Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Tale of Two Yeshivot

I’ve been too caught up in work this week to be able to blog; I almost posted a מראה מקומות (source references) sheet here just for the sake of posting something at all, but then I received an email asking me to promote the Lancaster Yeshiva’s attempt to gain a $50,000 Pepsi Grant for their work. That dovetailed nicely with a post I’ve been mulling for a while regarding another unique yeshiva, Yeshiva Bnei Simcha.

One of the (many) fundamental problems the Jewish community faces today is the challenge of educating young men and women in Torah, when their natural personalities and/or abilities are not necessarily oriented toward the traditional chavrusa-and-shiur model. What service can we provide young Jews who wish to grow in Torah and in observance, but who won’t fit into the yeshiva structure and schedule and mold?

I’ve seen this so often. I remember classmates of mine whose high school Jewish experience was negative, in no small part because they couldn’t excel in that environment. I’ve known families who felt compelled to choose public schools not for lack of funds but for lack of a Jewish environment that could educate their children.

Certainly, our yeshivot are so financially strapped that they cannot afford to educate for the great spectrum of special educational needs. However, creativity and guts and elbow grease can do a lot in this regard. Here are two examples:

1. The Lancaster Yeshiva
I first became aware of the Lancaster Yeshiva when I lived in Allentown, and I’ve been impressed by it ever since. I've meet Rabbi Sackett and some of the students, and I love what they are doing.

The core concept, as described on their website, is this: The Lancaster Yeshiva Center is a unique program that provides post-high school age boys, many of whom have not found success in previous educational endeavors, with the opportunity to combine Judaic studies with vocational training to achieve fulfillment in Jewish life and success in the workplace and community.
The caring rabbinical staff use their vast knowledge of Judaism to guide the students with classes in Jewish Law, Talmud and Ethics. Active involvement in both synagogue and community life helps the students learn how to become contributing members of society. They are imbued with values and true life experiences that heighten their sense of community and promote an enduring commitment to their Jewish heritage.
The professional vocational training instructors, with their wealth of knowledge and experience, teach the students all skills necessary for success in the construction field. The two-year program endows students with useful skills in areas including carpentry, masonry, flooring, plumbing and electrical contacting. Each year, the students work as a team to refurbish a distressed property in the Lancaster area. This project solidifies their newly acquired skills while benefiting the local community.
Click here to support their bid for a Pepsi Grant to support their work.

2. Yeshiva Bnei Simcha
I know less about Yeshiva Bnei Simcha, and I cannot vouch for their program, but I appreciate their goal of serving students with developmental disabilities, and particularly Aspergers. These are students who can learn and grow as Jews, but they won’t find their growth in a standard yeshiva environment.

As described on the Bnei Simcha site:
Yeshiva Bnei Simcha is the first program ever for adult Jewish men ages 17 to 28 with moderate learning and Developmental Disabilities as well as specializing with Aspergers Spectrum Disorders, who would like to fit into a mainstream yeshiva.
We utilize the healing & transformational power of Torah learned with joy & enthusiasm and empowers the “special needs" individual to:
RECOVER from a life of frustration and criticism by connecting the Jewish Soul to its heritage – in an unconditionally accepting and competition-free environment.
REDIRECT each individual to go beyond limitations, which formerly determined his life.
REFRESH the life force within each student, so that he can see himself as a "miracle in progress."

A yeshiva aimed at providing vocational training, a yeshiva for students with Aspergers… yes, there is yet hope for klal yisrael.


  1. I had heard of neither of these yeshivot and it gave me a warm feeling to know that someone not only recognized that everyone in Klal is not identical but went out and did something to facilitate the growth of the students.

    But I have to ask you Rabbi T, if we can be bnai rachamim when it comes to our special needs members of Klal, why can't we also be that way when we look at "regular" families that are being put under great strain and are accumulating huge debts they have no chance of ever getting out from under when it comes to the issue of the cost of yeshiva tuition?

  2. ProfK-
    Do you have a way we could implement rachmanut for those families?

  3. Here's one idea. Parents who can't meet the full tuition required 1)feel awful themselves and may go into debt to pay the full load and may still have to ask for tuition assistance and 2)may be looked at by others in the community who do pay the full tuition as somehow "lesser." Answer? Remove from the tuition bill any and all charges that are not strictly and directly related to the classroom education given to students. For example, our shul has a yearly dinner. Attendance is optional. The school dinner charge is not optional and is included in the tuition bill, whether parents attend or not. It's a fundraising mechanism for the school but is not a direct cost of the classroom education. Many schools have building funds also, again not a direct charge of the classroom education. It is, in one sense, forced tzedaka. Remove these charges and others like them that are for purposes of raising general money.

    Those who can afford the fundraising costs can choose to give towards these expenses. Those who can't will no longer have thousands of dollars of financial obligations that are only indirectly the cost of educating their kids.

    A side benefit might be that yeshivot would have to look at their expenses more carefully, would need to make up their budgets more carefully. They might have to think more carefully before incurring millions of dollars in charges for building "palaces."

  4. Hi Professor,

    As someone who sat on school boards for 12 years, I must protest. Those were certainly not palaces, and tuition was significantly lower than in the NY area, but we had plenty of parents who said they couldn't afford tuition. I don't think the broad tuition problem is a function of school excess, even if some schools do spend excessively. Based on my own experience, it's simply a problem of creating top-level institutions to serve a very small population. It's inherent in the system.

    The problem was solved, for a few decades, by starving the teachers. But schools found that this yielded poor teaching, and it also discouraged the best and brightest from going into teaching as a career. So now they pay the teachers better, but the system breaks down because parents cannot afford it.

  5. It is so important to have schools of different types to serve different learning styles. It is so common to see children leaving religion because the school system couldn't give them what they needed.