Is it possible to find an old-world melamed from Lubavitch of 150 years ago in the age of smart phones and FaceBook? On the edge of Crown Heights, a devoted team of teachers are beginning their fourth year – toiling with warm sensitivity and creative learning methods to inspire a group of young boys to take their chassidisher values seriously.
“We keep them interested in their learning,” Rabbi Hershel Moss, the school’s founder and director said. “We make sure that each and every child is interested in his learning. We motivate every child to bring out the best of his abilities.”
After years of teaching and eventually becoming a principal in other schools, Rabbi Moss felt frustrated because the chinuch process in modern day yeshivas didn’t satisfy the many needs of children in a comprehensive coordinated way. “You have to be everything to these children,” Moss said, “You have to be a teacher, disciplinarian, social worker, doctor, a counselor. I didn’t see any school that was meeting all their needs.”
So three years ago, he opened Yeshiva Chok l’Yisroel with the motto Proving the Potential of Every Talmid.
“The amount of attention these children get is different from the more established yeshivas,” said Naftali Micholowski, whose son learns at Chok l'Yisroel.
In the larger mainstream schools because the classes are too large and because the teachers have to cover a certain amount of material, they are not able to give the teachings over in an experiential way to any particular child, said Channah Forester, who’s son has been learning at the cheder for two years. Many of the rebbes at these mainstream schools actually send their own kids to other smaller schools, she said.
Forester, who has spent time visiting Chok l'Yisroel classes, described the atmosphere. “In one room you have four different groups of kids doing four different activities each directed by a teacher,” she said. “The children were so excited.”
The school’s mission is to help each child develop into a Chassid, a Yarei Shamayim, and a lifelong Learner, or ChaYaL. Specifically the program is designed to help each boy grow into: a Chassid who strives to fulfill the vision of the Rebbe; a Yarei Shamayim who has the strength of conviction, the knowledge, and the values to make and maintain a lifelong commitment to the Torah and Mitzvos with joy and confidence; and a Lifelong Learner who is committed to learning original texts in Hebrew, Aramaic, or other languages the Torah is communicated in.
“Because these children are coming from English speaking homes, we teach them Torah in English,” Moss said. “We teach English as part of Limdei Kodesh classes. We don’t have limdei chol.”
Children who don’t come from Yiddish speaking homes often struggle with the language in the mainstream schools, said Forester, who has two older sons in such a situation. Because the learning is in Yiddish, they can’t follow what the teacher is saying and miss half the learning.
Chok l'Yisroel’s curriculum covers reading and writing of Lashon Kodesh; English; Yiddish; Torah Math; Yomim Tovim; Halacha; Tanya Baal Peh; Chumash; and Yedios Klalios (the structure of Tanach, the mesorah of the Torah SheBaal Peh, months of the year, measurements used in Mishnah, Torah personalities and much more).
This year, Chok l'Yisroel hopes to take its young chumash students to a new level of comprehension and analysis. “We are going to teach chumash on the standards we learned from the Menachem Education Foundation combined with Nachem Kaplan’s standards as well as the innovative method we’ve developed ourselves,” Rabbi Moss said. “I believe we will be the first school to implement those standard for all classes as school policy.”
What is important in teaching chumash, said Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schtroks, who teaches at the school, is not so much teaching the story as teaching language skills, dikduk, sentence structure, or in general, how to read a pasuk. The idea is to give the students skills so they can analyze and learn chumash on their own, he said.
We also want to develop standards for teaching other subjects like holidays, parsha, and general Torah knowledge, Rabbi Moss said.
One technique the school emphasizes is visualization. “We teach children at an early age to visualize their learning,” Moss said. “I took Rabbi Eliyahu Shain’s Mastermind program. He emphasized that all learning must be visualized. So we created a map of the Chumash lesson.” The same principle applies to Talmud, he said. The teacher creates a gemmorah map.
“We are working to develop these children’s skills with the intention of eventually starting a gemmorah class where they can apply the same skills we’ve been teaching them (in Chumash)” Moss said.
Other schools give out pre drawn handouts that illustrate a parsha, Forester said, but when the children draw it themselves, it’s a whole different level.
“We are making a new sefer to teach Chumash,” Moss said. “We divide the pesukim according to their inyanim.” The first page will have the first five pesukim (Vayahi Erev Vayahi Boker…). There is a one-sentence summary of the pesukim and a Yiddish translation above each. The opposing page will have an English translation at a 2nd or 3rd grade level and an illustration that summarizes the content of the pesukim.
In addition to Torah learning, the teachers encourage the boys to develop good chassidisher middos.
Before they doven every morning, they hear a motivational story from Sefer Zichronos of the Frediker Rebbe. “It is all about being a chossid,” Rabbi Moss said. “Young Baruch, who is looking for the right way in Torah. Should he become a Litvisha Talmid Chocham or become a strange creature called a chossid… It’s all about the values of being a chossid – loving H’; loving your fellow man, being generous and giving, explaining yourself, communicating, not being lazy, motivating and arousing yourself to love H; and wanting to learn more. “
The teachers involve themselves with the kids playing sports, Moss said, “That is a wonderful way of teaching them good middos – ahavas Yisroel, teamwork. In chess – logical thinking. You have to learn how to lose or surrender when you are losing (rather than being stubborn) so you don’t waste time. Also how to modeh al ha-emes – admit the truth.”
The larger schools have no time to focus on social skills It’s one of the worst aspects of Crown Heights, Forester said. “The children in Crown Heights suffer from a sense from over entitlement, aggressiveness, and a complete confusion about what it means to be frum. I think a lot of it is from going to a jam packed school and coming from a large family. People are not sensitive to each other because everyone is so overcrowded.”
There’s a lot of cynicism among students in the big schools, Micholowsky said. In Chok l'Yisroel, There’s no cynicism, he said. If they learn about brochos or the Beis Hamikdash, his son takes the learning seriously. In the larger schools with 25 kids to a teacher, there may be 100 kids on the playground at recess. It is much easier for a kid to get hurt or learn bad things.
“(At Chok l'Yisroel) I didn’t even see an environment where that could happen,” he said. “It’s a small class. Everyone knows one another and gets along.”
Rabbi Moss focuses on different middos every week, Schtroks said, In addition, when something happen in the classroom, the needs correction, the teacher stops and makes a lesson out of it.
Rabbi Schtroks said a camp counselor recently told him, his 1st grade campers from Chok l’Yisroel had a much higher quality of davvening than boys from any other school.
“They are told chassidisha maisahs on a regular basis,” Forester said. “It really impressed me that they learned so many nigguim and so many things baal peh. Rabbi Moss’s school is so Chassidish. You just can’t find that.”
Although the curriculum is traditional chassidisher, the lunch menu at Chok L Yisroel most definitely is not. In fact, it is probably the only organic yeshiva in Crown Heights that boasts delicious, healthy meals prepared by Chef Chana Delfiner. (http://www.sproutahealthychild.com/.)