Are Our Yeshivos Meeting Our Communal Needs?

Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch recently posted an article saying that Today’s Yeshiva System Is A Recipe To Create Kids At-Risk.

In the article Rabbi Schonbuch says:

In general our yeshiva system has become too elitist and too inflexible to meet the needs of a growing percentage of Jewish children.

Let me be perfectly clear: most yeshivas today only want to accept kids who are known as APKs or Auto Pilot Kids. They expect that children will be able to sit in large classrooms (25-30 per class) listening to one Rebbe, chap the gemarah after one lecture, and rely little on the teacher for their personal, intellectual, or emotional needs.

The truth is that a large and growing percentage of our children don’t fit this mold. Many require individual attention, smaller classrooms, lessons and homework sheets suited to their needs, and a Rebbe that cares more about them than their marks. Many of our children need personalized attention, visually-based instruction (like slides or power point presentations), and Rebbes that are able to complement and bond with children who don’t necessarily fit the mold. Our yeshivas mistakenly offer an education that doesn’t reflect the dictum “Chanoch leNoar lifee Darcho” – to educate a child according to their way; rather, they maintain its “lifee Darcheinu” meaning “it’s our way or the highway.” So a significant proportion of Jewish children are rejected and find themselves out of the schools they need and onto the streets.

He also proposes a 12 point action plan.

Do you think Rabbi Schonbuch is correct in his assesment?

What percentage of high school students are in Yeshivos that don’t meet their needs?

Is this just a kids at risk issues, or is the average B student also under served?

Can our schools afford a finer tracked system?

30 comments on “Are Our Yeshivos Meeting Our Communal Needs?

  1. Squarepeg,

    I read in Rabbi Moshe Sokolow’s “Studies in the Weekly Parashah, Based on the Lessons of Nehama Leibowitz” that when commentators differ, Nehama (as R’ Sokolow consistently refers to her) felt that there was not a right or wrong comment. Her standard was to measure the particular comment for consistency with that commentator’s methodology. (Page 45, Parashat Va-Yetze’)

    I also see from a variety of sources that some commentators place an emphasis on p’shat (literal meaning) while others use the approach of d’rash (homiletic meaning). Many other approaches exist as well.

    Where our teachers come in is to help us understand the role of each type of comment in understanding and applying the subject matter at hand.

  2. Mark wrote,

    “For children and beginners I think savoring the text without commentary can be very problematic and lead to many wrong lessons that need to be unlearned.’

    Nobody proposed that straw man. But it does the maturing student no good to shield him/her altogether from the text itself.

    Squarepeg613 wrote,

    “Bob, when say that Chazal had the “right” explanations, what did you mean? Many say very different things about the same verses.”

    I agree that they offered multiple explanations, which is fine, because the texts have many layers of meaning. We can find additional layers ourselves with due diligence, but there has to be a reality check where our understanding could touch on hashkafic and halachic principles within Judaism.

  3. Bob, when say that Chazal had the “right” explanations, what did you mean? Many say very different things about the same verses. I suppose it’s *possible* that all these commentaries came down as a Mesorah, but it doesn’t seem very likely. Some really do seem to be what the commentators figured out, rather than what they already learned from someone who learned it from someone and so on. What makes their explanations more “right” than anyone else’s?

  4. Tanach is the foundation; everything else is built on it: midrash, mishnah, gmara. When any of these reference passages in the Tanach, we should be able to understand the context of what’s being quoted.

    Of course we should learn Tanach with commentary. But I would argue that if we *only* approach it through commentary, that we are not involving *ourselves* in the text and getting as much out of it as we can. What your friend is doing sounds *great* to me.

    The Ramchal’s approach sounds interesting. Is there material on this that elaborates on what you wrote? How accessible is the Ramchal’s writing?

  5. I think that the 12 point program is not only doable, but a dire necesssity. We are in danger of creating a new generation of drop outs from Torah observance because of a one size fits all educational system and philosophy that needs to recognize that more Jewish children are entering Jewish educational institutions than at any prior time in Jewish history.

  6. Personally, I want to know pshat and try to understand exactly why a specific word is used in Tanach as best as possible.
    Once intellectually understood, that knowledge can be used to direct the heart through the use of metaphor.

    For children and beginners I think savoring the text without commentary can be very problematic and lead to many wrong lessons that need to be unlearned.

  7. “The bottom line is that if you read Tanach without Chazal you are going to come away confused and with the wrong message very often.”

    Certainly, Chazal had the right explanations, and we need to be up on what the meforshim said, but wouldn’t you ALSO like to take a little time to savor the original full text?

  8. Bob, I’ll have to think about seeing Tanach as a morality play. I think lots of people have gotten in to a lot of trouble with that approach.

    The bottom line is that if you read Tanach without Chazal you are going to come away confused and with the wrong message very often.

