav is arguing with the “Godol Hador”, and as such, deserves to be marginalized.

    As long as we continue the ‘godol hador’ madness, this disturbing trend will continue.