Avraham is, at first glance, one of my most successful students. He presents himself as a proud, well-adjusted, Modern Orthodox yeshiva high school graduate. During his high school years he followed school rules, participated in our shabbatonim, competed on the wrestling team, demonstrated a deep commitment to the state of Israel, was a good friend and a mentor to underclassmen.
A couple of years ago, not long after he graduated, I had Avraham over for a Shabbat meal and asked him to reflect on his high school experience. He focused on one rebbe towards whom he felt a particular closeness. “He cares for each and every one of us and it is obvious,” he said. “Rabbi X is by far my favorite teacher.”
However, when I asked Avraham what he learned from that rebbe, he did not point to anything concrete. He listed a host of experiences outside of the classroom and quoted some unique sayings that the rebbe is known for, but he did not mention any skills he developed or material he had covered in his shiurim (classes). The conversation made me reflect, “Did he learn what the rebbe taught? Did he gain as much as he could have?”
Yeshivot face a daunting challenge in balancing two competing, and at times contradictory, goals. On the one hand, we must engage the hearts, not just the minds, of our talmidim and talmidot. Experiential programming has become a staple of every yeshiva high school’s make-up and rightfully so. Shabbatonim, chagigot, chesed days etc. reach many of our students in a uniquely deep and meaningful way. Additionally, these activities present opportunities for students whose strengths don’t necessarily come to the fore in the regular classroom experience to flourish. Students who are artistic, musical and the like can channel those abilities in a religiously healthy way and feel accomplished. It is critical that each student find that avenue by which they can personally explore and express their relationship to Torah and mitzvot. Thus, each rebbe and morah should create warm relationships with students both inside and outside the classroom and craft an atmosphere where their students feel comfortable exploring all aspects of life and the issues that they are grappling with in an open, non-judgmental forum.
However, our shiurim must, at all times, be models of high-level learning. Our talmidim and talmidot must learn the value of amelut b’Torah (working hard to acquire Torah knowledge). Our aspiration ought not to be simply our students being “inspired,” but rather should be to set them on the path of a lifetime of profound talmud Torah and shmirat hamitzvot. We must open their eyes to the intellectual depths and rigor of Torah study. They should learn the critical value of time and how precious every moment of talmud Torah is. Educators should unlock each child’s potential and push him or her to study to his or her capacity and master skills and knowledge that will serve the student for the rest of his or her life. Appropriate role models must include towering Torah figures, such as the Rav, the many YU Roshei Yeshiva and the Torah scholars at the various Israeli Yeshivot our students attend. Our rebbeim and morot should present a similar model of Torah scholarship and a lifelong commitment to continual growth in Torah learning.
The Rav, when describing the underlying principles upon which he wanted his high school, Maimonides, to stand, listed both intellectual and experiential engagement. Each aspect, without the other to complement it, would have presented an unfinished picture. Only the combination of both can serve as the correct model for a fully integrated religious life.
A charismatic “pied piper” model of a rebbe is a great asset to any yeshiva high school. However, the inspiration must be combined with current methodology and content, or it threatens the acquisition of skills critical to the success of the 21st-century yeshiva high school student. Furthermore, I am concerned that a percentage of yeshiva high school alumni, like Avraham, may turn around, years after graduating, and discover they were underserved by their yeshiva high school experience.
While it is wonderful that Avraham has such warm memories of his rebbe, the ideal should be for our students to have those feelings while having grown intellectually with the same rebbe and appreciating the Torah he taught them. Experiential aspects of Jewish education can serve as models for meaningful components of effective shiurim, but they are more fully realized outside of the classroom while shiur time should be primarily dedicated to rigorous, in-depth Limmud HaTorah.
We must use every tool available to build a foundation of skills, knowledge and information within each of our talmidim. Exploring current and research-based methodology in all of our classrooms allows us to design meaningful shiurim through which we can activate intrinsic motivation and genuine engagement from all of our learners. We know Torah study is meshivat nafesh, intrinsically pleasurable; it is most accessible, however, when talmidim are engaged in personalized learning experiences that provide both challenging content and inspiring messages. Our commitment to producing capable and motivated lifelong learners will be realized through achieving this balance.
By Rabbi Asher Yablok
Rabbi Asher Yablok is the head of school at Torah Academy of Bergen County.