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Overhauling Orthodox Education To Make Better Jews

Rabbi Dov Lipman

Rabbi Dov Lipman

I am in shock.

A friend of mine was visiting the United States and his ride to the airport for his return flight to Israel fell through. At the last minute he needed to find a ride to a terminal that was 50 minutes away in order to catch a bus to New York City where he would then take a shuttle to the airport.

A young man, fresh off a year of Torah study in a top hesder yeshiva and looking forward to his second year of learning in Israel, offered to drive this visiting rabbi. This boy would appear to be a yeshiva high school success story – religious and learning Torah. Of course, he was told, the rabbi will pay something to offset gas expenses and for his time.

They arrived at the bus terminal and my friend decided he would give the boy more than what he thought the effort was worth since he appreciated the gesture. He offered the young man $50. The boy said it was not enough. My friend offered $60. The boy said, “You have to pay me double because I now have to drive back.”

My friend was taken by surprise and said $60 for 90 minutes of driving was certainly fair. The boy insisted on asking a cab driver what he would charge. The cabbie answered $60. The boy would not accept that. He demanded $100. The rabbi said he needed cash for more buses and for food. The boy responded that this was “taking away time from Torah learning” and he needed to be compensated accordingly. My friend managed to find $84 only to be met with the boy saying, “This is just not right.” And with that they parted ways.

My friend related how just that morning during Shacharit he was thinking about how “off target” we are as he watched rabbis barking at children to stand during “vayevareich Dovid” and the “vihu rachum,” part of Tachanun at a youth minyan. He was not suggesting we shouldn’t find ways to encourage our children to stand when our custom dictates standing during prayers. But the degree to which the kids were being scolded for not standing struck a chord that led him to reflect upon what we teach as important and what is not important.

When this yeshiva boy then squeezed him for money, it all came together in his mind and I could not agree more.

There is no doubt the horrifying actions of this young man are not mainstream. However, sometimes reaching a new low can shock the system and prompt introspection. A yeshiva high-school graduate – after a year in shana aleph and preparing for shana bet – acting in this manner is certainly a significant low and brings issues I have been thinking about for years to the fore.

Let’s take a step back and see where the average yeshiva high school boy stands upon graduation from high school. Is he fluent in Hebrew? No. Can he prepare a Gemara on his own? No. Does he enjoy studying Gemara? No. Does he know Tanach? No. Does he enjoy davening? No. Does he understand basic Jewish philosophy about God, the purpose of creation, and why we do the things we do? No. Does he stand head and shoulders above the rest of society in terms of his dedication to acts of loving-kindness and basic human decency? No.

The time has come for us to look at ourselves in the mirror and work to make change.

What can be done? I would begin by following the advice of my teacher and mentor, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, and teach Hebrew. Twelve years of school is more than enough to produce students who are completely fluent in Hebrew and capable of opening both prayer books and classic Jewish texts and having a basic understanding of the meaning of the words.

Another one of my teachers pointed out the shame that if every Book of Chabakuk were to be removed from all our schools and study halls, no one would even notice. The Written Torah contains God’s eternal messages to us and therefore we should shift away from our focus on Gemara and produce students who are proficient in Tanach and Mishnah.

About the Author: Rabbi Dov Lipman is a member of the 19th Knesset with the Yesh Atid party. He has rabbinic ordination from Ner Israel Rabbinical College and a Masters in education from Johns Hopkins University.


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51 Responses to “Overhauling Orthodox Education To Make Better Jews”

  1. Mildred Bilt says:

    Amen. But I wonder-did you speak to that young man regarding his treatment of the rabbi? Or was he dropped at the wayside in pursuit of grander objectives? Start with one and you could reach many.

  2. Zev Greenblatt says:

    This kid is probably going to grow up demanding a king's ransom for a get.

  3. It is strange of what things people value and what people don't. So much dislocation from each other yet Shtark on the color of the napkins at the Chupa's… So much thought as to what way to raise a Sefar Torah at Hagbah yet so little when it come to answering someone who said Shalom Aliechem?

