Thoughts on Jewish Education

Rosh Chodesh Elul, with the new school year being just around the corner, is a fitting time to open a dialogue on education.

The mitzvah of chinnuch yeladim is found in  Parshat Ve’etchanan.  In none other than the Sh’ma, we are instructed, “.ושננתם לבניך”  Rashi explains this phrase as meaning that one must “teach your children thoroughly.”  The Torah should be “sharp” in the mouth of the students so that if they are asked they can give the answer immediately without hesitation.  Similarly, Rashi adds that Torah should be the main focus and not secondary.

5 Keys (among many others) to successful Jewish education:

 

Lesson # 1 – Full Time Immersion and almost full Time Torah Learning

I could not care less if my child (son) goes or does not go to Kollel when they become of age.  That will be something that they decide when they reach that stage.  (I do hope that out of a love for Torah they would be attracted to the idea.)  The Torah never obligates or even encourages us (maybe the opposite) to spend time in our adult life learning Torah full time.  The Torah obligates us only to love and fear God (as is repeated time and time again these weeks), learn each day and live a Torah life.

However, to reach the level in which my child will love and fear God and live a Torah life, full time immersion and almost full time Torah learning is required.  Torah cannot and will not take a back seat to anything if there is hope that it will be acquired and permanently penetrate inward.  As Rashi teaches, Torah must be Ikar and everything else tofel.  This is both in terms of time allotment and importance, both at home and at school.  If a child senses in any way that general knowledge, wealth, life-style, making money, career, athletics, college acceptance, Western values takes precedence over Torah, Torah is doomed and will fall away.  And unfortunately, it can’t even be anywhere near %50-%50.  When the Word of God and religious life have to battle head to head with worldly and secular pursuits they (the Torah and religion) will almost always lose.  Let us clarify that mathematics, literature and other secular subjects are not “unimportant and a waste of time” but their importance pales in comparison to Torah learning.  A Jew steeped in Torah not only has the capability of learning other “chochmot” (wisdoms of the world) but also has a Torah mandated motivation to do so.  However, this external knowledge must be preceded by an iron strong Torah knowledge and commitment to Torah life to give the secular knowledge its proper context of “where it fits in”.

 

Lesson # 2 – Prioritize in Torah Learning

Knowing mishnayot by heart and memorizing pages of Gemara is a wonderful thing, but it does not mean very much if the student has not mastered Chumash.   The details of Torah without a strong foundation can lead toward confusion, frustration and possible rebellion.  Give your child the knowledge and confidence they need by putting great emphasis on Torah She’bichtav so that they can flourish in Torah Sh’Baal Peh and other parts of Torah at later stages.  It is important to keep in mind that the child might not master Chumash when the rest of the class does, so it is incumbent on the parent to monitor and continue to help their child with “the basics.”

 

Lesson # 3 – Know Where it’s Going

Recently, we had some good friends visiting us from the US.  At the breakfast table we began discussing our children’s chinnuch (not an unusual topic in a Jewish Home).  I mentioned, “that our eleven year old daughter is about half way through her chinuch and developmentally, she is more than half way through.  We hope that she will be getting married around 19-22.”  I was greeted with a surprised look as if to say, “she’s only eleven!?”

Many times parents get caught up in making sure their child excels in school or they take a more laissez faire attitude of “we’ll have to see whatever’s best for the child” and they lose touch with the fact that chinnuch from a Torah perspective is meant to be going somewhere very specific.  For many reasons, Chaza”l teach us in Pirkai Avot that eighteen (or thereabout) is the age to become married.

With this in mind, our focus becomes more about teaching our children to be Bnai and Bnot Torah (a Yiddishe Mensch) with the Fear/Love of God, middot tovot (refined character), and Torah knowledge they need so that they will be wonderful husbands/wives and parents, and less about getting an “A” in Tana”ch so that they will have good grades for their college transcript or succeed in their bagruyot.  If this is the case and big things, like educating their own children, happen sooner than later, every day counts.

 

Lesson # 4 – Educate with emotions

My parents produced three rabbis (and nothing else) because they educated us with passion and emotion.  I, myself have cried a few times at our Shabbos table (in the privacy of our own family).  To their great benefit, my children have seen my wife pour emotions as she is lighting the Shabbos candles.  Without an emotional connection, Judaism becomes dry, cold and boring.  It is crucial for a child to see a parent and teacher cry over a value, a Torah teaching, a story and the like.  It teaches the child the depth of the connection that the educator has toward the material, specifically and the Torah, generally.  These genuine experiences enter deep into our heart and remain there for a long time.

