Sunday, Sep 26, 2021

Returning To School With Some Help From The Experts

Returning to school in the fall is always challenging. New teachers, sometimes new schools, and the aftermath of camp experiences all factor into creating a hopefully successful year. This year, with all the uncertainties of the Covid world, the anxiety level for both teachers and students is likely to be much higher than in the past. With the new “Delta variations” of the pandemic raging in many places, some governors pledging mask-renewals and unpredictability permeating the air, there seems to be a grave danger of total bewilderment becoming the dominant atmosphere of upcoming chinuch. The specter of Zoom classes hangs above both teachers and students alike, with the mutual worry that the classroom will once again become as impersonal and sterile as was much of the last year and a half. Since we all know that this is not under our control – the lessons of Elul reminding us that Hashem is the only One who is in charge – parents and teachers alike have wondered out loud how to approach the days and months ahead. It is true that the coming situation is a bit indeterminate, but after eighteen months, we are all somewhat experienced with this scene. What, indeed, should be our game plan and strategy?

After the obvious and perennial answers of tefillah, bitachon and emunah, I came across some practical wisdom from an expert. Reading about Rav Osher Lemel Ehrenreich, the dean of Bais Yaakov of Boro Park, who was recently niftar, I was struck by two piercing lines from which I believe both teachers and parents could benefit.

First, let me note that I was privileged to have known Rabbi Ehrenreich during my years as a menahel and indeed often learned from his generous sharing of his vast experience. Secondly, my family will always be grateful for his kindness and example when my rebbetzin attended Bais Yaakov of Boro Park. Rabbi Ehrenreich was a practical hands-on principal who knew how to resolve the day-to-day problems that are the bread and butter of every principal. But he also kept in mind those “forever moments” which were so crucial to him. He often reminded everyone that a student might forget a particular Rashi or Ramban, but would never forget a moment of kindness and caring. On the flip side, he made sure never to take the risk that a student would be left with a bad memory for life, which could send her over the precipice at a moment of weakness or nisayon.

Let’s explore this vignette of Rabbi Ehrenreich’s for our current situation. I once told a story at the Agudah convention which I was criticized by some for relating. “You should have saved that for the Torah Umersorah convention,” one listener sharply said to me. Fortunately for me, one of the gedolim at the convention thanked me for sharing the anecdote so that it could be honestly discussed. The sad tale was that of a young lady who asked a powerful hashkafah question in class. The teacher, who was probably ill-equipped to deal with the issue and felt threatened, did not react to the challenge well. She asked the class how many girls agreed with Baila’s (name changed) “public school question.” After a few more insults, she dropped the subject, but the damage had been done. This wonderful girl was on a trajectory that led her way off the derech. Years later, she discovered that one of the great meforshim had actually raised her point, and amidst tears mixing pain and joy, she realized that it was the teacher who was at fault, not the Torah. She eventually became a kollel wife and raised a beautiful Torah family. That teacher, who was of course far from typical of the sensitive and wonderful majority, besides numerous other errors, never thought of Rabbi Ehrereich’s “forever moments.” She therefore injected a sense of failure, hatred and rejection into a sensitive young soul. The school wasn’t Rabbi Ehrenreich’s Bais Yaakov, but it could have happened anywhere, and this is certainly a good time to make sure none of us fall into that terrifying trap.

Making the assumption that this may not be an ideal year from a technical chinuch standpoint and the memories of the past year may not be that perfect either, it behooves us all to think of nitzchiyus, not temporally, superficially or with shallowness. One place to begin for all of us (full disclosure: I’m still in the classroom too) is the Gemara (Shabbos 119b) which teaches that “Al tig’u b’meshichoy – Do not touch my anointed ones” refers to the schoolchildren. Rashi explains that schoolchildren are referred to as anointed ones because “it is customary to anoint children with oil.” The Maharal interprets Rashi’s words to mean that just as a vessel gains kedusha by being anointed with oil, so do children have the great potential for becoming vessels of holiness if we treat them properly and carefully. Indeed, one of the most revered and sacred words in the Jewish lexicon is Moshiach, because the Anointed One will, G-d willing, bring about all the positive changes for which Klal Yisroel has been waiting for millennia. If we think of each of our children and students in these terms of eternal and infinite possibilities, it would truly be impossible to hurt any of them even unintentionally. On the contrary, every one of them would leave our classrooms and eventually their childhood homes, knowing and believing that they and they alone can change the world for the better.

The second of Rabbi Ehrenreich’s chinuch chiddushim was his oft-quoted lament that “in previous generations, you learned a mussar sefer because you were worried about how you were going to remain an ehricher Yid. Today you need a mussar sefer to make us want to be an ehricher Yid.” The distinction between the generations is a subtle but all-important one. Whereas once upon a time, there were certain truisms that could be taken for granted, these days there are no certainties at all. The posuk says, “There is no home where there is no casualty” (Shemos 12:30). This has often been applied to the spiritual state of even the most spiritually successful of groups and chevros. Rabbi Ehrenreich recognized that although each child has that limitless potential, they also concomitantly face hitherto unheard-of distractions and temptations. Chinuch today therefore has to provide constantly more exciting and innovative alternatives to the allurements of the street and beyond. Whether back on Zoom, G-d forbid, or hopefully in person, we must be ever more entertaining, inspiring and relevant in every lesson and personal encounter with a student.

Another gem that we can extract from Rabbi Ehrenreich’s wise words echoes a maamar of my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner. In his presentation to the Torah Umesorah conference of principals which Rabbi Ehrenreich attended, Rav Hutner (last maamar of Pachad Yitzchok on Shavuos, printed in Yiddish) defined the special position of mechanchim and moros in the post-Churban Europa world. He cited the posuk of “Im totzie yokor mizolel kefi tihiyeh – If you will bring forth that which is precious from that which is cheap, you will be as My mouth” (Yirmiyah 15:19). Rav Hutner explained that once upon a time, there was a clear mesorah from one generation to the next, as Pirkei Avos delineates at the very beginning, “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Yehoshua.” That mesorah continued unbroken for millennia. However, after six million Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis yemach shemom, the mesorah was gone. Hashem promises that if the teachers of that era of survivors undertake to teach the “lost generation,” they themselves will become like the “mouth of Hashem.” This promise from our Creator should be the greatest source of chinuch to all teachers who are still attempting to fill the gap in mesorah which often separates rebbi and talmid and morah and talmidah. The power that is given to every teacher who elects to fill the gap is that they will be invested with the power of Hashem Himself, kevayachol.

Teachers who must imbue their students with the will and the yearning to be part of the mesorah, to be filled with the glory of their yichus, to be excited with every new posuk, Mishnah and halacha, will suddenly find that they are eloquent, inspiring and capable beyond their wildest dreams. This was Rav Hutner’s promise and Rabbi Ehrenreich’s dream. After months of chinuch gaps and the inability to do justice to our noble mesorah, Rav Hutner and Rabbi Ehrenreich should be our guides and inspiration in the year ahead, when our little Moshichim absorb the delicious and elevating words of our Torah Hakedoshah in the year 5782, besiyata diShmaya.

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