I remember that when more than 30 years ago I planned on opening a yeshiva high school and beit midrash/smicha program in Monsey, New York, I went to see Rabbi Ya'acov Kamenecki for advice, guidance and encouragement. Rabbi Kamenecki was not only one of the great Torah and talmudic scholars of his day, but his reputation for honesty, wisdom and practicality was internationally known in the yeshiva world. The Talmud granted certain great men the title of hahimai d'yhudai - the wise man of the Jews. In his generation, Kamenecki bore that title, albeit humbly.
After giving me his blessing for the ambitious project that I was undertaking, he then proceeded to tell me two rules that should govern my approach to Torah (and in fact all) education. The first rule was to always remember that the yeshiva was created for the benefit of its students. Not for the faculty, not for the board of directors, not for the honor of the rosh yeshiva, but exclusively for the benefit of the students. It is the task of the head of the yeshiva to always remember and enforce this rule. In any contest between the welfare of a faculty member and the welfare of the students, the students' best interests should prevail.
He said to me that this rule should operate in hospitals as well, where the welfare of the patient should reign supreme over that of the physicians, the nurses, the administrators and anyone else connected with the facility.
The second rule that he told me to observe was that the yeshiva/school was not to be a "Sodom bed." In Sodom the idea of conformity was paramount. There was a bed that one had to fit into exactly. He would be shortened or lengthened as necessary to make him fit into the bed - Sodom was not a place for individuality or tolerance of the "other." He told me that every student was a yeshiva unto himself and should be treated as such as much as humanly possible.
I tried to fulfill these two rules during my 20 years as head of the yeshiva and many times but not always, I felt that I succeeded. I recently read an article in a Hebrew journal about Rabbi Arye Levin, the great holy man of Jerusalem whose 30th yahrzeit was just recently marked. The writer, currently an upper echelon administrator in one of the school systems, recounted his experience as a boarding-school child in one of Jerusalem's institutions many decades ago. The food served was fairly meager and the young boy was always hungry. One day the institution served chocolate pudding and the boy took his portion and wolfed it down and then got back in line and asked for another portion. The server refused his request with a nasty remark.
Frustrated and angered, the boy then turned over the entire chocolate pudding pot and spilled its contents on the ground. The boy was beaten for the act and the head of the institution publicly reprimanded and humiliated the child. He was told that whether he would be expelled from the institution would be decided on the morrow by Rabbi Arye, the spiritual mentor of the institution. The child spent a sleepless night weeping over his fate.
Next morning he met Rabbi Arye who asked him to sit next to him. He asked him "Did you spill over the pot as they said that you did?" The child admitted his guilt. "Will you do such a thing again in the future?" Rabbi Arye asked. "No, never again," said the child. Rabbi Arye asked him then, "Do you really like chocolate pudding?" "Yes," he answered. Rabbi Arye said, "I too love chocolate pudding so I have here two containers of chocolate pudding so let us sit down here together and eat chocolate pudding." At that moment, the educator said, I realized what it means to be a Torah Jew.
School systems the world over answer to governmental standards, teachers' unions, parents' groups and other assorted groups and personages. All of this layered bureaucracy rarely takes the welfare of the individual student into much consideration. There is no room for chocolate pudding in our school systems. Because of this, schools measure their success on the basis of test scores and other objective criteria. But the individual student does not fit neatly into any objective form of criteria.
How to reach the individual student and build self-esteem should be the main purpose of education. If that is achieved all of the objective accomplishments of knowledge will also follow. Keep your eye on the ball - on the main purpose that education should achieve.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator.