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September 19, 2014 / 24 Elul, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Talmud Torah’

Dumbing Down Standards Is No Way To Educate

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

My twelfth-grade son is taking his SATs this week. And though years of being a bookworm have netted him an impressive vocabulary, he still kvetched when he heard that the vocabulary section of the SATs, along with the essay and math sections, will be slashed in the years after he takes them.

Less than two months ago the College Board announced its updating of the SATs by removing old vocabulary words, making math easier, ending penalties for guessing and discarding the mandatory essay. In the new SAT vernacular, this is a further “dumbing down” of already diminished requirements for American students at a time when they continue to fall precipitously in worldwide rankings.

And despite research that points to slightly higher percentages of black and Hispanic students over white students using test prep, College Board officials continue to claim that financially better-off students have an edge. In an effort to emphasize “fairness,” reduce “inequality” and “provide opportunity,”, they will partner with an online education site to help students prepare for the tests.

How ironic that this announcement was soon followed by the Supreme Court ruling that upheld a Michigan constitutional amendment banning affirmative action in admissions to the state’s public universities. By legalizing states’ abilities to protect the rights of all student applicants based on merit rather than race, the court’s decision points to the need to strengthen rather than weaken the role of achievement in achievement tests.

Opponents of the ruling highlight the significant drop in enrollment of black and Hispanic students in the most selective colleges and universities in Michigan and other states like Florida and California that forbid affirmative action in higher education. What they don’t mention is the inverse increase in enrollment of deserving students who work hard and earn the right to be accepted.

These same opponents also overlook the proven insult and injury to minority students who rely on affirmative action and its twin partner of lowering educational expectations. The harm that results in rewarding failure and punishing success only serves to further compromise these students’ ability to perform.

It is not the role of schools or government to make people feel good about themselves. Self-esteem comes with productivity, not in the absence of it. And if rectifying the ills of affirmative action results in a decrease in blacks and Hispanics in colleges at a time when it is vital for our country to compete in a global marketplace, so be it.

No amount of artificial enhancements can take the place of a strong work ethic applied to learning. And that ethic is learned at home, irrespective of a family’s financial standing. Which is why those cultures imbued with a strong emphasis on education are the same ones succeeding today, in America and elsewhere.

As was recently reported, a single father from the Sichuan Province in China walks nine miles every day with his disabled 12-year-old strapped to his back so the boy can get an education. He estimates he’s walked 1,600 miles since he started taking his son to school because, though the boy is physically disabled, “there is nothing wrong with his mind.” Thanks to his father’s devotion, Xiao Qiang has climbed to the top of his class.

There are many similarities in the emphasis on education found in the Asian and Jewish communities. Indeed, it’s hard not to connect the dots between the People of the Book and their long history of success, despite the many challenges they’ve faced.

Long before there were laws against discrimination or financial safety nets, American Jews rose to the top academically and economically. The success stories of immigrant Jewish Americans in the early half of the past century and once-penniless Holocaust survivors in the second half attest to their determination to succeed despite obvious hardships.

School Starts in Israel

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

Millions of adults in Israel are unusually happy today as 2,129,562 children return to school for the start of the school year.

1,700,535 children will be going to grade school, and another 429,177 will be going to nurseries and kindergartens.

A whopping 148,774 children will be starting first grade.

The breakdown of students in each of the major, recognized school system streams is as follows:

Public School:   678,161

Religous Public School:  217,137

Private School:  248,364

Talmud Torah:  50,470

Non-Jewish Schools:  437,503

There are 4,561 schools with  62,962 classrooms, and approximately 15,000 kindergartens/nursery schools in Israel.

For many Haredim (Ultra-Orthodox), the school year started 3 weeks ago, on Rosh Chodesh Elul. It’s estimated that Haredi students make up approximately 30% of the students in Israel.

More statistics can be found on the Ministry of Education’s website.

As one parent told this reporter this morning, “We’re meeting in the park at 10 to throw a party”.

I’ll be there.

Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter 12: Hodel

Friday, September 7th, 2012

It was impossible to tell which thought gave Tevye more happiness. The thought of stepping foot in Jerusalem, or the thought of seeing his Hodel again. True, Hodel was his own flesh and blood. She was like a little piece of his Golda. Hadn’t he listened to his wife’s painful groans through eight excruciating hours of childbirth? Hadn’t he cradled the girl in his arms when nightmares disturbed her sleep? With pride and with great fatherly joy, he had watched her grow from a tot into a woman. And how empty and heartbroken he had felt when she rode off on a train to follow her Perchik into exile. But Jerusalem – Jerusalem was more than a child. Jerusalem was more than a man’s family. Jerusalem was a dream. It was more than a dream. Who ever thought that the dream of Jerusalem could ever come true?

How could it be, you ask? How could it be that a city which Tevye had never seen could occupy such a powerful place in his heart? For a Jew, the answer was simple. For two-thousand years, three times a day, Jews prayed to return to their city. After every meal, after every piece of bread, and every piece of cake, they prayed for Jerusalem’s welfare. No matter where a Jew lived, the city of Jerusalem was to be the center of his life. It was the place where the Pascal lamb was to be eaten on the Passover holiday, and where first fruits were brought on Shavuos. There, by the pool of Shiloach, joyous water celebrations were held on Sukkos. It was the site of the ancient Temple, the Beis HaMikdash, may it soon be rebuilt. It was the place where the Sanhedrin declared the new months, and where the High Priest atoned for the nation on Yom Kippur. There, the miracle of Hanukah had occurred when the Maccabees had won their great victory over the Greeks. For Jews all over the world, each day started with the hope – perhaps this was the day that God would rescue them from their exile in foreign lands and bring them back to Jerusalem.

But the dream of his father, and his grandfather, and his great-grandfather before them, and all of his grandfathers all the way back to Abraham wasn’t to come true for the moment. They only had use of the JCA wagon for a week, so the ascent up the mountains leading to Jerusalem would have to be postponed so that they could make the three-day journey up north to the kibbutz where Hodel was living.

With tears in her eyes, Ruchel kissed her sister Tzeitl goodbye. Tzeitl seemed so frail and so thin, Ruchel feared that she might never see her big sister again, God forbid. For weeks now, Tzeitl hardly touched any food, and the weight she lost had hollowed her cheeks. Her cough clung to her like a menacing shadow, and her always hopeful smile seemed more to comfort others, so as not to cause her family anguish. The sisters hugged without looking too deeply into each other’s eyes. Ruchel kissed Hava, Bat Sheva, and gave the children big squeezes. Then she turned toward her father. The time had come to return to Rishon so that Nachman could assume his new position as melamed, teaching in the Talmud Torah. Tevye wore a big happy grin. If he had done one good thing in his life, it was bringing Ruchel to the chuppah to marry Nachman. Not that the match had been so much his doing, but it showed that he had succeeded in educating his daughter along the right path. Married to Nachman, she would always live a life of tradition. So even if they were setting off on their own for Rishon LeZion, away from the rest of the family, Tevye felt happy and confident that he was entrusting his girl to a God-fearing man who loved her with all of his heart.

“Remember, Abba,” she called from the wagon, using the Hebrew expression for father. “Tell Hodel and Perchik that we are expecting them to come visit us soon.”

Though Shmuelik and Hillel wanted to accompany their childhood friend, Nachman, he advised them to wait until he could arrange permission for them to join the already established yishuv. Though he was skeptical about his chances of persuading Dupont, he felt the resourceful Aharon might be able to help. In the meantime, they agreed to travel with Tevye. The decision required no forceful persuasion – both of them nurtured a secret attraction for Bat Sheva, Tevye’s fiery, plum-cheeked daughter. Though she hardly glanced at them, each had high hopes.

Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Nine: Mazal Tov!

