Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Improving our yeshiva day school system

Much has been said, and much continues to be said, and much more needs to be said, about improving the economics of our yeshiva day schools. But what about improving the education, particularly in limudei kodesh [Judaic studies] - what would you do?

Of course, I always have ideas - Sunday School in limudei kodesh for girls, Judaic enrichment programs - but this is going to be an open thread: What would you suggest for our schools?

In order to provide something related to the conversation, though, here's a piece of an article slated to appear in this week's Toronto Torah, a translation of a segment of Rav Yair Bachrach's Chavos Yair Responsum 124. Rabbi Bachrach pessimistically answers a man who wants to know how to guide the education of his 13 year old son [translaton by Rabbi Ezra Goldschmiedt, one of our avreichim]:

Since you've made known to me that [your son] spoke beautifully at his Bar Mitzvah, I assume he's already learned matters of aggada such as Midrash Rabbah and Ein Yaakov that, in truth, are good for young men, like appetizers before the main course. They will also be glorious and beautiful in the ears of those who hear [from him] a particular peshat or derash, or when he hears a talk from a great [scholar] he will loudly interject and make known his knowledge and grasp [of the subject], by which he [himself] will become known as a distinguished scholar. After all that, perhaps he will find a wife and find goodness, wealth and riches.

However, this would be neither the proper path nor the proper city, nor is it the definition of a true scholar who has acquired wisdom, and grown to the point that we would hope he would be able to render good and just rulings in Israel, who is filled with the meat and wine of the [more] substantial matters of Torah.

Concerning the [management of the] stages [of your son's learning], this is a difficult matter for an individual – even one who is wealthy and distinguished – to manage for his son. [And this would be the case as well] even if one were to find a distinguished scholar who would teach for the sake of heaven, without deception and for whom personal gain and reward is not all they have in mind. This already is uncommon, and it may not even exist, but even if you were to look and find [such a person, you would have another difficulty].

All who have children who go to school adopt a manner of learning that is not proper – so what could one local [teacher] do, to go against his colleagues and change [this system] and adopt a proper approach against his peers? And even if one's father would hire a teacher for him [alone], is not the greatest need in study the bond with friends, as it is written (Taanit 7a) “[I have learned] more from my friends than my teachers”? There is no solution for this, unless one were to gather together five or six heads of household and hire a teacher for their sons, on condition that none could be added. They would provide [for the teacher] as befits him, as though he had double the students. Then, Divine counsel will be effective through this system of learning.


  1. Is he basically saying that we need to halve the class size, and the only way to do that is to leave the established system (probably due to cost)?

  2. The key statement appears to be: "All who have children who go to school adopt a manner of learning that is not proper".

    Not clear what his concern was - is it that the level of learning gets driven to lower levels because of large class sizes and the need to make it understandable to all? There are solutions to that.

  3. I would suggest that students be expected to review all of Nach (well, maybe not the first 10 chapters of Divrei Hayamim) before finishing high school.

    Also, students should learn at list some mishna from each of the six sedarim before being allowed to crack open a gemara. How any one can be considered to have any kind of Torah education without having learned at least the first couple perakim of keilim is beyond me.

    And practical halacha should come out of gemara--how many school kids have learned Hamafkid without any teacher suggesting it might have something to say about what should happen if you borrow Yankie's camera and drop it?

  4. Yeshiva kids need instruction in showing respect to others not like them - non-Jews, Jews with different observances, people with special needs, etc. I can't stress this enough. It's very easy to infer from certain aspects of Jewish teachings that this kind of respect is not necessary. Kids need specific instruction that the opposite is true.

  5. Russell-
    Keeping in mind that he is in a semi-private melamed world, I'm not sure how his recommendation would translate to our world. But he sure doesn't like that world.

    I think that's part of his problem, but he also seems frustrated with the whims of parents and the weaknesses of educators.

    Mike S-
    When you say "review" for Nach, what constitutes "review"? I'm all for every Jew knowing Nach, but as someone who has gone through significant chunks of Nach with his children, and who sees the way their time is split and drained in so many directions, I'm curious as to how this study would work.

    Anonymous 4:58 PM-
    Very much agreed.

  6. I believe there is way too much emphasis on gemara at the expense of halachah, hashkafah, and Jewish history.

    My oldest son comments that schools emphasize (as an example) the minutiae of Shabbat observance without the grand sweep of why we observe shabbat, how it benefits individuals and society, how it is a decleration of our faith in God, how it advances intellectual and personality perfection. He commented that schools assume kids intuitively understand that which they in fact question.

    Getting back to gemara, if it has to be studied, then emphasize those sugyot that speak to hashkafah (aggadeta: the Eiyn Yankeb that The Chovat Yair was minimizing) rather than material that while more testable is often seen by students as irrelavent such as damages caused by a chicken with a rope caught on its leg.

  7. Why would Sunday school for girls be an improvement? When are they supposed to take ballet lessons and swimming lessons and go bike riding?

  8. Another issue iwith Sundays for girls is cost. You are increasing expenses by increasing hours and further choking an already stretched tuition system. Maybe it makes more sense to remove Sundays for boys to relieve the tuition crisis and free up resources to improve services the other days of the week.

  9. Even in yeshivas where parnassa is emphasized it is always about selling a product and making connections. "Park yourself in the money stream, diddle around with it a little, and rake off a lot." And teach your kids to be economic tapeworms, too. This is a recipe for multi-generational social parasitism, only more lucrative than welfare. It's not invent something, make something, or find a way to provide a service better or less expensively than before

  10. Melech-
    1. I hear re: the gemara/hashkafah balance, but I am pulled toward both. It's important to educate our children about the intellectual aspects of Torah. It's also important to educate our children about the heartstring aspects of Torah.

