OPINIONS ON JEWISH EDUCATION
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 email@example.com.
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
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
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,
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.