Yeshivas and day schools are communal institutions, the primary instrumentality for fulfilling the Biblical obligation to teach children Torah and for providing that they remain committed Jews as adults. Without students, a yeshiva or day school is a name with a facility that exists without existing. Children transform a facility into a living reality. In a yeshiva, children also transform the facility into a sanctified place. As the Talmud teaches, the world continues to exist because of the breath of young children who are studying Torah.
A school is never a learning environment for just one child. It is comprised of a number of children, at times many. Yet, each child remains distinctive with his/her name, emotional DNA, intellectual DNA and a set of background features, including home and parents, as well as upbringing. Each child brings to the classroom his/her interests and abilities and, invariably, limitations. Each child is a complex being and a classroom is the coming together for a common educational experience of a number of complex beings. The great challenge of education is how to perform the common educational function that is geared to a collectivity of children without losing sight of the distinctiveness of each child. The obligation to fulfill both the communal role and the responsibility to each child is not a homiletical exercise. It is or should be a reality in each school and each classroom. What is required is considerable skill and the determination by the teacher to teach an entire class and to teach each student. For yeshivas, this difficult challenge is magnified because of the dual curriculum and, too often, because of the paucity of resources which restricts or eliminates entirely the ability of the school to give gifted children the extra that they need or special attention to the weaker students. The deficit is reduced but not eliminated entirely by the devotion of faculty.
The achievements of our schools are real and impressive. The evidence is everywhere, in thousands of homes and in the great number of graduates who live Torah lives as productive people in American society. Still, there are disappointments, even failures, and they arise from the distinctiveness of each child. Even when the education being offered is first-rate and accompanied by much caring, there are children who do not succeed either educationally or Jewishly or both.
Disappointment or failure may not be evident until after the basic K-12 school years have concluded. More often, there are issues that arise while the child is in school. There are students whose academic performance or behavior raises questions about the appropriateness of remaining in the school or classroom, as their poor performance or behavior may affect the performance or behavior of other students. There is the collateral issue of whether to accept applicants about whom there are doubts regarding prospective educational performance or behavior.
In the one-third of a century of these bi-monthly newsletters and in other writings, I have discussed time and time again my strongly held view that in admission and retention decisions and, more broadly, in the approach to students who do not readily fit in, our schools are too hasty in rejecting or punishing students. Too often our schools do not admit or expel or leave back or punish students on what I regard as insufficient grounds. Their justification for these harsh actions is that they protect the institution and other students. We hear too often the self-serving mantra that expulsion or other forms of rejection are for the good of the students who are being expelled or denied admission or punished. I have no illusions that further advocacy will result in greater acceptance of my view. The contrary outcome is the more likely. But the effort must be made because the spiritual lives of children are at stake.
If only because the klal or the community is greater than the prat or the individual, what a school requires has priority over the requirements of individual students. As an illustration, it is imperative that the curriculum be designed to serve an entire class and not one or two students. It may be necessary or wise to find ways to meet the needs of one or two students, but never at the expense of the entire group. When the need or behavior of a child undermines the communal enterprise of educating a class, it is a legitimate question whether he/she should remain in the class. It must be underscored that the determination that a child has a negative impact cannot rely on speculation or on what might occur down the road. The problem must be overt, real and serious and not a potential or a minor matter. If we rely on speculation, the mind is capable of endless conjecture, of treating as a reality that which is no more than a fantasy. It is insufficient and wrongful to harm a student because a teacher or principal decides that by remaining in the classroom the child will cause harm, even if as yet no harm has been caused.
When student matters are at stake, Torah education rarely proceeds with reference to the Shulchan Aruch or any halachic perspective. The guidelines are provided by educational or psychological theories that pay little or no heed to the special responsibilities of our schools. Students are to be left back or expelled or disciplined or denied admission, too often irrespective of the Judaic damage being done to the students. Principals who ask their Rabbi or Rosh Yeshiva for guidance on even trivial matters seem comfortable to take upon themselves the heavy responsibility of deciding the religious fate of a child. Rav Moshe Feinstein was asked halachic questions on matters large and small from dawn until well into the night. He often said, indeed complained, that he was infrequently asked about chinuch matters.
