An Institution Built Around The Child
By Rabbi Yeshaya Weber

On the one hand, education is becoming more developed and organized, with curricula planned ahead of time down to the last detail, learning is on a high level and the environmental conditions are constantly improving. On the other hand, when you look at the child/student – oy! From year to year he decreases in knowledge, in understanding, in his feelings and soul-connection to his learning, and in his motivation to learn. How do these two elements exist simultaneously?

When the Rebbe Rayatz tells us a story about a Nasi, a Rebbe, in addition to the wondrous message of the story itself, there’s a double advantage: 1) the story is about a Nasi and 2) the story is related by a Nasi. In the Rebbe MH"M’s sichos kodesh we find deep chiddushei Torah derived from and based on these stories. We will relate one such story that offers a dramatic message about our topic – chinuch, the education of our children.

The Rebbe Rayatz told a story about his father, the Rebbe Rashab, which appears in Likkutei Sichos, Volume 20, Parshas VaYeira. When the Rebbe Rashab was four or five years old, he went to his grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek, on Shabbos Parshas VaYeira and cried bitterly: why doesn’t Hashem reveal Himself to me!? Among other points, in the sicha the Rebbe mentions that one would think that a child so young, with the soul powers and abilities of a 4-5 year old, wouldn’t yearn for Hashem’s revelation so intensely. However, despite his youth, the Rebbe Rashab strongly desired to see Hashem! This longing wasn’t buried deep in his soul. It was so apparent that it was expressed with tears. The Rebbe concludes that the story was told to us by a Nasi, the Rebbe Rayatz, about a Nasi, the Rebbe Rashab, in order to reveal to us that every Jewish child, even at a young age, has the mighty potential to yearn for the loftiest things, including longing to see Hashem and crying bitterly over this! This is despite the fact that the child’s abilities are underdeveloped and his soul powers have not matured.

From this episode, we see that there is no need for so-called early "personality development." You don’t even have to work according to the Rambam’s approach (in his introduction to Mishnayos) by bribing the child with nuts and gifts. We might use persuasive means to get a child to learn or daven, but to get a child to want to see Hashem, you don’t have to do a thing. Every Jewish child, by his very nature, wants to see Hashem.

At the end of the sicha, the Rebbe makes a radical statement that ought to shake us up (namely, the parents and educators). The Rebbe declared that nowadays, "nature has changed," and children today are different than those of earlier times. Every Jewish child openly wants, to the point of tears, to have Hashem appear to him.

This sicha, which was said decades ago, did indeed make waves, primarily among educators. I remember that when the Rebbe said the sicha, he added that if teachers were still skeptical and found it hard to believe what he said, they should ask a rav whether they were allowed to continue teaching!!

Nevertheless, I never heard, and I don’t think anybody else has either, that any real educational changes were made in Chabad chinuch in any of the mosdos! Everything remained the same. The reason for this, I believe, is that what was said remained abstract. Nobody had the nerve to bring this idea down, as Chassidus says, into the world.

One excuse cropped up as to why nothing changed – that the Rebbe was referring primarily to those Jews who are still spiritually young. But that’s farfetched, a way to avoid taking responsibility. This excuse in no way fits the Rebbe’s unequivocal statement that "nature has changed," which refers to an essential change, emotionally and intellectually, in the development of a Jewish child. One ramification of this change is the strong desire to see Hashem.

Perhaps the justification for not making any changes has been that the Rebbe constantly gave us new assignments. We were busy fulfilling the Rebbe’s requests, such as the many mivtzaim, and we simply didn’t have time to address a subject that needs a great deal of attention. Baruch Hashem, we were busy with the Rebbe’s holy inyanim. However, we still must deal with this vital subject. Understanding it would create an enormous revolution in our approach to chinuch.

* * *

Generally speaking, our generation is characterized by materialism. Cold and dry technology has taken the place of ideology. Pnimiyus (inwardness) made way for superficiality and shallowness, empty of deep meaning. Thinking is superficial and quick. The main thing is to understand an idea in a general way. The details are no longer important, and are even superfluous and burdensome. It would appear that sensitivities, values, and ideals are all ideas of the past, which were useful then but are now obsolete.

The quick pace of life overruns even those areas which until recently, by historical standards, we were certain were part of the deepest dimensions of a person’s soul. This general striving towards a highly intense pace of living breeds superficiality, and influences our education in no small measure.

For example, take an average child who grows and develops in a regular school. He sits with 20-30 other students his age, all of whom are operating within a particular framework. Everything moves along predefined tracks, exceedingly narrow, with very little room for deviation. The child is placed on the reading track, and if all goes well, he moves on to siddur, Chumash, Mishna, and Gemara. Upon reaching the age of bar mitzva, he will get a ticket to enter mesivta and so on.

This child, who made his way without any problems to the satisfaction of those responsible for the program, who learns three to four folio of Gemara, even learning them with some degree of analytical comprehension – what precisely does he have? Knowledge of how to read and understanding of what he reads. Knowledge of Jewish and Chassidic concepts. Knowledge and a grasp of Chumash, Mishna, and Gemara. But is that what it’s all about?

The child acquired knowledge, but unfortunately the knowledge is general and limited relative to his potential. When we test the personal desire of the child to learn Torah (as opposed to the knowledge he has managed to acquire) to determine whether his natural yearning is to increase his knowledge of Torah, the picture we see is rather grim, and doesn’t validate us nor the education in which we invested our energies for so many years. Yes, the child traversed the path we paved for him. He received prizes and punishments as needed and acquired knowledge and information, but did not internalize and develop the tools which, in essence, drive the eternal quest for the constant acquisition of knowledge.

