The Yom Tov of Chanukah is all about Jewish children. Whether it is the stories of Yiddishe kinder playing dreidel games during the time of the Yevanim, or the exciting Chanukah parties and gelt that are prevalent today, this Yom Tov is really a celebration of a Jewish future through our youth. This is further emphasized when we see that the root of the word Chanukah is chinuch, which means education. Knowing that a strong Jewish future is rooted in education, parents throughout the generations have done everything possible to ensure proper chinuch for their children, and a sound Yiddishe and Chasidishe chinuch continues to be priority today.
But what exactly is a Chasidishe education? Does it mean teaching our mesorah in the exact same way that it has been taught for thousands of years? Well, yes and no. While we still teach the same messages and our values have not changed, we have upgraded from the caves and handmade scrolls that were used in the times of the Maccabees. It is not uncommon to find state-of-the art classrooms and Smartboards in today’s chedarim. Clearly, some progress is a definite improvement.
In recent years, a dialogue has been taking place in the world of Chabad chinuch, in which mechanchim have been tackling the unique challenges of educating our youth with our timeless Torah and Chasidishe traditions, in a world that is changing at a faster speed than ever before. Looking for guidance from the past while moving into the future, this new generation of melamdim is determining what today’s Chasidishe chinuch looks like.
For many teachers, it means incorporating innovative teaching methods into the classroom while instilling the same level of Yiras Shamayim that has been the trademark of Chabad Chasidim for generations. In today’s classroom, the lesson may be a classic understanding of the concept of “Lichatchila Ariber,” but taught through an exciting obstacle course, so that students get to truly experience the concept with their entire being.
Rabbi Zelig Silber, a veteran 5th grade teacher at Cheder Chabad of Monsey, believes in the fusion of professional teaching techniques with classic, undiluted Chasidishkeit, and says that teachers should not be shying away from contemporary pedagogical models. In his role as the director of the Menachem Education Foundation’s Teacher Induction Program, Rabbi Silber has played a key role in ensuring that teachers who are entering the field of chinuch have the skills they need to succeed in the classroom.
Some question whether all these “new-fangled ideas” are really necessary, falling back on the old “if it was good enough for my parents, it should be good enough for me” line of thinking. “People ask the same thing about Chassidus,” says Rabbi Silber. “Why is it necessary today when it was never learned in the past?” The answer, as the Rebbe gave over in many sichos, is that Chassidus is needed today more than ever to help us get through the unprecedented darkness.
Silber continues, “Our chinuch today is exactly the same. The amount of media that is available is stifling and overwhelming for our children. The street is a lot more appealing and its influence more pervasive today than it was 20 years ago. As mechanchim, it is our duty to use any tool in our arsenal to grab our students’ attention and ensure that they are prepared to be a Yid in today’s age.”
Looking to the Rebbe’s horaas, it is clear that there does not have to be a choice between Chassidishkeit and professionalism. On numerous occasions, the Rebbe emphasized the idea that professionalism can coexist with, and indeed should be grounded in, Yiras Shamayim, and beseeched educators to participate in training to become more professional and effective. This attitude was also shared by the Frierdiker Rebbe who wrote the following in 1947 (Igros Kodesh #3000, 29 Adar 5707):
“Anyone who knows the field of Chinuch and is seriously involved in guiding children, recognizes and feels that even the most qualified and experienced educators need to speak with one another from time to time about the methods of education and guidance that are most suited to the type of students they are educating… I now turn to all of the melamdim and teachers… to attend these professional development classes in an appropriate measure.”
Rabbi Silber says that he often looks to traditional Jewish sources to support the newest professional ideas that he teaches in MEF’s TIP course. For example, an early session of the training course he leads focuses on student rapport, or establishing a positive relationship with students. While contemporary teaching methods flesh this idea out, it is an obvious extension of the Talmid-Rebbe relationship that has been a cornerstone of Jewish learning for generations. On a more spiritual level, he quotes Tanya in Igeres Hakodesh (chapter 27): כי המשכת כל רוחניות אינה אלא ע”י אהבה רבה – for drawing down anything spiritual is only possible through great love. “Without a relationship, it can be a lecture, but it is not going to affect the student’s life,” he says.
A more apparent innovation is the idea of multiple learning styles. This important element of student engagement ensures that no matter if a student is a visual, audio, kinesthetic or tactile learner, each child will truly process the learning experience on his or her own terms. However, this educational principal is as old as the Torah’s first explicit instruction regarding chinuch: והגדת לבנך (Shemos 13:8), which is the underlying directive for the Pesach seder.
Touch, taste, song and story are all vital parts of the Pesach seder. A physical seder plate reminds participants of the various elements of the evening, which we even point to at a pivotal point of the seder. Tasting bitter maror and bland matza gives us an experiential way to remember the slavery in Mitzrayim. And starting the seder off with Mah Nishtana teaches us a powerful lesson about piquing children’s interest through asking and encouraging questions.
Implementing these and other timeless directives of Torah requires specific, repeatable processes and techniques – which is what is sometimes referred to by the catch-all phrase “professionalism in education.” While many are apprehensive that professionalism replaces Chassidishkeit in education, Rabbi Silber emphasizes that, on the contrary, when gleaned through appropriate sources, professional teaching methods are the tools through which a teacher make sure that a Chasidishe education achieves its goals.
A lesson we can learn from Chanukah is that chinuch must be taken seriously. The word chinuch in the context of Chanukas Habayis (which the name Chanukah stems from) connotes a firm foundation and secure beginning. Just like a builder would never pour a foundation based on intuition, but only after consulting with detailed and concrete plans, it behooves us to ask ourselves: Does the Chassidishe chinuch we provide have the appropriate methods and techniques in place to engage our students, hold their attention and ensure that its effect will last?
Rabbi Zelig Silber was interviewed for this article by MEF reporter Rena Udkoff. This is the 3rd installment in the Menachem Education Foundation op-ed series, “MEF on Chinuch.” Future installments will continue to explore the answer to the question posed above. To view previous op-eds, click here.