Monday, August 13th, 2012

“Didn’t I tell you that everything God does works out for the best?” Tevye said to Nachman as everyone gathered excitedly around the coffin on the beach. “If the Turks had let us disembark in Jaffa, I would never have seen my Golda wash up on shore.”

It didn’t matter that, in fact, Nachman had been the one who had reminded a crestfallen Tevye that God’s loving, invisible hand never stops guiding life’s twists and turns. If Tevye, in a moment of despair, had forgotten this teaching of the Talmud, God would certainly forgive him. Now, with Golda once again at his side, Tevye’s faith was stronger than ever.

But Tevye’s reunion with Golda was not the only miracle which had transpired. Since stepping foot in the Land of Israel, Tevye had imperceptibly changed. He couldn’t say why. He couldn’t explain the sensation, but somehow, his mind, his soul, and his heart underwent a rejuvenation, as if the clock of his life had turned backwards, making him feel twenty years younger. Yes, he felt more confident now that his beloved Golda was back at his side. Yes, he felt comforted that the Almighty had returned her to him. But even more than these blessings, the realization that he had reached the Land of Israel overwhelmed all of his thoughts. The prayers, the prophecies, the dreams, the yearnings of two-thousand years, all had come true. Wasn’t it written in the Book of Psalms, “When God will return the exiles of Zion, we will be like those who dream. Then our mouth will be filled with laughter and our tongue with glad song?”

Tevye the milkman, the son of Reb Schneur Zalman, was in Israel! He was in the Land which God had promised to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. It was the Land of Joshua and the prophet Samuel. The Land of King David and his son, Solomon, the wisest of men. It was the home of the Jerusalem Temple, of the Maccabees, and Rabbi Akiva. While Tevye’s faith in the Biblical stories which his father had taught him had always been steadfast, now he was standing on the very soil where Jewish history had unfolded in all of its glory and pain. Suddenly, the ancient stories had a down-to-earth setting. Suddenly, the Land of Israel was real, not just a faraway dream. It was like hearing about a famous person, and then suddenly meeting him, like when Tevye had met the great writer, Sholom Aleichem. What a thrill!

Nachman experienced the same indescribable sensation. Feeling the secret power of the Land surge into his body, he burst into song. Everyone had the same feeling. Everyone sang. They were in the Land of Israel! They were home!

Their singing gave way to exhaustion. It was time to learn their next lesson. Life in the Land of Israel, like its sand dunes, had its ups and its downs. Everyone was astounded at the landscape as they started the trek north back toward Jaffa. Dunes and desert stretched around them as far as the eye could see. Occasionally, they had to make a long detour around a foul-smelling swamp. The land was barren and desolate, as if still suffering from the Divine curse which had fallen upon the soil since the Jews had been exiled from their home. Gone were the lush gardens, the fruit trees, the fertile green valleys, and overflowing rivers of Biblical days. If there had once been milk and honey in the Land, the ferocious sun had long ago turned them to sand. Miles passed without the sight of a single tree or bush. Beside their motley-looking caravan, there was no sign of human life. Eyes searched the horizon for Jaffa, but all they could see was an ocean of heat waves rising off a desert wilderness.

Before long, their enthusiasm started to wane. It was as if they had returned three-thousand years through history to their ancestors’ wanderings through Sinai. Their footsteps became heavier. The fierce sun beat down on their heads. More and more frequently, the men had to set down Golda’s coffin and rest. Tzeitl fainted. Once again, Tevye had to carry her in his arms. Within an hour, their supply of fresh water was finished. Children cried. Grown-ups collapsed in the sand. Complaints could be heard in every corner of the camp.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and his Steinsaltz Talmud

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

(((CLICK BELOW TO HEAR AUDIO)))

Yishai is joined by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz to talk about his newly published Koren Steinsaltz Talmud, which is the most widely-accessible to date by being made available on a wide variety of mediums. Steinsaltz talks about his background and inspiration behind this work, which has been several years in the making. Do not miss this interview with an iconic scholar!

