There’s no missing him – the boy who’s “switched-off” in the classroom; the boy who’s caught sending notes to his friend; the boy who comes to shiur unprepared; the boy who makes frequent trips to the washroom; the boy whose “sick days” come close to equaling the time he spends in school.
Fast forward a few years and where will you see this boy? Will he make it in the mesivta (or its equivalent) of the caliber that his parents assumed he would surely one day attend? Will he be a healthy, productive individual? And, most important, will his neshamah remain intact?
Welcome to the non-too-comfortable world of thousands of our youth who are aimlessly coasting their way through yeshiva and, truth be told, would rather be anywhere but there. With the calamitous rise of children going off the derech in recent decades, there is a growing realization that the kids at risk who eventually leave the correct path are most often those who are unable to thrive in our present chinuch environment.
Is this pattern inevitable? Rabbi Eli Lapa, a seasoned mechanech from Lakewood, says it’s not, and as the founder of Yeshiva Derech Hatorah of Lakewood, he has been proving for the past 3-½ years that a yeshiva is a place where everyone belongs.
With its annual parlor meeting scheduled for February 6th, Rabbi Lapa was happy to speak about Yeshiva Derech Hatorah and to share what he calls “our best kept secret” with Yated readers.
Yeshiva Derech Hatorah is essentially a yeshiva for boys who are disenchanted with the regular yeshiva system. What made you start such a yeshiva and what were your credentials for pioneering this hitherto untried “experiment”?
Let me begin by saying that although there is a tendency to blame the “system” for its “failures” (for want of a better word), I have no criticism of the way regular yeshivos are conducted today. Far from it! Our yeshivos are producing an unprecedented number of accomplished talmidei chachomim, mechanchim, rabbonim and, yes, boys who reach incredible gadlus in Torah, hashkafah and hasmadah, boruch Hashem.
At the same time, however, there are boys who are not “making it.” Perhaps they have problems with focusing and concentration. Maybe they cannot cope with the predominantly audial approach that you find in most yeshivos and need a more visual method. There are also boys who find it hard to prove themselves on bechinos and others who get lost in a traditional classroom setting where the talmid‘s relationship with his mechanchim may not be what this talmid needs to prosper. The list goes on! Whatever the reason, these are the talmidim who are not doing well in yeshiva.
It has long been my dream to help these boys. For several years, while I was learning at Bais Medrash Govoah in Lakewood, I was asked to teach some flagging students both during the zeman and the summer, and I realized that Hashem has given me not only the will but also the ability to reach them. Although I spent another 26 years “within the system,” teaching and then as menahel of the Shalom Torah Center in Morganville, New Jersey, I was privy to repeated reminders from individual students that there are many children in today’s mainstream yeshivas, and in this case day schools, who should be receiving a different type of chinuch from the one they are getting.
Yeshiva Derech HaTorah is geared to the middle school age-range, from 6th to 8th grades. Since the fallout of a compromised elementary school performance is not usually apparent until a slightly later age, wouldn’t it have been more pertinent to start a mesivta?
We aim to deal with a potentially precarious situation before the real danger sets in. It’s a matter of nipping it in the bud.
It’s important to point out that the boys we are targeting are not boys with severe learning difficulties or behavioral issues. Experience has shown that there are significant numbers of boys in every yeshiva who exhibit a marked lack of motivation and achievement, even though they may be bright, and sometimes especially bright. Since a child who has no interest in what’s going on in the classroom may either appear “spacey” or act-up in class, his rebbi will probably suggest that he be tested for ADHD and medicated accordingly, but this is not always the answer. There’s nothing seriously “wrong” with the boy, and therefore the usual scholastic and other interventions typically employed – i.e., tutoring, small group classes, special ed. techniques, or mentoring – may not address his difficulties. Meanwhile, by the time he’s reached 5th or 6th grade, there’s a high likelihood that he regards school as a place that’s dull and boring, a place where he can’t keep up with the work, a place where he’s a failure. To make matters worse, the uniformly “unsuccessful” student who appears to have “nothing going for him” is all too often fertile ground for the vicious bully in search of prey. Is it surprising that this ostensibly ne’er-do-well looks to find an escape route by staying out of class or missing school entirely by the time he reaches his middle school years?
His tale of woe doesn’t end here, however. The real problems are only just beginning. With not much more in his head than disaffection with learning and resentment towards those who expect him to learn, the mind of a preteen is a virtual vacuum. The yeitzer hera knows it and is ready to fill the void. If something is not done to prevent this from happening, by the time the boy graduates elementary school his head will be filled with foreign ideas and not unusually he’ll already be seeking out the “wrong” friends. How many of our mesivtos are geared for dealing with such a talmid?
I’m not going so far as to say that by this stage it’s “too late,” chas veshalom. It’s never too late. I nevertheless contend that it is a far preferable and more effective solution to offer these boys the ability to successfully engage in the learning process at an earlier age before their decline begins.
This sounds like a tall order. What do you do at Yeshiva Derech Hatorah that the regular yeshivos are unable to do?
