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"MeEver LeYam"
Rethinking the Relationship Between
Israeli Yeshivot and Diaspora Schools

by Yitzchak Blau

Rabbi Blau, a Ram at Yeshivat HaMivtar in Efrat, taught at the Yeshiva of Flatbush High School, prior to his aliyah. He has published articles in Tradition and the Torah U-Madda Journal. Rabbi Blau can be contacted directly at

I recently sat at a shalom zakhor where a sincere and generous educator at a post high school yeshiva in Israel commented on how much money is being spent on American yeshiva elementary and high school education and what poor results those financial investments have generated. Although all of my evidence is anecdotal, I believe that this comment reflects a widespread and problematic attitude. There is a feeling that Torah education in American high schools accomplishes next to nothing, and only properly begins when the students arrive in Israel for a year or two of Torah study. To the degree that such an attitude does exist, a counter argument must be put forth, for my experience at both the high school and post-high school level leads me to believe it to be both false and harmful.

Although I have taught at only one yeshiva high school and at only one yeshiva in Israel, the following argument is clearly not limited to the institutions I know from the inside. In the four years that I have lived in Israel, I have visited alumni from the high school at which I taught who are studying at various yeshivot in Israel (the overwhelming majority of my exposure has been to yeshivot for men and this essay focuses on these institutions). This has given me a broader perspective on the year in Israel experience. While I did not have similar broad contact with other yeshiva high schools in America, conversations with my peers lead me to believe that my experiences are not unique.

Before explaining why the aforementioned attitude is false, let me first note that even were it to be true, it is unfair. One would naturally expect greater growth in Torah learning during a year in Israel than during a year of high school because the environments are so radically different. How can one compare the high school environment in which students have half a day of secular studies plus homework, in which the students return each night to homes where limmud Torah is often not a priority, and in which the distractions of TV and other aspects of popular culture are prominent, with the more cloistered total environment of all-day learning, and an atmosphere supportive of becoming or striving to become a talmid hakham. Indeed, if nothing more was accomplished in Israel, there would be cause for concern.

Furthermore, the Israeli yeshivot benefit from two other advantages. They are dealing with eighteen-year-olds that are more mature than the average high school student simply due to the age factor. Secondly, not every yeshiva high school student comes to Israel. While there are numerous reasons why high school graduates come to Israel (some having nothing to do with Torah study), the very fact that a young man opts to come for what he knows will be an intense Torah learning experience, creates a somewhat self-selected population. As a result, the Israeli yeshivot begin with a more interested population by definition. Multiple factors give the Israeli yeshivot a head start from the very beginning.

The above should be reason alone for the Israeli yeshivot to soften their criticism of the yeshiva high schools. It is all too easy for those who sit in the ivory tower to wonder at the lesser success of those who work under more difficult conditions. For example, the decision to learn select sugyot of Gemara rather than learning an entire perek consecutively may seem like a poor educational message to the educator in Israel. However, a high school educator dealing with greater time limitations and a less willing student body might justifiably see the issue very differently. Indeed, those who deal with radically different educational environments should not be quick to condemn the educational decisions of yeshiva high schools.

Until now, I have argued that the criticism of the yeshiva high schools is unfair. More significantly, the criticism is simply not true. The yeshiva high schools are far more successful than usually recognized and the one-year programs in Israel know much more failure than is often admitted. Let us begin with an evaluation of the yeshiva high schools. The standard critique points to the yeshiva high school graduates’ skills at deciphering traditional texts. The critics claim that these skills are very poor.

But is it so clear that this is the case? Anyone who teaches in a one-year program with students from America and England will marvel at how much more advanced the American students are both in terms of general Jewish knowledge and textual skills. Clearly, something has been accomplished while the students are still in yeshiva high school. In fact, the Israeli yeshivot build on this accomplishment, as the American students are often able to progress at a much quicker pace than their British counterparts.

Secondly, the argument for poor textual skills may focus too exclusively on Gemara reading. As is well known, it takes a great deal of time and effort to become adept at independent understanding of Gemara and the hour and a half a day allotted by some yeshiva high schools does not suffice. Yet the conclusion need not be that these yeshiva high schools are mistaken in their time allocation. Many of these schools offer a rich and varied curriculum that incorporates Tanakh, Jewish Philosophy, Halakha, Jewish History and Hebrew. Gemara skills can only be improved at the expense of other aspects of Jewish education and the decision to make such an exchange is not an obvious one. All our students need to know more than just Gemara, and those students who struggle with Gemara, either because of its difficulty or because they do not find it meaningful, need other outlets in which to enjoy hinukh. Indeed, those latter students often struggle to find their place in the one-year programs in Israel.

