Achieving A Torah Education By Building Bridges Between School And Home

Rabbi Dovid Nojowitz shlita
Rosh HaKollel

Raising a generation of loyal Torah Jews is no small job. The single most important factor in accomplishing this monumental task is by creating common ground between teachers and parents. Parents and Rebbeim must understand that they are partners in raising the children entrusted to them. As expressed by the renowned educator, Rabbi Noach Orlowek, "a parent must educate his child besides loving him; a teacher must love the child besides educating him." By working together, synthesizing their approach in understanding and educating the child, they can hope to derive much nachas from their child. It's been said that a good teacher gives a child confidence in him; a great teacher gives the child confidence in himself. Yet, parents shouldn't throw the full burden of educating their child on the school and teacher; it is a shared venture. HaRav Shmuel Kamenetsky shlita, the Rosh Yeshiva of Philadelphia Yeshiva, recently recounted a story involving a problem child. He recommended a frum child psychologist and was happy to hear some time later of a vast improvement in the child's behavior. Subsequently happening to meet the psychologist, Rav Shmuel complimented him on his success. The professional however denied that he had anything to do with it. "Then what changed the boy?" asked the Rosh Yeshiva. "Well, his parents just never spent any time with him. Now, they ferried him back and forth to my office, and gave him time and attention. That did more for him than anything I said or did."

So a child's development is a dual responsibility. At this point, let me add that this is isn't just the mother's job; it's also a father's duty to study with his child, to attend parent teachers' evenings, and in general to be actively involved in his child's schooling.

I would like to define four areas that should be mutually addressed by the school and the parents.

1. School Standards Should Be Respected At Home

When sending a child to a school, one should recognize and respect the values and principles of that particular school. It then becomes the responsibility of the parent to reinforce these ideals at home. When the principles of the school are violated at home, it causes confusion in the child's mind. It can also send a message to the child to challenge these principles.

Allow me for a moment to elaborate on this point. We all choose a school whose atmosphere reverberates with Torah and Yiras Shomayim. Shouldn't the home environment complement this? To be more specific: Shouldn't a child know that his father rarely misses davening with a minyan; that he learns with a steady chavrusa or attends a regular shiur? Shouldn't parents be attentive to the type of literature they bring into their home? Shouldn't we ensure that our daughters' tznius at home reflects the standards set at school? Shouldn't a Shabbos table contain Divrei Torah and zemiros, not just catching up on the news of the week?

Parental respect for learning imbues the child with respect for his studies. Rav Mendel Kaplan zt"l, a Rosh Yeshiva in the Philadelphia Yeshiva, recalled that whenever he missed a day of school as a young boy, whether he was unwell or for any other reason, his mother fasted that day. She would tell him, "If you don't learn, I can't eat."

2. A Teacher's Responsibility To His Students

In order for parents to have absolute confidence in the partnership with the Rebbe, they must sense the attachment and devotion the Rebbe has for their child, no matter the child's deportment or abilities, the size of the class, etc. Just as they love all their children with no distinction, they must feel that the Rebbe loves their child as if he's the Rebbe's very own child!

Rav Shlomo Wolbe shlita, in his biographical sketch of the legendary Rav Yeruchem Levovitz zt"l, Mashgiach of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Poland, records that a bachur in the Mir was once arrested on trumped up charges of spying for Russia. Rav Yeruchem was so distraught over the danger to the boy that his beard turned white. This incident occurred when Rav Yeruchem was still a young man. In another story, the Rav of Ponieviz zt"l was once asked about the propriety of barring a child from attending a class outing as a punishment. He answered that a teacher should never deny a child something he won't be able to make up to him at a later date.

If a child knows his Rebbe loves him, he will in turn love the Rebbe and love the Torah taught by the Rebbe. A child reaches his maximum potential when taught with love. Like plants that grow towards the direction of sunlight, children respond best to warmth. HaRav Shmuel Kamenetsky was once asked about the more beneficial way to educate children, with fear or love. His instant response was, "How would you yourself wish to be taught, with fear or love?"

To create a strong teacher-pupil bond, a teacher should spend time outside class discussing with a child his ambitions and dreams. He should also invite him for a Shabbos seuda. It's a teacher's job to be aware of any turbulence in the student's home: Is the father overseas on business, is the mother unwell, are there financial pressures, is there a new baby or another simcha? In the first mishna of Pirkei Avos we find, "he'emidu talmidim harbeh - develop many disciples". Chassid Yavetz makes a striking observation. The Mishna doesn't say teach talmidim, but develop them, which indicates that the teacher can't just teach the subject matter. Rather, he is responsible for the full panorama of the child's development, his physical, spiritual and emotional well being and progress.

A teacher should properly appreciate the individual abilities of each student. Rav Ruderman zt"l, the late Rosh Yeshiva of the Baltimore Yeshiva, asks on the death of the twenty four thousand students of Rav Akiva for not honoring one another. Is it really possible they were disrespectful to each other? Of course, he explained, they honored each other. However, they did not acknowledge the unique talents of their fellow students. If we respect someone, but we don't value their individual gifts, we aren't granting them the esteem they deserve. For this the students of Rabbi Akiva were found guilty.

We know from ourselves, how we may spend much energy on correcting a certain flaw, be it lashon hara, anger, brachos with kavana, or the like, and yet we will still succumb. We therefore cannot expect a child to have instant obedience. A teacher needs to possess an endless reservoir of patience. At times, he must be able to hear no evil and see no evil, not reacting at every instance. A teacher should also respect a child's possessions. As is said in the name of Reb Yisrael Salanter, "A child's toy boat is as valuable to him as a great ocean liner is to the shipping magnate who owns it."

