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An Ounce Of Prevention
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
Publication: Jewish Observer

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An Ounce of Prevention

Reaching Today’s Underachievers Before They Become Tomorrow’s Dropout Teens

By: Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

We are faced with a critical problem, one that we must address as a society. There is a spiritual underclass that exists in our community – dropout teens. This group of teenagers has no defining prerequisites; they come from every type of home, and every income level. These are children that mechanchim (educators), parents – indeed society as a whole – has failed to reach. In Monsey alone, there are dozens of such boys ages 16 and above who are in no yeshiva setting at all. We bump into them at the mall, and we catch sight of them through the plate glass window of the pool hall. In the greater New York area there are hundreds. And their numbers are growing. Rapidly.

On analysis, only a small percentage of these boys (and girls) have extenuating circumstances that may have contributed to their difficulties. Some come from very trying home situations. Others of a more intellectual bent have serious emuna questions that r”l led them astray. The vast majority, however, have but one thing in common. They have never felt successful in yeshiva. Shuffling from class to class, or worse yet, from school to school, their frustration grows to intolerable levels. Parental pressure increases; they often feel incredibly inadequate compared to their siblings; their self-confidence shrinks and often disappears. When they attempt to assert themselves at home or in school, it is often in awkward and inappropriate ways. This leads to more rebuke, more slings and arrows attacking their already low self-image.

This downward spiral continues until the child reaches eighth grade, and the harrowing search for a mesivta begins in earnest. After a rejection from the local mesivta, the parents frantically begin to research yeshivos geared to the underachieving student. For some the search ends there. For others, their parents fear that this type of yeshiva places a stigma on their son. Hopefully the child is accepted to his second or third choice of yeshiva high school. If this does not happen, this sensitive teenager is forced to admit to his peers that he has no idea which yeshiva will accept him. While his classmates are excitedly making summer plans, he is in limbo regarding his status for Elul Zman. By the time his parents have placed him in yeshiva, his self-image has suffered yet another body blow.

If this trend does not reverse itself in ninth or tenth grade, new dynamics enter the equation. A driver’s license. Work. A social life. Suddenly this young adult who has never been made to feel valuable or appreciated before, is told what a wonderful job he does, how charming he is etc… At this point we have entered a new phase in the struggle for this Yiddishe neshama; a very difficult uphill battle.

A Call to Action

Two rebbeim in Monsey have heeded the call of the local rabbanim, and have formed a wonderful series of nightly shiurim geared to such young men and their specific needs. To call this program a success would be an understatement. The shiurim are generally well attended and sparked by much genuine enthusiasm. Most important is the opportunity that presents itself for these bachurim to bond with a rebbe. Many times these shiurim are followed by heart-to-heart conversations with the rebbe lasting well into the night.

A monumental difference exists between our “drop-out teens” and those of the secular world. While the external trappings of these boys are not those of the average yeshiva bachur, there is a genuine thirst for spirituality in these young men. What is outstanding is the devotion these bachurim have for their rabbe’im and for each other. Many times the boys themselves approach one of the rebbes, offering to contribute to the rent money for the facilities that they use. Every wedding of a member of the group is celebrated with great simcha by all. They have developed a remarkable sense of unity that cuts across the greatly divergent backgrounds from which they come.

The secret to the success of this program is that the dedicated rabbe’im, all volunteers, follow a simple set of guidelines; one that can be instrumental in making our own contact with these youngsters successful. Don’t be judgmental or condescending. Speak to them with respect. Don’t comment on their appearance. Never, ever attempt witty cracks or humorous lines at their expense. Just accept them for what they are; nice kids going through a difficult time.

A Childhood Squandered

The most bittersweet feeling when observing this phenomenon is . . . why couldn’t we have reached these children five or eight years earlier, and avoid all this heartache? Each “client” represents so much strife within the family, so many sleepless nights for the parents, so much turmoil and pain within the boy’s psyche, so much unrealized potential for growth; indeed, a childhood squandered. We must collectively examine this situation carefully and search for meaningful changes that we can implement to reverse this frightening trend.

Each situation, taken separately, lends itself to a logical explanation. When viewing the broad picture, however, it becomes glaringly obvious that something is very, very wrong. About one child you’ll hear, “Of course he rebelled; look at how strict his parents are.” Yet regarding another young man in the same situation, you hear, “Growing up in such a permissive environment can only lead to trouble.”

  • “I begged his parents not to spoil him like that”; vs. “Are you surprised that he ran off to work? Look at how poor his family is!”
  • “Could you imagine the pressure he feels growing up with such an esteemed father?” vs. “Like father like son – he never had a role model at home. What do you expect?”

It is intellectually dishonest to dismiss this situation as anything other than what it is – a crisis in our chinuch world.

