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


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

A president of one of the schools I had served as principal at 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-nauseam, he's still inquisitive and wants to know more, he is a success.  In reference to a Jewish school that includes both Judaic and general education, of course.

From his perspective, it was about learning itself. I find there to be a lot of wisdom in that statement.  From his statement I gathered that after all the concentration on vastly differing subjects and curricula, on skills building and achievement, what really counts is the big picture. 

Ø A friend of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe OB”M once asked him about the relative merits of a number of different schools in his area. The Rebbe responded by saying; “Choose the school which excels in inculcating yiras shamayim (heavenly awe)”.

Expanding on that thought; the attitude toward all things Gdly, toward living by the precepts of the 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 on the "why". We assess, grade, and evaluate students for high achievements academically 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, but I believe that schools must relate much more to student development relating to our core mission, the very reason schools exist in the first place, to instill "yiras shamayim" and to encourage "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, or 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 be 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 truly being successful, whereas the school which has finely tuned curricula and accurate assessments of academic achievement, may actually be missing the boat. 

These are my thought as we embark upon another new school year. School heads and their faculties need to work on their encompassing environment within their buildings, something I hope to write more about in subsequent pieces. This is not a matter of implementing a one-time fix, no one size fits all. We are in this for the long haul and it will take time and cooperation between school faculties and administrations.

There will be successes and failures, nay-sayers and critics. It will demand a lot of personal fortitude on the part of principals and mechanchim/os. 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.