There should certainly be a Talmud track for the elite students with the intellectual, language, and attention skills necessary to enjoy and benefit from it, but for the mainstream yeshiva high school student this almost exclusive focus on Gemara wastes precious time from more productive study and actually turns most students off from interest in Torah and even Judaism.
Tanach study should lead to meaningful discussions about the lessons each chapter seeks to convey about proper moral, ethical, and spiritual behavior. We should teach our students about meditation and connecting to their deeper selves along with the concept of personal prayer.
Once they understand that the most important part of davening should be their personal prayers and pouring their hearts out to God in their own words, this has the capacity to change and uplift their entire prayer experience. The topic of prayer must be accompanied by Jewish philosophy courses and providing the framework for students to ask their questions and receive well-thought-out answers.
Aside from these curricular changes, we need to spend significant time refocusing on core Jewish values outside the classroom. Our students should be proactively involved in organized chesed activities a few times a week. I have seen the most turned off students become alive spiritually through regular visits to nursing homes or working with special needs children. We should be running workshops with our students about racism, discrimination, charity, business ethics, morality, and honesty.
The prophet Isaiah begins his book by stating God’s complaint that He does not desire our ritual observances if we are not focusing on the basics – caring for the needy and the downtrodden. We must convey that message to our children through both their classroom curriculum and hands-on activities and training.
There is no question that the reforms I have suggested require careful and thoughtful planning along with significant teacher training. I also recognize how difficult it will be for the first school to break ranks from the norm and boldly go where no Orthodox school has gone before. But the reality that our average students are not steeped in Torah knowledge, not skilled in reading classis texts and prayers, not excited about Judaism, and not prepared to be morally and ethically superior to the low common denominator of surrounding society must slap educators in the face and inspire change.
I look forward to seeing these shifts and adjustments throughout our day school system thus ultimately producing young men who are comfortable reading our texts and prayers, inspired to want to study and pray, enthused regarding their Judaism, prepared to enter the world as the most moral, ethical, respectful, and upstanding members of society, and constantly on the proactive lookout to help others in any way they can.
Every student emerging from such a system will see that driving a stranded Israeli rabbi to the bus station is in complete consonance with Torah and Torah study and is at the heart of what it means to a Jew.
Rabbi Dov Lipman is an educator, author, and political activist based in Beit Shemesh, Israel. He has rabbinic ordination from Ner Israel Rabbinical College and a Masters in education from Johns Hopkins University. His website is www.rabbilipman.com.