Turning Them On!

Recently, there has been much attention, debate and concern regarding the yeshiva dropout problem. Yeshivas are beginning to take notice that some of their students are slipping through the cracks and are unfortunately falling by the wayside. These problems hit even the best of families. The problems have increased to the point that it can no longer be swept under the carpet and has become cause for much worry and concern.

Another problem that is very worrisome is the friends a child chooses. There are boys and girls roaming the streets that have a very powerful and corruptive influence on others. Once our children fall into their web, it is extremely hard to extricate them.

To come up with a proper solution and a method for prevention we must first discover the cause and there may very well be more than one. Is it the home? The yeshivah ? The curriculum ? The street? Or is it a combination of them all? Are we able to identify those at risk? Is there anything we can do to help them before they fall away?

These are tough questions that have no simple answers. Professionals are grappling with these questions and a recent convention of Torah Umesorah devoted quite a few sessions to this most important topic. While they lent much insight on this subject, they fell short of offering a solution.

While I certainly don’t profess to be an expert on the subject, I will attempt to offer some of the insights made by my colleagues in the field of Chinuch as well as the suggestions that professional psychologists have been giving.

Let’s first begin with the positive side of things. Yeshivos by and large are doing a much better job than ever before of bringing up a new generation of real Bnei Torah. Perhaps it is because the garment is so clean and beautiful that its stain becomes so obvious and stands out so clearly.

Let’s first realize that we are faced with a much greater and stronger Yetzer Hora than ever before. The ways of Mitzrayim and Cana’an have invaded our streets and even penetrated many Jewish homes. If it did not reach into our own homes then it reached the homes of our close friends and neighbors. TV, video, the Internet, virtual reality are all sinking to lower and lower levels than ever before. The filth and morals of the country, including radio, have fallen to the point that even the goyim are crying “foul”. The level of tumah has reached outrageous proportions and one finds it harder and harder to insulate oneself from the outside culture. The golus is getting darker and darker, and its enticements are far greater than when we were young. A raging fire is enticing our kids, yet we are trying to put it out with a water gun! “

The only way to counter these outside influences is to provide young people with a kosher alternative” says a wise menahel who has great success with his talmidim. The yeshivah cannot just provide for the time spent in school, but must also help provide talmidim with activities after school. One yeshivah organizes baseball and basketball games on the long Friday afternoons and Motzo’ei Shabbosos. This keeps the boys in a good environment and away from places where they shouldn’t be. There must be constant outside activities like Melava Malkas, and similar wholesome gatherings.

We must come up with positive ways for them to spend their free time rather than always forbidding things. Unless we find a frum alternative for those who can’t sit in the confines of a yeshivah bais hamedrash 24 hours a day, we will continue to lose the battle.

One menahel told me that he took his boys to the country for a Shabaton at one of the camps. He told me that the results were unbelievable. The boys came back with a tremendous chizuk and new-found energy.

Perhaps there should be trips to such great yeshivos as Lakewood, and visits to gedolai Torah. This should be combined with regular field trips.

Students must be provided with the proper athletic facilities, such as a gym and playground. A swimming pool should be rented once a week, on Friday afternoons or on Motzoei Shabbos. Rebbayim and teachers should be paid to supervise these extra-curricular activities. I’m sure many parents would help out as well if they were asked to. Yeshivahs can join up with Pirchei to help set up “father and son” learning programs.

“If we can only make the yeshivah experience an enjoyable and pleasant one, we would solve much of the problem,” said an experienced psychologist .

A rebbe in a prominent yeshiva told me that he had a student that had a rebellious attitude toward Yiddishkeit yet he has no psychologist on call who can advise him how to handle this problem. When he called the parents and suggested that they seek professional help for their son, they were very uncooperative, brushing the whole thing aside and putting the blame on the yeshiva. When he discussed it with the principal, he was told to lay off since the parents were big donors and they didn’t want to make any waves.