    On a related note, I have a non-frum childhood friend who I reconnected with last year. His daughter is going to a Conservative Jewish High School and he decided to dust off his Jewish Publication Society Tanach that he received at his Bar Mitzvah and plow through it without any commentary. He has a lot of questions and he asked me a few before last Pesach. They happened to be key questions that the meforshim on Chumash deal with and he was very interested in hearing how they dealt with difficult passages in Tanach.

    So I think the Written Torah without the Oral Torah can often lead us astray.

  9. Mark, did you ever read Chumash or Nach just to soak in its Divinely inspired poetry and rhetoric? That is different from looking at brief quotations here and there.

  10. Mordechai said, “All students should have a basic understanding of learning gmara; just as they should of math.”
    I don’t think I would make gemora and math equivalent as you seem to have applied in your wording above.

    The Ramchal explains there are three processes to the mind
    – A clear understanding of the information you have
    – Deriving new information from the information you have
    – Verifying the veracity of your information and derived information

    Gemora trains you in these processes which are used in every field of study, secular and kodesh. That’s the mind – Chochmah, Binah and Daas.

    Teaching the basics, dryly without showing students their application does not lead to interest or long term retention.

    In terms of Tanach, our understanding of it is primarily based on the Gemora so I think I’m missing something in that particular point.

  11. Mark, I really don’t dispute that. All students should have a basic understanding of learning gmara; just as they should of math. But the serious ability doesn’t need to be developed until after high school. On the other hand, the basics I mentioned are just that. Students should have competence in those areas when they leave HS. Even if they don’t continue much learning after HS, they should have that basic knowledge when they leave; and it should suffice to allow them to continue basic daily learning on their own. As it is, we are graduating kids with poor language skills (in English and Ivrit!) who don’t really know the basic outlines of our most basic sources, nor have we helped them along much in terms of personal and communal mussar.

    I think, btw, that familiarity with Tanach is no less critical for life long spiritual growth. Yet our students (and often teachers!) can’t/don’t learn it.

  12. I agree that Ramchal’s logical approach is the most organized way to approach this type of learning. The teachers would need to be retrained to convey Ramchal’s approach. This would be worth the time and money to do, but it would increase expenses in the short term.

  13. Bob, I think that we need update our tools and I think it can be done for an affordable cost.

    I’m currently involved with a Rabbi in Eretz Yisroel working on making the Ramchal’s Ways of Reason and Ways of Logic even more accessible to a wide range of people include A,B & C students, Baalei Teshuva and Baal HaBatim.

    The most important thing we can teach anybody is how to think more clearly. Learning Ramchal’s techniques makes Gemara accessible to all and teaches both clear and abstract thinking.

    In the secular world, the most recent gains have been in classroom management and mastering information (see Lemov) as measured by standardized tests, but the higher goal of clear and abstract thinking is still not being achieved. I believe that the Ramchal’s techniques hold promise in the secular subjects as well.

    As far as the other subjects, there all necessary and must be taught, but most of the time the person not succeeding in Gemora is also not succeeding in the other subjects.

    Teach them how their mind works, how to see the whole picture, how what their learning fits in to the whole picture and I think you’ll see marked improvement in all areas. Look at the intro to Derech Hashem where the Ramchal overviews the importance of seeing the whole picture and putting things in their place.

  14. Mark, given the centrality of Gemara, what should financially hard-pressed schools and parents do to convey Gemara skills to those students who have major trouble grasping it?

    And isn’t it logical that especially such students (but all the others, too) should spend quality time learning the other subjects Mordechai called out?

  15. Mordechai, The most spiritually developed people I know are well versed in Gemora and I think it is a key critical component to life long spiritual growth for men.

  16. I think much of the 12 point plan is correct; and it is a stain on all of us that it isn’t a norm. But I disagree about the ‘second track’. It should be seen as an ab initio accepted education. There is probably a far greater need than is admitted.

  17. I’m on board with Mr. Cohen and Belle. Both make good points. Mark, I’m less troubled by the failure to teach gmara well; but deeply troubled by lack of knowledge and competence in the basics for every educated baal bayit – lashon, mikra, mishna, halacha, mahshava and mussar.

  18. When our first child turned 4 and was ready for preschool, we decided to take the road less (un!) traveled and started learning with him at home. Seven years later all four of our kids are enthusiastic homeschoolers, lovely children, smart cookies, and Jewish to the core. I know this isn’t the solution for everyone, but it is one viable solution. Sorry this comment is directly related to R. Schonbuch’s post – but I am very happy about our family’s choice when I read articles like the one mentioned above. Anyone can contact me if they want to know more about Jewish home schooling.

