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November 27, 2014 / 5 Kislev, 5775
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Whatever Happened To Derech Eretz?

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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.

The outside world is not as monolithic as the insular yeshiva world. I fear for our future if this attitude is allowed to continue. After one month I left the position sad, upset, and discouraged.

Yaakov Yitzchak is a pseudonym. Though The Jewish Press as a matter of policy generally does not permit the use of pseudonyms on op-ed articles, there are, as in this case, rare exceptions to that rule.

About the Author: Yaakov Yitzchak is a pseudonym. Though The Jewish Press as a matter of policy generally does not permit the use of pseudonyms on op-ed articles, there are, as in this case, rare exceptions to that rule.


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4 Responses to “Whatever Happened To Derech Eretz?”

  1. Rich Dweck says:

    This is a huge issue! Most yeshivas and religious communities think Halachah and learning Torah is #1. Respect for others has went out the window! Many Jews have forgotten the teachings of “Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik” and “Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.” The problem comes from Rabbis that get up and preach about learning torah, instead of Jewish Ideas and values. How can children learn how to treat others when they are so sheltered? They are taught that anyone but the Ultra- Orthodox are not really Jews. And even worse, they are told that Non-Jews are bad people. If they teach that, how can they make a kiddush hashem? I have been to funerals where they praise a rabbi, leader and laymen, that passed and say they were so great that they got involved in helping Non-Jews and made such a wonderful “Kiddush Hashem”. Why is this not the norm? How can these children know how to treat others if they have leaders above them that do not show it? The intolerance of rabbis that will not perform a wedding with others, greet or treat another rabbi they do not agree with like sub-human Will they hold the door open for a Non-Jew? Are they not taught that EVERYONE is created in the image of God!

  2. Boruch says:

    Sad situation. Reminds me when I experienced same years ago, and was, at times, part of the problem, sorry to say.

    I think the kids are just under so much pressure, that it is very hard for them. I bet they are not perfect angels in the other part of the program either, by the way. The whole education system, in many places, is much too pressured and needs to be altered in a more spiritually holistic direction.

  3. Yasher Koach to the Yaakov Yitzchak and the Jewish Press for exposing whatever happened to Derech Eretz?
    Today’s society exhibits rudeness, and lack of ethics. Students in school learn from peer pressure, broken homes, and bad habits. Where is the parent’s concern for their children’s welfare? Parents must watch their children’s moves 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is also a must that teachers should tell parents how their children behave in school. If there is a problem, the student should report it to the teacher.
    And, for the Jewish people, we must study Torah the correct way. Not by keeping your nose inside a book, but by practicing Torah at all times.

    David N. Rodgers
    Hillcrest, NY 11366
    (718)591-7257

  4. Sara Mandell says:

    inflation. as salaries & prestigious titles inflate the egos, some get arrogant. i wish we could all be as humble as Moses.

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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.

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