The Goal is Ahavas Torah

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One of the defining characteristics of any community, and especially a Jewish community, is the provision of education to its young. R”Yehoshua ben Gamla instituted the first system of public education anywhere. But for him, the Gemara (Bava Basra 21a) tells us, Torah would have been forgotten from Israel.

What did he do? He decreed that every Jewish community must appoint teachers for children from the age of 6 or 7.

That was the model followed by Jewish communities everywhere until very recently. Each town in Eastern Europe, for instance, had its own cheder, in which all the boys in town attended until around bar mitzvah age.

Today, however, our education has been privatized. Educational institutions no longer belong to the community. They are private businesses. And as with any business, it is natural for each owner to place his own profits and honor over the needs of the larger community.

Not every head of an institution can be expected to act with the altruism of Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz. Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz treated Yeshivas Torah Vodaath as a neighborhood yeshiva, open to all the boys from that neighborhood. When Yeshivas Chaim Berlin opened its doors, Reb Shraga Feivel sent the boys who lived closer to the new yeshiva there, and even directed some of his largest supporters to Chaim Berlin because they lived closer to Chaim Berlin.

Reb Shraga Feivel saw himself as responsible for the advancement of Torah, not just for the particular institution with which he was affiliated. So when Rabbi Aharon Kotler arrived in America, Reb Shraga Feivel sent Reb Aharon his finest bochurim.

Privatization of education makes it impossible for the chareidi community to plan and create an educational system that will serve the needs of all its children. The fate of many children depends on whether their needs coincide with those of a particular institution.

Privatization has also led to intensified competition between educational institutions at almost every level and for both genders. That competition brings in its wake increased prestige or stigma with matriculation at particular institutions. Both Jerusalem and Lakewood have experienced situations in which girls who should be in 9th grade have found themselves sitting home with no place in school. In many cases, the problem was not that there were no schools willing to take the girls, but that they or their parents felt that the humiliation of attending a particular school would be too much to bear. Such stigma never attaches to a neighborhood school.

Once the gates are open to competition between institutions to be the “best,” there inevitably follows the search for some ostensibly “objective” measure that will demonstrate superiority. For a cheder it may be the number of pages of Gemara covered in a zman, and for a yeshiva gedolah how few. (Both trends, incidentally, represent dramatic reversals of older models.)

As the competition expressed in the amount of material covered jumps in the chadorim, the number of boys left behind also jumps accordingly. Many boys who cannot keep up become frustrated and stop trying. The costs of the increased competition have been recognized by veteran educators. One menahel of a yeshiva asked Rabbi Yehuda Michel Lefkowit whether he could use small doses of carefully supervised competition to raise the level of learning in his yeshiva. Rav Yehudah Michel told him no.

Rabbi Tzvi Greenbaum, the director of Lev L’Achim’s Lev Shomaya program, recently told me that it is very rare to find a boy who has dropped out of the system who can make a decent laining on a Gemara. (Yes, I also know of plenty of exceptions.) That means, Rabbi Greenbaum explained, that these boys have no connection to Torah texts. As a consequence, they are much less bound to the community.

One does not need experts to realize that a boy who sits in class all day from fifth grade without understanding what is going on will be miserable and quickly lose his motivation. Ahavas Torah is impossible for him because he has never experienced any joy in learning or the satisfaction of mastering a sugya. He will come to feel trapped by a system that seems to hold out the promise of only more failure in his future and become a prime candidate for dropping out.

Many boys could be saved by nothing more than slowing the pace a bit in the earlier grades, and placing a greater emphasis on instilling ahavas Torah rather than covering ground. Others — and their number is not small — need special frameworks, employing more innovative teaching methods so that they can establish the foundations in Torah learning necessary for future success and love of learning.

That is where our responsibility as a community comes in. Just as R’ Yehoshua ben Gamla saw a situation in which there was no one to teach orphans and created a system of public education so the gedolei Yisrael today have said that it is a mitzvah incumbent on each city to ensure that such frameworks are available.

Catching boys at an early age, before their hormones have kicked in and they are drawn to every trap awaiting them, is far easier than trying to bring them back into the fold after they have slipped away. A penny of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.

