Basic Training

cheder kidsAre our children being rushed through crucial basic learning skills before being propelled into learning Chumash, Nach, and Talmud? Two passionate, groundbreaking educators believe a surprising number of children — and adults — are seeing Torah through a fog of confusion and illiteracy. Rabbi Dovid Abenson and his mentor, Rabbi Zvi Zobin , say it’s never too late to acquire the language and learning skills never mastered in school.

Yocheved Lavon

I didn’t know what I was getting into. I originally set out to write an article that would survey the state of kriah education today. I began interviewing my contacts, but instead of hearing about current methods of teaching children to read Hebrew, and how the little pupils are faring with these pedagogical techniques, I encountered educators who passionately contend that today, lashon kodesh skills are nothing short of crucial to a Jewish child’s development into a thriving adult who takes joy in Yiddishkeit.

Rabbi Dovid Abenson is a freelance educator who helps boys, girls, and adults all over North America acquire the language and learning skills that they haven’t mastered in school. Both he and his mentor, Rabbi Zvi Zobin, say that nowadays, it simply isn’t enough to learn Torah with a translation, memorized or not, that teaches students the basic meaning of the psukim in English. From his visits to many Jewish communities, Rabbi Abenson has learned that children who do not have a firm and clear grasp of the actual Hebrew text, and therefore can’t appreciate the significance of every letter, will grow up with a foggy understanding of fundamental Torah concepts — with potentially disastrous consequences.

Often, the fog sets in early, when little children are taught kriah (Hebrew reading). Rabbi Zobin cites statistics that roughly 30 percent of children are learning to read well in school, and 40 percent require tutoring to bring their reading up to par. The remaining 30 percent are managing to get by, but their reading skills aren’t what they should be. There are people, he has found, who are going through life without ever having really mastered the alef-beis. By using all sorts of desperate tactics, they manage to cover up for it well enough to reach high school or beyond without anyone discovering their deficiency — until a crisis hits.

We are not talking of children who haven’t had the privilege of a Jewish education. These statistics refer to talmidim in mainstream, frum Jewish schools. Of course, the system being practiced in schools today is effective for the many students who can read fluently by the time they start learning Chumash and Gemara. But it seems that a sizable minority aren’t keeping up, and some are slipping through the cracks unnoticed. Rabbis Zobin and Abenson would like to raise awareness of this situation, and they offer an approach to detection and remediation that promises to put these students back on track with their learning.

The Personal Struggle Born in Toronto, educated in Britain at the Gateshead Yeshivah and the Glasgow Kollel, with a brief interlude in Eretz Yisrael as a young bochur, and now raising a family in Montreal, Rabbi Dovid Abenson specializes in upgrading kriah and Gemara skills. Working through his nonprofit organization, Shaar HaTalmud, he retrains children, teenagers, and adults who haven’t picked up the basic skills in their school or yeshivah framework. He further trains teachers and principals in pinpointing underdeveloped skills and giving them tools for remediation to bring out their students’ full learning potential. He also works in kiruv, and authored two books on the subject: Bridging The Gap, and a later adaptation, First Steps to Kiruv (Targum Press).

Through the lens of his three specialties — kriah, Gemara skills, and kiruv —Rabbi Abenson has a unique view into what is missing in Jewish education, and to him it comes down to one central issue: simchah in learning, simchah about being a Jew. And simchah, he contends, is born of clarity.

“Quite often you hear about people who were motivated to enter professions in which they can help others, like psychology, after struggling to overcome their own issues,” says Rabbi Abenson. “I’m in that same category.”

As a yeshivah bochur, he wasn’t successful at Gemara; he didn’t seem to have the head for it. During his Eretz Yisrael year, he searched for a more fulfilling experience, and found it in kiruv training under the legendary Rabbi Meir Schuster. He returned to England, married, and joined the Glasgow Kollel and earned smichah.

In 1995, he attended a presentation in Gateshead by Rabbi Zvi Zobin. A London native and longtime Jerusalem resident, Rabbi Zobin had developed a unique system for spotting precisely what gets in the way of a student’s progress in picking up reading skills, and created a method of remedial teaching that addresses each area of deficiency (see sidebar).

“I was blown away,” Rabbi Abenson says. Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon, then serving as mashgiach at Gateshead Yeshivah, strongly encouraged him to take Rabbi Zobin’s course, and a year later he held a certificate. Over the next five years he helped clients with reading deficiencies. Then, feeling the kiruv itch, he began to focus more on baalei teshuvah. A turning point came when a baal teshuvah from London asked for help with Gemara. Rabbi Abenson still didn’t believe he himself could learn Gemara properly and felt put on the spot.

“I said I’d get back to him,” he recalls. “Inside, I was devastated. I called Rabbi Zobin, and he told me not to worry; he’d teach me his Gemara method over the phone. At the age of thirty-five, my eyes were opened to a straightforward approach that enabled me to learn, and to teach others. The man from London was amazed at how simple it really was. This is the ikar of learning that we’ve been forgetting: lilmod ul’lameid. Before we go into pilpul, we should be able to make it simple and clear. Every talmid should have the clarity to teach others.”