 

Lesson # 5 – Dovin Early and Often

If there is one thing in the world that deserves our t’fillot, it is our child’s education.  To the same extent that we have control over forming our precious childrens’ souls, to that same extent it is out of our hands completely.  We hope not, but as a result of one damaging conversation with a “non-believer” our child can be swept away into “other paths.”  We would expect one (or more than one) of the brachot in shmoneh esreh  to be devoted to chinuch yeladim?  I once heard a very powerful idea from a Rabbi at a kiruv seminar.  He said that the reason chinuch yaladim is left out of t’filla is because “the next tfilla in a minyan is too long to wait to be dovining for our children.  The t’filla for our child that is on our mind must take place right then and there at the scene of the crime.”


 

Below are the comments from our readers to the above discussion on Education.  Each comment is followed by the name of the person that sent in the comment.

 

“Ideas 2-5 very strongly resonate within my heart and mind.  I am not so sure how I feel about number 1.  Many of us have either seen or even at times been victims of “drowning” in over emersion in Torah. the experienced of being smothered by a Torah only education and a Torah only mind development can overwhelm a student in this day and age.  You obviously didn’t mean that the emersion in Torah should exclude, leisure and sports and other necessities of a healthy childhood, but in some communities that is the implication.  In my humble opinion, it is a big fault.  Additionally, I think the success of many benei Torah in the world I live in, comes from a well rounded education and upbringing which did not have full emersion in anything but was always balanced with secular and Torah education. The light of the Torah does not necessarily become diminished when it is neighbored with other pursuits, but hopefully it’s light becomes even more realized and shines even brighter when Torah can be expressed and brought to life on the sports field and in the studies of science and even the humanities.”

Rabbi Yoni Miller

 

  1. The home and school MUST be on the same page so the child does not experience discord between the messages of the two most important influences and institutions in his life. If the school does not match the message and values of the home find one that does and move there if possible so that the child has the friends with whom to play and interact after school.Both places MUST BE SAFE HAVENS FOR A CHILD.
  2. The parents must be on the same page and if there are differences in educational philosophy work it out away from the children. The child is extremely perceptive in picking up those clues and it seriously works to his detriment.
  3. Torah learning is first and foremost for every Jewish child but cannot be exclusive. A person is a multifaceted human being with a wealth of skills and talents, intellectual, artistic, physical etc. and yearnings and needs that cannot all be taped or met sitting 8am-6pm everyday only learning Torah. If a parent neglects these GOD given/driven abilities, drives, nitiot, potentials in a person from the youngest age they are being neglectful and irresponsible on the same scale as not managing health issues.
  4. A parent’s lack thereof in his own education cannot dictate what the child learns completely to make up for his/her own chesronot.
  5. A child should be educated, trained to reach his potential in as many areas as possible NOT FOR Money or fancy degrees but to be in touch with his full range of skills and talents to be successful in the area of his choice, first to be filled with sipuke nefesh and then to be able to live and survive in this hard and expensive world and to have a good self image with self esteem. We were told by educators that that was our success with our children. Yes we forced a BA in any way that was comfortable for them but we never pushed pedigrees or said, “you have to be a????? or you have to get such and such a grade or else.”  We fostered responsible school work, meeting deadlines and we gave them the gift of time to grow into who they were meant to be.  They have become who they are and who they were meant to be from the symphony of experiences and immersion in formal and informal Jewish education, community and shul life, exposure to many amazing teachers, role models, rabbis, friends who all had a part in molding them.  People whom they could learn from, respect, ask, challenge were and still are in their lives to guide and mold them.   And B”H they all had good minds to be able to learn and develop.
  6. A regular, loving and caring bedtime, family dinner time, shabbat and chagim meals, camping, travels, seeing beautiful places, being in nature, being on teams, watching teams, not setting too many limits that might be broken with consequences, parents home and around at any and all ages just in case, extended family, and friends are all part of making it work and happen for kids in a family.And if there are issues at any stage or age to seek professional help and counseling for proper and immediate intervention to help the child.