We have courses for Judaic faculty and training programs galore for principals. The training programs for principals are substantially bereft of a religious sensibility. Some of what is being taught through these initiatives is useful. Overall, the trend is to train principals to be good managers and not good spiritual guides. In one critical way, the theories that are being taught are alien to our religious perspective. Education inherently focuses on the learning process, on the acquisition of knowledge and skills. There are tests, evaluations of classroom performance, writing assignments and homework and all of these are designed to assess how well the student is doing as a student. The portion of the report card that deals with behavior is of less than secondary importance. This is appropriate for educational experiences that are nearly exclusively learning oriented, with a measure of student socialization thrown into the mix. Yeshivas and day schools also have the vital function of religious socialization, the goal being to ensure that the student will be a practicing and committed Jew in adulthood.
This key responsibility must be balanced against educational performance and even behavior in two distinct ways. Firstly, if the student is doing poorly academically but behaving properly and adhering to religious standards and growing in Judaism, with the possible exception of boys mesivtas or high schools, there is an obligation to retain the student. Educational performance is important and efforts must be made to bring about improvement, yet this consideration must yield to the more transcendent concern that the child continue to grow in Judaism. Secondly, if the student is doing poorly in school and is less than an angel in behavior but not directly harming other students, when retention or promotion decisions are made it is necessary to calculate the Judaic harm if the student is not readmitted or left back.
In short, the strong presumption must be that a student is to remain in the school. This presumption should be accompanied by heavy dosages of patience, a quality that may require that we ignore or downplay certain lapses in student behavior. We know that in kiruv activity, patience is rewarded or, to express the thought differently, without patience there is no kiruv. In a similar vein, without patience a child may be turned away from Judaism. In my experience, which includes the experience of family members who teach, patience with students is almost always rewarded. It must be given in a caring and not begrudging fashion. When a principal says to a student, “I am giving you one more chance and if there is even the slightest problem you will be out the door,” that is not patience. It is richuk kerovim, for the words are likely to harm the student.
As I have noted, my advocacy on behalf of students and their families has been to little avail, doubtlessly because the advocate is not of the spiritual stature that would lend force to his words. There is another factor and it is that what is wrong in the yeshiva world has taken deep root. We are facing the intransigence of people in authority in our schools who are rigidly observant yet who have become too cold – and at times cruel – as they are convinced that harshness is a necessary ingredient in Torah chinuch. There are schools and principals that go against this tendency, but far too many succumb to what is now a cultural imperative in much of Orthodox life to show that a school is first-rate when it is able to point to the number of applicants that it has rejected and the number of students who have not been retained.
I wonder whether it would help to invoke the authority of the Chazon Ish, one of the transcendent Torah leaders of the past century. It is well known that he declared that the expulsion of a student is a question of spiritual life and therefore the decision must be made by a Beth Din of 23. We know that most of our principals are determined that questions of admission and expulsion be made by them alone.
The letters of the Chazon Ish are a remarkable lesson plan for those in chinuch and they constitute a far more important, far more Jewish and far more spiritual source than the conventional material utilized in most training programs. I have arranged for the translation of many of the Chazon Ish’s published letters. He had no children, nor did he have in any formal sense any students. In the words of Rav Aharon Kotler’s hesped, “He was not a Rav or the head of a yeshiva or a teacher.” Nonetheless, he was intensely and intimately involved in Torah chinuch in Eretz Yisrael for nearly twenty years, from the time of his arrival from Lithuania in the mid-1930s until his death in 1953.
This was a harsh period for advanced yeshivas and religious schools for younger children. The number of students was low and powerful social forces were impelling older students away from Torah study and even observance. The Chazon Ish served as the spiritual guide to many teachers and students. What explodes in these letters was his love for the students and his deepfelt concern for their spiritual and physical wellbeing. He was always direct in the advice that he gave; at times he seemed to be stern. But he always counseled patience and his words conveyed enormous empathy. They demonstrate that concern for yeshivas and concern for individual students are not antithetical. They are integrated dimensions in the obligation to teach Torah. There is evidence that his counsel and intervention resulted in abundant fruit in the growth of yeshivas and in the spiritual rescue of children.
The following excerpts from a handful of letters should convey the points that I am trying to make. The first concerns the role of Torah education:
We were the People of the Book, the people who sought eternal life, the people who knew the Master of the Universe, the people who knew their purpose and obligation in life, who knew to dismiss carnal pleasures, the people who loved Torah and mitzvos, the people who strove for perfection of character. But we have become mixed among the other nations and we have learned from their behavior. We must return our youth to the Jewish way, to help them find the great treasure we have lost. Our primary duty is to educate the next generation and to return their hearts to their father in Heaven.