The last time he met his student was six years later, smoking a cigarette on Shabbos along with many other boys and girls on Ocean Parkway and Ave. J. It still pains him greatly, he tells me. He felt that with the proper help and guidance, the child could have been saved.

“Another contributing factor may be the mixed messages they receive,” says one psychologist who works with these kids. A parent may tell his son to show respect for the rebbe, yet at the Shabbos table he constantly hears the rabbi’s speech being ridiculed and belittled. His rebbe tries to belittle the lust for luxuries and riches yet yeshivas and organizations honor those who have made it big in the business world. The ones driving the Jaguars are receiving the big honors. The glitter of Hollywood is being waved in front of their faces and this is what makes the better impression. His father tells him to take out his Gemora while he himself sits back and watches the news on their 30 inch screen. The stock market news is discussed during the laining breaks.

Here is an incident I’ll never forget, even though it happened more than forty years ago in Camp Agudah. A group of counselors were putting on a hilarious comedy play for night activity in which one of the counselors portrayed a chassidic rebbe in a very mocking fashion while everyone was rolling with laughter. It was just then that my father z.t.l.. entered and saw what was going on. While he didn’t understand English, the bearded counselor on stage with his pot belly sticking out told the whole story. He immediately raced onto the stage, pulled the curtain closed and announced that the night activity was over (to everyone’s disappointment). This was not the lesson he wanted the campers to come home with! I rarely saw my father so angry and tried to calm him down by telling him that it was just a play and everyone realized it was being done in jest!

I must admit that at the time I didn’t understand why my father had gotten so angry and thought that he had over-reacted and lost himself.

“It takes 40 years to fully understand ones rebbe,” say Chazal. Today I understand it very clearly. A friend told me that at a wedding he attended , two people danced in the middle of the circle dressed up as chassidic rebbes, mocking them with their mannerisms. The audience was filled with laughter at the delightful performance. He told me that he was terribly upset that not a single person voiced his displeasure or dared protest! Later we wonder why our kids are so disrespectful. They learn far more from what they see than from what they hear.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

A good rebbe can many a time detect a problem even in the primary grades. While the tree is still young it can still be straightened. But for this, a rebbe must have professional support. Every yeshiva should have a psychologist on staff at least for part of the day. There must be a resource room where children can get the individual help they need. Students that must be disciplined too often, need behavior modification to solve their problems. Constant punishment may just aggravate the problem and leave a permanent scar of hatred for learning. The results are easily predictable!

Some rabbayim and parents feel that there can’t be a curriculum of “one size fits all”. The curriculum must be structured to meet different needs. Too much pressure can do great damage.

Strong emphasis must be placed on the primary grades. A rebbe must reach out to all his students and not just to the top half of his class. A child who has problems reading Hebrew or English in the primary grades must be given immediate attention and not overlooked.

Students experiencing social or scholastic problems must undergo proper professional testing and care, with the yeshiva being in constant touch with those caring for them. Many a time parents must be required to attend these sessions for them to be successful.

Less experienced rabbayim should receive professional training to learn the telltale signs to look out for. Only if rabbayim and parents work harmoniously will we be successful.

It goes without saying that the relationship between the Menahel, rabbayim and parents must be open, friendly, and non-confrontational, without any blame-tossing, to be successful. The minute we toss the ball into the other person’s court, we lose the ability to be successful.

Specialists in this field should be called in to give rabbayim and parents the proper training to spot these problems while they are still in their embryonic stage. Only with everyone’s cooperation will we be able to stem the tidal wave of problems that we see out there.

Recently, various organizations have sponsored excellent lectures and seminars led by experts in the field of chinuch. Everyone should be encouraged to attend these excellent seminars.

One student told me that it was his eighth grade rebbe who straightened out his life by inviting him to his home for Shabbos and fostering a close relationship with him. The rebbes phone was always open to him when he had a problem. Today he is, Boruch Hashem, a successful businessman who sits and learns each night and also supports Torah institutions.