3. Authenticity Of Torah Transmission

Care must be taken not to compromise the integrity of the transmission of Torah. Torah has been successfully handed down from generation to generation for the past three millennia, and we are the links to continue that golden chain. Indeed, the child should know he is linked to a glorious past. Rav Mendel Kaplan zt"l would tell his class, "I studied under Reb Elchonon Wasserman, who was a talmid of the Chafetz Chaim. The Chafetz Chaim learned from Reb Nochumke of Horodna, who in turn studied under a disciple of Reb Chaim of Volozhin, the primary student of the Vilna Gaon. Thus," Reb Mendel would conclude, "your learning from me links you in a few short steps directly to the Vilna Gaon."

Torah is holy and pure, and must be taught in holiness and purity. Innovations in the classrooms of our Yeshivos and Bais Yakov's have their place, but we cannot deviate from the past. The traditional methods of learning Torah shouldn't be diluted or eroded. It should be emphasized to the children that their Torah subjects aren't just another part of their school day. Rather, it is the cornerstone and raison d'Ítre of their lives.

In 1960, Rav Aharon Kotler zt"l delivered a major address on this theme at a convention of educators. Following are a few salient points from that speech. "The foundation of Torah chinuch is to give children a proper appreciation for the holiness of Torah. Every letter of the Torah encompasses all of Creation, both in space - from the depths of the seas to the highest heavens, and in time - from eons prior to the creation of the world until the end of eternity. Every event that has occurred since the beginning of time and that will occur in the future - to Klal Yisrael as a whole and to each individual - is contained in the Torah, as well as the solution to all our problems. Vilna Gaon was able to take any line in the full body of Torah works - Mishna, Gemara, Midrash, Zohar, etc - and show an explicit source for it in the Torah, clearly and easily. "Just as our physical senses are restricted, we cannot hear, see or smell miles away, so too our mental faculties are limited. The wisdom of the Torah is beyond our comprehension. And if this holds true for the various laws, how much more so for the stories of the Torah. The lofty level of the Patriarchs, the twelve Shevatim, Moshe Rabbeinu - about which there is so much misunderstanding - is not within human intellect to grasp. These were no ordinary people. They were free of any kind of personal aspiration or desire, living only to serve Hashem. Just as we have no yardstick to measure angels, so do we lack the means of evaluating our forefathers. Giving children an understanding of these principles will grant them a solid foundation of faith and a correct perspective of what it means to be a Torah Jew.

"To properly teach Torah, a teacher should study every detail relevant to a verse before teaching it. It is necessary to draw from explanations found in all the sources of Chazal just to teach the basics. In this way we can implant in children to love and revere Torah and to approach its study with awe."

In Parshas Va'eschanan, we are enjoined, "ve'hodatam l'vanecha yom asher amadta lifnei Hashem Elokecha b'Chorev - and you shall make known to your children the day that you stood before Hashem at Sinai." Ramban (Sefer Hamitzvos 2) and BeHag count this among the 613 mitzvos. Why are we bidden to make known for all generations the Revelation at Sinai? The answer is because belief in this seminal event is the basis for keeping the mitzvos. By inculcating our children with the experience of Sinai we ensure their loyalty to Torah and mitzvos.

Today unfortunately, we find certain Jews who fashion "designer mitzvos" - they carefully craft a combination of mitzvos that make them feel spiritual and loudly proclaim, "This is the way G-d wants it". A Torah Jew knows that it's really the opposite: At Sinai, Hashem told us what He wants of us, not that we told Him what we want. The purpose of doing mitzvos is to fulfill Hashem's wishes, not to make us feel good. We have to fit the mitzva and not the reverse. Thus, an observant Jew is termed a Shomer Torah u'mitzvos. He isn't just a Shomer mitzvos, but a believer that the mitzvos emanate from the Torah which was given to us at Sinai.

To have this awareness, one must base his observance on Torah study. It is not for naught that our Sages taught, "lo am ha'aretz chassid - an unlearned person cannot be pious" (Avos 2:5). Particularly in our day and age, spending time absorbed in Torah study is not just a prerequisite to becoming a Talmid Chochom; it's necessary simply to remain an ehrlicheh yid. As we say on Shabbos Mevarchim, "chaim sheyeish bahem ahavas Torah v'yiras Shamayim - may we have a life filled with love of Torah and fear of Heaven", the vehicle to becoming a G-d fearing Jew is the love of Torah. Which brings us to our fourth and final area of discussion.

4. The Primacy Of Torah Study

Both school and home must instill in the children that Torah study is the most wonderful thing a person can do. As we say in Birchas HaTorah every morning, "V'haarev na - Please Hashem, make the words of Torah sweet in our mouths". The Rebbe of Skver noted, "Kol Yisrael yeish lahem cheilek l'Olam HaBa - All Jews have a portion in the World to Come." However, a portion in this world cannot be had without Torah study. Only Torah provides the satisfaction, focus and emotional strength to face the vicissitudes of daily life.

A parent once told me, "I don't need my son to have that many Jewish studies periods, he won't be a Rabbi anyway when he grows up." Unfortunately, this attitude is all too common. However, it is flawed. We must daven and strive that our children be Talmidei Chachamim. It's not enough that they are "religious"; it's not even enough that they be "koveah itim laTorah,." We shouldn't allow our worries over their having a parnasa to undermine their success in Torah. Nor should we allow our fears of their becoming "too frum" to inhibit their growth in Torah.

Let us broaden our horizon and see that our children become real Gedolei Yisrael. Why should we short change them? Let us encourage them to be Torah giants, well-versed in Shas and Poskim. Then we will secure the future of not only our children, but that of Klal Yisrael.


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