Searching For Causes

What, then, has changed so dramatically? For one thing, the moral level of the secular world at large has been in an unrestrained free fall for many years now. In the 14 years that I have been teaching eighth graders, the decadence they are exposed to has increased not incrementally, but exponentially. And its shows. Even those who do not have a television set at home cannot shield their children from the relentless barrage of decadence that permeates every face of secular society. But, despite our best efforts, we cannot completely shield our children from this onslaught.

Want we must address is a problem about which we can do a great deal to remediate. Throughout the past generation, we have been, Baruch Hashem, raising the expectation level of what our yeshiva system should produce as a final product. Yeshivos are not merely satisfied with graduating a group of young men who will attend a shiur and support the local yeshiva. Our goal is to graduate lay leaders who can give the shiurim, and yungeleit (kollel fellows) who have the ability to become the Roshei Hayeshiva. We as mechanchim (educators) are rightfully thrilled by this development. Our yeshiva-educated parent body demands it, and we eagerly do everything in our power to accede to their requests.

The Crescendo of Taunts

The harsh reality is that a substantial number of our children cannot keep up with these demands. Try as they may, many of them are unable to meet these higher expectations. As we ratchet up the tension level and raise the bar to encourage them to hurdle to greater heights, many of these children crash into the bar time and time again. Broken-hearted and discouraged, they simply stop trying and seek fulfillment elsewhere.

The haunting story of Elisha Ben Avuyah –Acher comes to mind. Acher had sinned and the door to teshuva was closed to him. He heard a Bas Kol, a heavenly voice, which proclaimed: “Shuvu banim shovavim chutz m’Acher.” The voice informed him that all were welcome to repent except for him. His response was “Hoyil . . . lishani behai alma.” He replied, “Since the option of teshuva is not available to me, I will at least derive pleasure from this world,” and he r’l returned to his path of sin.

These sensitive young men are misreading our well-intentioned messages to them. They are not hearing our calls to improve, they misconstrue the pleas of their parents to better their lives and enrich their futures. All that keeps reverberating in their ears is the never-ending shout of voices that pierce their hearts: “We don’t want you in our classroom, in our yeshiva, in our mesivta, in our home . . .”

Searching For Solutions

It is not my intent to offer broad solutions to this complex problem. For that we defer, as always, to our Gedolim. I would humbly like to share with other mechanchim some of the methods that – combined with the tefilla and seyata diShmaya – I have found to be helpful in these situations.

1) Convey to your talmidim again and again that each of them has a contribution to make to Klal Yisroel. We all had classmates who struggled in yeshiva and became outstanding adults. Share some anecdotes with some of the weaker talmidim in a private setting. This past year, when I had quite a few talmidim who were not learning well and were very frustrated, I was speaking to the entire class about overcoming adversity. A talmid respectfully asked me, “What do you know about difficulty?”

I immediately responded, “You obviously never met my eighth grade rebbe.”

When the laughter subsided, and I saw that he was not satisfied, I softly informed the class that I had had a speech impediment – stuttering – as a child and I had to go to therapy to correct this problem. They were shocked. They also didn’t believe me. I told them to think back carefully and remember that often when teaching a difficult piece of gemora, I often let my guard down and stutter a bit. It made such an impression on them that several parents called that night thanking me for sharing my infirmity with the children, and how validating it was for their son to know that their rebbe had to overcome shortcomings of his own.

2) The Parent-Teacher Conference affords an important opportunity to review the accomplishments of the talmid with his parents, and discuss areas that need improvement. It has its limitations, however. The conference is generally conducted in December, after much of the semester has passed. There is precious little “quality time” for a serious, protracted discussion of the situation. Most of all, the most important element of this dialogue is missing . . . the student.

Three years ago, I experimented with a new technique for helping talmidim who were not learning according to their ability. The week after Sukkos, I invited the parents of one such talmid to my home and requested that their son come along. We scheduled the meeting for late evening, when their younger children (and mine) were sleeping. We spent approximately a full hour discussing many issues pertaining to the child’s education and social interaction. The improvement in the boy’s learning was remarkable.

Since then, I have been doing this with all talmidim that are not performing at their level. I have yet to conduct such a meeting and fail to see a dramatic improvement in the boy’s attitude and learning.

3) We teachers must stop the destructive habit of obtaining a scouting report on our talmidim before the school year begins. There is no valid reason for doing this. One would have to be superhuman not to let negative information taint the way we treat the incoming class. Speak to many of the teenage “problem kids.” You will hear this refrain again and again: “I was never given a fair chance after my first bad year.” There just may be some truth to it. How many times have we heard the warning, “Watch out for ---[a particular child]?”

