Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Jewish Link welcomes letters to the editor, which can be emailed to [email protected]
Letters may be edited for length, clarity and appropriateness. We do not welcome personal attacks or disrespectful language, and replies to letters through our website comment feed will not be posted online. We reserve the right to not print any letter.

To the Editor:

Those who wrote the legislation about the haredi draft made every mistake in the book. They should have used halachic sources as well as utilizing the data language used by the haredim: rewarding excellence in learning and penalizing mediocrity.

I teach at the Hebrew University Faculty of Medicine and I also am the executive secretary of the Amuta l’Tanach affiliated with the Department of Education of the Jewish Agency. The Amuta has a program of proficiency exams in Hebrew and Jewish Studies for American students learning in Israeli yeshivot. One exam is a 3-4 hour written exam in Advanced Gemara where the student gets photocopies of dapei Gemara with Rishonim (on Sugyot and Messechtot never learned before) and is asked questions such as: How does the Rashba explain X? How does the Rosh explain Y? Svara questions, etc. Proficiency exams show ability in learning new material.

I suggest preparing a 3-4 hour written exam for every 17-year-old haredi male with the following ramifications:

1) Grade of 96-100: permanent exemption from Tzahal plus a monthly financial stipend (the illu’im).

2) Grade of 90-95: 6-year deferment. Two months of every one of the 6 years (during Bein Hazmanim when the student is on vacation) the person must serve in the army. Total time over 6 years: 12 months.

3) Grade of 85-89: 4-year deferment, 2 months every year Bein Hazmanim in army followed by a 6 month continuous stint in the army. Total time: 14 months (almost the same length of period that boys in Yeshivot Hesder serve).

4) Grade of 80-84: 3-year deferment followed by 12 months in army. Total time: 18 months.

5) Grade of 79 and under: immediate drafting into Tzahal.

Military service in Tzahal (IDF) would seem to be a mitzva as per the Gemara in Sotah 44b. The definition of milchemet mitzva is to fight defensive wars against an attacker and to ensure that Israel remains under Jewish rule (see: Radbaz on Rambam Hilchot Melachim 7:4). See also the Minchat Chinuch (Mitzva 425) who goes into detail on the laws of war.

War is required in what’s termed a milchemet mitzva and is permitted in what’s termed a milchemet reshut.

Even a talmid chacham is obligated to serve (see: Chidushei Chatam Sofer on the Gemara in Bava Batra 7b [appears on 8a Dibur Hamaschil Menadeh]. He indicates that a talmid chacham is not exempt from an act that prevents danger e.g. guard duty, and I quote: “aval shmira k’derech shemalchut nishmarim . . . gam talmid chacham chayav k’d’mocheach Mi’haMordechai [Bava Batra Perek Aleph Siman 475]; SHU’T haRadbaz Chelek Bet Siman 752).

Look at Shmuel haNagid (Abu Ibrahim Shmuel ben Yosef halevi Ibn Nagrela (993-1056 C.E.), one of the leaders of Spanish Jewry. He was not only a great talmudic scholar (he wrote the Sefer Hilcheta Gavrata which was a major influence on the RIF (Rav Yitzchak Alfassi) and the Introduction to the Talmud) but the prime minister (Vizier) of Granada and commander in chief of the army of Granada where, as military leader, he won a major battle in 1038 against the army of Almeria and a major victory in 1039 over the army of Seville.

He wasn’t exactly spending all his time learning in a yeshiva :-).

Dr. Josh Backon (Major, Ret.)
[email protected]l

To the Editor:

Yair Daar’s article on the proper training of Jewish educators (JLBC, March 27, p. 34) struck a nerve. Accreditation is the primary vehicle for quality control in all professions. Every profession requires practitioners to be certified either by the state, by voluntary accrediting agencies (AMA, Bar Association, etc.) or by both. Beauticians, embalmers, mechanics, plumbers, and barbers must demonstrate their knowledge and expertise before they can work in their fields. Jewish education is perhaps the only profession in which untrained, uncertified, and often unskilled individuals can have a career as teachers.

Many of today’s Jewish educators are exceptionally motivated, passionate, and creative. Yet the Jewish community does not value their services in the same way it values other professionals. General studies teachers must be licensed. Why aren’t the same demands made for those who teach Jewish studies, who nurture and mold young minds to become literate, committed, and proud Jews?