The explanation we are accustomed to hearing with regard to this failure is – yeridas ha’doros (the descent of the generations). What can we do? There’s yeridas ha’doros. We are comforted that "when Moshiach comes, it will all straighten out."

This answer, however, only applies when you relate to things in the spirit of the times superficially. If you examine things more closely, however, you realize that the situation is not all that rosy. You discover a precipitous descent in knowledge and skills as well, in understanding, and in the motivation to learn.

On the other hand, we see a seemingly odd phenomenon, in that materially we are doing far better. Perhaps the two are intertwined! The educational structure is well planned and prepared. The curriculum is figured out down to the smallest details. Nothing is omitted. The level of the learning materials is going up and the environmental conditions are constantly improving. The public consciousness regarding teachers’ terms of employment has been raised and teachers’ salaries have gone up. There are enrichment courses, lectures, and workshops, which raise the level of the teachers’ competency.

In short, education in the 21st century is organized, structured, and better than it ever was. But the child, the student – oy! He keeps going downhill in knowledge, understanding of the material, in his feelings and soul-connection to his learning, in his inner motivation to learn.

The answer to this paradox is shocking in its simplicity. It’s lack of attention. Yes. We have taken care of all angles of education except for one: the child. The child is relegated to measurement by the rules of relativism – relative to the rules of the organization, which progresses and develops so much. A situation is created in which the child exists to serve the goals of the school. He must fit the demands of the system; otherwise, he has no place, when it should actually be the other way around! The school was founded in order to service the child, to develop him, to provide his needs in accordance with his abilities.

Nowadays a child can get nearly anything he wants. In our generation everything is readily available, even for young children. There’s no need to "wait until you’re older," and this goes for far more than the nuts and gifts the Rambam refers to. The material abundance today is so great that children are disgusted by it. Even things that excite them lose their value and importance quickly, and they look for the next attraction, which doesn’t last long either.

The child searches. He needs something personal that will speak to him. Having no other choice, he turns to external things that sprout up and are introduced to his world daily. He is confused and perhaps is unaware that the things he needs the most are attention and educational appreciation, being treated pleasantly and with true caring. All these items have become rare commodities. They barely exist. Adults find it hard to give, yet children yearn to receive. Thus, they look for superficial substitutes, which do not provide real satisfaction.

A vacuum has been created, an air pocket from which the child does not succeed in escaping. Sometimes the child actually grasps for the slightest thread of a relationship, but even that isn’t available.

These points I raised aren’t new. Perhaps they haven’t actually been raised in a public forum, but they have definitely been heard here and there, in one form or another. The reactions I get are, "Is there a solution?" and the answer is yes. How? By overturning the general educational structure and dividing it into group and individual models.

Today, in the background, we hear more and more voices expressing the need to create a personal structure. Even educators in public schools around the world have concluded, after professional and thorough checking, that there is no way to approach a child and to reach him without constructing a personal learning model tailored to him.

This is really nothing new at all. The main complaint that principals have is that although they understand this need, the system is not set up financially for changes of this kind. An undertaking of this kind is beyond their budgets. Additionally, the staff is not ready for such far-reaching changes. Changes such as these can ruin the system entirely.

Our unique frameworks are not like any other general frameworks – not in content, not in perspective, not in our belief in the child nor in the training we give him. The educational modes are similar but the approach is different.

In our present state, the educational responsibility falls on the system. In light of the prevailing situation, which becomes clearer with every passing moment, despite the inherent difficulties, the system must reflect on these necessary changes, which will enable it to truly reach the child, every child.

The Rebbe declared that an enormous change has taken place – that the very nature of children has changed. It is, therefore, incumbent on us to do careful research and focus on these changes. Our findings will enable us to know what is the proper approach for each child.

When the child will receive personal direction aimed at the nature of his midos and soul powers, the day will come when his natural desires for Torah, yiras Shamayim, and the yearning to see Hashem, which were previously buried, will burst forth.

Lately, many eyes have been opened. Those involved in chinuch, and even those who aren’t, see the gravity of the situation and the quick rate of deterioration. This is a tragic situation and it seems as though everybody feels the need for a change, a revolution. Since this is the case, the time has come to publicize the fact that there are tools and there are plans. Without a significant investment of money, we can change the general educational philosophy to one that is individualistic and personal. Learning in such a way will bring the child to want to know.

The benefits will be numerous: The teacher will know what he is teaching and who he is teaching. The principal will no longer have to deal with serious discipline problems and with constant challenges. Instead, he can devote his time and energy, as well as his knowledge and vast experience, to organizing this new educational system and fine-tuning it.

The parents will be energized by their children and will be influenced by them. When they see their motivated children, they will get caught up in the excitement, too. When they see how important it is to their child, and that this is his true desire, they will learn a lesson for themselves and emulate him.

As the Rebbe concludes the sicha, this revelation within "meshichoi," i.e., the schoolchildren, will bring about the revelation of Moshiach, may it be speedily in our days.


The child exists to serve the goals of the school, when it should actually be the other way around!





...Nevertheless, I never heard, and I don’t think anybody else has either, that any real educational changes were made in Chabad chinuch in any of the mosdos!



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