Preventing Students From Going Off The Derech


By Rabbi Dovid Abenson

We are living in an era of great paradox.

On the one hand, we have burgeoning yeshivos and unprecedented Torah
learning, while on the other hand our children seem unhappier than

How can this be?

We are witnessing many boys and girls, from all types of families, and
communities, leaving the derech. Why?

After working with many children who have been brought to me by their
parents or educators, dissatisfied and disillusioned with Yiddishkeit,
I would like to suggest the following solution.

The Medrash Shmuel explains in Pirkei Avos, Perek Vov, Mishna Vov (
free translation):

If someone studies without enjoying it, ultimately he will come to
resent it, but if he studies Torah joyfully, he will never separate
himself from it.

One of the most powerful ways to generate happiness is to give a child
a sense of achievement. Torah was given to everyone, not just to those
who learn quickly or do well on tests. In my own experience, (and I
have met with many at-risk teenagers) all of whom have told me, they
find limud haTorah boring. When a child learns without clarity and
understanding, the learning becomes tedious and burdensome and not a
joyous experience.

A Rabbi once observed that he feels the current generation’s lack of
clarity in learning is an after-effect of the Holocaust. The immigrant
Rebbeim which came from Europe, so prevalent in his time, would
transmit Torah in Yiddish to their talmidim. Since the American born
students were not fluent in Yiddish, the Rebbeim had to “over-express”
themselves, explaining the same concept in many different ways, using
many different and imprecise expressions. As a result, although their
American-born students eventually picked up Yiddish and used it to
transmit Torah to the next generation, the clarity of expression and
exactness of definitions were compromised. As a consequence, three
generations later, since the Second World War, talmidim have grown up
on American soil with imperfections in their understanding of Torah.

A distinguished Rav once told me that to this day, whenever he hears
the Hebrew word “terumah” he thinks of a window blind. Why? Because in
Yiddish, “terumah” is translated as “upshaden” which prompts him to
picture a window shade.

At least this distinguished Rav could appreciate that his
comprehension was compromised by a language barrier. But what about
the following example: a respected Rebbe translated the phrase
“v’huzak bo” in the Mishnah in Bava Kama as “and he gets hurt by it.”
The accurate translation (and accuracy in Gemara is absolutely
essential) is- “and he gets damaged by it.” For nearly fifty years,
the Rebbe in question has been mistranslating this phrase. Yes, he can
get away with it in most cases; but “hurt” can also apply to feelings
whereas “damage” is used in a more physical sense. The distinction is
potentially huge.

Similarly, I once gave a presentation in which I emphasized the
necessity for accuracy of translation. For example, “Mitzvah” being
“good deed” rather than the more precise, “commandment.” A renowned
Rabbi pointed out that, as a result of this common mistranslation,
many Jews neglected Torah observance, thinking that as long as they
did “good deeds” they were keeping the essentials of Torah.

My Rebbi, Rav Mattisyahu Salomon, shlita, sent me an eighteen-year-old
bochur who needed help in learning. He bochur confided in me that he
wanted to leave Yeshiva and pursue college since he was not feeling
fulfilled in his learning. After the evaluation, I saw that he had the
ability to learn and comprehend but his reason for not enjoying shiur
was that perhaps that the Rebbe was not teaching clearly. I asked him
to go back to his Rebbe to ask him to translate the word “pattur” in a
single English word. If the Rebbe defined the term using more than one
word, the Rebbe would be “over-expressing” himself, and the bochur’s
problem lay with the Rebbe and not him. The bochur came back to me the
following week telling me that I had been right and that the Rebbe was
not concise in his teaching. He felt relieved that perhaps he was not
as uneducated as he had thought he was. He ultimately stayed in

We can enable every child, whatever his or her ability, to find simcha
in Torah learning and enjoy the chinuch experience by implementing
some suggestions.