Yishai Fleisher on Twitter: @YishaiFleisher
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Old-Time Orthodox Shul Celebrates 70th Anniversary

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

   Yes, it is your father’s synagogue, and it had just observed its 70th anniversary.

 

   The liturgy, prayer books, and services at Congregation Machane Chodosh in Forest Hills, Queens, hearken to the Orthodoxy of an earlier generation. A professional cantor leads the services every Shabbat, as the congregants follow using their Birnbaum siddurim.

 

   In the women’s section, doilies and hats still outnumber wigs. On the other side of the mechitza, one sees only a handful of the black hats that have become standard in many Orthodox circles.

 

   “You learn a lot from these people,” said Shoshana Glass, 32, a young face in a mostly elderly population. Glass considers the median age of the congregants a plus. “I am there for a purpose, helping and visiting them.”

 

   “They’re accepting of people,” said congregant Barry Schnall. “They don’t judge.” At 49, he is also on the younger side of the age average. “You can be friends with older people. They have more character.”

 

 


Rabbi Manfred Gans

 

   Any member over age 80 has a story of survival to tell. “Many of our members are survivors,” said Rabbi Manfred Gans. The city, in fact, commemorated them with a street corner sign pointing directly at the shul.

 

   Founded in late 1939 as a landsmanshaft of recent German Jewish immigrants in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, the synagogue took the name Machane Chodosh, or “New Camp,” reflecting its new American home.

 

   The congregation spent its first 19 years renting out space within existing local synagogues. Like any teenager, the maturing shul eventually moved into its own home, two blocks from Ebbets Field.

 

   By the time the shul opened its new building, however, the longtime Dodgers ballpark was in the process of being demolished, and that section of Brooklyn was facing a gradual slide into urban decay.

 

   Some of the members moved to Forest Hills, and Rabbi Gans proposed relocating the shul in Queens. Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, the membership was reduced to a hardy handful as the crime rate skyrocketed.

 

   By 1977 it had become clear that Machane Chodosh had no future in its Brooklyn neighborhood. The aron kodesh, stained glass windows, and memorial plaques were removed for safekeeping, and the sanctuary became a Haitian church.

 

   “We were a kehillah without a synagogue,” said Rabbi Gans.

 

   They had seen it before. Many members of the congregation had experienced Kristallnacht, concentration camps, and the battlefield. They were determined to keep the synagogue alive in a more stable neighborhood. Ground was broken in Forest Hills in March 1979.

 

   “Our shul did something which only a few shuls could accomplish,” said Gans.

 

   The home was new, but the services remained true to tradition.

 

   While many Orthodox synagogues feature chazzanut during the high holidays, cantor Joel Gafni, 34, leads the congregation every Shabbat at Machane Chodosh.

 

   “My first time, I was surprised,” said Gafni. “Such a small shul.”

 

   It took three auditions before Gafni was selected. It may not look like a “choral synagogue,” but the cantor’s schedule is a busy one. “It was the best of possibilities,” he said. “A full-time position in New York, the center of the world.”

 

   Rabbi Gans, the mora d’asra of the synagogue for 50 years, is an integral part of its storied history. He observed his 85th birthday in April, and there are no signs of retiring.

 

   As the shul’s founders aged and passed on, Rabbi Gans took measures to welcome new immigrants to the synagogue. In some ways, the new membership hearkens to an earlier period. Most of the students in the synagogue’s Talmud Torah attend public school while taking Sunday classes at the synagogue.

 

   “They are on the fringes of Jewish society,” said Talmud Torah director Richard Schneider. “If they don’t get a love of Judaism now, they’ll assimilate.” Schneider reactivated the Talmud Torah in 1997, with a class of two boys. It has since ballooned to over 100 students.

 

   (On a personal note, it was at Machane Chodosh that I learned to read Hebrew and lain the weekly parsha. It was also where I learned to appreciate a timeless Orthodoxy personified by a rabbi who reads several newspapers a day, is well-versed in classical music, diligently calls any member who is ill, and delivers memorable sermons.)

