Chinuch… Upstate and… Upbeat?

Out-of-Towners!

Yanky (not his real name), a student in the school for several years, was a troublemaker and a bad influence on his class – so much so that the principal was about to ask him to leave the school. Some of his behaviors were not becoming for an observant young boy and were representative of the typical cultural climate of smaller communities in middle America. The principal, having no tolerance for such talmidim in his school, waited for the day when he could inform the boy’s parents that he could not be welcomed back.

That is until the day when Yanky proudly brought in a picture of his zaydeh to show his teachers. When the principal saw the ancestry of the boy whom he was so tempted to expel, he was taken aback. Yanky’s grandfather had obviously been a “chashuve Yid.” How could he as his principal now give up on him? How could he forego the opportunity to forge a link between the “scourge of the seventh grade” and between his noble forbear?

With renewed determination the principal altered both his attitude towards Yanky as well as his plans for him. As it turned out, Yanky, after graduation, went on to study in a fine and well-known yeshiva and is today a genuine ben Torah. As far as the photograph is concerned, the menahel decided to make a copy of Yanky’szaydeh’s picture to keep it handy so that he could constantly be reminded of exactly why he was in chinuch… and of how gratifying it could be if he might merit helping to shape the Jewish futures of other Yanky’s.

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The story – more fact than fiction –serves as a poignant lesson to mechanchim. However, its greatest relevance here is that within the account lies both the agony and the ecstasy inherent in the world of “out-of-town” chinuch.

Incidentally, it should be pointed out here that the very designation of “out-of-town” is somewhat of a misnomer, for it is so often upon ascribed to people who actually don’t view themselves as out-of-towners. Indeed, it is not used by the so-called “out-of-towners” themselves. The designation thus usually connotes “not a resident of the New York area.” Yet, for Jews of Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, Toronto and so on, that fact is of little importance, because they do not define themselves as “people who are not residents of New York” to begin with. The label ascribed to them rings hollow in their ears.

Alternatively, there is much substance to the appellation. Chazal have taught us that “sadnad’ara chad,” that the mettle of human nature is universal, that the pains and pleasures, the dreams and anxieties, of men transcend borders and the barriers of time and place. Alternatively, there are numerous localisms and regionalisms in the composition of people. While human nature is, in its fundamental state, almost even across the board, the way in which environment affects us all creates marked differences between us. Hence, the contrast between “big-city chinuch” and the type so inadequately described as “out-of-town chinuch.”

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The Community School

Diversity of talmidim, variety of sensibilities stemming from family, a wide range of goals as well as prior assumptions… these are the circumstances upon which the “challenge” of out-of-town chinuch is built. This is because in the mid-size (or smaller) community, conflicting elements are all expected to be somehow fused into a harmonious unit. Unfortunately, the achievement of that goal is no easy task.

HagaonHarav Gedaliah Felder zt”l, author of YesodeiYeshurun, when asked about whether the customs of one group within a community might be binding upon another group, ruled that no such impact exists in our day. In Europe each town had the status of a self-contained and independent kehillah, with all of the halachic ramifications that this entailed. In a kehillah, there was a collective dynamic that compelled everyone to conduct himself in a specific way. This is no longer true, explained Harav Felder, since our communities are now comprised of the transplanted remnants of those kehillos of old. As a result, each sub-group within the contemporary community has the halachic right to observe its own specific minhagim.

Hence, in practice, in today’s Jewish world each mini-kehillah can establish its own infrastructure of religious observance and its own network of institutions without having to feel restricted by the existence of other similar infrastructures and networks. Thus, in theory, contemporary Torah communities exist side by side, each with its houses of worship and its own educational institutions. In this way has been lain the groundwork for today’s conglomerate communities, such as we find in EretzYisrael, as well as in a few sprawling Torah centers throughout the world.

Undeniably, there is beauty in this, as we find in Bamidbar (1:52), “Ish al machaneihu, v’ish al diglo,” each individual in the wilderness would be identified by his own flag and his own encampment. This is an ideal state. However, it is achievable only in communities that are large enough to accommodate all the flags and all the encampments. When one speaks of smaller Jewish populations, this becomes somewhat impossible.

Where there are groups of hundreds of families who subscribe to each of a dozen paths in Yiddishkeit, for instance, there is little problem in establishing a dozen schools to cater to their children. Fiscally and pedagogically, this is both feasible and ideal. Thus, a large community can conceivably have a separate school for each major Chassidishe group as well as for each derech in Torah study. Ashkenazim can have their own mosdos, while Sefardim can have theirs. Where there is not a sufficient amount of adherents to the sub-groups, however, this becomes a challenge.

This is an astounding challenge to chinuch in smaller towns. The panacea can be referred to as the advent of the “community school.” Predictably, a resident of today’s BneiBrak or Boro Park might never have heard of that expression, whereas his counterparts in smaller locations are most familiar with it. A community school is a mosad of Torah learning that is intended to serve the needs of a wide assortment of individuals, each with his own sheetos, that is, his own ideology of what should be taught and of what should transpire in a school.