In the spirit of fairness, let us imagine that we were told negative information about the best student in the class. Picture the scenario. The star talmid raises his hand the very first day to ask a splendid question on the day’s gemorah lesson. The rebbe hears warning bells. (“They were right about this kid; he’s starting up already!”)

“Put your hand down.”
“But I have. . .”
“I said put your hand down!!”
“But rebbe, you misunderstand . . .”
“I WHAT?? OUT!!!”

It is critical for a rebbe to have certain information about his talmidim before the year begins, to ascertain which students require more sensitive handling. If a child has a sick parent or sibling or if the child comes from a challenging home situation, etc… these facts must be conveyed to a rebbe.

When a new group of talmidim enter the classroom, the first thing that the rebbe should tell them is that he knows nothing about them, and that he has no interest in their past performance.

4) Parents, teachers, and other authority figures at times hold up children for embarrassment or shame in front of classmates, siblings, or friends (“Do you really know ‘Oleinu’ [a portion of the daily prayers] by heart? Without a Siddur? Come, let’s all hear your marvelous memory at work!”), leaving emotional scars and feelings of anger that can smolder for years. Not every sin must be uncovered. Words of admonishment that are offered with love and understanding, respecting the child’s feelings and need for privacy, will be received accordingly.

5) A dress code is an integral part of the structure of any yeshiva. Indeed, it is often a defining element in the school; as such, the yeshiva has the obligation to enforce these rules vigorously. When the child runs afoul of these guidelines, however, it can be a source of great conflict between a talmid and his rebbe. I strongly suggest that if it becomes obvious that these violations are not isolated incidents, but rather indicate a rebellious pattern, it would be appropriate for the administration of the yeshiva to step in, and time for the rebbe to exit gracefully.

A rebbe cannot afford to squander all of his political capital and enter an adversarial relationship with a talmid over the length of the child’s hair, size of his yarmulke, etc. To be sure, parents must assume responsibility and support the yeshiva’s position. Without this crucial backing, the yeshiva will find it quite impossible to resolve this situation painlessly.

6) Within a heterogeneous group, much can be done to accommodate the educational and social needs of the talmid who is encountering difficulty.

Tests can be a source of great stress for the underachiever. On a temporary basis, it is often helpful to allow the child to be tested on a small portion of the material covered (1 blatt our of 4; until Sheini in Chumash). Insist on perfection for that amount. After you have built up his self-confidence, he will be able to be accountable for larger amounts.

If a talmid is obviously unable to read the Gemora or Chumash, perhaps assure him that in the short term you will not call on him to read publicly. Or better yet, give him a short piece to prepare, and only then call on him to say this piece. He will be grateful to you for caring about his feelings and his desire to learn will increase tenfold.

Another helpful idea is to allow the child to take notes during shiur and then use them during the written exam. Insist that they must be his notes only; don’t allow him to copy from the other boys. You will be training him to be focused and involved in eth daily shiur.

Much tact is needed to avoid incurring the envy of the other students. One way to deal with this is by reserving the top echelon of report-card grades for those who do not resort to any of these aids. Generally speaking, the other students will respect the fact that you are dealing gently with their peers. You also will be teaching them a valuable lesson in derech eretz and tolerance.

To Track or Not to Track

There has always been a heated debate among mechanchim whether the larger yeshivos, those that have two classes or more in each grade level, should “track” the talmidim (grouping them according to ability) or not. Those who disagree with the tracking method cite two valid reasons:

a) The presence of talmidim who excel in their limudim (studies) gives average performers a goal to aim for. Indeed, lack of boys that are “shteiging” could lead to lowered expectations, resulting in weaker children not even performing ion accordance with their limited abilities. Additionally, the presence of a stronger group of talmidim is often a positive influence in terms of yiras Shmayim – they daven better etc…

To deprive weaker talmidim of this positive peer pressure is unfair and undermines their future. Why should we compromise the goals of these talmidim just because they find learning difficult? The often-quoted p’sak in this matter is from Rabbi Aaron Kotler z’tl, who advised school heads not to remove weaker students from the class, and maintained that they will, with the passage of time, integrate with the other talmidim and remain devoted to Torah and mitzvos.

b) We do not live in a Utopian society. The brutal reality is that these children become labeled as soon as they are placed in a slower track. They feel inadequate, no mesivta will take them, and they will become second-class citizens. Principals fear a bruising battle with each parent who is informed of the decision to track their son.

Rethinking the Issues

Perhaps the time has come to rethink our opposition to this system. Let us address the two above-mentioned factors. First the educational concerns:

We will begin with the p’sak of Reb Aaron. As explained to me by Rabbi Yehoshua Silbermintz z’l, who discussed this issue personally with Reb Aaron, the Rosh Yeshiva was addressing a totally different situation. The question posed was: “At what point does the yeshiva/rebbe have the authority to ask a disruptive child top leave the yeshiva/classroom?” To which Reb Aaron replied that if the presence of a talmid is so detrimental to the general atmosphere by his conduct or by eroding the moral compass of others, the yeshiva has the right, indeed the obligation, to remove him before he harms others.