 

   Each week as Shabbat comes to a close, congregants recite Psalm 144 in a melody that member Gary Jacoby calls the “Yekkie national anthem.” The congregation slowly whispers through the last pages of the motzei Shabbat Maariv. Nobody dares to whisper about sports, business, or politics. It is an inspiring sight.

 

   The service ends with Gafni’s bold voice benching Havdalah. Congregants prepare for a new week filled with pride in this unique shul that has a history like few others.

The Founding Of Yeshiva Etz Chaim

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

      Note: Unless otherwise indicated all quotes are from Jewish Education in New York Cityby Alexander M. Dushkin, The Bureau of Jewish Education, New York, 1918
 
      Between 1881 and 1924 approximately two million Jews immigrated to the United States, primarily from Eastern Europe and Russia. The great majority of them came as a result of the intensified Russian pogroms following the vicious discriminatory May Laws of 1881. Another factor was the belief that America was “die goldene medina” – the golden country, where economic opportunities were endless.
 
      In addition to the formidable challenge of earning a livelihood, these immigrants soon found that there were few established religious institutions where their children could receive a decent Jewish education. This vacuum was initially filled by the cheder and Talmud Torah.
 
      The cheder more often than not was run as private enterprise. Any person, qualified or not, who wished to supplement his income could open a school without hindrance. In short, while there certainly were cheders run by devoted and qualified teachers, there were many others in which the level of teaching was substandard at best. The result was that the cheder experience for many boys not only failed to give them a basic knowledge of Judaism, it left them with a very negative attitude toward the religion of their parents.
 

      The Talmud Torah was, in contrast to the cheder, a communal school under the direction of a board of directors. One of the best known of these was the Machzike Talmud Torah, which was reorganized in 1883. For a long time it was the pride of the Eastern European Jews who resided on the Lower East Side.

 

            The instruction during this period [1883-1902] was carried on daily from 4 to 8 o’clock every afternoon of the week except Fridays, also from 2 to 5 on Saturdays, and from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays. Besides the afternoon classes, there were “day” classes, from 9 to 12 every morning, for young children below public school age. These classes were for the purpose of teaching young children the elements of Hebrew reading and some of the prayers.
 

            The curriculum of the Talmud Torah during this period was as follows: (a) reading of Hebrew, beginning from A B C up to fluent reading, in accordance with the rules of Hebrew grammar; (b) holy Scriptures and grammar; (c) benedictions and prayers, and translation of same; (f) meaning of holidays; (g) reading of the portion of the week (in the Bible) and the Haftorah (prophetic portion), according to the accentual marks and notes, also the benedictions pertaining thereto; (h) Shulchan Aruch and Orach Chayim; (i) decrees of the Jewish faith, and Jewish history.

 

      It’s interesting to note that in 1892, shortly after becoming a director of the Machzike Talmud Torah, Harry Fischel1 proposed to the board of directors a school for girls be opened under the direction of a young woman who had recently arrived from Eretz Yisrael. This was considered a revolutionary idea in 1892, and was bitterly opposed by some.
 
      One must keep in mind that in the nineteenth century formal Jewish education for girls was virtually unknown throughout the world, except for a few schools in Germany modeled after the Realschule founded by Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch shortly after his arrival in Frankfurt in 1851. In spite of the opposition, Mr. Fischel prevailed. The result was that within a year the school had more applications from the parents of girls between the ages of 10 and 12 than it could accommodate.
 

Some Parents Want More

 

            But the Talmud Torah was not sufficient for the demands of some of the Eastern European Jews, because it failed to make proper provision for the study of the Talmud. Talmud had formed a very important element in their Jewish curriculum, in many cases the only element. It stressed the development of the “intellect,” and this intellectual ideal the Jews from Eastern Europe retained here also. Because the shorter time at the disposal of the Talmud Torah made it very difficult to meet this demand for instruction in Talmud, except to a limited extent, the most orthodox of the Eastern European Jews began to turn their attention to the third of their educational institutions, the Yeshibah.