There are the obvious advantages of small groups, a close rebbi-talmid relationship and a non-pressured atmosphere curriculum. Unfortunately, these bonuses may fail to turn around a talmid because they basically employ similar teaching methods to those of a regular yeshiva. Having spent many years delving into the difficulties that face the unmotivated talmid, I am of the firm conviction that his success may not necessarily be viable with conventional methodology. It simply does not work for every talmid, and by the time we wait, a window of opportunity may be lost forever. This does not mean, however, that we, as educators, are free from our obligation to find a way of teaching him with approaches that can work because they are specifically suited to his unique learning preferences. If we can get him to come to yeshiva, it’s unequivocally our job to make it a safe, welcoming haven where he can flourish.
It may indeed sound like a tall order, but the good news is that it’s possible. I’ve found that despite appearances, he, like every other bochur, really wants to learn, and given a program that’s geared to his needs, he actually can.
Over the past 3 ½ years at Yeshiva Derech Hatorah, together with Rabbi Moshe Stamler, our madrich and rebbi, we have merited to introduce an alternative system of chinuch that has enabled each of our talmidim to regain an interest in limudei kodesh and to develop a desire to shteig and grow to greater heights in yiras Shomayim. The same can be said regarding a bochur‘s connection to limudei chol. With the use of innovative techniques that include an interactive environment, visual aids, shorter class sessions and a range of instructional approaches that are broad, diverse and designed to capture the interest of every talmid and ensure his active participation and input, a boy at Yeshiva Derech Hatorah becomes involved in his classes and attached to his school. A day that used to be filled with disinterest, disenchantment and disconnect becomes a day of realizing success in learning, a day filled with productivity, excitement, anticipation, ambition and creativity.
Equally if not of greater importance is a talmid‘s perceived social status and acceptance by his peers. A talmid can only blossom when his social arena is safe and free of anyone whose agenda may result in diminishing his self-esteem and confidence in forms that are very subtle and usually undetectable by the respective take-charge adults. Derech Hatorah talmidim greatly benefit from Rabbi Stamler’s expertise in the field of the management of today’s yeshiva social culture. Through his natural empathetic sensitivity to the needs of every child, the respect each talmid deserves is maintained, resulting in a nurturing environment where a talmid can aspire for gadlus in Torah.
Stimulated, challenged and above all praised for all their milestones, both in and out of the classroom, previously unconfident, unmotivated non-achievers begin to flower, gain direction and set positive goals after a short time in our mosad. It is not an exaggeration to say that every boy at Yeshiva Derech Hatorah is pleased to come to yeshiva and develops a love of learning and the desire to continue learning at a higher level. Boys who previously had a high rate of absenteeism don’t want to miss a single day of school. They enjoy camaraderie and a sense of responsibility toward themselves and others that was denied them in their previously dysfunctional school experience. They start to “live” and to gain fulfillment in their lives that they never had before. Most important, boys who have been challenged to realize the gifts and joy of a life of ruchniyus for years find that Torah and mitzvos speak to their hearts so that they gradually develop a relationship with Yiddishkeit that is meaningful and real. This is the true derech of Torah.
Derech Hatorah appears to be filling an enormous need in Klal Yisroel. What type of reception have you received so far?
With Hashem’s help, we have increased our intake most significantly in a few short years, although we work on the premise that our boys do better in smaller classroom settings and, therefore, inflating numbers will never be our goal. It should be noted that Yeshiva Derech Hatorah is for intelligent, sincere bochurim who want to do well but have not yet realized success. Boys who are antagonistic to Torah and authority would undermine the ethos and tenability of our yeshiva and have to be rejected. We actually have to turn away more boys than we admit, but that’s unavoidable and necessary.
At the same time, however, there are parents who are not approaching Yeshiva Derech Hatorah out of fear that attending a non-mainstream yeshiva will have negative repercussions on their sons or even their families when it later comes to shidduchim. We can certainly respect their concerns. However, we can guarantee them that providing their son with an opportunity to complete the elementary school years in a productive environment will certainly improve shidduchim chances for this talmid, as well as for his siblings who are approaching or are already encountering the realm of shidduchim. We can assure them that the parents of all our talmidim are thrilled with their sons’ achievement and praise and thank us lavishly for all we do. And we can affirm that all our graduates have now gone on to mainstream yeshivas, where they are spiraling upwards to unimaginable heights. This much we know for sure. What we do not know is whether this can be said with the same certainty about those boys who could have enjoyed the benefits of Yeshiva Derech Hatorah if only their parents had listened to our call.
A parlor meeting for Yeshiva Derech Hatorah will be held on Wednesday, February 6, at the home of Dr. Aharon Lancz, at 803 Twin Oaks Drive in Lakewood, NJ, at 8 p.m. Apart from helping the mosad financially, the meeting will also provide mechanchim, rabbonim, parents and others with the opportunity to learn about what the yeshiva has to offer and to discover how it can be of enormous benefit for so many of today’s talmidim.
For more information about Yeshiva Derech Hatorah, contact Rabbi Lapa at 732.806.1816.