When a single and particular viewpoint is promoted, though, the seeds of resentment and conflict become germinated. Many educators have therefore found that the ideal modus operandi in a community school must be one of expediency and utilitarianism, whereby every effort is to be made to avoid trouncing the sensibilities of particular parents or groups. Ultimately a community school’s policies are often set to serve this decidedly practical goal, rather than, and sometimes at the expense of, other, often more spiritual, goals. Dodging sectarianism is a lovely goal, but it is often unattainable without compromising the integrity of chinuch.

Scores of issues trigger parental emotions in the smaller towns. One of the issues sure to get tempers flaring is whether or not all of the commemorations on the ‘contemporary’ Jewish calendar ought to be observed and taught within the school… and if so, to what extent. Another matter that never fails to get parents’ backs up is the extent to which general studies should be emphasized within the curriculum. Are we interested in ensuring that our students are functionally literate, or are we rather of the belief that Torah imderecheretz means actually equal weight. Yet another topic which has proven to be a hotbed of controversy is the question of the language of Torah instruction. Should the Chumash and the Gemarabe taught in English? In Yiddish? In Ivrit? These are but a sampling of the concerns that translate into perpetual pressures upon the chinuchestablishment of smaller communities. (In the large centers, there will likely be a school for every position!)

Predictably, a mosad that is eager to alienate no one must fashion a school policy that will appeal to as many viewpoints as possible. Obviously the only way to do that is through evasiveness – frequently disguised as “fairness” or “open-mindedness.” Whereas this used to be a safe approach, in our day and age it is becoming increasingly viewed as limp. When Eliyahu Hanavi saw that KlalYisraellacked consistency, he once asked them, “Ad masaiatemposchim al shteiha’se’ifim?” Until when will you, so to speak, straddle the fence?  In a similar vein, the current mood in Jewish education is one that calls for definition and decisiveness. The task of the community school thus becomes even more complex… and its functionaries become more confounded.

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Kinas SofrimTarbehCochmah

Among the greatest educational motivators is the one postulated by Chazal in Bava Basra: “kinas sofrim.” Literally the jealousy of scribes, it connotes the competitive dynamic with which excellent learning skills can be honed. On one plane, kinas sofrimmight impact upon talmidim within a specific class, so that Reuven can be enticed to achieve more if it is pointed out to him that Shimon is learning so well. Playing off one student against the other is an effective (though not always desirable) pedagogic device.

On another level, however, this is one of the benefits provided by a larger school in which there are parallel classes at each grade. Kinas sofrimignites the melamed’s fuse almost as easily as it does the talmid’s. If R’ Levi notices that R’ Yehudah’s class is accomplishing greater mastery of the same material, then R’ Levi, assuming he is conscientious, will be interested in seeking the means for self-improvement. Yes, there can be charm and wholesomeness in a school where there are no parallel classes (there is also a distinct lack of phone calls from irate parents demanding to have their children switched from one rebbi to the other!), but the element of kinas sofrimis lacking.

Extending this reasoning of kinas sofrim to a third plateau, though, there can also be the same constructive rivalry amongst mosdos themselves. It will probably behoove the administration of any Torah school to ensure that its product is at least as worthy academically (and behaviorally) as the product of other mosdos. It will not do for the graduates from one yeshiva to master 25 blatt of Gemara in their final year, if their counterparts from a different school are mastering 30. This, of course, is assuming that there is a plurality of schools.

This therefore is one of the serious challenges to chinuch in smaller towns – there is less of an atmosphere of competitiveness, less drive to shine at least as brightly – whether academically or in areas of kedusha and shmirashamitzvos – as the other classes within the school… or as the other schools within the town – because quite often there are no others.

Embracing the Challenge

Luckily, there is very often inverse proportionality between the degree of difficulty encountered in performing a task and the level of gratification that emanates from its successful execution. The harder something is, the more pleasurable. Following this paradigm one finds that small-town chinuch is a veritable hothouse for incomparable sipukhanefesh.

One melamed in a local chassidishe school back in my own native town, Toronto, once observed that the experience of being a melamed there overshadows that of being one in cities like New York. “Where, other than in a town like ours,” he asked, “could he ever have the opportunity of encountering children from homes that are so diverse and for whom chassidus is something pretty remote?” The same question is applicable to “out-of-town” chinuch as a whole.

This is the beauty of out-of-town schools. Even the most parochial among them is by definition also a community school in large measure. Here, more than in the larger communities, there is the opportunity for the educator to ‘make a difference.’ Here he is more likely to impact upon the lives of his talmidimin a more dramatic and meaningful sense than does his counterpart in the larger city. Yes, every effective morah and rebbi everywhere contributes to the formation of a child’s character, and every single one furnishes for them components of required learning. In a smaller community, however, the impact made by the melamed is potentially monumental, for it can shape his or her very path of Yiddishkeit. Not only for the child, but for an entire family. The grandest manifestation of “V’heishiv… v’leivbanim al avosam” is acted out time and again in the out-of-town chinuch scenario, much as in the story of Yanky and his principal, cited earlier.