 

      The result was that in 1886 Yeshiva Etz Chaim was incorporated as The Etz Chaim Talmudical Academy. The school was an intermediate Talmud Cheder, rather than an elementary school, and was modeled after it European counterparts.

 

            The early days of the institution are well characterized in the words of one of its founders. “A few of us Jews wanted that the Machzike Talmud Torah should teach Talmud, but they refused to do so. And so we went out into the street and picked up some boys, nine and ten years old, who knew the Bible with Rashi from ‘home,’ and began to teach them Talmud. We rented a room at 47 East Broadway. But our financial condition was so poor that we had no money with which to buy books. So we bought one Gemarah (Talmud) for 90 cents, and tore it into three parts, giving one part to each of the three Melammedim (teachers). To start our Yeshibah, the directors went about the neighborhood collecting nickels and dimes, which were given to us. In order to maintain the Yeshibah, the directors had to post up boxes in private homes and in synagogues, and then go personally to collect the money which good people deposited in them for our Yeshibah.”
 

            The aim of the institution was “to give instruction to poor Hebrew children in the Hebrew language and the Jewish religion – Talmud, Bible and Shulchan Aruch, during the whole day from 9:00 in the morning until 4:00 in the afternoon; also from 4:00 in the afternoon two hours shall be devoted to teaching the native language, English, and one hour to teaching Hebrew, Loschon Hakodesh, (holy language), and to read and write Jargon (Yiddish).”

 

      From the amount of time allocated to secular subjects, it is clear that the directors of the yeshiva considered these far less important than the students’ limudei kodesh studies. Abraham Cahan, who would eventually become the editor of the Jewish Daily Forward and a prominent figure in the Socialist movement in America, became one of the first teachers in the English department in 1887.

 

            Cahan records that the curriculum was loosely drawn to provide for the study of grammar, arithmetic, reading, and spelling – all within the “English Department.” But because the directors of the school had no clear idea of what should be taught, the English Department functioned haphazardly, more out of a perfunctory acknowledgement for these subjects than a sincere desire to “provide the children with a modern education.”
 
            The English Department was divided into two classes. The first was taught by a boy about fourteen, who had just graduated from public school and the second was taught by Cahan, who was a little less than twenty-eight years old. The students ranged from the ages of nine or ten to fifteen and many were exposed to the formal study of secular subjects for the first time. One of the native students received his first lessons in the English language when he entered the Yeshiva after passing his thirteenth birthday.
 

            The young immigrants presented an immense challenge to their devoted teachers. The students drank up the instruction with a thirst centuries old. Cahan frequently remained long after the prescribed teaching hours to tutor his pupils, who were uniformly poor in reading and mathematics and who regarded grammar as an exquisite form of torture. On these occasions, the directors would ask Cahan why he “worked so hard,” saying that the students “already knew enough English.”

 

      In 1912 Yeshiva Etz Chaim and the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) merged. Etz Chaim became a preparatory school for RIETS. “In this way a self-contained and integrated Jewish educational unit, ranging through the highest level of Talmudic scholarship, was established for the first time on American soil.”2
 
        1 For information about the life of Harry Fischel, see “The Multimillionaire Who Remained True to Orthodoxy, Jewish Press, April 18, 2006, page 1; “Harry Fischel (1865-1948) Orthodox Jewish Philanthropist Par Excellence – I” Jewish Press, May 3, 2006, page 36 (Glimpses into American Jewish History) and “Harry Fischel (1865-1948) Orthodox Jewish Philanthropist Par Excellence – II” Jewish Press, June 2, 2006, page 70 (Glimpses into American Jewish History).
 
        2 The Story of Yeshiva University, The First Jewish University in America by Gilbert Klaperman, The Macmillian Company, Collier-Macmillian Limited, London, 1969.
 

 

      Dr. Yitzchok Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. “Glimpses Into American Jewish History” appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at  llevine@stevens.edu.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/magazine/glimpses-ajh/the-founding-of-yeshiva-etz-chaim/2008/04/30/

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