Let's Not Forget the Forest for the Trees
Rabbi Nochem Kaplan

Our schools are open and with it we inaugurate the season of "constructive criticism".  We listen to all the talk about what's wrong with our local schools and the whole school system; what needs to change, what must improve, who in the school understands children, who knows how to teach. You get my drift; we regularly hear comments on something or other. Of course we all understand that if the school heads could see it their way, things would be dramatically better.

A president of one of the schools I served as principal once said to me, from his perspective, if a child graduates elementary school and still loves to learn, the educational process has been eminently successful. If, after being exposed to a plethora of subjects and having been tested and corrected ad-nausium, he's still inquisitive and wants to know more, he is a success.  In a Jewish school that includes both Judaic and general education of course.

From his perspective, it was about learning itself. I think there is a lot of wisdom in that statement.  What he meant to say was that after all the concentration on subjects and curricula, on skills building and achievement, what really counts is the big picture. 

When a friend asked the late Lubavitcher Rebbe OB"M about the relative merits of a number of schools in his vicinity, the Rebbe responded, "Choose the school which excels in inculcating "yiras shamayim".

I believe what the Rebbe meant by that included, the attitude toward things G‑dly and the attitude toward living by the precepts of Torah and the ethical moral teachings of Judaism as well. He did not dwell of the relative merits of the various curricula nor on the standards of achievement of its students. He spoke of something greater and more important than the sum of the school's parts; he spoke of the overreaching objective of the Jewish educational system. 

It seems to me that we emphasize for example, the Halachot (laws) relating to Tefilla and not dwelling enough of the "why", we assess, grade and evaluate students  for high achievement but underplay the importance of "midos tovos" (refined character development). Schools encourage competitiveness but overlook personal accomplishments that don't measure up to excellence. 

I understand the need to encourage excellence and I appreciate the meaning of outstanding achievement, I believe though, that schools must relate much more to the student development relating to ore core mission, the very reason the school exist in the first place, "yiras shamayim" and "midos Tovos".

I'd love to hear that a school has dedicated itself, in a real way, a way which is measurable by behavior outside of the school, to the development of "midos".

 It is not a matter of writing new curricula, it's not a matter of scheduling a new class on a subject, it's a matter of demonstrating what is valued in interpersonal relationships, how much refined behavior is appreciated, and finding meaningful ways to reward it. The schools and staff must model attitudes and behaviors and explain the "what" and "why".

 "Yiras shamayim" cannot be taught in the abstract, but it can modeled and encouraged. It can be illustrated literally and figuratively by example, by attitude and personal behavior. It is not something which can be limited to a particular time or place but it requires the whole environment to project an attitude of expectation and appreciation. 

 When all is said and done, a school which fosters and inculcates what"yiddishkeit" is all about, can lay claim to the being successful, whereas the school which has finely tuned curricula and accurate assessment may be missing the boat. 

These are my thought as we embark upon a new school year. School heads and their faculties need to work on the environment which prevails within their buildings, something I hope to say more about in subsequent pieces. This is not a matter of implementing a one-time fix, not a one size fits all. I believe that we are in this for the long haul and it will take time and much cooperation between faculty members and administration.

There will be successes and failures, there will be nay sayers and critics, and it will demand a lot of personal fortitude on the part of principals and mechanchim/os. I think we have been charged with a mission and we dare not let the very core of what we stand for, take a secondary role. We need to concentrate on the forest in spite of the fact that we are used to looking at the trees.