The next question posed was what to do with a boy who casts a pall over the classroom – not by disrupting, but by his lack of effort or inability to keep up.

In this context, the poignant p’sak, ”Let a weak talmid remain and listen,” has little bearing on our discussion.

Even if there were a direct p’sak regarding the issue of tracking talmidim, I would suggest that the dynamics of the more elevated nature of our mainstream classes nowadays, would dictate that we ask our present-day Gedolim to reassess this difficult situation for us.

On Track in General Studies

Afternoons, I serve as the General Studies Principal in a Monsey yeshiva. The children are tracked according to level in secular studies. During May 1995, grades 5 and 7 took the Iowa Tests, a battery of standardized tests. The results confirmed what I had long suspected. Many of the boys who were below level in reading and spelling were above average, even brilliant, in math. Others who were strong in reading found math difficult. I restructured grades 6 through 8 to permit students to be in the “A” track for math and the “B” track for all other subjects; or vice versa. This move involved a great deal of effort. After carefully reviewing each child’s report card to be certain that my placements were sound, I called all parents of children who were to be affected. Before the teachers left for the summer, I requested their evaluation regarding all of their students.

The result? Many boys now thrive in classes they can keep up with; many bright boys who were bored in the lower math class are now excited to be working at their level. Discipline is less of a factor, and I certainly am more familiar with every student and his progress. In fact, two eighth graders in the “B” track for Language Arts are currently in an accelerated “Regents Program” in math – no small accomplishment.

Some Implications

I do not advocate departmentalizing Limudei Kodesh. Torah is handed down from rebbe to talmid. It is difficult enough to maintain a close relationship with 25 students, let alone 75. We can, however, structure our classes to create homogenous groups so that the underachieving student can be educated appropriately. This would also alleviate the very real problem of bright students who are developing poor study habits in mainstream classes – where they are frustrated at being forced to endure long stretches of review sessions the new gemora lessons that they so quickly and eagerly devour. Which brings us to the social issue. . . .

Without question, it is hurtful for a child to be informed that he belongs in a weaker class. However, this temporary discomfort will pass. Children adapt to all situations. This cannot begin to compare to the ongoing pain of knowing you are not growing, the agony of that walk to the Rebbe’s desk to pick up your test paper, the dread of being called upon to read the gemora in public.

The major difficulty is getting the parents on board. I firmly believe that the parents will be willing partners in this endeavor if we can convince them that these changes are for their son’s benefit and not to alleviate a problem that the yeshiva has. If they are still unhappy, we must have the courage of our convictions. Our job is to decide what is in the child’s best interest and then to act. We cannot be in the position of reacting to the polling data regarding the popularity of a decision on such an important issue. The parents only want what we want: a happy, motivated, well adjusted child. When they witness their child’s progress, they will agree that we made the correct decision.

A Rewarding Challenge for the Right Rebbe

A word to rebbeim who might have the inclination to teach a tracked class geared to the underachieving talmid: by all means do so!

If your menahel is opposed to the idea, plead with him to try it just once. Prepare yourself for this task by getting as much educational training as possible. However, what you really need is to love your talmidim, and believe – truly believe – that there are no bad children. Your talmidim will pick up on this feeling and give you the utmost. It will be the most rewarding experience of your chinuch life.

Yes, you will miss that delightful feeling of starting a Beis Halevi [an advanced Torah thought] and watching the brilliant talmid jump up and finish it for you, all the while giving you that 100-watt smile. Your successes will be very small at the onset, but they will without question grow as the year progresses. Most of all, that wonderful feeling of knowing you turned a young man’s life around forever, will be yours for the rest of your life.

You must be made aware of the drawbacks of teaching a class such as this. You will be genuinely sad when the year ends – you’d love to have just a bit more time to polish the diamond that you discovered and washed so very carefully. You will worry about your talmidim – long after they have left your class – in a way you never thought you could. You will find yourself calling their present rebbeim to plead with them to have a soft touch with your talmid. Every bein hazmanim (yeshiva intersession), as soon as the boys return home from yeshiva, they will drop in to say hello. Former talmidim will call you every Friday afternoon to wish you “A gutten Shabbos.” Every Purim, until they go off to Eretz Yisroel, or get married, they will be at your home with mishloach manos.

You see, you aren’t becoming a rebbe of theirs; hopefully you will become the rebbe – the one that they will remember for the rest of their lives.

© 1996 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

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