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Overhauling Orthodox Education To Make Better Jews

Rabbi Dov Lipman

Rabbi Dov Lipman

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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.

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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!)

  5. 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!!!!!!!!

  6. 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.

  7. 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?

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. Jodi Stimler-Goldberg says:

    that's crazy that people blame the parents. unless they know for a FACT that they are negligent, how can yo do that? I I'd get blamed for everything Maor pulls… I'd feel honestly like crap. Because Avi and I do everything in our power ot teach him the right way.

  12. Jodi Stimler-Goldberg says:

    i know that wasn't the point here, but just had to comment. lol. and – i TOTALLY agree with the rest of your statement. here, here.

  13. Hesh Follman says:

    I must say, our first problem is to admit there is a problem. It is not isolated to any sector within the orthodox community.. Chasidish, yeshivish, MO all have this issues. The fundamental issue is a lack of Yiras Shamayim. It is not the type of book you study from. It certainly is not the lack of hebrew. Years back when I grew up, parents mission was to rear children that feared God, respected elders, each other and most importantly, themselves. These ideals are gone. That IMHO, is the crux of the problem. The lessons you would like to extrapolate from "Nach" can just as easily be gotten from studying Talmud. As a matter of fact I had a high school teacher that when we came across a pasuk in Gemara that most knew nothing of the facts surrounding it – he would take the 15 minutes and have us learn it. The lessons of proper prayer, proper behavior do not come from a book. They come from expectations of parents and teachers, and these same individuals must lead by example.

  14. Sam Ramras says:

    Hesh….what you say is of course correct with regard to yirat Shamayim and proper behavior, however with regard to Academics the way much of Limudei Kodesh are taught in most institutions with an emphasis on acquiring "knowledge" when we should still be acquiring the skill with which to do so is IMHO a mistake. It would allow more of us to study from primary sources rather than abstracts and translations.

  15. Spencer V Kassimir says:

    For those that want Hebrew to be taught in Hebrew Schools, Jewish Academies and Yeshivot, here is the link to a great group that aims to bring awareness to the educators, administrators, and other decision makers letting them know that this is what we want.

    "Without communication there can be no community"


  16. Yair Gemara says:

    What's worse, charging $100 for a cab ride or $27000 for a year of study?

  17. Hesh Follman says:

    we have to allow students to mull over the talmud…learn to learn…not give them all that the recent 200 years scholars thought up. R' gifter in Telz stopped giving shiur in his later life because of this….let guys work hard to learn the talmudic text….when you have a quote from a pasuk that you are unfamiliar with look it up and learn it…that is called learning – that is called "amailus" not the drival they call learning in todays schools of "higher learning" BTW whats up?

  18. Shoshanna Goldstein Sanders says:

    It's from "The Boxer", 1968, on the "Bridge Over Troubled Water" album. Oh, you meant the Rambam?

  19. Um… so you'll have the same rabbis who harass kids to learn Gemara harassing them to learn Tanakh… I don't think this is getting us any closer to a solution. Real change — geula — will come from becoming real people. Don't imagine that substituting one mechanical method of producing students of a certain kind with another mechanical method is going to address the breakdown. The problem is mechanics. Check out work by your mentor's son, R. Matis Weinberg.

  20. Hi Meir Simcha, what did you find too be too mechanical about his suggestions?

  21. Suzy Baim says:

    I agree, there is so much more that we need to teach, like good middos, purpose and Jewish philosophy to have better understanding and strengthen emunah, and internal joy and desire to connect to Hashem.

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