    2. My point re: the girls' Sunday School is only that requiring it for boys and not for girls sends a clear message that the girls' limudei kodesh is insignificant. I am very uncomfortable with this.

    I hear you, but I think it's part of a bigger-picture problem: The tension between emphasizing derech eretz as an important contribution to the world and between de-emphasizing derech eretz as a function of olam hazeh.

  11. I was thinking mostly of straight p'shat. Text with either enough commentary to understand the difficult words and structures or even just a translation that follows rabbinic understanding of the text. My point would be so that they have a familiarity with the main themes of the various books of Nach, and know something of the history of the period. And how the books of Tanach relate to one another in use of language and themes.

  12. I didn't go through the day school system, my Torah education started as an adult. but I have a strong memory (from 15+ years ago) of starting gemara shiur in yeshiva with aggada from the masechet we were learning. I don't know how widespread this is (since I only attended one yeshiva in my life!) but it was a great way of reminding us how to act, how to relate to God and how to relate to other people every day so that we didn't get lost focusing on the details of "shnayim ochazin" or something similar. Maybe this can be adapted to younger ages as well.

    Also, in terms of mussar (broadly defined), I think that children should be taught it at least in part through chumash. How can one look at the stories about Avraham Avinu and have prejudice against non-Jews? As an example, look at Aner, Eshkol and Mamre in lech l'cha. They agreed to accompany Avram and a small band in his mission to rescue his nephew from a powerful army that had defeated multiple kingdoms and had been terrorizing the whole region for years. Anyone in any era would be lucky to have such allies.

    Teaching mussar out of chumash should be easy for the teachers, all they have to do is lift out part of a nechama leibowitz lesson each week.

  13. What is translated is not the entire teshuva - Rav Bachrach has a lot more to say on the matter.

    Here are his essential points:

    - There should be much more emphasis on practical matters of Jewish law and philosophy. Less about the laws of damages, and more on the laws of daily living, as well as Kuzari, Chovos HaLevavos and the like.
    - The basics of Hebrew grammar should be taught more thoroughly.
    - Children should have a fluency in Tanach before beginning Mishna and Gemara.
    - A child should begin learning Mishnayot in the most simple manner; gaining the basic information contained therein, without complicated inferences and analysis.
    - Gemara can be started when a child has some familiarity with Mishnayot. Total command of the material may have been necessary in the times when the Mishnayot were not yet put into writing, but that's no longer necessary to move on to Gemara.
    - One should learn Gemara with an emphasis on understanding it's conclusions. Learning the works of the Rif and Rosh contribute to this method significantly. Drawn out analysis of relatively unimportant details should be abandoned.

  14. Please check your spam, I'm sure I commented that being fluent in Hebrew is the key.

  15. This article went around the shul's listserv today

    on the topic of studying talmud being counter productive.

    However, my oldest son read it and took issue with this paragraph:

    “Before the War, it was unheard of that every child learned in yeshiva the entire day; it was only a selection of students,” Rabbi Heller said, adding that, “Today, however, there is a new ideal that has no source in Torah: everyone has to learn Gemara, and someone who learns Mishna is considered a ‘loser.’” “Never in history,” he noted, “was there such a phenomenon.

    While it's true that gemara is chazal speaking to chazal amongst themselves (rather than the target audience being most people), my son pointed out the gemara bottom of Bava Metzi 33a, and the Rashi at the top of 33b, that during Rebi's time indeed mishnah was abandoned in favor of gemara.

  16. Mike S-
    I hear. And how much time do you think that should take? And should it be classroom, assigned reading, integrated into curriculum?

    A solid idea, but very open to oversimplification. To use the example you cited, the rebbe could just as easily look at the conduct of Cham and Kenaan and hold them up [as Ibn Ezra did] as a source of ridicule for Israel's non-Jewish neighbors.

    R' Ezra-
    Thanks for adding that!

    Not in the spam; weird. But I definitely agree - and, of course, the Rambam to Avos identified studying Hebrew as a mitzvah.

    Good point!

  17. I have to respectfully disagree. I didn't say that all actions of all non-Jews in Tanach are exemplary. I said that some are good and some are bad so one clearly cannot generalize anything negative.

    Separately, in response to your example, I don't think the kind of people who say these types of things study Ibn Ezra very much.


  18. FWIT, I agree about the mixed message of girls not having school on Sunday.
    Even though I think that (for the most part) it only serves to show that the boys are not wasting a Sunday morning, the message is clear... if you are a girl you don't have to learn.

    The YU Kollel in Chicago just started their middle-school mishmar program for the boys. The Rabbi (Etan Ehrenfeld) chose to learn RAMBAM's Sefer HaMitzvos b/c he is aware that the boys are not learning the machshava behind ideas like:
    Believing in Hasheh, Unity of Hashem, loving Hashem, etc.

    As I told him, it's more a fault with the system, since most day schools think the kids know this and, let's face it, there's no big social push for a 13 yr old boy to give his Bar Mitzvah drasha and announce that he's ready to fullfill the mitzvah of loving Hashem. The masses are more interested in making a siyum on mishnayos.

    No need to reply with a comment, since I came into this tread late. :)

  19. Shmuel-
    I don't disagree with your intent - I just think the idea could easily be abused.

    Is that really so (re: the derashah)? I would give him a standing ovation.