Adapted from an interview with Rabbi Feigelstock, a long time mechanech and principal of Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim Lubavitch in Montreal, conducted by Rabbi Shneur.
The ideas that Rabbi Feigelstock discuss are refreshingly honest and increasingly vital for us to hearken to. This interview is the first of a series in which we will speak to veteran mechanchim and mechanchot to gain from their seasoned experience.
Do you have someone you’d like to suggest we speak to? Email [email protected] with any suggestions.
Back in the day…
When I was young, the educational world was very different. Teachers were not meant to be questioned, and students had to adjust themselves to the ways of the teacher. When I was a boy in Vienna, there were beautiful parks, but you were not allowed to step on the lawn. When I was in grade 3 or 4, my ball went flying and fell onto the lawn. Quickly, I jumped onto the lawn and grabbed the ball. Unfortunately, a police officer caught me and questioned me. The next day, a delegation from the police department came to my school. They pointed out the “gangster” who broke the law: me.
After I finished the grades in the Talmud Torah, my father wanted me to continue to learn limudei kodesh. He hired a Melamed to come and teach my brother A”H and I in our house. From 8 am to 12 pm we learned with this Melamed Limudei Kodesh and in the afternoon we learned Limudei Chol.
Twice a year we would go to an official public school and take a test, and then bring the report card to the department of education to show that we took the test [and were being taught even though we did not attend a proper school]. A regular student has marks from other classes, but my only mark, because I was not in school, was from this one test, so there was a lot of pressure on me to do well. We wrote with ink to take our tests and had to be extremely careful when we used the ink, because it would drip and make spots on the paper if we used too much.
I had to write an essay for the test, and I accidentally made a tiny dot on the margin of the paper. I finished the test, and gave the teacher the paper. He looked at the paper and said “such a paper you would give me?” he refused to take it and gave it back. It was below his dignity to even look at it. I begged him, I told him it was a mistake, but all he would do was give me a passing mark, he wouldn’t look at the paper. This was not even shocking. I expected this kind of behavior from the teacher because there was such a high level of Kabbolos Ol.
It’s a new world…
Shlomo Hamelech says “אַל תּוֹכַח לֵץ פֶּן יִשְׂנָאֶךָּ הוֹכַח לְחָכָם וְיֶאֱהָבֶךָּ” (Do not reprimand a scorner, for he will hate you. Reprimand a wise man, and he will love you. ) To reach students today, you cannot speak Mussar to the Nefesh Habihamis. We should not say “You are a Rasha, you did wrong and we are going to punish you.” Speak to the students Nefesh Elokis by saying “You are a Tzadik, and these actions do not befit you.”
In Vienna, punishments taught us lessons very clearly. It forced the students to correct themselves. Today is a different world. For example, the police have a lot of rules, where you can turn, where you can park, etc. If you break the law, you get a ticket. Everyone knows that these regulations are for our benefit, but if I know for sure there are no policemen around, I may bend the rules and break the law. And if I do get a ticket, I get upset at the policeman for giving me the ticket.
If a teacher today gives a punishment to a child, it does not change the behavior of the child. If the child has an opportunity when the teacher is not around, he will misbehave again. It doesn’t change the child. The punishment does not accomplish anything, and even more so, it just makes it worse.
Today, [to correct behavior] you have to win the child over. The only way to do that is to speak to his Yetzer Tov, not his Yetzer Harah. Rules and regulations alone do not work. You need to make the child want to follow your instructions, because they will not just do something because of the rules.
This is especially true with the concept of forcing children to learn Chumash, you have to know how to present and prepare it in a way that the child will want to learn about it. The same goes with Tznius. Girls are told that a skirt has to be this long, the shirt sleeves have to be this length, etc. Instead, they need to be taught that they are a Bas Melech. You have to bring these ideas out in the child to WANT to be Tznius, not force a girl to be tznius.
Kabbolos Ol is obviously still very, very important. But it can not be enforced the way that it used to be. I heard something once from Rabbi Manis Friedman that I liked very much. He said that Kabbolos Ol today should not be used as a method to enforce Yiddishkeit, but rather in how to enforce proper behavior. How to sit, how to speak, how to respect others, but not in relation to Mitzvos and learning. You cannot make a child who lives in Montreal live like they did in Europe fifty years ago. Today, parents do not have the same unquestioning awe of teachers, children don’t have that level of respect and acceptance, so you cannot just use Kabbolos Ol to force children to learn Torah and do Mitzvos. Don’t ruin their joy in Mitzvos and Torah learning by saying they must do it, or else. You can use Kabbolos Ol to enforce the idea of kids keeping their school work in order, putting the garbage in the right place, and keeping their area clean.
On training and professionalism…
Many people have a natural inclination towards teaching, but everyone has to be trained in the practical skills of being an educator. They have to learn how a child thinks, how to win over a child, how to present lessons etc. They must have the tools before entering the classroom. They can not just come directly out of Kollel or Seminary and teach. Our Chabad Rebbeim wanted teachers to do a good job, and if the way to get there is to be trained, we have to be trained.
Teachers have to be prepared for the lesson; have a plan for months before on how they are going to complete the curriculum, how the students will learn each Posuk. They need a plan on how to engage the children. Children need to enjoy the class.
Mechanchim and Mechanchos have to think, how am I going to make this lively for the child? Today, there is a world in which you can learn a lot [about education], and whatever you learn will be of benefit.
I was a principal for years, and I made plenty of mistakes. It does not mean that just because I made mistakes, future principals have to make the same mistakes. Just because the generation before us did not do a 100% perfect job, does not mean that we can’t. It is not common in our schools that children are taught to write an essay or a story. That isn’t right! In every language, a child should have the ability to express himself, in Hebrew or English. After learning a few Pesukim in Chumash, it should be instituted that the children should write what they learnt down in their owns words. When I was a counselor in overnight camp, children were unable to write letters to their parents about their feelings. Children need to be able to write. Even younger children who cannot write yet, teachers should have them verbally tell the class the story of Avraham etc. Teach them how to express themselves.
A child has to have knowledge, and has to be able to open a Sefer and learn by themselves. We need to make sure that they also enjoy learning. It is very important to always praise a child. Even when the child does something wrong, tell them they can do better. Never tell a child that they are not good. Always say things in the positive sense. Let them know that you are proud of them. Children need to feel that the teacher loves them, and you can’t fool a child. This has to be genuine. The child must feel from the teacher that the teacher enjoys his or her progress.
A teacher can not simply copy his or her teachers methods. A teacher should never say “I copy everything my teacher did.” If we tried to educate our children now the way we did in Europe, it would be a complete failure. That was how we did it then, and it worked for that generation. But it is a different generation now. Everything is always changing, medicine is changing, cars change, technology changes.
The way to educate is changing. The Torah does not change, but how to apply the Torah is always changing.
A clip from the interview that is transcribed above:
Born in Vienna, Rabbi Herschel Feigelstock met the Rebbe, who took a special interest in the young bochur. At his wedding in 1949, he was privileged to have the Rebbe as mesader kiddushin. He then moved to Montreal, where he took up the role of principal at Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim Lubavitch for the next 40 years. Today, he resides in Montreal, and is a well respected and beloved member of the community.