I recently visited a school for such boys below the age of bar mitzvah. One of the rebbes is himself a dayan. He proudly showed me the looseleaf notebooks his talmidim have assembled that clearly reflected their grasp of the material. The common element in all the classrooms was the enthusiasm of the talmidim, an enthusiasm that can only come from feeling a clear grasp of the material.

The principal told me about one father who resisted sending his son to such a mechinah for yeshiva ketana, fearing that his son and the family would be stigmatized. The principal invited the father to go with him to Rabbi Aharon Steinman. Rav Steinman asked the father, “Would you prefer that your son be a ba’al mum (a cripple)?” Today that young man is considered one of the outstanding bochurim in one of Israel’s most prominent yeshivos.

Following our celebration of kabolos HaTorah, it is fitting that we all ponder our communal responsibility to ensure that all our children are filled with ahavas Torah and do not feel like they have been left behind in a race.

This article appeared in the Mishpacha, on June 11, 2008

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17 Responses

  1. Chaim Fisher says:

    Who says its a problem that schools are privately owned today? It’s not a problem.

    I have immense experience as a teacher, parent, and close friend of a large number of students who have had all kinds of difficulties in learning. And been fixed beautifully by privately owned schools. Schools for boys who are weaker than others in learning, schools for boys who are better, schools for boys who are too “American” for the system, and so on. In Israel there is an absolute plethora of special schools for all kinds of needs.

    And, more importantly, the mainstream chedarim are extremely adept at individual attention and attend to learning difficulties on the spot. Time and again I have seen the big, well-known privately funded chedarim of Jerusalem save children from falling through the cracks by their expert care and treatment.

    It’s just undeniable.

    And in America I have seen many, many students dealing extremely well with all kinds of learning difficulties. Even though American schools are fewer and further between than their Israeli counterparts.

    You can always find horror stories; that’s not the problem. The facts are we do not need to nationalize the educational system, not here, and not in the US.

  2. Raymond says:

    Free-market capitalism does not only benefit the elite. On the contrary, it democratizes society more effectively than any other economic system. It causes products and services to be priced according to what the two parties most intimately involved in the transaction determine they are really worth, rather than having prices artificially inflated through government interference. The cost of attending a university, for example, is sharply inflated due to all of the scholarship and loan programs available.

    I am not sure who it benefits to mix students together of sharply diverging abilities and motivations anyway. When I taught in public schools, the very, very few students who actually showed some academic promise, had their abilities completely stifled by the vast majority of students who wanted to be anywhere but in those classrooms. Obviously Jewish students are more academically oriented than the population I taught, but this being the case, there is nothing to worry about letting the free market determine who will attend school and who will not, and at what cost.

  3. Urijah Kaplan says:

    “What did he do? He decreed that every Jewish community must appoint teachers for children from the age of 6 or 7.”

    I believe that only covered boys.

  4. Ori says:

    Mycroft: Sadly-with the schools acting in competiton for the “best” students-the remaining are sent away Off the Derech. It is not that they chose to be go Off the Derech-they have been pushed off the derech. It is sad-but reality.

    Ori: What about the parents? Isn’t it their responsibility to ensure their kids are educated properly?

    These are private schools. If the way one school teaches does not work for your child, you should find another. If there was a market demand for middot-centered schools (= schools that taught proper behavior, but did not have the same Torah study rigor), somebody would step up to the plate and fill it.

    I’m sure Rabbi Akiva’s parents didn’t put too much emphasis on prestige either.

  5. joel rich says:

    And we all agree this approach stunted our growth during those formative years. Luckily, we all followed HS with two years in various Yeshivot in Israel.

    Comment by Yisroel Moshe
    ===================================
    each of which allowed for multiple approaches?
    KT

  6. Baruch Horowitz says:

    I read the following in a recent “Pninim al HaTorah”(Parshas Naso), which is relevant to the theme of this post:

    When the founders of a cheder in Bnei Brak were ready to open their school, they went to the Brisker Rav for a blessing, and they told him about their superior curriculum, and the amount of time devoted to each subject.

    The Rav listened and then replied, “If I did not know for certain that you are fine upstanding bnei Torah, I would eject you from my home. You sound like maskilim, heretics, whose only concern is mastery of the subject matter. What about inculcating our children with ahavas Torah, middos tovos, character refinement, and raising their level of yiras Shomayim, fear of Heaven? The problem today is that children do not sense the mesikus, sweetness, of Torah”.