There must be a normative national or regional standard for teaching certification. The National Board of License For Teachers and Principals of Jewish Schools in North America was founded in 1941 to serve as a coordinating and standard-setting body responsible for establishing the professional conditions for licensing teachers and principals, and for the type of teacher training which would qualify graduates for certification. The certification process was designed to provide recognition to qualified educators as well as to encourage those who are entering the field to pursue professional training. There were at one time twenty local affiliates of the NBL throughout North America which issued licenses to teachers and principals

The structure of the contemporary Jewish community frowns on any mandatory standards. Enforcement is difficult. However, as the world’s oldest model for universal education (see TB Bava Batra 21a, TJ Ketubot 8:11:32c; also Maimonides’ Hilkhot Talmud Torah), it behooves us to establish and adhere to standards of teacher preparation. The standards articulated by The National Board of License were voluntarily accepted by those who wished to demonstrate competence and by those communities that wished to have trained, competent teachers in their schools. Some schools would not hire a teacher without an NBL license. Some communities made their allocations contingent on the number of licensed faculty and not on the usual per capita basis.

Unfortunately, the National Board of License ceased to function in 2010 because too few could attain the necessary qualifications for licensure, schools did not require licensure, and communities did not see this as a priority. Across the nation numerous unqualified individuals are in the classrooms of Jewish schools. Students are exposed to them because communities are not willing to find, hire, pay, or retain teachers with the proper credentials. They are placed in classrooms because school and community leaders are forced to lower their expectations based on economic reality and the available pool of those willing to teach.

There are so many excuses and rationalizations used for this practice that the Jewish public has trouble grasping the extent and impact of this phenomenon. Precise studies have not yet been conducted in Jewish schools, but anecdotal reporting by professionals in the field has confirmed this as a fact. Israelis may not be trained in teaching Hebrew as a second language, nor do many have the knowledge base to teach beyond the primary grades. Rabbis and seminary graduates may have the knowledge base but not the Hebrew language or the pedagogic skills.

In the public schools, student achievement and teacher effectiveness can be measured because grade and subject benchmarks for mastery have been established and testing indices are available. In Jewish studies, by contrast, there is no uniformly accepted standard for what students should know by grade and subject nor are testing instruments generally available to gauge success. This makes it difficult to measure the success of a licensed Jewish Studies teacher as compared to an untrained teacher. However, the data from public school research makes the case.

Teachers need coursework and, more importantly, supervised student teaching experience before they walk into a classroom on their own. Sixty-nine percent of certified teachers (National Board Certified Teachers) surveyed reported positive changes in their students’ engagement, achievement, and motivation as a result of certification. The same study also showed that 91% said that certification had positively affected their teaching practices, and 83% said they have become more reflective about their teaching.

It is unacceptable, as a matter of Jewish communal policy, to hold students to academic standards that some of their teachers are unable to help them meet. Communities should ensure that every teacher in every classroom has met teaching standards that are aligned with learning objectives. Standards may vary between what is necessary for a day school, early childhood program, or a congregational school. However, if we want our students to meet certain standards, we must hold their teachers to high expectations.

In 1899, John Dewey observed, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children.” This dictum is still valid, and is supported by hard data. A study of public attitudes towards teaching revealed that parents want teachers to be well trained and knowledgeable about how to teach effectively and have prior experience as a student teacher. Another study showed that 82% of those surveyed about how to improve education felt that recruitment and retention of better teachers was paramount. Interestingly, in that same study, 67% wanted to require teachers to pass a competency test every year.

What concerns the general public about the lack of qualified teachers, also concerns (or should concern) the Jewish community. Sadly, the axiom about Jews having higher standards in education than the general society is no longer true. We have always prided ourselves on being well educated, and showed the highest respect to teachers and scholars. Unfortunately, this is not the case today.

The following story (related by Dr. Miriam Klein Shapiro, a”h) illustrates this point all too well. The scholarly shamash (sexton) of a synagogue was feted at a dinner when he retired after many decades of service. He made the following remarks: “When I first came here people valued study and knowledge. We were still truly am haSefer, The People of The Book. Now, that has been totally replaced by other values, including Zionism. We are now am ha’aretz!” (In case the play on words was missed, am ha’aretz, lit. people of the land, also means an untutored ignoramus. He was offering a witty criticism which they didn’t understand.) Suffice it to say that this was greeted with wild applause. Just as this congregation didn’t “get it,” so too the Jewish community as a whole (with some notable exceptions) doesn’t fully comprehend the state of teacher preparedness for Jewish schools in this country.

We have an obligation to our children to build a high quality teaching profession in which teachers can thrive. The Jewish community’s challenge includes developing a sustainable and rewarding professional career system for all teachers. Licensure for all teachers in Jewish schools is part of a larger plan, which includes mentoring, incentives, and quality professional development. The following steps are recommended as part of a strategy to meet this goal:

* Set and maintain high standards for entry to all teaching positions in Jewish schools.