Mrs.Grace P. Miller

 

Let us begin by looking at the Hebrew word “Chinuch”/education. There is a strong connection between Chinuch and the more common idea of Channuka.  Many commentators draw on this etymological similarity to infer a like meaning.  The idea of Channuka/dedication is to start a place or idea on the “right track” so that after the dedicated moment, the place or idea continues in the way set for it.  The same is true with Chinuch/education: Our mission to be “mechanech” is to set our students and children on a path on which they will be able to propel themselves forward.  The moment of chinuch is at the start.  At the point of inception is when the movement begins and the course is set in motion.   It is at that critical point when Channuka and Chinuch occur.  The ultimate sign of education is then when learning continues beyond the school years. As we get ready to begin another school year in a few weeks it is important to reflect and reassess our chinuch goals. We can use the first weeks of school to be Mechanech, to set the wheels into motion that will propel our children to great heights in the year and years ahead.

Rabbi Uriel Feldman

 

You mentioned in your previous email some of the most important points.  Perhaps I can add a thought that was taught to me by my neighbor who was of a famous rabbinic family, and is a special educator on his own merit.  I have used this idea in every step of education.It is simple, but usually goes without acknowledgment.

Rule: The student/child is right. 

When they disturb in class, or do not want to study/listen etc. you must realize that they are right.

That we wish to discipline them, as well as have them sit and learn is against their nature.

Only if we understand them, can we now discipline them.  I used to think that learning and discipline is the norm, and get angry at the children who did want to learn.  It does nothing. You get annoyed and they dont know what you are talking about.   Lectures like “what will be when you get older” mean nothing to children.  If you understand them, and you feel them, you will be able to connect with them, and get them into learning.  You will be working with them.  To assure I am not misunderstood, I am not saying to let them do what they want, live in hefkerut and not learn.   Quite the contrary, by all means discipline them, but do so while understanding what they are feeling.

Rabbi Yehoshua Geller

 

I would like to add a few points:

1) We say “hamelamed torah liamo yisroel” only Hashem teaches torah, we must know it is not us, we are merely puppets.

2)  Sincerity live, love, and practice what you preach. Anger and frustration should almost never show.

3) Liolam yaasok adam ….. shelo lishma etc it says “always”. Give lots of incentives.

4)” Smeichim kinisanuson misinai”. Everything must be done Be’simacha – joyfully.

5) Most important, the student needs to feel loved for and cared about by the teacher, in order to learn from them.  Every student needs to be treated with great respect and admiration.

Rabbi Moishe Lustig

 

As I began my tenure as the Rav of a shul in Baltimore, I learned there was something much more important than my drasha.

I prepared my message and supportive material- midrash, a couple of stories, a piece of gemara, a good vort on a parsha verse- the entire week, and I couldn’t wait till the ark was closed so I could deliver my masterpiece.  One time, something happened, and I learned an extremely valuable lesson in education.

As I was a third of the way through my sermon, a hand in the front went up. “What is THAT?” I thought to myself. Who has the chutzpah to interrupt this magnificent display of eloquence and wisdom? I had a nano second to decide what to do- ignore the hand or acknowledge it.  I took a huge risk, and called upon the gentleman who clearly couldn’t wait until kiddish to share his thought while munching on a matjes herring on a cracker.

This was one of the best decisions I ever made. The man was confused. Something I mentioned conflicted with something he learned elsewhere, and after offering a brief explanation, another hand went up, and then another. Something extraordinary was happening as my sermon took a back seat- I was addressing THEIR curiosity, THEIR questions from way back in Hebrew school, THEIR unresolved issues which were now being fanned. And you know something? Ever since then, unless I had a critical point to make or wrap up a “must finish” part of a sermon, I defaulted to the raised hands, knowing that the best education is meeting someone where he or she is plotzing to know something. Their question, and my answer, just at the right time of their inquisitiveness, will linger in their memory.

One time I went to hear Elie Wiesel, at an event where the title of his talk was grabbing. I was so thrilled to hear about that topic. Except I never did, for he got up at the podium, and looked at the audience, and said, “Sha’alu”- ask. He echoed the words of a sage in the Talmud who, standing before his students, knew everyone had a question, and so Elie Wiesel knew the same thing I learned during a drasha. What YOU have to ask is at least as important- perhaps more- as what I have to say.

So raise your hand….and raise your knowledge.

 

Rabbi Elan Adler

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