After hearing about the financial crisis faced by the Beth Jacob School for Girls:
Considering that everything on earth was created male and female, that the universe cannot reach perfection without the perfection of both of them, and that the Torah way of life cannot be assured among young men and women unless it is assured among both – but it is unnecessary to dwell at length upon the obvious and well-known. However, it is for this that I have made an effort to join you in carrying the burden, and I am here enclosing Y lirot to help you in covering the debts of the Bais Yaakov.
To the administration of a yeshiva regarding a certain student:
Though the boy has not shaken off his childishness and childish laziness, and a lack of seriousness follows him wherever he goes, he has no trace of active wickedness, chas veshalom.
He is willing to hear reproof and constructive criticism about striving in Torah and yira, but his receptivity is not yet a permanent fixture, and he needs such comments frequently.
You cannot be strict with him, but must appeal to him with soft words.
If he does not know the shiur properly, it is only because he is negligent, not because the concepts are too deep. But putting him back into a younger class will not achieve our goal; rather it risks breaking his spirit.
I earnestly request that you work on him with love to attract him to serious study and solid yira, with double reward from Hashem.
Two letters regarding students wavering in their religiosity:
A certain student at Yeshiva X has been accepted by Yeshiva Y which has asked for a letter of recommendation. His name is Z and he is a baal kishron, a smart, talented and pleasant person. But he is disturbed by his yetzer (as smart, talented people tend to be), which demands much of him. As a result, he needs constant alert attention.
Such boys in particular are likely to have a future of gratifying greatness. Therefore, let the administration know his good side in advance, so they accept him, and then perhaps it will be a good idea to tell them of the above.
In your yeshiva, you have a young student X, who is very quick and deep-thinking and could become great. But the known difficulties of the times and the great obscurity of truth in our dark exile affects such boys particularly, diverting them into the hands of strangers and foreign ideas, but a good education effectively enlightens them and helps them grow into great luminaries.
On a practical level, I think it best that he learn under Y, who will know how to work with his personality and attract him to Torah. As for remuneration, I may be able to contribute towards it.
On counseling patience:
It was hard for me to hear that you have no patience to deal with people’s needs, and that this has caused individuals to leave the yeshiva, all the more considering how many have already left, for other known reasons. I think it would be better to let things go, to have patience and to appeal to the bachurim in every possible way, for the whole purpose of a yeshiva is to give intelligence to simpletons and to give understanding to those who are lost.
There is no room to blame the wilder students, for people are born undisciplined. Rather, we must make every possible effort, at any cost, to keep the students enrolled. Sometimes, we must push away with the right hand and embrace with the left, and sometimes we must invite them with both hands.
A student who required special attention:
Nowadays, rescuing a child by giving him a Jewish education is understandably no less than saving him from drowning in a river. Considering the child’s age, it should be possible to develop and advance him in a short time to the level of a regular student, but this requires special methods and attention. You might arrange for people to learn with him for half an hour in the morning, in the afternoon and more. This could be done by the older talmidim at the yeshiva.
I hope for their sake that they have the privilege to perform this mitzvah of rescuing a Jewish soul.
A remarkable letter about a student who was denied admission:
A certain student named Y from Yeshiva X in Yerushalayim came to see me last Friday. He was bitter and unhappy because for family reasons he left Yerushalayim and applied to your holy yeshiva, but the administration told him that they could not accept him. He has no place to go, and I found myself in a position of having no answer to give him. The only true answer was that I have no way of helping him, for he was given his rejection by the administration, and outsiders who do not know the reasons for accepting and rejecting have no place interfering in the matter. But such an answer is just what is meant by, “Is that how one answers a bitter person?” Therefore, I was forced to tell him that I would do something for him, though I did not promise him concrete assistance. I am fulfilling my promise with this letter, but considering that this talmid’s situation troubles me greatly, especially in our times when those applying to yeshivas are fewer than one per city and two per family, if you have anything to tell him that I would like to hear, please do not deprive me of the good news.
As the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood said in the concluding words of his hesped of the Chazon Ish, may we “be privileged to follow in his path and cleave to his ways.”