    So what to do…. Have every kid at the start of each year give over one thing they like about learning Torah and one thing they don't and grow the child based on what he is missing and what he is great at.. Bridge the gaps thru love and patience. Show the Joy of Yehay Shey Rabba and what it truly means.. Love be with your day,

    Yehoshua Werth

  4. Excellent article! There is definitely too much focus on Gemara and not enough focus on Tanach, Mishnah, Chumash, and the Hebrew language itself. Also, subjects such as music with a Jewish theme should be taught as well as secular subjects such as science and math. The students of today are being pressured to learn Gemara and if they are not good Gemara learners, they are not accepted into good yeshivas. This is absolutely disgusting. This is the reason why many yeshiva students unfortunately leave the path of Judaism. Thanks for writing such a beautiful article.

  5. let us start workshops for teachers, for all teachers:kindergaten, all schools and universities and help them to realize what is important to know right now, so that we will be kind to each other, be healthy and be true servants of HaShem….

  6. Another thought-provoking article from Rabbi Lipman.

  7. Julia Varady says:

    Yes! My son is unfortunately in an all-gemara school, and he is suffering, with virtually no other options within the 'charedi' system in Israel. And 'dati leumi', of course, is verboten (needless to say that he is woefully behind in ALL subjects, even if he were to courageously change to another educational system. And the situation isn't much better for my next boy.

  8. Aaron Ross says:

    There have been plenty of modern orthodox educators saying similar things about curriculum change over the past few decades, but we are still using a Gemara-centric curriculum. It would be an interesting sociological moment if Rabbi Lipman's words bring about this change. He is obviously not addressing the charged I community – his example is a hesder stunt and there is no way that the charedi world is giving up the focus on Gemara at this point. Is the MO world capable of making this shift on their own, or do we need the "cover" of support from a charedi Rabbi in order to grant it legitimacy?

  9. very good article.

  10. It's so sad Julia, I hope that with your help your boys will still be able to fight the system and come out with some decent profession in the end. With a mother like you they will surely succeed!

  11. Great article. I would add that besides tanach, they should teach relevant halachik topics, but in a more "live" manner. It should involve some look at the key texts, but would be more similar to how Torah shel Bal peh initially was learned. (The girls' schools might actually do a better job in this.)

    (See also my posts below on the the same topics).

    http://www.torahjournal.com/blog/2011/09/why-do-we-learn
    http://www.torahjournal.com/blog/2011/09/what-to-learn
    http://nebach.blogspot.com/2006/02/31-years-of-batalah.html

  12. Michael Gordon says:

    My son just finished 2 years at Yeshivat Orayta, a great Post HS yeshivah that follows the teaching method and attitude expressed in Rabbi Lipman's article. They also have programs for Jewish educators in how to teach to inspire. http://www.orayta.org

  13. It is interesting to note that the Rambam (Maimonides), who is heavily relied upon by the "100% Guemara-centric" Yeshivas, has pointedly given the same message over half a millennia ago. If Simon and Garfunkel understand the concept of "People hearing what they want and discarding the rest" we, as jews certainly should learn lessons from the consequences of this shortfall.

  14. Jesse Socher says:

    The real problem is that we ignore the Mishna's emphasis on learning a trade. The Amoraim understood that without a physical understanding of the universe one cannot truly understand the meta-physical. What is missing in Yeshiva is wood shop, meta lshop , bookbinding etc.. AND Modern Hebrew!

  15. Derek Krantz says:

    where does the state this message? i would like to look at it myself

  16. Derek Krantz says:

    it always amazes me that most day school graduates have almost no hebrew skills at all, imagine going to a "french school" and not knowing french.

  17. Steve Thompson says:

    Dov, you and I went to the same high school, and from my experience, I completely agree with you. Any love for Torah or davening came from experiences after high school. I did not spend a year in Israel, as I was so turned off from high school. There really does need to be a change, and I'm hoping that by the time my kids get to high school, what you described will be the norm. Kol Hakavod.