  19. Perhaps the rebbeim aren’t successful at/don’t know how to teach gemora to B-C type students because THEY DON’T HAVE ANY FORMAL TEACHER TRAINING!! The ones hired as rebbeim at mainstream schools are largely from Lakewood and similar type yeshivos where they themselves learned in depth for a long time. If they train in teaching skills, it is classroom-management type stuff offered by Torah UMesorah. Rarely do you see rebbeim who are trained in innovative techniques, differential learning styles, or special ed, or other methodologies who figure out how to apply this to gemora studies. Only yeshivos that cater to those “previously unsuccessful” in yeshiva use any different kind of techniques. Which results in having students at desks staring at a talking head in front of the classroom for hour after hour.

  20. I agree with every single idea expressed in the article except points 10-12 inclusive.

    The earlier point, quote “…I=QR, where Impact (I) is directly proportional to the Quality of Relationship (QR) you develop with your child. The more relationship, the greater impact you will have in their life.that parents need” is undermined by points 10-12 inclusive.

    The formula of I=QR must be incorporated into potential parents mindset even before their child is born, and must be acted upon every single day of their child’s life.

    It’s too little too late to start quote “loving listening and motivating your child” or “knowing who your kid’s friends are” or “monitoring your kid’s video and computer time” (points 10-12) when they are teenagers.

    Points 10-12 need to be implemented before your kid first enters day care/play group/pre-1-A (as the case may be). These points must be consistently maintained as your child grows into adulthood.

    If you invest in your child then you can mitigate the shortcommings of the yeshiva/bais yaacov system.

    Chassdei H-shem, it worked for me.

  21. “a Rebbe that cares more about them than their marks”

    Ouch. I can see how people could have an issue with this line, but perhaps what he means is not so much to blame the rebbe, but rather to say that in our system, the rebbe has no choice with such a large class than to care about marks.

    But then, the word “cares” wouldn’t be appropriate…rebbes do care. He should’ve said “focuses more on them than their marks.”

    Other than this, as a small class rebbe, I can see that his assessment is very much correct.

  22. In today’s Yeshivah system, boys are forced into Gemara study at very, very young ages, much younger than the age 15 recommended by Avot Chapter 5.

    They are expected to excel in Gemara without fully mastering Tanach and Mishnah.

    The schools focus on hard tractates that have lots of pilpul.

    Last but not least is the madness of American schools that teach Gemara in Yiddish.

    Are these things really in the best interests of the students, or is the purpose to permit parents to kvell and principals to boast?

  23. OK, Mark. As usual you found a good middle ground way of framing the issue. It is important that when we speak of our mosdos publicly, we use as positive terms as possible

  24. Bob, there are certainly some cost cutting improvements that can be made, but the primary costs are Rebbeim and staffing.

    One problem is that we’re trying to provide a luxury item, private schooling, at a low cost.

    But I think perspective is more of a problem than financing. The schools and Rabbis in the field have to a some degree given up on the B-C Jew, because of their limited successes with them.

    I also think the problem of not being able to teach Gemora is wider in scope than just the off-the-derech children and effects the majority of the frum population. The majority of men will not continue to grow in their in-depth Gemora learning over the years. This Gemora growth is indispensable to our growth as Jews. The fact that we are lacking here effects us greatly.

  25. Mark, do you see room for improvement at the administrative level (e.g., schools ordering supplies as a co-op, schools sharing certain office functions, schools hiring most competent available admin people regardless of family ties) ?

  26. It’s a pretty accepted fact that schools are more focused on the A students then the B students. I think the basic reason is that there is more measurable success in an A student and people are drawn to and motivated by success.

    Rebbeim and educators I’ve spoken to admit that most schools have not been successful in enabling there B-C students to learn Gemora adequately.

    I don’t think we should demonize the Rebbeim and schools because I think they are trying their best with the tools that they have. And some schools are in fact expanding their tool sets to try and teach better.

    I think Rabbi Schonbruch crossed the line a bit by framing this as a moral failing instead of an achievement failing.

  27. I do not agree with Rabbi Schonbuch assessment, even after taking into account the practical realities pointed out but the other commenters. And I do not care for the new fashion of blaming the schools / rebbeim either tacitly or explicitly. The very large majority of our great rebbeim DO care more about the child than his marks. A big part of the issue is that the parents need the strength of character to choose schools which are appropriate for their children.

  28. Remember the old adage: You get what you pay for. Basically, we all want a $45,000 a year education for less than $5000, and that ain’t gonna happen. Our struggling families can’t afford to pay any more, and our cash-strapped Yeshivos can’t do any better on their limited budgets.

    The only solution I can think of is something similar to the Queens Gymnasium, the school which magnate Lev Leviev set up for Bukharan Jewish children in Queens, New York, where parents pay no tuition for an excellent education, courtesy of Mr. Leviev’s deep pockets.

    All we need now is to convince a couple of Jewish billionaires like Mike Bloomberg and Eli Broad and Sheldon Adelstein and Stevie Cohen to donate mega millions to Jewish education. Right. Like that’s going to happen anytime soon.

  29. HOw about paying rebbes a living wage for starters. We expect them to accomplish miracles on an inadequate salary which they often recieve late. That would be a good place to start

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