Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Wanted: A 7th Grade Rebbe

An incomplete musing on Jewish schooling:

Last week I heard about a local Junior High School limudei kodesh (Judaic studies) teacher who spoke with his students about September 11th. I'm glad he did it.

I am not among those who want the junior high Rebbe to stick to the curriculum. Sure, I will be frustrated when the curriculum is not completed, and I will want the kids to know much more tochen (content) than they will receive in school, but to my mind the kids need a Rebbe at this stage, far more than they need the tochen.

In my junior high school years at HALB in New York, a Rebbe of mine urged us to get out of our Hebrew Academy world and go to high school at Chofetz Chaim; he even gave us a strategy to convince our parents. (“Tell them you want to go to Telz, and they’ll settle for Chofetz Chaim.”) [Whether I like the idea of teachers undermining parents is another discussion...]

Another rebbe allowed us to draw him into conversations on matters of being “shomer negiah” (avoiding intergender physical contact, in accordance with Jewish law) and “the M word”. A rebbe brought us to his home and neighborhood in Brooklyn for a Shabbaton.

At that age, many kids cease to view their parents as sole role models, or role models at all, and they need healthy alternatives. If the instructor is limited to curriculum and lesson plans, the connection to the students cannot evolve into a broader, role model-oriented relationship. So where will the kids find their mentors?

I wonder if any of the “half-Shabbos” phenomenon stems from teachers who are told to be instructors rather than rebbeim.


  1. If parents did the mentoring they're responsible for, this task wouldn't fall as heavily as it does on school rebbeim. Have parents multitasked themselves out of their main job at home? Or have they been persuaded that they need to leave this to professionals?

  2. If the rabbeim at certain schools were more in tune with the schools' professed hashkafa, parents wouldn't be feeling that they are being undercut.

    Joel Rich

  3. I'm Shalom Rosenfeld, and I approve of RJ"R's message.

  4. Joel & Shalom,

    Are you suggesting that schools should enforce rigid uniformity in their teachers' personal outlooks? Can you see any staffing difficulties this could cause?

  5. R' Bob,
    there's a great difference between rigid uniformity and having someone who teaches one's child 4 hours a day encouraging them to try a different approach from the one they are being raised in (thought experiment-would one be comfortable with a teacher who encouraged their child to to get out of their chofetz chaim world and go to high school at Frisch)?
    Joel RIch

  6. During working hours the teacher should not try to steer his students out of the school. That is elementary.

  7. I heartily agree with TRH, shlit"a. The task of teaching Torah is not to simply convey information. What's more, if we treat it that way we give the students the impression that a Jewish life is centered around data points. Bob is right that the primary job of educating belongs to parents; but students spend much or most of their time in school. They need teachers (rabbanim and others) who model questioning, thoughtful commitment, even overcoming adversity at times. They need teachers like the one in the post who shares with his students that a thoughtful, committed Jew wonders and cares about the big and small events in the world; and doesn't hide cloistered in the confines of the classroom (that's a different religion).

    As for encouraging the students to 'try something different' - the teacher has a mandate as far as I understand. They are acting on behalf of the parents. If there is any possibility that their message doesn't jive with the school's or parents' perspective; they need to tread respectfully and make sure they communicate with the parents. I was raised by public school teachers. In the old days, they spoke with parents when they wanted to encourage some new, different path - like being the first to go to college. (!) It is arrogant and disrespectful of a teacher/rav in a Jewish school to encourage the students to do something behind the parents' backs. Even in encouraging the kids from not-observant homes to go to Bnei Akiva or NCSY, the teacher needs to work with the parents.

  8. Bob-
    I think kids at that age really do need role models outside the home. This is supposed to be an age of looking beyond the parents, hence the ברוך שפטרני.

    Joel, Shalom-
    True. But sometimes it's the fault of the parents.

    Just to note - The rebbe was talking about high school. HALB did not have a high school in those days.

    R' Mordechai, shlita-