1) It is the responsibility of the school to teach Alef Bais in a
manner that all children will be reading effortlessly and fluently.
This skill has to be implemented primarily before studying Nikudos (

2) When teaching the Letters and Nekudos, this method should be taught
according to our Mesorah, keeping it simple, using the methodology
handed down through the generations. First fluency of the letters,
followed by “Kometz, Alef, Aah”. Unfortunately, too many children are
being taught using phonic sounds and cute pictures. This may appear to
be the modern and more effective method of teaching but this derech
has seeped in from the non jewish approach.The problem with this
approach is that since it uses phonic sounds instead of identifying
the actual letter, it will appear that the student is reading, but he
is actually sounding the word, not seeing the word itself. Eventually,
he will struggle with translation and Rashi reading.

3) After the student has been taught the skill of reading Hebrew, he
should receive periodical testing, checking that his accuracy and
fluency level in school is maintained throughout his elementary years.

4) Grammar, colloquial and exact translation in every word must be
differentiated. At all times

Unfortunately, there is a surge in the classroom, where Yiddish and
“yeshivish” language( hebrew and yiddish words interspersed with
english) are used to teach english speaking students, whose first
language is english. The reasoning behind this phenomena is that the
Rebbeim feel they are carrying on a Mesorah. Unfortunately, this is
not a Mesorah, as we see from Moshe Rabbeinu who gave over the Torah
in 70 languages so that no one could say they didn’t understand the
Torah. Therefore Torah must be taught in the language which the
student understands. Since Yiddish is not these students’ mother
language, there is a lack of clarity and understanding the text, and
the student will struggle to express themselves. I myself, have
witnessed many students burning out because they did not learn in
their mother tongue. Even when it appears the student is reading and
translating in Yiddish, it doesn’t mean he understands what he is

5. A student should be able to read the context fluently, translate
exactly, and explain the sentence structure, whether it is Chumash or
Gemara. He must learn how to add extra words to explain the sentences,
since Chumash and Gemara are very concise, unlike English or any other
language which can be understood right away. Consequently, this
ability will enable the student to be able to learn on his own.

6. The student must be able to read fluently before starting Chumash.
The minimum a student should know is the Chumshei Torah first before
starting Mishnayos. Before commencing Gemara, the minimum should be
knowing all the Mishnayos Masechtas which are required for the Yeshiva
system, plus Nach inside until Melachim.

7.The major problem we are experiencing in today’s’ schools is that
some Rebbeim do not use the same pronunciation as their talmidim which
creates confusion with the student’s learning, sometimes with long
lasting consequences

8. Children should not be pressured to absorb more than they are
capable of at their specific age. Concerning homework, I would like to
quote my Rebbi, Rav Mattisyahu Salomon, who advocates a no homework
policy. “School should be the place to learn and the home should be a
place of refuge and time with the family. “(With Hearts Full of Love,
p. 79-83. published by Artscroll/Mesorah)

9) Medicating a student is a last resort, and never addresses
underlying causes of academic issues. It is a crutch used by many
institutions to eliminate extra expenses of remediation and hence
behavioural issues. A senior Rosh Hayeshiva confided to me, that, in
their community medication has been used for over 3 generations. From
my experience, I have seen that children who are unfocused in class
and labelled ADD/ADHD, most probably have underdeveloped academic
skills which have not been diagnosed, which will ultimately create
disinterest in the classroom, leading to lack of understanding of the
material presented by the teacher.

Other factors which could present as ADD/ADHD are sleep deprivation,
too much junk food (white sugar, processed foods etc.), skipping
breakfast, lack of exercise to name a few.

9. Educators must consider the possibility that an unsuccessful child
might be a victim of some sort of abuse (physical, mental, emotional
or sexual ) which is unfortunately a growing problem in our

10) All educators in frum schools including rebbis and principals
should be required to enrol in some form of kiruv programme before
starting classroom placements in order to learn how to transmit Torah
teachings and values with simcha and positivity.

11) It incumbent that there is a respect between parents and the
Hanhala. Communication is crucial between the two parties and, whilst
the educator has the premier responsibility of the child’s education
whilst in school, a parent’s requests should be considered in the
education of their child.

12) Jewish hashkofa should be emphasized in school. Torah is not just
texted based and hashkofa provides the grounding of how a Yid should
live and serve Hashem properly. It should be noted that children can
not be expected to be mekabel everything they hear from the Rebbe
without being allowed to ask questions and not feel that they are
questioning the validity of the Torah.

