The View From my Inbox | Rabbi Dovid Abenson

I frequently receive heartrending emails in response to my articles that illustrate what is missing in our education system, and the incredible suffering this causes. Here is just a small sample of first-hand accounts that should speak for themselves.

Ayala* is a convert to Judaism, an idealistic and honest seeker of truth. “My entire being only wanted to serve Hashem….all I ever wanted was for my family to embrace a path of truth/emes”. Now, tragically she feels rejected by the yeshiva system that she wholeheartedly embraced. Her son Dovid, who was raised as a frum Jew from babyhood was a sweet and sensitive boy. As a young child Ayala describes how he would walk around the house kissing mezuzzos, how his davening was meticulous. He would invest great efforts to ensure every word to be perfect.

Sadly, this sweet sensitive boy became easy prey for bullies. Ayala was torn between wanting to trust in the rebbeim, who in her eyes were the direct representatives of Torah and Yiddishkeit, and wanting to protect her son. She appealed to the school many times to intervene. She changed schools but to no avail. It appeared the more religious the institution the more he was misunderstood and bullied. This continued until his last days in Yeshiva.

What this heartbroken mother found particularly galling was the fact that she somehow expected more of frum kids and their rebbe. She acknowledges that maybe her son would have been bullied in any school, Jewish or not. Some kids are never able to develop that tough shell and kids, sensing vulnerability, can be cruel. But frum children, who are explicitly taught and raised to love their fellow Jew, rebbeim striving to uphold the Torah values, does not jive with her experience of “yeshivos throwing away children like garbage”

Maybe, Ayala wonders, if Torah was taught with love and sensitivity, maybe if teaching was more individualized to respect that not everyone can fit into the same square box, maybe if the rebbeim had taken the time to find out who her son truly is — how sensitive and caring, and thoughtful, and creative, how he would never want to hurt a soul, how tuned-in he was to the pain of others, how pained he would be if an injustice is done — maybe if they had cared enough, then maybe, just maybe, he would not have turned to drugs.

Meir* grew up in Boro Park and he wrote to me of his experience in a prestigious yeshiva in Flatbush.

“On the first day of first grade, the rebbe began teaching us Bereishis, in Yiddish, even though this was not a chasidish school by any means.

Rebbe: Bereishis: “in unfong”

Me: rebbe what does “in unfong”mean?

Rebbe: quiet! we do not explain the Heilige Torah in English.

It was not until 3rd grade that Meir finally got a tutor who translated the holy Torah for him into a language he could understand. Meir was a thinker and a questioner, but his questions were met with ridicule, a frask across the face, a ruler slam to the knuckles. For example: “Rebbe, why is it considered modern to wear a leather kippah, what kind of kippah did Moshe Rabbeinu wear?” FRASK! “Go to the principal’s office!”

Meir endured twelve years of this “yeshivah”. His parents tried to instill normal Jewish values into him, but between 10 hours of school and another 10 hours for sleep in each twenty-four hour period, there was only so much they could do. Meir eventually married and they moved to Lakewood to be close to family and to try to find their way.

“My wife would wear her very modest snood on Shabbos, while all the women in their $3,000 custom wigs and $1000 Bug-a-Boo strollers would make snide remarks about how she should go find a “more modern community to live in.”

Unfortunately but perhaps not surprisingly Meir is no longer frum.

Shlomo’s* kids were all well-behaved, straight-A students yet were not able to escape the ire of the rebbe or the misguided principal who in their father’s words “nearly tortured them out of Yiddishkeit”. In sixth grade his long-legged son moving a foot so much as an inch out of the square tile under the desk would earn a slap.

Of course, parents complained to the principal about the violent rebbe, he would reply with statements like “the rebbe doesn’t really have good bein odom l’chaveiro” or “the rebbe doesn’t really like children.” When they pushed to have him dismissed, the principal replied: “I can’t take his parnassa away.” The principal is a great fundraiser but apparently clueless about education. So long as the classroom is being “managed”, the rebbe is doing a great job, regardless of whether the kids are happy or learning well.

Shlomo quietly skipped one of his more sensitive sons ahead a grade as this son was getting very upset witnessing so much in-class bullying from the rebbe. The rebbe was so incensed that he quit teaching and went back to his previous career (which interestingly enough had been schechting chickens). The principal was livid and took his anger out on the boy for the rest of his time in the school.

According to Shlomo, the rebbeim at this yeshiva, who is in charge of transmitting the joy and beauty of Torah to impressionable young neshamos, have no training and no supervision. Moreover, as he points out, they get paid so little, that half to two-thirds of their livelihood is earned outside the classroom, where they charge $40-80 per hour to teach children the lessons that they should have learned in the classroom! As such, there are those rebbeim that don’t really value what they do in the classroom except as a means of acquiring more of their own talmidim as tutorial clients.

Devorah* wrote that her son attended a very “chashuvah” school where all the Roshei Yeshiva sent their sons. There was a major problem with bullying in this school. At five years old her son would get kicked by big boys just for standing on the playground. During his time in this institution, he was beaten up, had his head knocked against a locker, was hung from a hook, had his snack stolen, had his Torah cards were taken by extortion, and more. It wasn’t just the students. The 1st-grade rebbe would hit the boys on the head if they couldn’t teitsch properly. This boy developed headaches which he still suffers from when having to do any kind of learning: Limmudei Kodesh or secular. Hitting students was standard practice for rebbeim and the Rosh Yeshiva.

There was a lot of pressure in this yeshiva to “shteig away”. The yeshiva was interested in making gedolim. But many boys had learning disabilities or were just not top learners, and they suffered. Many boys, feeling angry or inadequate that they couldn’t meet the yeshiva’s high expectations, would take it out on other kids. Hence, the large proponent of bullies in the school. Others are more sensitive, rather than turning against others, they internalize it.

“That was my beautiful tzaddik of a son,” writes Devorah, “We are only fortunate that our son did not turn to drugs, like so many other lovely frum children. I daven to Hashem every day to bring back my child to the beauty of Torah and mitzvos.”

*not the real name

I hope the above stories will make an impact and change my inbox forever.

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Rabbi Dovid Abenson can be contacted at: Tel. 15147393629, Cell/Whatsapp 15149935300. Email: [email protected]. Rabbi Abenson is the founder and director of ShaarHatalmud, a unique yeshivah-based online program, which incorporates learning all Kodesh subjects, from Kriah all the way up to learning Gemara, Rishonim, and Shulchan Aruch. He also conducts evaluations, remediation, and training, and consults with Roshei HaYeshiva and Menahelim to improve students’ underdeveloped learning and textual skills.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Nailed it. Had the same thoughts since the beginning of the lockdown. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that I understand Hashem’s plans, but if I ran a mosad, that’s definitely the message I would take. Also interesting is the amount of parents who reported that their children with all kinds of academic and behavioral issues were doing a lot BETTER at home during the lockdown. Do the math.

  2. All his articles are the same. The Yeshivos are always wrong and if someone says that his problems are from the yeshiva, it is accepted unchecked.
    I agree that every Yeshiva has some problems and some yeshivas have many problems, but most yeshivas and most mechanchim are good people doing the right thing, even if some people would rather blame others for their problems and yeshivas are the path of least restriction.

  3. Articles like this have been appearing for at least the past 25 years (as far as I remember).
    Since then, a lot has changed.
    Spanking children is almost non-existent.
    Bullying is a problem that many schools have begun addressing.
    There is much more awareness of learning disabilities.
    There is much more of an acceptance of different styles of learning.
    What do you think they talk about at every mechanchim conference?
    What more do you want from the schools?

Comments are closed.