Years ago at a Torah Umesorah convention, I heard a presenter state that there is a correlation between derech eretz and the distance one is from New York. I have often thought about that statement as I squirmed in my seat at the rude behavior on the part of “frummer” Yidden I witnessed at many Jewish music concerts – in New York proper, Shabbos Nachamu in the Catskills, even a fancy hotel in Florida during Chol HaMoed Pesach.
I recently had occasion to reflect on that once more as a history teacher in a right-wing yeshiva.
I am a well known and well regarded educator. I have been a day school teacher, a yeshiva principal and a college professor. I spent many years in the classroom and I never had a discipline problem. Whatever the subject matter or level, students understood basic classroom procedures: Come on time, bring a notebook and where necessary a textbook, take notes, raise a hand to ask a question, don’t call out, don’t do homework from another class, pay attention, and sit respectfully while the teacher teaches. Students did misbehave at times, but there was never such blatant chutzpah and lack of derech eretz as I experienced at this yeshiva.
I am retired, but recently went back into the classroom when asked by a colleague to fill in for a teacher who retired midyear. The school is a very well known yeshiva in Brooklyn. It is clear that Torah study takes precedence over all else. However, there are secular studies in the basic core areas late in the afternoon. It’s a very long day for the boys. I was told that written homework assignments are out of the question. The boys do take Regents examinations and a few even take SATs and go to college, but most do not.
This is a black and white school. Everyone wears black and white and the value system is also black and white. Torah is primary. Everything else doesn’t count. I understand this and respect it. However, as long as there is a secular studies program, what message is conveyed to non-Jewish and non-religious public school teachers who have to put up with unacceptable behavior? Perhaps because these teachers come from the public schools and have to deal with similar discipline problems there they may be more acclimated to it. However, I would hope bnei Torah would be on a higher level than public school students.
The rebbeim do not experience this as much, since it would not be tolerated by the yeshiva. Many prominent families with distinguished lineages send their sons to this yeshiva. In the lower grades it’s not a problem. In the 11th and 12th grades they want to graduate. My mazel was to teach the 8th and 9th graders.
There is a textbook and a workbook. I only used the textbook. Teaching was made difficult because many boys would not come prepared with their books or notebooks. Their attitude toward this class was negative. They would not stop talking even after being asked to stop. They would throw things back and forth, eat and drink in class, ignore me as if I weren’t there, litter the classroom, jump up and down out of their seats, yell to each other, read, sing, etc.
Even after some were suspended and even after I spoke with their parents, it didn’t stop. I was very frustrated. It is clear they don’t want to be there and most couldn’t care less about learning history.
The secular administration (all rabbonim) was very supportive but all they could do was suspend a student and threaten to expel him. Even though I was a secular studies teacher, I dress like the rebbeim and davened Minchah with them every day (black hat and all). They too were frustrated and embarrassed by their students’ lack of elementary derech eretz. Apparently the previous secular studies principal approached the rosh yeshiva and asked him to give a talk about the need for derech eretz in secular studies classes. He refused. I was told this happens at other yeshivas as well.
Derech ertez kadmah l’Torah doesn’t merely mean derech eretz is something one is obligated to work on prior to learning Torah. R. Aharon Kotler, zt”l, said that without proper middos, all of a person’s Torah is flawed. R. Chaim Vital asked why there is no specific mitzvah that deals with refining one’s character. He explained that proper middos must precede the Torah since they are the foundation on which Torah is based. Were derech eretz to be a mitzvah, it would imply that it’s a mitzvah like all other mitzvahs. In truth, it’s much more. It’s a precondition to observing the Torah.
I asked myself why this was happening. Perhaps if I dressed in jeans like the other secular studies teachers, the students would respond differently. Perhaps if I didn’t cite rabbinic sources when we studied ancient Greece and Rome they would have behaved better. To be sure, there were boys who genuinely wanted to learn, who paid attention and took notes. But there was this overall sense that the subjects being discussed were bittul – a waste. It is a mindset that if allowed to continue will follow them into adulthood, with negative consequences that will embarrass us all.