Archive for category Education and Parenting
In Memoriam — Rav Ephraim Oratz z”l
Posted by Yonason Goldson in Education and Parenting on December 1, 2015
How do you start to describe the one person most responsible for launching you on the path that has defined you for nearly a quarter century?
I never had any great desire to be a classroom teacher until I found myself under the tutelage of Rabbi Ephraim Oratz, whose unparalleled pedagogic genius and vast reservoir of Torah knowledge inspired me to embark upon my career as a rebbe. Whatever I have accomplished in the field of Torah education is primarily because of him.
Rav Oratz was — if I may be permitted to use the term — the ultimate Torah-Renaissance man. He possessed the passion of the Amshinover chassidim, theyekkishe precision of the German Jews, the academic discipline of the Lithuanian scholars, and the worldly nobility of Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch, all rolled up — as Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelovitz would say — into one selfless, total servant of the Almighty.
Rav Oratz was truly of the old school, with countless stories about growing up in the post-depression years, about learning and teaching in the old American day school system, about playing stickball on the streets of New York. He told me once how his father had to go out every Monday morning to find new employment, because his Sabbath-observance cost him his job time and time again. More incredibly, Rav Oratz didn’t learn of this until years later; his parents kept the children in the dark so they wouldn’t feel insecure.
In our coddled generation, that kind of mesiras nefesh — self-sacrifice — is almost entirely forgotten.
Coddling was one term absent from Rav Oratz’s educational lexicon. He understood with every fiber of his being that self-esteem is not given, it is acquired by learning discipline and discovering the joy that comes from struggle and success. He never acknowledged good work with exuberant cries of excellent, fantastic, or well done. Instead he responded with a silent nod, a quick smile, a short nu, nu or, on one extraordinary occasion, with not bad, not bad at all. That was high praise indeed.
Rav Oratz would arrive exactly two minutes before each class, replace his hat with his yarmulke in one smooth, practiced motion, then look inscrutably around the room, which was usually less than half full when it was time to begin. On one occasion, when there were only two of us present on time, he looked at me and asked, “Is something else going on this evening?”
I shrugged my shoulders. Rav Oratz shook his head. “Just one of those things I guess I’ll never understand,” he said.
There weren’t many things Rav Oratz didn’t understand. In two years of classes I never heard him unable to answer a question, although he could hold his tongue indefinitely when he wanted us to come up with the answers on our own.
“Wouldn’t you have hated to have him as a rebbe?” a member of the Ohr LaGolah leadership-training program once commented — after Rav Oratz was safely out of earshot.
“Wouldn’t you love to have had him as a rebbe now?” I shot back.
There’s nothing more inspirational than witnessing a true master do something as well as it can be done. Watching Rav Oratz teach made me want to be a teacher. That was it. My course in life was set, without prompting, without a sales pitch, with just enough encouragement to convince me that I could succeed if I put my heart into it. And I wanted nothing more than to do what he could do, even if I did it only half as well he could.
NOW IN PRINT!
Posted by Yonason Goldson in Culture, Education and Parenting, Philosophy on October 5, 2014
A collection of insightful Torah essays that will change the way you look at the world and at yourself.
A Crucible for Silver
Forging a brighter future for our children and ourselves
By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
Read the title essay here.
Available at Block Yeshiva High School, the Kollel bookstore, or from the author
$18 Donation (+ $3 postage)
All proceeds go to Block Yeshiva
Building character and acquiring a civil tongue
Posted by Yonason Goldson in Culture, Education and Parenting on July 25, 2014
Published on Hubpages.com
In 1972, comedian George Carlin made headlines with his routine “7 words you can never say on television.” And although the FCC still limits what can be broadcast over the airways, the rise of cable TV long ago ensured that you can say – or hear, or see – just about anything on television.
But even this doesn’t show how much standards of refinement have changed.
Older readers will remember Johnny Carson, the legendary host of the Tonight Show whose 30-year tenure preceded that of Jay Leno. But not so many remember Mr. Carson’s predecessor, Jack Paar, and fewer still will recall why he left the show.
In the opening monologue one night, Mr. Paar uttered the expression “W.C.,” a mostly-forgotten anachronism meaning Water Closet, yet another anachronism meaningbathroom. The censors bleeped the term as profane. Mr. Paar quit the show in protest.
