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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Klal Yisrael at Risk

A preview to an interview with Horizon Magazine

by Yisrael Rutman

Rabbi Yaacov Haber has for many years been one of the most creative forces in Torah education. He was National Director of Jewish Education for the Orthodox Union, and founder of the Australian Institute of Torah and the Torah Center of Buffalo. He is also one of the founding members of AJOP, the Association of Jewish Outreach Professionals. Presently, he is Rav of Kehillah Shivtei Yeshurun in Ramat Beit Shemesh and head of TorahLab, which furnishes materials for adult education.

Horizons: I just recently came across another warning against the dangers of the internet to the spiritual wellbeing of our children. Maybe we can begin our discussion by asking how much is the internet to blame for “kids at risk”? Or is that merely scapegoating?

Rabbi Haber: The internet has proven to be capable of a great amount of damage to Jews of all ages. However, it is important to remember that the internet is a reality. There will come a time in the not-so-distant future when it will be impossible to pay a bill, bank, make a phone call or even turn on a light in your house without using the Internet. Instead of forbidding the Internet and non-kosher cell phones, it would seem to be more prudent to teach students how to interact with the Internet responsibly. If we were to forbid everything that we can use the wrong way we must include cars, mp3 players, and for that matter---women! We have to be very careful with internet technology---but forbidding it is not the answer in the long term.

When a teenager leaves us for a more exciting lifestyle, we have to ask ourselves why they are not finding that excitement in our homes and communities. In his remarkable sefer, Tzav V’Ziruz, the Piacezner Rebbe teaches an important lesson in education: Nature abhors a vacuum. The sustenance of the neshama is regesh (emotion). The neshama wants to be filled with a regesh of kedushah. If it doesn’t find kedusha, it will search for any form of regesh, even violent or disgusting regesh. We have to fill our children’s neshamos with healthy Torah regesh. Then the urge to look elsewhere will disappear.

H: So it’s we, the parents and teachers, who are responsible for “kids at risk”?

RH: I don’t think the issue is “kids at risk.” That expression is used because it makes us feel good. It implies that it’s the kids’ fault, that something is wrong with them. The underlying assumption is that the system is okay, just something went wrong with this or that kid who “fell through the cracks.” Really, the opposite is true. They are being pushed through, not cracks, but gaping ditches and huge holes. We have to decide if we’re willing to lose them.

H: You make it sound as if we were making a conscious decision of some kind to send them away…

RH: That’s right. They are lost by design. Our educational system is elitist. It caters to the brightest students. Most teachers do not pay much attention to the average and below-average students. Those who do not excel academically are offered no option. Everything is stigmatized. To tell a kid to get vocational training is tantamount to calling him mentally retarded. Or in Israel to serve in the army, is like telling him he’s a failure. The kids understand this and feel rejected. They say to themselves, “I don’t see myself in this system, so I’ll find my own way.” They find their way on the streetcorners of Har Nof and Ben Yehuda.

H: How did this elitism come about?

RH:  There was a decision made after the Holocaust that Yiddishkeit in the U.S. and Israel has to be rebuilt. And that meant producing gedolim, the next Rabbi Akiva Eiger, the next Brisker Rav. And I’ve heard it said that it was understood, perhaps even stated at the time, that since not everybody is going to be a gadol b’Torah, “we are going to have to lose a few.”

What took place over the next forty years was the rise of an elitist system. When I was growing up and went to school, the teachers would speak to the average student, trying to involve and reach everyone in the class. But in an educational system geared to the elite, the teacher cares primarily about the geniuses, certainly not the slower students.

In this system, there are certain known yeshivos at the top, and everybody wants to get into them. From the earliest years, parents and their kids are aspiring and planning to achieve acceptance in those elite schools. The teachers and principals are also caught up in it.

Nor is the issue only one of getting into yeshivos. Even for those in the ‘right” yeshivos, they must have highly trained and capable eyes to learn about each individual talmid and advance him according to his unique potential. The yeshivos all advertise that they cater to the individual. But do they?

H: What reaction do you get when you say things like this?

RH: They admit it’s so, but they say, “What can I do? If I lower my admissions standards, then the parents won’t send their kids to my school. And if I don’t get the best students, I’ll lose my standing with the yeshiva ketanos.” The yeshiva ketanos are in the same bind, having to provide the top students for the yeshivah gedolos, who will accept nothing less. Certain yeshiva high schools offer virtually automatic entry into the elite yeshivos.

H: And naturally parents are ambitious for their kids and want the best for them.

RH: It’s an issue of shidduchim too.

H: An elite shidduch for an elite school graduate.

RH: No, it’s getting into the top yeshiva in order to get the best shidduch. And, of course, that translates into financial support for the future rosh yeshiva who will continue learning in kollel. There’s a joke going around that they want to lift the ban of Rabbeinu Gershom against having more than one wife, because the financial situation being what it is, you need two fathers-in-law to provide support…

I want to emphasize that nothing I am saying here should be taken as a criticism of Gedolei Yisrael. I have the greatest respect for them, have never I made a serious move in my life without consulting gedolim. And they understand that we have to address the needs of all the children. For example, HaRav Aharon Leib Steinman shlit"a endorsed the establishment of Nachal Charedi (a special Israeli army unit for the Torah-observant, which affords boys who do not see their future in Torah learning to discharge their military obligations in a suitable environment prior to entering the work force---Y.R.)Rav Shach zatza"l advocated a quota to ensure the acceptance of Sephardi boys in the Lithuanian yeshivos. They fully realize that Jewish education does not exist for any one group.