How is such clarity achieved? Rabbi Abenson’s answer comes readily: Take Shlomo HaMelech’s advice, “Teach the child according to his way.” Give the child basic learning tools, give him time to master them at his own pace, and encourage him to develop his own thinking abilities. Then let him develop his own relationship with the Torah. Do all this without excessive pushing, make sure the child has enough downtime and adequate nutrition, and with Hashem’s help he will blossom.

As a parent and an educator working outside the system, Rabbi Abenson shares some insights: “We’re not letting kids develop as children anymore. We don’t give them enough time to play ball, to jump rope — everything is learning. Our kids are under unnecessary pressure to advance quickly. This kind of pushing comes from non-Jewish sources, and it’s counterproductive. Many children aren’t getting the chance to grasp the basics with full clarity before they’re pushed on to the next phase, and then the next. That generates anxiety, and kids will naturally seek relief from anxiety in pursuits that engage the mind effortlessly and don’t confuse them, such as computer games and Internet.”

Reading Readiness For basic kriah training, Rabbi Abenson’s Shaar HaTalmud program employs the Zobin Method.

“It isn’t a special needs program per se,” he explains. “Basically it is Chazal’s method.”

Rather than addressing “problems,” it aims to give boys or girls what they may never have had — a chance to learn kriah at their own pace. “Usually,” he says, “if the child isn’t already burned out or crushed, clarity can be achieved in about eight sessions.

“Each student we take on is given an in-depth evaluation, in which we pinpoint the underdeveloped skills that are hampering his academic learning, and then we can remediate in a quick and efficient way.” If tangential problems do exist — for example, vision problems or poor motor coordination, which can interfere with reading — they must be diagnosed and treated by the appropriate professional before attempting to teach reading. And sometimes the problem is as simple as the child rushing out of his house without breakfast. Full article will appear in this week’s Mishpacha Magazine.

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  1. The principal of my daughter’s school recently told someone that she knows that they push the kids too much, but the competition among the schools is so great, that if this school would teach the children on a slower more relaxed schedule, she would fall behind other schools.

  2. that is a big bluff .I think they push two hared and the kids cannot deal with the work so pot them in tooters so it is much less kids in the classroom two tech .

  3. in recent years my sons yeshiva pulls each kid out a couple of times a year to be tested with a kriah specialist, to make sure that the child is up to par.

    if they had done this when my oldest was in the lower elementary grades, he may be a different person today.

  4. to #1 and therefore? The principal is speaking to the problem the girls will have later on in high school when they will not be able to keep up with their peers. Why are you making it sound so sinister?

  5. This is a gevaldike advetisement, but shtell zich fur, if it’s true about loshen koidesh, how many kids can read english? They start later, and spend less time on it. And mistumeh even more important, they don’t make an ABC train.

  6. Afriend of mine who gives bar mitzvah lessons says in the past few years he has had kids with reading problems. He never had this before.
    Teachers & principals need to let parents know their kid has a problem & parents have to bite the bullet & get help & not worry about the stigma of needing kriya help. The stigma he’ll have of not being able to read is worse.

  7. commenter #1 is correct, but it should be pointed out that the competition and pressure is caused by parents and parents only. Those very same parents who complain about the pressure, would never send their child to a school which is known for less pressure. You can’t blame the schools for raising the scholastic standards, when they look around and see that the schools known for the highest scholastics are the schools where everyone is clamoring to get in (even students that are not as bright), and the schools that have less pressure are the schools that have poor enrollment, and often end up closing up.

  8. I think its amazing with what Rabbi Abenson is doing. If only people would see how much kids are suffering today, situation would be so much better!

  9. attn tls: Please if you are going to run such an article give us contact info. Reading about this doesn’t help if we can’t get a hold of the man.

  10. I have been to Rabbi Abenson already and it was very successful.
    It is amazing how quick and simple he fixed up my skills. I am very upset with the American Torah system who made me suffer and made me feel like a brainless child with no hope in my studies. I feel very strongly that the school system must be changed.I have seen so many girls off the derech and I am sure a lot of it is due to what I went through. I thank the Lakewood scoop for allowing such a wonderful article to be published. I humbly refer to Rabbi Abenson as a Godol in my eyes. My wish would be that if Rabbi Abenson could be in all the schools. I give him much Hatzlocha and many more years to come.

  11. A 20 yr old Yeshiva bochur from Gateshead Yeshiva Gedolah. One day my Maggid Shiur tells me that my reading was not up to required level. He recommended me to get in contact with Rabbi Dovid Abenson. Rabbi Abenseon was able to identify in a matter of SECONDS that I was pronouncing words with Ashkenazic and Sephardic pronunciation. After the consultation with Rabbi Dovid Abenson for 3 weeks 30 minutes a day he put in the right direction. I must tell you that NOBODY in my 14 years has never picked up on this. This was due to having different teachers from all different backgrounds.

    I have just finished the course in Mishnayos and I really get enjoyment out of learning that I have been during the last year and a half and this was only a matter of two weeks with all material that I needed to know inorder to learn a Mishna.

    To sum up this I personally grateful to Hashem that we have such a remarkable outstanding caring person in the Torah Education that ACTUALLY KNOWS WHAT HE IS TALKING ABOUT and not like most(not if all) Torah educator(s) that can’t tell between a Chumash and a Gemorah !

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