The story strikes as comical, and we can’t help rolling our collective eyes at the overzealous censors who couldn’t tell real profanity from the merely indelicate. But when it comes to values, we can’t escape the inevitable objection: who gets to decide where to draw the line?
And so, too often, no line gets drawn at all. That’s not good for us. And it’s even worse for our children. Because what gets lost with the line is something that was once called character.
New book on Torah education and the modern world
Posted by Yonason Goldson in Education and Parenting, Jewish Unity, Philosophy on June 11, 2014
WE NEED YOUR HELP!
I hope you’ve had an opportunity to enjoy my last book, Celestial Navigation. Besides offering deeply thoughtful insights into the cycle of Jewish holidays, this project has raised over $11,000 for Block Yeshiva High School. But this was only possible through the generous sponsorships that enabled us to print and distribute 4000 copies.
A Crucible for Silver
Forging a brighter future for ourselves and our children
Not only has Block Yeshiva consistently turned out the highest caliber of spiritually and professionally successful graduates for 35 years; it is also one of the last high schools in the country that tailors its academic program to every type of Jew without compromising educational quality or halachic standards.
At a time when so many factions of our community have become more and more polarized, the continued success of schools like Block is increasingly difficult as well as increasingly crucial for the survival of both civil society and the relevance of Jewish tradition.
Honor a family member, friend, rabbi, or teacher with a full-page tribute for $2500 or more, or a partial-page tribute for $1000 or more. All sponsors of $100 or more will be acknowledged, and every sponsor of $36 or more will receive a complimentary copy.
You can read the title essay here.
Thank you for your support. Please contact me through the form below with any questions or to be a sponsor.
Who is honored…?
Posted by Yonason Goldson in Education and Parenting on April 4, 2014
I am honored to learn that I will be recognized at this year’s Block Yeshiva Scholarship Gala, acknowledging my 18 years of service to the school. Mostly, it has been my privilege to be part of an institution that can justifiably claim so much success: our students and alumni consistently strike a beautiful and delicate balance between Torah and secular culture, between the spiritual and the material worlds, and between meticulous observance of Torah law and development of moral character. Perhaps our greatest shortcoming has been our limited success in highlighting all we have achieved.
To learn more about Block, take a look at our blog.
For gala reservations and ad journal tribute opportunities, click here.
Double Down for Spiritual Success
Posted by Yonason Goldson in Culture, Education and Parenting, Philosophy on February 12, 2014
By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
From last week’s Mishpacha Magazine
It’s been more than a few decades since grade school, and most of my teachers have long ago faded from memory. But not my first-grade teacher. Not Mrs. Campbell.
The reason is simple: I hated her. We all hated her.
My second-most poignant memory of Mrs. Campbell is the time I came to her during recess with a stomachache bad enough to make me cry. Mrs. Campbell said it was my conscience bothering me for talking during class.
But it is a different incident that replays most often in my memory. Mrs. Campbell had left the class alone for a few minutes while she went off to do who-knows-what, instructing us to wait without talking until she returned. How an experienced teacher could leave a room full of six-year-olds unattended and expect them to remain silent remains an unsolved mystery. Predictably, we began chattering the moment the door closed behind her and then, too late, buttoned our collective lips the instant she reappeared.
“I said that no one should talk while I was gone,” she scolded. “Now, when I dismiss you for lunch, everyone who was talking will remain seated and only those who followed directions will stand up to be excused.” She paused to let the instructions sink in, then said, “Stand up to go to lunch.”
Every single child in the room stood up. Everyone, except me.
Mrs. Campbell then broke character and did what any competent educator would do. “Now I know that Jonathan wasn’t the only one talking,” she said. “Since he told the truth, he is excused for lunch and the rest of you will have to wait.”
I tried not to look smug as I walked out alone and headed for my locker, already imagining the day when I would tell my children about the time I was the only one who told the truth. (Eventually I did, although my kids were not nearly as impressed as they ought to have been.)
Full disclosure: I am not George Washington, and if I were ever caught chopping down a cherry tree it’s an even bet I would have lied about it, to go along with the assortment of fibs I told during my formative years. And although I now look back on Mrs. Campbell with a measure of affection, the question that continues to resurface is why – why was I the only one out of two dozen first-graders who refused to lie that afternoon?
Only one explanation has ever come to mind: it just wasn’t worth it.