13) As in my previous articles, I advocate never to expel a student
from an institution without having a plan B put in place. If the
Menahel feels the child would be better suited for a different type of
institution, it is their utmost responsibility to find the child an
alternative place. He must not be allowed to put the child on the
street with no place to go. This in on the condition that the child
understands that a different place would be more suitable for him.
Otherwise, the child must not be made to feel that he is not wanted
and cared for. He must be made to feel that he has the option to do
both. HaRav Steinman Shlita gave a rebuke to a principal when asked if
a Menahel should accept a certain child whom he felt was not “their
type” for his school. He answered back that philosophy was Gaava and
that all children should be accepted.

14) Never punish a student by writing out a Gemara as retribution for
not following the place. I have worked with many students who don’t
learn certain Gemaras till this day since they had been administered
that Masechta as a punishment as a child.

15) Tefilla is crucial. A student must learn the translation and
understand what he is saying, otherwise davening will become boring
and meaningless.

16) It is the duty of each Rebbe to instill the above recommendations
into his classroom teaching. The Rebbe is the key in making a
student’s experience in school the most memorable and uplifting
experience. Parnasa should never be a criteria for keeping a Mechanech
employed in a school or yeshiva.

With the above suggested strategies, applying these principles in all
of our institutions, will help maintain the simcha that Limud Torah
should generate in all our children, preventing children leaving the

We must always have in mind Shlomo Hamelech’s dictate of Chanoch le’naar al pi darko,” not “darkem.”

Rabbi Dovid Abenson is the founder and director, author and lecturer
at Shaar HaTalmud, a unique yeshiva based online program, featuring
evaluations and remediation, working with students to upgrade skills
in Hebrew reading, chumash/rashi and gemara studies, consulting school
principals world – wide to improve their ability to help students who
possess under-developed skills. Also available for in house training
for schools and yeshivos. He can be reached at
or 1-877-HATALMUD (428 2568).



  1. #7 is controversial in a sense he is saying that Hasidim cant teach Litvaks and above that he is saying that the modern Orthodox with their huge emphasis on dikduk and actually understanding Hebrew and possibly modern day Ivrit is the correct mechalach. I actually agree with 95% of what he says.

    • “he is saying that Hasidim cant teach Litvaks”

      Where did he say that?

      There is no such thing as one uniform Chasidic pronunciation actually.

      Litvishe Chasidim, like Karlin, Stolin, Slonim, Lubavitch, etc., have a Litvish pronunciation of loshon kodesh.

  2. I am a rebbi and tutor for over 30 years B”H. I have close relatives who are what we call “haimish” or “with it”, a very close relation to OTD. I have met their friends and I agree that many of your observations and suggestions are right on target. About a year ago I met a very well known senior educator, I suggested that davening in the younger grades should revamped. I felt more time should be on teaching the boys correct pronunciation of all the tefilos. I suggested that pirush hamilim should be emphasized. I feel that our children are getting a very negative impression of davening by the way its taught in our yeshivos. This educator told me a line that is used when someone doesn’t want to fix the system. “Mesoroh” Its not the mesorah he told me. To this day I have never found a mesorah how to daven or what to daven, what I did find is Ish kul hayasher beainav yaseh. It is time that the yeshivos look over their curriculums’. In many cases these “curriculums” were decided a hundred or so years ago and new yeshivos just copied them. Look to see if the reason the eighth graders aren’t interested in their learning or davening is of the way it is presented in the younger grades. Whether davening or learning many good children are literally thrown into the deep water and they are on their own to sink or swim or just tread water. Of course they have no geshmack for yidishkeit.

  3. I believe our kids are unhappy for other reasons:

    1. We have become way too frum and much too demanding;
    2. The great people of yesteryear have disappeared and there is no one to draw them in;
    3. Those who teach today do not love their students; and
    4. Those who run our schools are only interested in “metzuyonim”.

    • Ehelichkeit vs Frumkeit. Apparently frumkeit has a better PR department. Its very easy for Frumkeit to turn in to Krumkeit. Not the same with Ehrlichkeit though!