* Adopt National Board of License criteria for licensure with some modifications for a multi-tiered and entry-level system.

* Make data on teacher licensure public.

* Collect and use data on student achievement and teacher licensure.

* Enact incentives and support for certification.

* Allocations to schools should be based on a per capita of licensed teachers.

The Jewish community must sharpen its focus on educational practices, standards, and accountability. We must keep sight of the impact that quality teaching and professional development have on student learning. This requires a persuasive, effective, and continuous system of professional development.

Dr. Wallace Greene
Former Director of Jewish Educational Services for the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey and former President of The National Board of License.

Dr. Daar responds:

Thank you Dr. Greene, for weighing in on the conversation; I agree with your sentiments completely. A shift in defining the field of Chinuch is in order. We are not in the field of «Torah» as much as we are involved in «Torah Education.» This means that all m’chanchim should optimally be trained and certified as educators first and foremost. That someone knows Torah doesn›t mean that he or she knows how to teach it. This is not to assume that a certified educator is automatically better than non-certified one, rather that requiring certification for all/most Jewish educators would go a long way to bringing out the best in everyone.

To the Editor:

Avrohom Gordimer’s defense of Rav Shachter’s position on tefillin is certainly a well-reasoned response to the arguments of Rabbis Price and Gradofsky. But there is one crucial element that I think Rabbi Gordimer (and others) have overlooked that, once taken into consideration, could provide us with a different perspective on the process of p’sak, and could yield a different conclusion.

R. Gordimer identifies the two principles that argue against the SAR p’sak:

The p’sak of the Shulchan Aruch/Rama that the nos’ei keilim is binding, especially if it has been in practice for a long period of time. This is true even if there are opposing opinions in the gemara and Rishonim. (Let us call this settled halacha.)

Only with at least consultation with those who are recognized as exceptional talmidei hachamim should such sensitive questions be resolved.

In his discussion of these two issues, I think R. Gordimer would do well to take the remarks of Rav Baruch HaLevi Epstein (the author of the Torah T’mimah) into account: Rav Baruch HaLevi Epstein was, as most know, the son of the Aruch HaShulchan, and the nephew of the Netziv. In his classic Makor Baruch, Rav Epstein’s biography of his uncle the Netziv, Rav Epstein devotes several chapters to his father’s approach to p’sak. (See especially Part 3, pages 1174-1178.) As Rav Epstein writes, his father’s hasmada was always an awe-inspiring thing to behold. But when his father first was encouraged by his rebbe to start paskening, he somehow increased his commitment to learning. Why? Because, as Rav Epstein reports, his father was terrified that he might err and pasken l’chumra, thereby creating unnecessary hardships for his fellow Jews.

Rav Epstein then begins to reflect on the process of p’sak ( page 1176) Two sources he cites are very relevant to us: The Rosh, in one of his t’shuvos (2:17) says that to be machmir one must bring “ra’ayos chazakos u’v’ruros”) [ראיות חזקות וברורות]. Further, the Bach in y”d 187 writes that one should not publish a p’sak l’hachmir [פסק להחמיר] unless he has proofs from the gemara (ראיות מן התלמוד; the emphasis is in the original!)

It would seem that what the Bach writes seems to argue against what R. Gordimer’s first principle. But of course, R. Gordimer makes a persuasive case for the authoritative nature of settled halacha. How to understand the Bach’s statement? I think we need to distinguish between a p’sak halacha in general, vs a specific p’sak halacha, (I heard Rav Lichtenstein, Shlita), refer to this as “p’sak” vs. “p’sika.”)

Thus, it is clear that the halacha is that women should not put on tefillin. If a woman is considering this option, and consults with a Rov, she should be told what the consensus of the poskim is, and told this is not permitted. Shuls should adopt this as a policy. However, when dealing with a particular case, here where girls coming from a different background have already, for seemingly sincere reasons have already started putting on tefillin (they started b’heter, at least from their perspective), what the Bach writes becomes relevant—unless there are Talmudic sources supporting a p’sak l’chumra, don’t be machmir in this individual case—don’t create hardships—here emotional/spiritual hardships—unless it’s absolutely necessary.

And re: R. Gordimer’s second point: Of course rabbonim should consult with talmidei chachamim and/or with their own rebbeim, in determining what to do in a specific case. But if the answer is always going to be “Here’s what the halacha is, here’s what the M’chaber/Rama say,” and there are never any exceptions, I am afraid such consultations will be less frequent than they should be.

David Eisenman
Woodmere, NY