In Robert Bolt’s masterful drama A Man for all Seasons, Sir Thomas More asks why his protégé, Richard Rich, has testified falsely to condemn Sir Thomas for treason against the King of England. The prosecutor, Oliver Cromwell, reports that Rich has been appointed attorney-general for Wales.
Sir Thomas looks into Rich’s face with pain and amusement and replies, “For Wales? Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . But for Wales!”
(In terms of prestige, the office of attorney-general for pre-Elizabethan Wales might be comparable to lieutenant-governor of North Dakota today.)
In other words, the betrayal of a friend and mentor might be understandable – if not defensible – for a princely sum or extraordinary power, but never for a pittance. At least let the reward be commensurate with the crime when forsaking one’s portion in the World to Come.
I imagine the workings of my own mind so many years ago in much the same way. Certainly I was capable of lying. But why waste a perfectly good lie on such a trivial advantage as a few extra minutes on the playground? It simply wasn’t worth it.
And even though I have already confessed to the occasional untruth, I cannot deny that from that moment forward lying never came easy to me. Every impulse to prevaricate met a quiet but insistent voice – Mrs. Campbell’s? – warning me to distance myself from the nearest false word.
In hindsight, it seems obvious that Mrs. Campbell had reinforced some innate sensitivity to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s lesson of s’char mitzvah k’neged hefseida: “Calculate the reward of a transgression against its cost” (Avos 2:1). If that lesson appears to have grown increasingly incomprehensible to our generation, quite possibly it is because we can no longer appreciate the preceding lesson, “Calculate the cost of a mitzvah against its reward.”
In his classic essay on the nekudas habechirah – the point of free will – Rav Dessler explains that the clash between yetzer hara and yetzer tov rages on the battlefront where there is an even balance between the ratzon ha’emes and the ratzon hadimyon, between our perception of truth as it is and our perception of truth as we want it to be. For those of us willing to take a cold, hard look at ourselves, Rav Dessler’s formulation offers a solid defense against the relentless erosion of priorities.
The unpleasant truth is that we give far too little thought to either the value of our mitzvos or the consequences of our transgressions. If we did, would we consistently scurry into davening even five minutes late, let alone stroll in halfway through Pesukei D’zimra? Would we find trivial small talk so compelling that we casually interrupt Chazaras Hashatz and Torah reading, indifferent to the warnings of Shulchan Aruch?
Too often, we are utterly disconnected from the lessons that are right before our eyes. Pictures of the Chofetz Chaim hang in every house without making a perceptible dent in the steady flow of lashon hara. Shammai tells us to greet every person pleasantly, yet we can’t manage a smile or even a passing glance for either our gentile neighbors or our fellow Jews.
Even when we prevail over the temptation, our victories can be hollow. We make time for learning, but we neglect the review necessary to retain what we learn. We pay for our children’s Torah education, but we begrudge the expense, even though we would willingly lay out the same money for luxuries of no intrinsic value. We sacrifice to give charity, but we bristle or sigh when a knock on the door interrupts our dinner or our recreation.
Clearly, our vision of the emes is anything but clear. What can we do to regain clarity?
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah offers this allegory:
A man went to the pond to cut a bundle of reeds. It was too heavy for him to lift, so he cut more and laid the new bundles atop the first until someone came along and helped him carry them all (Bechoros 8b).
Explains the Vilna Gaon: Because the Jewish people neglected the Torah, they found themselves exiled from their land. Nevertheless, we – their descendants – persevere in keeping the mitzvos. Despite the added hardships of exile, we shoulder the additional burdens of rabbinic mitzvos – like the reed-cutter adding to his load even though he cannot carry what he already has – all the time waiting for Moshiach to redeem us so that we can resume our proper service before the Master of All.
We have to refocus so that we see things as they really are. And, simplistic as it may seem, the way to take things more seriously is to treat things more seriously. Can’t get to davening on time? Schedule your arrival 15 minutes early to say korbanos or the day’s Tehillim. Feel too strapped to give charity? Double your usual donation.
When approached by a simple Jew who claimed he had only half an hour a week to learn Torah, Rav Yisroel Salanter famously advised him to learn mussar (works of Torah ethics). The baal habayis questioned why Talmud or practical law was not a higher priority, to which Rav Yisroel replied: “Learn mussar, and you’ll find that you have more than half an hour available to learn.”
In other words, by putting in more effort we discover what we should have known all along: it’s worth it.