Yes, it may be very hard on the rebbe who has a family of his own and lots of personal obligations. Many a time he must take a second job in order to meet his financial obligations. If only he could be properly paid so that he doesn’t have to take an afternoon job, and instead devote some more time to his talmidim on a more personal level!

Recently some yeshivos have started to institute a “Big Brother” program that is meeting with great success.

One prominent rosh ha’yeshiva suggested that we place greater emphasis on basic emunah, and inspire talmidim with stories from Chazal and gedolai Torah. Only by strengthening their love for Yiddishkeit will they be able to resist outside influences We must also do our utmost to instill our students with a strong sense of morals, values and middos greatly stressing the fundamentals of fear and love for Hashem, so that they will be properly prepared to resist the pitfalls and temptations they will eventually encounter. Parents must spend far more quality time with their children than ever before, and not leave the entire process for the school. When both parents work and leave their Polish maid in charge of their children’s homework, don’t be surprised at the results!

And now I come to something extremely painful which I’m sure would be censored had this article been submitted elsewhere, yet I feel it must be mentioned even though I may be accused of disrespect. I still remember vividly a conversation that my father z.t.l had with a prominent rosh ha’yeshiva of a well known yeshiva gedola. (I leave out the name out of respect for him). He pleaded with the rosh ha’yeshiva to allow a few of his top students to leave two weeks before the zman ended so that they could be counselors in Camp Agudah. Being the manhig ruchani of Camp Agudah for nearly thirty years, he saw first hand the tremendous hashpaah (influence) a counselor who is a real ben Torah has on the children. Every educator can tell you that eight weeks in camp can sometimes do more for a child than eight months in school.

When a counselor plays basketball and goes swimming with his boys and always carries a sefer in his hand, he becomes a role model for them. The strong kesher between him and his campers lasts throughout the year. Many people, including some of today’s roshei yeshiva and rabbayim can thank Camp Agudah and other similar type camps for what they are today. Many boys who could not be helped in a yeshiva setting have blossomed during the summer months. When the counselors are real bnei Torah, then that is what the campers will strive to be. Obviously if their counselors are laitzim and yoshvei kronos, then the reverse is also true!

When the rosh ha’yesiva told my father the difficulties it would cause to allow some bochurim to leave a little earlier, he answered him that it was “eis la’asos la’shem hefeiru Torasecha”. Camp directors and head counselors are still complaining bitterly about this problem yet nothing is being done about it. Only when our problems reach the headlines of the Post will we perhaps start searching for solutions. Summer camps can do wonders for our children. If only they would have the proper bnei Torah staff that they need as role models, we could easily cut our teenage problems in half!

In over 30 years of running my own camp in Israel, I have been fortunate in being able to staff the camp with real American b’nei Torah, who are learning in some of the prestigious yeshivahs ,such as Mir, Chofetz Chaim etc. I have witnessed the powerful influence these bochurim have left on their campers. I should mention that some of their roshei ha’yeshiva were extremely accommodating when the need arose for them to leave the zman a little earlier to work with our campers.

When a prominent Jewish district attorney offered a yeshiva his help to come by and do some drug prevention talk in their yeshiva he was turned down . Only after he gave them the names of some of their students who had been arrested for drug use did they take their head out of the ground. This is called the Ostrich Syndrome in which we simply are in a state of denial. Only when the fire burns out of control do we pull the fire alarm!

We still do not have all the answers and we must continue to search for innovative solutions. But something must be clear: Only when Yiddishkeit becomes a positive and enjoyable experience will children stop searching elsewhere!

When a child reaches the age of three and begins learning Torah, we have an ancient custom to bake a cake and decorate it with chocolate or honey-covered Hebrew letters. The child then takes his finger and licks up the sweet letters. This sweet taste must be made to last forever!

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