  7. mycroft says:

    “Free-market capitalism has built-in incentives to produce the best results possible. There is no reason for this principle to not apply to education as well. Privatization is the way to go.

    Comment by Raymond — June 13, 2008 @ 3:35 am”

    Free market capitalism would maximize the wealth of the owners and send to oblivion those who will not be succesful-is that what we want in yahadus? I thought yahadus was intended for all-not merely the elite-academically and/or financially.
    Sadly-with the schools acting in competiton for the “best” students-the remaining are sent away Off the Derech. It is not that they chose to be go Off the Derech-they have been pushed off the derech. It is sad-but reality.

  8. Yisroel Moshe says:

    R Jonathan,

    Wonderful article.

    My high school always brandied the beautiful catch phrase as their motto “Chanoch L’na’ar al pee Darko.”
    (trans: “educate a child in the way best suited to his strengths”)

    Even many years later, in hind sight, my old HS friends and I all agree the motto should have been “Chanoch L’na’ar al pee Darkeinu”!
    (trans: “educate a child in the way best suited to our needs!”)

    And we all agree this approach stunted our growth during those formative years. Luckily, we all followed HS with two years in various Yeshivot in Israel.

  9. L Oberstein says:

    Reb Shraga Feivel saw himself as responsible for the advancement of Torah, not just for the particular institution with which he was affiliated. So when Rabbi Aharon Kotler arrived in America, Reb Shraga Feivel sent Reb Aharon his finest bochurim.

    Although I never knew him, “Mr. Mendlowitz”, as those who knew called him at his insistance, was a profound and very great person. He sent Rabbi Ruderman a coterie of boys for his fledgling Ner Yisroel Yeshiva also. Among them were Rabbis Moshe Sherer and Ephraim Wolf.

    I also heard from Yitzchok Eichenthal of Boro Park that Mr Mendlowitz once qut his job at Torah Vodaas and tried to make a living doing something else. Reb Yitzchok’s father, Fishel Eichenthal, refused to buy from him because he said that he had to go back to Torah Vodaas and win hs battle with the baalebatim , rather than leave them in control with the wrong policy.

    If we had more people of his stature with his courage and vision, we would be a lot better off. How many leaders are afraid to go against the common wisdom of the baalebatim and the people you graciously call “askanim”?

  10. zadok says:

    I’m neither agreeing or disagreeing with the point about schools.However I don’t see why all the FOCUS is on them.It seems to me that the parents who insist on attempting to send their children to elite schools, when their children aren’t cut out for it are a lot more to blame then the actual schools are.I know many people who harsly critcize schools for being eletist , but then choose to send their own children to very schools they are complaining about.

  11. Raymond says:

    Free-market capitalism has built-in incentives to produce the best results possible. There is no reason for this principle to not apply to education as well. Privatization is the way to go.

  12. MYCROFT says:

    “Privatization has also led to intensified competition between educational institutions at almost every level and for both genders. That competition brings in its wake increased prestige or stigma with matriculation at particular institutions. .. Such stigma never attaches to a neighborhood school…

    Once the gates are open to competition between institutions to be the “best,” there inevitably follows the search for some ostensibly “objective” measure that will demonstrate superiority. ..
    …, the number of boys left behind also jumps accordingly. Many boys who cannot keep up become frustrated and stop trying. .

    Rabbi Tzvi Greenbaum, the director of Lev L’Achim’s Lev Shomaya program, recently told me that it is very rare to find a boy who has dropped out of the system who can make a decent laining on a Gemara. (… That means, Rabbi Greenbaum explained, that these boys have no connection to Torah texts. As a consequence, they are much less bound to the community.