And it really works. Taking my cue from Rabbi Benzion Twerski of Milwaukee, I began giving a weekly class in prayer, hoping that my own uninspired davening might benefit from the course of study. Five years and 35 printed outlines later (and still less than halfway through Shemoneh Esrei), my davening has been transformed into a wholly different experience.
And the rewards extend vastly beyond my own tefillos.
On one occasion, when my son was a high school senior, I chided him for the supersonic pace at which he davened. “You don’t understand,” he replied. Then, derisively: “You like to daven!”
But the message got through. Imagine my delight when he informed me, a few short years later, that he had just switched to the local Agudah for morning minyan. “That other place davens way too fast,” he complained.
Now there’s a story I can tell his children.
A Matter of Respect
Posted by Yonason Goldson in Culture, Education and Parenting on February 11, 2014
In memory of my father, Yochanon ben Yaakov, whose neshoma left this world on Rosh Chodesh Adar. Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 17 June 2001.
I was ten or twelve years old. My father and I had arrived at the stadium early, and I felt a thrill of excitement as we stood up for the Star Spangled Banner. Down on the field, our home team, the Los Angeles Rams, stood in a line holding their helmets under their arms. And in the row in front of us, a middle-aged man stood with his hat perched casually upon his head.
“Take off your hat,” my father said.
The man didn’t respond. “Hey you,” my father said, louder, “take off your hat.”
The man grunted an unintelligible, though clearly dismissive remark.
“You unpatriotic SOB,” growled my father; he didn’t abbreviate, either.
“Dad!” I whispered, mortified and afraid, but also faintly confused. My father had never before demonstrated any dramatic displays of patriotism.
The national anthem ended, the game began, and I guess I forgot about the incident because I never discussed it with my father, never asked him to explain an indignation that seemed entirely out of character.
But now I’m a father myself, and I don’t find my father’s action thirty years ago perplexing at all.
Handle with care
Posted by Yonason Goldson in Education and Parenting, Philosophy on October 16, 2013
Published in Mishpacha Magazine, 9 October 2013
Returning from a tour of Europe in the 1930s, the American humorist Will Rogers reported on the governments that had sprung up out of the chaos that followed World War I. Among his observations was this comment regarding the newly established Soviet Union: “In Russia, they got no income tax. But they also got no income.”
Given more time, Mr. Rogers might have had a chance to observe how government-imposed poverty affects the moral fabric of a country and its people.
I was able to witness those effects for myself, up close and personal, in 1993. That was the year my wife and I taught high school in Budapest, Hungary.
We had been warned what to expect, and had been told anecdotally of a soap factory in which dozens of workers colluded with management to dilute the soap formula by adding 3% water. The result was the production of an extra 30 bars of soap per thousand, which were divvied up among the employees to be sold on the black market.
The proletariat living in the communist bloc “workers’ paradise” were thereby able to supplement an annual income that supported them for only a fraction of the year. And if an average bar of soap lasted only 33 days instead of 34, who was going to notice?
Arriving after nine years in Israel, my wife and I discovered that the Talmudic classification of tinok she’nishba – a kidnapped child raised in a society of thieves (Shavuos 5a) – is far more than a theoretical construct. The children we met, who had grown up behind the Iron Curtain with little exposure to basic moral values, were frightening examples of their environment. An alarming percentage of them had raised lying, stealing, and cheating to the level of high art.
Click here to read the whole article.
Why we are unhappy
Posted by Yonason Goldson in Culture, Education and Parenting, History, Philosophy, Weekly Parsha on May 28, 2013
The Israelites have been showered with benefits — and now the complaints begin.
The Jewish people are in possession of a perfect and comprehensive system of laws which is destined to have a tremendous positive influence on their spiritual, intellectual, and cultural development. Livelihood is no problem; all their physical needs are provided, and their food descends miraculously from the heavens daily. And then “it came to pass that the people were like complainers, evil in the ears of G-d.”
The verse doesn’t specify what their complaint was; in fact it implies that they didn’t say anything specific. They were “like complainers,” murmuring discontentedly under their breath, showing vague feelings of dissatisfaction. They felt what they had was no good anymore; they wanted more, although they themselves had no clear idea of what “more” exactly they wanted. Whatever the case, this state of mind indicated a lack of gratitude, giving rise to a sense of deprivation. To put it bluntly, they were whining.