Throughout history, Gedolei HaDor that were faced with unusual challenges used Hora’as Sha’ah (emergency measures) to save the day. Often a Horaas Shaa requires a sacrifice of the individual for the Tzibur, but they did what they had to do. From Hillel to the Rambam to pre-war Europe, “work” was never considered a dirty word and was always the option for the majority of frum Jews. The question for today’s Gedolei HaDor is, “Given today’s realities, is it time to go back to tradition, or should this be a permanent change in the culture of Judaism?”

H: Here’s a stupid question: Why not assemble all the educators whose fault it isn’t, and have them decide all at once together a broader admissions policy so that nobody loses standing relative to anyone else in the competition for the top students?

RH: Well, there’s a problem with achdus.

H: Oh.

RH: You know, not everybody can be the tsadik of the generation. Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twersky tells of a discussion he once had during a visit with the Steipler Gaon, whom people often consulted for medical advice. Since he had heard that Rabbi Twersky was a psychiatrist, he inquired about medications for mental illnesses.

“Is anything available that can cure someone from delusions?” asked the Steipler. Dr. Twersky replied that there wasn’t much in the way of medicine for delusional thinking.

“But what if someone has the delusion that he is the greatest tzaddik in the generation?” the Gaon asked.

“No medication can cure that,” Dr. Twersky laughed.

The Gaon shook his head sadly. “Too bad,” he said. “That malady is so widespread.”

H: Sounds like the system is designed to spread the malady.

RH: You know, I would say that it’s not “kids at risk, it’s “Klal Yisrael at risk.” I have worked with hundreds of so-called “kids at risk.” Most of the time these young people are the cream of the crop.  Adel, sweet, caring individuals. The kind that, if you say “Well, I have to be going into the city now,” they’ll immediately offer to give you a ride. And it’s often because they are not aggressive or bullying by nature that they are swayed by bad influences, make bad decisions. But they are good kids.

You have to ask yourself : What would happen if they would not fall through the cracks? They have tremendous potential and a role to fill in the Jewish people. There are so many different mandates: tefilah, chesed, writers, administration, etcetera. In an eltist system, these are all b’dieved. But is that really the emes? No one should be an extra. Everyone should feel needed and important---because they are. This is how Yaakov Avinu spoke and blessed all of his children before he left this world: “Each man according to his blessing did he bless them.”

So, if we allow them to fall thorugh the gaps, Klal Yisrael loses. So it’s not just a matter of saving this kid or that kid; but of saving Klal Yisrael. As I said, we have to decide if we can afford to lose them.

H: Do you have a solution?

RH: Well, the beginning of a solution starts in our description of the problem; we have to change the terminology. Calling them “kids at risk” only exacerbates the problem because it makes it sound like they have an illness. Somebody actually suggested that if one in ten children fall into this category, it could be that they are the same one in ten who suffer from learning disabilities.

We need to create options, without a stigma, to encourage respect for ba’alei batim, for people who work and are not roshei yeshivos. And if there’s someone who can start a school which is not elitist, that would, of course, help.

H: Thank you, Rabbi Haber.

RH: Thank you.

Posted on 12/14 at 03:58 PM • Permalink
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Meet Rabbi Yaacov Haber

Rabbi Yaacov HaberRabbi Haber has been a leading force in Jewish Outreach for the past 25 years. A founding trustee of AJOP, the Association of Jewish Outreach Professionals, he was the founder and director of the Torah Center of Buffalo from 1980-1990 while serving as a community rabbi in Buffalo. From Buffalo he and his family traveled to Melbourne, Australia where as a project of Kollel Bais HaTalmud he founded the Australian Institute of Torah, a national outreach and adult education program. He directed that program from 1990-1995, at which time he was sought out as National Director of Jewish Education for the Orthodox Union in the United States where he created the Internationally acclaimed and highly successful "Pardes Project."

In addition to his duties at the OU, in 1996 he replaced Rabbi Berel Wein as the spiritual leader of Congregation Bais Torah in Monsey, NY. In keeping with the position of Congregation Bais Torah in the Monsey community, Rabbi Haber was involved in issues involving the greater Monsey community, and counseled hundreds of individuals in the surrounding area.

Rabbi Yaacov Haber is the founder and driving force behind TorahLab. Through TorahLab, Rabbi Haber is bringing together educational and media specialists to create dynamic learning experiences which will be accessible to adults of all backgrounds and levels. Rabbi Haber has published numerous articles and books and is a sought after international lecturer.

Rabbi Haber and his family are presently living in Ramat Beit Shemesh where he is the Rabbi of Kehillas Shivtei Yeshurun.

Rabbi Haber can be contacted at