Back to school | Taking yeshiva education out of the box

According to some yeshiva educators, a successful Jewish student would be one who masters the Talmud, the laws of Shabbat and kashrut, and the tales of the Midrash, says Rabbi Dovid Abenson.

“Every institution craves the box child,” adds Abenson, founder and director of the Shaar Hatalmud online Jewish learning program. “The box child is a child that fits the mold.”

Yet Abenson asks, if a student has not internalized a love and appreciation for knowledge, nor a faith and security in Judaism, “can we, as teachers, really call his education successful?”

Lecturer Rose Marchick (third from left) has been a foster mother to more than 150 children with severe emotional disorders over the last nine years.

Abenson is one of several parents and educators working to slowly shift the yeshiva educational system to be more in line with the way they feel our ancestors taught Torah — and at the same time, in a manner fitting for the 21st-century child.

The Midrash (Dvarim Rabbah 8:3) states there is a natural progression to Torah learning. First one studies the Hebrew language, then Humash (the Five Books of Torah, plus Haftorah), then the Prophets, then the remaining Scriptures, then the Mishnah, then the Talmud, then the codified laws and finally, the philosophy of Torah. Abenson says many teachers introduce abstract talmudic concepts before basic Humash because they are pressured by schools to have their children appear more studious than what should be expected of them.

King Solomon, the son of King David, advised the opposite — to “educate a child according to his way,” Abenson says. “A child should be taught according to his ability and not according to your educational policy or method.”

Similarly, Rose Mar-chick, a Jewish foster mother who holds a doctorate in psychology and lectures at Johnson County Community College in Kansas, says the “true mark of learning is progress, and progress is different for each person.”

Compounding the problem for schools is that dialogue on this subject remains rare. According to Rabbi Eliyahu Safran, who has written extensively about Jewish education, discussing the challenges of many yeshiva day schools’ methodology is considered scandalous when it should actually be viewed as a necessity.

“Children are the most valuable possession of … the Jewish people,” says Safran.

Joan Fogel, a special education consultant in Overland Park, Kan., says change starts with parents.

“Parents need to be advocates,” she says. “They need to know well their children and their needs,” and then help the school to think outside of the box, act creatively and use support systems.

Parents also need to be willing, says Fogel, to choose a school that is right for their child and family — which should involve looking at the school’s educational philosophy as well as its religious aspects.

Website of Rabbi Dovid Abenson’s Shaar Hatalmud online Jewish learning program photo/courtesy shaar hatalmud

This is easier in larger communities, where there are multiple Jewish schools, says Marvin Schick, president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School in Staten Island, N.Y. Schick helped found four schools in Staten Island and one in Edison, N.J., catering to children of different backgrounds. They range from an advanced yeshiva high school, to a mainstream boys elementary school, to a girls elementary school, to a Jewish foundational school for children from less-observant homes, to a day school for children from Russian Jewish families.

“You can’t make one model and expect everyone to come,” says Schick. “Even in the very Orthodox community, one mode does not fit all.”

One option that is picking up some steam among Orthodox parents is Montessori-style learning, something that, according to Brocha Baum Zahler, “goes back to our ancient traditions.”

Zahler runs the Darchei Noam Montessori center in Baltimore, where teachers are charged with supporting and fulfilling each child’s specific needs and tendencies. The classroom environment is designed to encourage exploration and to allow a child to experiment. The teacher serves more as a guide, “rather than as the person who provides everything,” Zahler explains.

Chayim Lando, director of Learning Institute for Torah Empowerment, says this hands-on philosophy should be brought into yeshiva day schools at every age. When he taught eighth-graders at a Jewish school in Los Angeles, he would combine written work with hands-on projects.

“The children were encouraged to be as creative as they wished,” says Lando. “Parents would come up and say, ‘This is my son’s only opportunity … to shine. He is not good academically but he is wonderful with his hands.’ By enabling these to kids to feel a connection to Judaism through their creativity, it fosters a connection where one would not have existed otherwise.”

Rabbi Laib Schulman’s Mesivta Neimus HaTorah in Baltimore works with boys who are “slightly academically challenged,” to develop learning, life and social skills and self-esteem. He breaks the day into several small parts, providing adequate exercise and breathing breaks and incorporating extracurricular activities and field trips with practical skills. Last year, the school hosted a plumber who taught the boys basic techniques to use when they own homes.

The boys learn Gemara (commentary), but not exclusively. Every day, for example, a different rabbi presents a contemporary question on Jewish law and spends about 30 minutes discussing it with the boys.

“We are making sure the Torah comes alive for them so they can … relate to it,” Schulman says.

The Jewish Education Project, meanwhile, is working with day schools nationally to better integrate technology into the classroom. Ginger Thornton, director of instructional technology at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Silver Spring, Md., says her students use a Google applications-based learning management system, which contains activities and resources ranging from forums, glossaries and wikis to assignments and quizzes. Each system is customized to fit the needs of the day school.

There is a tendency for schools to create employees “who will sit down, work, not ask too many questions, be on time, not be interruptive,” says Marchick, who has fostered more than 150 children over the last nine years.

“Someone who thinks out of the box will not fare well in today’s yeshiva,” she adds, “but those are often our future leaders — the CEOs, entrepreneurs and Jewish thought-leaders.”