Wednesday, December 29, 2004

RJJ Newsletter - November 2004 - Torah Education

A key principle of Torah education, derived from Proverbs, is chanoch l'naar al pi darcho. Each child should be taught in the ways that best meet his needs and advance his intellectual and Jewish development. For us at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, this is a living principle that has guided us throughout the past thirty years. It is a principle that is manifested in our several schools and the range of Jewish educational approaches that they offer. No yeshiva anywhere has been more faithful to this ideal.

This principle has guided much of my communal life for more than fifty years, from the time when I met the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood of blessed memory and immediately enlisted in his extraordinary effort to create and sustain the network of religious schools known as Chinuch Atzmai or Torah schools for Israel. These schools operate in Israel at the elementary school level.

Even before this Herculean effort, he was the rabbinical leader and head of Torah Umesorah - the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools - the organization that was then the vital force in promoting basic Torah education in North America. In his lifetime, relatively few Torah Umesorah schools continued past the eighth grade.

The great Rosh Yeshiva obviously also had the responsibility to nurture and sustain Beth Medrash Govoha, the transcendent yeshiva that he established in Lakewood. The lesson that he taught through these diverse chinuch activities was chanoch l'naar al pi darcho. Seventeen years ago I wrote the following in an essay commemorating his twenty-fifth Yahrzeit:

"The Lakewood Rosh Yeshiva who was the foremost proponent of the ideal of Torah lishmoh, who had been educated and virtually raised in the Beis Medrash, who had been a prodigy in the great yeshiva of Slobodka, who had given brilliant shiurim in the advanced yeshivos of Slutsk and Kletzk, and who served before the Churban alongside of the spiritual giants of that period, would now have to decide on aleph-beis questions for schools located in cities with just a relative handful of observant Jews.

"Rav Aharon met the challenge and he did so by being consistent and by a remarkable understanding of the nuances of American Jewish life. 'Rav Aharon lo shinoh,' cried out the Satmar Rebbe, zatzal, in anguish at the hesped in New York. He knew that a modern day school was not a Slobodka or a cheder and he knew what could be achieved. The question to him was whether a Jewish educational institution was sincere and serious in aspiring to the goal of elevating its students in Torah knowledge and observance. This, too, is an aspect of Torah lishmoh. If it was serious and sincere, it would be proper, at the time, to countenance practices that would not be acceptable in other settings."

There has been a change in how our Torah leaders and community view basic Torah education. They have incrementally accepted the notion that at the yeshiva ketana and even mesivta levels, support for chinuch is essentially the responsibility of the parents whose children are being educated and not of the community. This approach, which runs counter to a tradition that goes back more than 2,000 years, arises from the feeling that unless the parents carry the financial burden, our schools will not be able to survive.

No one should challenge the view that parents - and certainly those who can afford to - must pay a fair share for their children's Torah education. The point is that there are parents who do not have the means to do so and they are experiencing great pain and hardship because of the acceptance of the alien view that Torah education these days is just one more consumer product. As I have written elsewhere, it is telling that our Roshei Yeshiva and respected Torah leaders have for more than a decade not issued any statements calling for support of basic Torah education, this at a time when there is a steady flow of endorsements for other causes.

We are witnessing the steady decline of Torah Umesorah, an organization that has bought into the American Jewish falsehood that fancy weekends and sterile projects are what our people need. We need to have the courage to recognize that the harshest criticism of Torah Umesorah has come from the Rosh Yeshiva who was the most active in its work. It is astonishing that the recent Federation decision to terminate basic grants to New York yeshivas and day schools has not evoked a public protest by Torah Umesorah.

There are in this country sporadic efforts involving Roshei Yeshiva to assist kiruv and immigrant schools. We also have the inspiring example of Rav Pam, ztl, on behalf of Shuvu, the religious school network for children of Former Soviet Union families. We need to have similar efforts on these shores.

There are substantial concentrations of marginally-involved Jews, especially in the New York area, for whom there are no day schools. For these children there is no chanoch l'naar al pi darcho because for them there is no chinuch. After more than a half-century of advocacy and work on behalf of basic Torah education, I am disheartened that because of our inaction, many children who would attend a day school if one were available for them are being deprived of their birthright, of their linkage to our great heritage.

I last visited Rav Shneuer Kottler, ztl, in Lakewood a week before he died. Shortly before I left, he read to me the opening lines of a letter from the Chazon Ish to Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, ztl, the head of Vaad Hayeshivos, the representative body for advanced yeshivas in Israel. For reasons that I will not go into here, I did not read the letter until recently, the substance of which was a request by the Chazon Ish that a portion of the funds allocated to Vaad Hayeshivos be given to the elementary school yeshivas that are referred to as Talmud Torahs in Israel because they are financially endangered and "the survival of the Talmud Torahs is the survival of the Yeshivos."

This letter was written in 1947, a time when the advanced yeshivas faced great financial difficulty. Yet, the Chazon Ish understood that there was a communal obligation to support basic Torah education.