This is a unique sense of gratification for the educator: the knowledge that his efforts have actually been the catalyst for an entire metamorphosis – strengthening the Jewish commitment of families as well as the future generations that will be produced by them.

A Gentler Character

The so-called ‘dark cloud’ of out-of-town chinuchis in fact blessed with more silver linings than that!

The quintessential pedagogic battle in many schools centers on midosand derecheretz, the attempt to train young charges in the area of interpersonal relationships, respect for authority as well as consideration for peers. Arguably, the home is where these skills are to be developed. However, in today’s home, where the blend of media accessibility, ‘workaholicism’ and selfish diversion by parents has reduced their input considerably, the school is expected to compensate. Today’s schools thus find themselves in the midosbusiness by default.

Yet, as noted, the business is a battle. The classical question of why it is often so difficult to realize goals in this area is subject to psycho-philosophical considerations that do not belong in this context. One uncanny observation that is a propos here, however, is that the battle rages more fiercely in the larger cities than in the smaller ones.

I have repeatedly found a gentleness of character among “out-of-towners” that might only be dreamt about in the larger communities. Attitudes are more likely to be temimusdik, that is, untainted and innocent. Sarcasm is commonly bred into the psyche of children by an overly sophisticated big-city lifestyle. Ungratefulness toward the pedagogues who devote their lives to children is another widespread feature of the hustle-bustle often engendered in a larger city. So, while out-of-town mechanchimmight also have their hands occasionally full, so to speak, with behavioral issues, it should be seen a source of comfort that the smaller communities usually fare better in this regard.

Upon Me Shall He Lie!

In the final analysis, the state of Jewish education in the smaller communities is evoking sadness more and more. And, while the reason for this has little impact upon either the student in the classroom, or the rebbiwho is teaching him, for the community leaders it is a darkening cloud that hangs overhead.

One of the most severe phenomena connected to middle communities – in North America as well as across the world – is that they are dwindling in size. There is bound to be trouble down the line when the average age of these Jewish populations seems to be increasing with time. There is bound to be trouble when the frequency of levayosstarts to surpass that of brissen. Yet, that is what is transpiring in numerous mid-sized and smaller Torah communities. This is the source of trepidation for the so-called baby-boomer generation, members of which are presently marrying off their children. Young charedi couples, seeking to start their lives in ideal Torah environments, have for years now been training their gaze on Lakewood, on Boro Park, on EretzYisrael… on the main centers of Jewish population. They are in need of kollelim, of prospects for gainful employment after kollel – for those who choose to leave it. They are in need of an ambiance that is suitable for spiritual growth. Increasingly, then, these young families have been leaving the mid-sized communities and take root elsewhere. Usually, “kivand’idcheh, idcheh,” once they are gone, they are gone!

That is not only a demographic issue of great importance: rather it also manifests itself keenly in the arena of education. One local menahel recently pointed out to me that in his yeshiva there is a “high-maintenance” element that today numbers approximately 40 percent of the student body, whereas twenty years ago it was fewer than 15. This situation can hardly avoid impacting upon the integrity of a school. A line of production is often defined by the raw material it uses.

But there are additional drawbacks to this situation. In a community such as Lakewood, every year or so there is bliayin hara, a need for yet another school to open its doors to accommodate the ever-increasing numbers. In other locations, the number of students decreases while the number of schools does not. Even the reduction of classes is an ugly scenario. For it entails the dismissal of educators. So, from a vocational standpoint, it appears that with time passing, the knock of opportunity grows fainter.

We are all familiar with the manner of which the Almighty solved a similar type of problem a long time ago. When the stones under the heads of Yaakov Avinu began to quarrel about which would have the privilege of having the tzaddik’s head rest upon it, the Ribbono Shel Olam fused them into one. In this manner, explains the Gemara in MasechteChulin, did the Almighty resolve the conflict. In like fashion, today’s mosdoshaTorah in middle America (and Canada!) are in tacit conflict. Each mosad shouts “alai yaniachtzaddikrosho,” let the heads of the young children be entrusted to me! Short of by an act of the Almighty, however, there is little hope that the conflict would be resolved in the same manner. .

Communities, such as Toronto, reached the crest of their development about twenty years ago, when the generation of which this writer is a member was having its children and enrolling them in the local schools. The tide in many such town is ebbing now, as there has not been adequate young blood pumped back into the circulatory system of the smaller frum communities. The prospect of the future is thus a haunting challenge in its own right.

The Agony and the Ecstasy

So, do the agonies and the challenges that the mechanech faces get eclipsed by the ecstasy at his being privileged to reach out and touch the heart of a Yanky, a typical human ornament in out-of-town yeshivos? Quite possibly.