When I was a bochur in yeshiva at the beginning of the ’80s, I was taught that the main focus in learning is shiur and chazara. At that time I considered this approach to be our mesorah and the correct path to follow.
After 30 years of experience teaching children, bochurim and adults and through my work in the field of kiruv, my perspective on the main focus of learning has changed.
Let me explain.
Many times we can find a bochur who writes out a shiur and gets excellent marks on his Gemara tests but yet cannot read and translate the Gemara correctly, nor even a pasuk in Chumash. How can this be? His sharp mind has absorbed information from the rebbe’s shiurim that are based on “feeling the text” but do not rely on any textual skills. Thus the bochur’s high marks obfuscate his lack of foundation skills. Chazara will not help him. Until he acquires foundation skills, he will forever be unable to learn independently.
A 35-year-old FFB once approached me for help with his reading. He told me he would get 100% throughout his yeshiva life in Gemara tests.
“I have a very good head and I could remember everything. Because the weekly test was just to answer the question and not text-based I passed with flying colors.”
I would contend that the failure to address foundation skills has created a global learning crisis. This is affecting all levels of our chinuch system from children through adults, FFB, BT, Kolleleit even Maggidei Shiur, Roshei Yeshiva, and Roshei Kollel.
The Global Learning Crisis
Being in full-time learning does not preclude one from having learning issues. Rabbi D., a Rosh Kollel, confided in me that he could not read accurately. Somehow he was able to side-step this deficiency since most learning consists of talking “outside” and is not text-based.
A lady phoned me up. She told me that her husband has been learning in kollel for ten years and has a chavrusah for three sedarim. On Shabbos, however, he does not open up a sefer to learn. Why? I suggested that perhaps he cannot read and translate. She was perplexed. How could that be? He’s in kollel! I evaluated him. I was 100% correct with his learning issues, which we addressed through my program. Baruch Hashem, he is doing fine now.
A Rosh Yeshiva admitted that he doesn’t encourage the talmidim in his yeshiva to seek help for kriah problems because he cannot read.
A bochur came to see me, sent by his Rosh Yeshiva.”He has not been learning anything in our yeshiva for the past two years,” he claimed. I evaluated the bochur found serious gaps in his foundational textual skills. I gave him a crash course in grammar, Chumash, and Gemara. It took two months. The bochur was so impressed by his improvement that he stayed on in learning. Three years later I received a phone call from the bochur’s father. “My son just got engaged and it’s all because of you, you gave him the skills for life he would not have been where he is today without your help”.
The Importance of Foundational Skills
Sometimes missing foundation skills are at the level of basic reading. Even a tendency to confuse just two letters can generate huge problems in the ability to learn effectively. Reading problems may also be compounded by undetected impaired vision.
A father phoned me up from New York asking me to help his 10-year-old with major learning issues. After the evaluation, I told him his son is not reading well for two reasons. He interchanges letters and it is hard for him to see close up. I recommended that he get his eyes checked by a behavioral optometrist who specializes in close up vision. Only then will I start reading with him. Two weeks later the boy told me: “I can see! It’s amazing!” I worked with the boy for just a few sessions. His rebbe phoned me: “I have been teaching grade 3 for 20 years and I have never seen such a turnaround.
A 16-year-old girl did not like to read Hebrew. For years she had been going to many kriah teachers but to no avail. I was asked to help. During the evaluation, both the girl and her mother were shocked that her letter recognition was very slow. This affected her ability to read syllables, see the roots of words and hence translate words, which she sees as just random conglomerations of letters.
Unsurprisingly these handicaps spilled over into her Rashi reading, which was very poor. She simply did not know many Rashi letters. Of course, she had no appreciation for reading Rashi. She also saw the text as blurred and I had to enlarge it. In school, she was made to learn tables of shorashim and chazer them regularly. But until her vision problems and letter and word recognition issues were addressed, this otherwise valuable activity remained a useless and much-dreaded part of the girls’ learning.
The girls’ mother was dumbfounded. She told me that the school had not detected any of these underdeveloped skills and that none of her 24 teachers had understood her issues until now.
Even when basic letter recognition or kriah skills are in place, other foundation skills, such as translation, grammar or Gemara-comprehension may be lacking.
A Kollel fellow told me: “I have been learning in Kollel for the past ten years and I am losing the happiness in learning I am not getting very much out of my learning. Can you help me?” Impressed that he was able to humble himself and seek help, I asked him if he had any problem with reading. His reading was fine, so we went straight to the Gemara Upgrade Programme. After four sessions, his Gemara skills were dramatically improved. I instructed him to open up any Gemara and follow the steps we had covered in the program. He randomly opened up Masechta Chullin — which he never learned before — and understood with clarity right away. He was amazed.