What caused them to whine? The Sages’s answer is incisive:
“They weren’t complaining; rather they were resentful. They were looking for an excuse to break away from G-d” (Yalkut Shimoni, Bamidbar 732).
Several verses later, we see another outbreak of grumbling:
“And the riffraff among them started having strong cravings.”
Again, we aren’t told what they craved. They were experiencing discomfort; they felt something was lacking, but didn’t know what. One thing was clear: they were not satisfied.
Only after this mood of discontent spread, encompassing a larger portion of the people, did their demands take on a definite form:
“And the Israelites, too, sat down and wept, and they said, ‘Who will give us meat to eat?’”
At that moment, the craving for meat became the central goal, the be-all and end-all for the people of Israel, those same people whom G-d lifted out of Egypt in order to bestow a unique, eternal legacy. But they talked themselves into a craving, and to fulfill that craving, they needed to agitate with all their might. This became their raison d’être, revealing their weak nature.
The craving for meat distorted their mental function; it clouded their memories, causing them to make claims that a person would be ashamed to voice under normal conditions. What were they saying?
“We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.”
What sort of mechanism was at work here? Is there a logical explanation for their behavior?
The secret of all this is found in the world chinam — “free.” It was a Freudian slip, pointing to what was really bothering them on a deeper level, the real complaint they were ashamed to talk about. The truth was that they were complaining about the yoke of Torah and mitzvos that had been placed on their shoulders, a yoke meant to restrain their wild human impulses, which had run riot in Egypt, even as they were being enslaved and oppressed. The transition from external subjugation to a state of freedom that required character training and self-restraint was too much for them. It made them feel rebellious and conjured up fanciful memories of the delights of Egypt and the fish they ate there for free.
Yes, it was absurd of them to be demanding meat when they had manna from the heavens, offering them the taste of every food in the world. But when the source of their rebellion, the subconscious rationale underlying it, is revealed, then their behavior becomes comprehensible — and considering where they came from, even understandable.
Perhaps we can see something of ourselves here, something of the permissive society that never stops demanding meat, and destroys all that is good in our world.
Read Rabbi Grylak’s full article here.
The thought police widen their net
Posted by Yonason Goldson in Culture, Education and Parenting on May 23, 2013
Thank you, Glenn Garvin, for paying attention. The Miami Herald columnist reports what the rest of us were too preoccupied to notice:
In an order to the University of Montana that they labeled “a blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country,” Obama’s Justice and Education departments created a sweeping new definition of sexual harassment as “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” including “verbal conduct.”
(Or, as those more familiar with the English language call it, speech.)
Who gets to define “unwelcome”? The listener and the listener alone — no matter how high-strung, neurotic or just plain pinheaded that person is. The feds’ letter is quite explicit: the words don’t have to be offensive to “an objectively reasonable person” to be considered harassment.
Given that standard of guilt, it’s perhaps not very surprising that the government says anybody accused of harassment can be punished even before he or she is convicted.
Mr. Garvin goes on to identify a partial list of authors whose provocative works stand in danger of censorship under these new edicts: Shakespeare, Harper Lee, Tennessee Williams, Robert Frost, and Anne Frank, to name a few. He then continues:
But surely, you say, surely nobody will take the letter of the law to such absurd extremes. And surely you are wrong: They already have. Brandeis University went after a professor for uttering the word “wetback” during a lecture — no matter that he was criticizing its usage.
A janitor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis was disciplined for reading a disapproving book on the Ku Klux Klan. Marquette ordered a graduate student to remove a “patently offensive” quotation by Dave Barry from his door: “As Americans we must always remember that we all have a common enemy, an enemy that is dangerous, powerful, and relentless. I refer, of course, to the federal government.”
So what do we have here? If someone takes offense, even where any “objectively reasonable person” would see no cause for offense, the perpetrator is guilty without recourse to due process or appeal.
In a land of political correctness run amok, feelings are the ultimate currency of social interaction. Reason, logic, intellectual discipline, objective reality — none of these mean a thing if there is the slightest risk of hurt feelings.
Or perhaps there is a deeper fear. Not the pain of hurt feelings, but the pain of having to think, the pain of developing a work ethic, the pain of personal accountability. Apparently, the truism of no pain, no gain applies only in the gym and not in the halls of academe.
Is this really what we want for our children? Is it really what we want for ourselves? Or are those questions simply too painful to think about?
Read Glenn Garvin’s full article here.