As we mentioned, the yeshivot in Israel are able to build on the skills building work already done by the high schools. In addition, the yeshivot in Israel benefit from the work done by the yeshiva high schools in another way. Many students in yeshiva high schools are enabled by their teachers to mature, find a sympathetic ear to discuss what bothers them and receive guidance for dealing with personal issues. To the degree that this takes place before the students arrive in Israel, the Israeli yeshivot reap the rewards. It is unfair to take note of those students whose problems seem to have been ignored, while not also expressing gratitude for those students whose high school teachers, through whose years of hard work, enabled them to enjoy a far more productive year in Israel.

As far as the year in Israel goes, I must preface my remarks by saying that these programs have been a wonderful gift to the education of American students and we must energetically encourage our students to learn full time in Israel after high school. However, that does not mean that they are an unmitigated success. If one follows up on the American alumni of any Israeli yeshiva from any given year, one will probably find a few students who are no longer observant, a larger group of students who never open a sefer and a significant group of students unable (even if willing) to read a Gemara on their own. Of course, the Israeli educator might respond that this is the fault of the parents and of the yeshiva high schools. Such a response is patently unfair. If these schools will take sole credit for the successes, they must be prepared to take at least some of the blame for the failures.

The growing popularity of the Israeli one-year programs has also led to a dilution of some of these programs. A sizeable percentage of the students who now come are really not ready for learning all day or for extended beit medrash time, and several yeshivot have had to substitute, to some degree, some “entertainment” for substance. The year in Israel has become much more American, complete with sports leagues and very little interaction with Israelis. The fact that the expanded student body has forced some educational changes into Israeli yeshivot might make one reevaluate the educational decisions made by educators in America dealing with a far broader student body.

I believe it would be more productive for all yeshivot to focus on their own educational issues rather then criticizing the work of others. While the Israeli yeshivot should take great pride in their work, there is no excuse for complacency. Nor should the example they set implicitly encourage students to denigrate students’ previous learning environments. It should be possible to inspire students to new goals in learning without instructing them to completely reject their past.

I am aware that some of the criticism coming from the Israeli yeshivot stems from hashkafic differences. To the degree that an educator views Talmud Torah as the almost exclusive realm of value, that educator will be led to find fault with institutions that do not teach or implement such an approach. Such an educator may well ask why the yeshiva high schools waste time with AP Bio or Model UN when there are more dapim to be covered. To those educators, I can only reply that an honest evaluation of traditional sources will reveal other models with broader perspective on what has religious value.

However, I believe that criticism of yeshiva high schools often comes from those who agree that AP biology does have its place. It is to these educators that this brief essay is addressed. While it may be true that yeshiva high schools should reduce the time allocated to extracurricular activities, this too comes with a cost. Some of these activities, such as Debate Team or Model UN, encourage the students to develop new skills and stimulate interest in research. Even those activities lacking obvious educational value often give the student who is academically weak a chance to shine. Such an opportunity can be an important confidence builder for someone whose every test score assaults that confidence.

No doubt, the yeshiva high schools could improve in numerous areas and they should spend their time thinking of how to improve their programs. Some of the models of the Israeli yeshivot might be transferable on a smaller scale. For example, it should be possible to create a beit midrash atmosphere in a yeshiva high school for the more motivated students. In the spirit of Bava Batra 60b, each educational institution will bring the most benefit to the community by focusing almost exclusively on its own shortcomings-and by striving to reach new heights of excellence.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the thought of ATID, or any other institution. They are presented here out of a conviction that compelling ideas, frankly stated, are an important element in engaging the community of Jewish educators in critical thought about our holy work.

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If you are interested in this topic, you may wish to read "Parent-Child Relationships in the Context of a Year of Study in an Israeli Yeshiva Program" by Dr. Dodi Tobin, click here.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the thought of ATID. They are presented here out of a conviction that compelling ideas, frankly stated, are an important element in engaging the community of Jewish educators in critical thought about our holy work.

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