Pitfalls of Chazara
Whilst the traditional yeshiva system emphasizes chazara as crucial to success in learning, chazara will only work properly if the foundation skills have been adequately acquired. If, by contrast, the student has issues with reading, translation or comprehension, he learns mostly by “feeling the text” see my article click here
In this case, chazara achieves virtually nothing. I would even go a step further and call it bittul Torah, because he is not learning. He is not getting the clarity of the Torah even if he goes over it 100 times.
Indeed acquiring foundational skills — learning how to learn a blatt Gemara or Mishna properly — may reduce the necessity for so much chazara to retain the learning.
A 51-year-old client of mine told me that he generally found it difficult to retain learning for a long period. Through my program, he learned some basic techniques for learning. Thereafter, he was amazed that even without chazara from the previous week’s session, he still remembers the Gemara. As another client put it: “In a few short lessons Reb Dovid Abenson was able to give me an approach to learning that has dramatically shortened the time that I need to understand a piece of Gemara. Instead of being stuck in the trees, I now can achieve a bird’s eye view of the sugya. This turns Gemara away from being a depressing slog into a vibrant, stimulating activity”.
Importance of Early Intervention
A common thread I have seen in all the cases I have dealt with over the years is the tremendous importance of addressing impaired foundational skills as early as possible. Many years of suffering could be avoided if we would detect a lack of foundational skills early on. So many children give up on learning or even go off the derech because of problems that my program can address in a relatively short space of time. But my case studies show that even when remedial work is begun late in life, my programme is extremely successful.
I received this email in 2012 from a client who completed the upgrade courses in Hebrew reading and Gemara:
“I am a 68-year-old frum man who studied in the traditional yeshivas in America all my life. I obtained Smicha and was exempt from the Vietnam War. However, I always had difficulties with my Hebrew reading, consequently translation difficulties which filtered down to struggling when trying to learn Gemara. I always had to have a rebbe to teach me. I felt I just had to accept that this was a fact of life and it was Min HaShomayim. The strange thing was that in English reading, I could read up to 200 words per minute!
“I happened to read in the Mishpacha magazine regarding the unbelievable work of Rabbi Dovid Abenson where he stated he “upgrades all levels of learners and levels of commitment to Yiddishkeit”. I thought I would try seeing if and how he could help me. I was amazed by the diagnostic results of the evaluation he gave me, and after just a few sessions of the reading program, I was able to read!
“He made Gemara learning seem so simple and I got very excited about this. I went and got trained in the program to be able to help others.
“I wish I had had this opportunity 60 years ago! Thank you Rabbi Abenson for giving me a new lease on life!”
My recommendations to all Roshei HaYeshivas, Menahalim, and Principals that it is incumbent on them and their responsibility to make sure that the foundational skills of the talmid/talmidah have been checked. These include reading (see my article on this subject called” the crisis of alef beis click here ) textual skills, translation, and comprehension.
It is always better to address the source of the issue first. Evaluate each student to see if they have any deficiency in their foundation skills which are hampering their learning and then rectify those deficiencies. This will be a permanent solution, rather than a temporary cover-up.
If the Roshei HaYeshivas, Menahalim, and Principals do not know how to evaluate a student to assess foundation skills, they can bring in a trained professional to do so. Modern technology allows this to be done through Skype so the cost will be minimal.
Better yet, train teachers, rebbeim and Roshei Yeshivas to evaluate and help the students themselves. This will create a strong bond between rebbe and talmid. The rebbe will be able to pinpoint his students’ issues and correct them. It will empower mechanchim to reach out and help each talmid with the foundation skills vital to succeed in a Torah life. The student will have the utmost respect and love for him and for the Torah he teaches— the ultimate goal of chinuch.
HaRav HaGaon Rabbi Matisyahu Chaim Salomon shlita
Mashgiach of BMG Lakewood New Jersey USA for his forthcoming sefer on chinuch
חודש חשון תשע“ט לפ“ק
לכבוד ידידי הר“ר דוד אבנסון שליט“א
באתי בזה לברך אותך על הוצאת ספרך החשובה ורב הכמות ורב האיכות הכולל בתוכו הרבה יסודות נחוצים בשדה החינוך, אשר פריו רב הן למלמדיהן לתלמידים ולהורים
ויה“ר שיתקבלו דבריך באהבה,ויזכה להמשיך בעבודתך הק‘ בהרמת קרן התורה ויזכוי הרבים מתוך בריאות הגוף והרבת הדעות
בכבוד רב ובאהבה רבה
A free translation
I hereby offer you my blessing on the publication of your worthy Sefer which entails much breadth and substance and which encompasses essential fundamentals in the field of education- the fruits of your labor will yield substantial benefits to educators, students, and parents.
And may your words be received with love and merit to continue your holy work and elevate the foundation of the Torah. May it be a credit for many with health and ease of mind.
For more information please contact
Rabbi Dovid Abenson
Evaluations / Upgrading / Training
Email: [email protected]
.Reserve your copy of Rabbi Abenson’s new Sefer coming out soon HERE.