  18. In his introduction to Mishnei Torah

  19. Its the stress on learning ability and the loss of focus on moral values. I spent a year studying at yeshiva and was in rabbi lipman's shir, and he stressed proper values. Yet all around me in other yeshiva shiurim there were the "poster buchrim" who learned gemura like none other, so these students were given passes or given preferential treatment. So when it came to treating others well, they felt surpeior and didnt care about being considerate of others. As soon as you stress the importance of learning ability over moral values, those that can learn will feel vastly superior to others, even rabbi's that they're giving rides to.

  20. As a graduate of the system, I could not agree more. I think teaching Jewish morals and ethics need to be the top priority, and your idea of teaching them via the sources is the way to go.
    I'd be happy to participate in designing a Hebrew language curriculum that works and keeps kids engaged and delighted in learning their national tongue.

  21. Gidon Lyons says:

    what emphasis ?

  22. These kids were not hatched into schools. These values – and lack thereof – are the responsibility of the parents. SHOW a child chesed and courtesy towards others from birth and they will practice it forever.

  23. Leor London says:

    Great article. When I spent a year in Israel after high school, I distinctly remember my Rabbi's saying: "Ok guys, its Chanukah, up until now we have not been pushing you to do much of anything. We have been trying to get you all to stop hating learning, davening, and everything they make you hate in America." I thought about that for a minute. All those activities were things I dreaded in high school but it Israel it was different. It wasn't about grades and keeping quiet in class. It was about learning to love Judaism and what it offers and to discuss topics that would never be discussed in America. Thank you Derech Ohr Sameach for continuing to educate post high school students and for doing such an incredible job at that.

  24. Rachel Burk says:

    R Lipman says that most Jewish boys level is wayyyyy below where they are, and tells a "shock story" of someone who is are outside of the mainstream- in short, good journalism, bad portrayal of the issues in chinuch.. Orthodox communities already have places for people to send their kids if they want to raise them with more tanach, more extracurricular activity to build their middos, etc. – we call them day schools. Note that this is an article in The Jewish Press- they already send their kids to these schools. They just want the charedim to be doing it too. And there is no evidence that modern Orthodox teenagers are less big jerks than yeshivish teenagers, or that they are more fluent in Hebrew, or better daveners. Again, good journalism, bad chinuch principles.

  25. Ben Labovitz says:

    Leor, so profound…. well said!

  26. Leor London says:

    I don't think it is that they want the Charedim to do this. I believe Rabbi Lipman is urging everyone else to. Charedim focus on learning, which is important and good. But when it come to politics, defending the state of Israel, and anti-antisemitism, we need educated people in things other than the Gemarah. We need people that see the beauty in Judaism outside of the books. And students who attend modern orthodox schools (like Rambam in Baltimore WAS) come out way more fluent in Hebrew than the others. I can personally attest to that.

  27. I agree with you 100 percent!

  28. Reb Altman says:

    why don't you send that to rabbi brickman instead of fb

  29. Nathan Kruman says:

    I fully agree with the message, and am a big fan of Rav Yaakov Weinberg zt"l. At the same time, this does a disservice to the many who are graduating and living Torah lives where this kind of incident does not occur. Respectfully to all, we empower yeshivot to take much responsibility; occurrances such as this are also the result of poor parenting as well, not to mention – and I know this will not be a popular opinion – that it might have been helpful and this situation might have been avoided were the rabbi to ask whether $50 would be enough before he got in the car.

  30. I completely agree. Obviously there was a discrepancy in expectations and not necessarily a reflection on this kid or his yeshiva education.

  31. Kobi Ableman says:

    agree here. i don't remember the citation, but all contracts should be agreed in advance. that way there are no surprises at the end. also i agree with some of the educational centiment here. when i went to bmt many years ago (and took classes at jts in nyc) the classes were in hebrew. there are almost programs in israel or in the usa that have any expectation that an 18 year old grad of the best in jewish education could handle a true program in hebrew.