    One does not need experts to realize that a boy who sits in class all day from fifth grade without understanding what is going on will be miserable and quickly lose his motivation. “”

    Jonathan Rosenblums words are sadly just as relevant to the Modern Orthodox community as the chareidi world. I copied a few paragraphs leaving out the chareid aspects of it and his criticism applies. The schools are private enterprises-they are all trying to be the best-sadly even ‘neighborhood schools” are now in competition and thus will subtly or less subtly weed out there less able students. Schools have even gone to recruiting “hatchet” administrators and principals etc who have a name of cleaning up schools. The fact that many students are pushed out mechutz lemachane means nothing. some even openly will state that they are running a school and what happens to students is not their concencern. The raretime one finds mechanchim who have a more realistic inclusive plan-eg modifying HS curriculum drastically based on kids ability but stayin within the basic school-Voards don’t want to hear about it-they as private enterprises are in competition.

  13. HILLEL says:

    Oy-Vey, how true!

    Rav Shlomo Freifeld pioneered the approach that is now being used so successfully by his TalMid, Rav Bender of Darkei Torah in Far Rockaway (a private institution).

    Every aspiring MNaHel and Rebbe should make it his business to tour that Yeshiva and learn how to do ChiNuch the right way.

  14. Bob Miller says:

    To have communal responsibility and communal institutions of learning, we first need to have an inclusive community that values all its members, not only the high achievers (intellectual and/or financial) and not only those with a particular subset of Torah views. In short, we need to reestablish something with the virtues of a traditional kehilla, even in todays’s environment that fosters fragmentation.

  15. AK says:

    Rabbi R’ fails to share the research that ‘ competition’ , like any other extrinsic motivation impairs on excellence and intrinsic motivation and of course the psycological and socio-moral implications on ALL students. Our schools should be encouraging a community atmosphere , cooperative learning , learning in order to teach and share with others rather than being number one. The competition is bad for all students . For those interested – a good book – No Contest , the case against competition by Alfie Kohn

  16. Dr. E says:

    I too have observed similar phenomena related to the privatization of Chinuch, espcially in America. To me, it’s disheartening on a few levels. First, it lends itself to educational elitism as JR articulates in his piece. The outcomes are cookie-cutter talmidim who are all measured to the same often artificial standard. Those who cannot keep up are relegated to “other schools”–if any. The end-game becomes an exercise in getting the graduates into the “best” institutions at the next level. Second, it centralizes the decision-making into the hands of the self-appointed. To me, the latter is particularly dangerous as well.

    The one (albeit weak) argument for having a privately run school is that the owner is free to use his “own” money to make physical and educational upgrades without having to go through a community burocracy. With the right person owning/running the school, the results can be positive. However, to me the practical implementation of this is dependent on many stars being correctly aligned including the owner being an upstanding individual with truly pure motivations. Plus, given the fact that such schools receive public monies for busing and special needs, they are never totally private in nature (not to mention profits from fundraising events in the community).

    What is equally if not more disturbing is when yeshivas and schools were initially founded by communities with collective funds. Ostensibly, they operate today as such both legally and in terms of their “brand”. Yet, over the years, they have evolved in private family-run businesses, fraught with nepotism/cronyism of who gets jobs, and the lack of public accountability. Someone or some family has emerged as the ultimate decision maker. Look around. It’s all about control of the monetary resources and looking out for one’s own. Salary raises are made behind closed doors. Any “board” is really a sham that rubber-stamps the decisions of the macher in charge. As one can imagine, without public accountability, the environment is fertile for financial mismanagement, impropriety, and cover-ups when things are very wrong. In a way, this is worse (than the private owned schools) given that these schools still maintain a posture of being a “community school” when in fact that has not really been the case in decades. It’s almost become a frivolous joke even among parents that some institutions are “family owned and operated”.

    Obviously, going too far in the other direction is not good either. Having too much openness and input from the community and parents can paralyze a school. There needs to be competent and open-minded paid professional administrators who fuse a partnership to help reach the primary goals of the school on general and specific levels.

    I imagine that problems of this sort can exist across the Orthodox spectrum. However, when school owners or machers form convenient alliances with “Daas Torah”, the potential for any sort of openness descreases tremendously. That is probably why parents invested in the system buy into this, with minimial scrutiny of where their hard-earned tuition dollars are going.

  17. Ori says:

    People, especially young men, have a psychological need to compete. If you want all of them to feel welcome, you need multiple areas so those who fail at one will succeed at another.

    If young people don’t have activities that are valued except for Torah study, some will naturally fall by the wayside. Others may come to treat their Torah knowledge as something to show off.