  32. I'm sure there is much about yeshiva high school curricula that could be improved, but no one learns how to incorporate fundamental values into his or her life from studying a text, even if that text is the Torah or Nevi'im. You learn that from your parents, your friends and role models in your community. This kid is a selfish, arrogant, disrespectful little prick. Probably always has been and always will be.

  33. I agree. In the Sukkat Shlomo preschool my son attended 22 years ago they promised to teach our children everything they need to know, but that it would not be worth anything unless we teach kibud horim at home; stand to greet your father first time you see him in the morning. Bring your parents a drink. Bring them their coat when they leave and greet them when they come home. As a ba'alat t'shuva raised in the 60s, this seamed out-dated..but we did it. We have happy, thoughtful teens and adult children (The ones under age ten are still schnooks!)

  34. There are other alternatives for education in Israel. I hope you can find one that will teach your sons what they need to know to become well rounded, successful, happy and productive human beings. I know, with your help, teaching and encouragement they will. YASHER KOACH!!!!!!!!

  35. Shlomo D. Silverstone says:

    Well, many of the boys are now bred to sit, and get money thrown at them. A sense of entitlement is what's bringing these kids down. It starts with good parenting and teaching kids the difference between "want" and "need" and you cannot always get what you want.

  36. Jack Frommer says:

    A lighthearted joke:

    Yankel asks his father for fifty dollars. His father replies, forty dollars? What do you need thirty dollars for?

  37. Chayim Goldberg says:

    While I fully agree with the author that what the kid did was reprehensible (charging more than a cab because of cutting into his learning time?) and that it's a shame that kids are coming out of 12 years of yeshiva without being able to speak hebrew, these are two completely different issues that have to be dealt with separately. I would be annoyed if my own child didn't learn to speak Hebrew in school but I would consider myself a failure as a parent if my child did something like what this kid did. Before we begin overhauling the content of the current yeshiva education (which certainly needs to be done!) we must first make sure that the fundamentals of Judaism, ie honesty and veahavta laraichac kamocha, are taught as a way of life, both in school and at home, both in text and in practice. Hebrew language can be picked up later, while in Israel, but middos MUST be taught from the beginning.

  38. Jacquelyn Katon says:

    some people are blaming this young man's parents; many young men in NY are behaving like this, its disgusting and its not an isolated incident. the boys who are "good learners" feel a high level of entitlement and remain "religious" because they are respected and praised, regardless of their behavior. The poor learners are tired of being told they are losers and they leave the religious community, despite the fact they can be tremendous assets to any community, by working and raising beautiful families. WAKE UP PEOPLE! as parents, we do control "the system" and can make a change, albeit it will likely be a slow one. reform for the schools is a long time in coming- most everyone is unhappy with the current system. The kids sit in school the majority of their days from a young age, and come home to nannies who mostly do not emphasize good Middos either. so yes, a curriculum shift is badly needed, with a larger focus on ethics and behavior. Almost all girl's schools have volunteer programs from young ages, there is no reason that the boy's schools should not be doing so as well. The boys should be learning life skills at school, including how to take care of themselves, their hygiene and health (a no-tolerance nonsmoking policy in and out of schools would be fantastic, most yeshivos have higher rates of teens smoking than the local public schools), about drugs and sexuality, about managing money, and conducting themselves in public places. Why are they not learning to stand up for their teachers when they walk into the room, to say good morning, to be respectful? After all this they can learn how to care for younger children, maybe be a "big brother" both at school and at home, learn some patience and how to discipline a child gently and prepare for LIFE, how to be a good father, a good worker, a good citizen. Our schools are just teaching the kids subjects, and not teaching them to LIVE Torah.

  39. Akiva David Miller says:

    Many years ago I was learning in a small yeshiva with a handful of other adult learners; when I had to move the rabbi running the yeshiva told me to get my fellow students to help me with the move. One of my fellow students refused, insisting that it would be a waste of his time – taking him away from Torah Study. Today he is a rabbi and recently he started his own yeshiva; I can only imagine what his students will be taught.

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