Sunday, June 28, 2015

BACK TO THE BEIT MIDRASH

YBA has found the secret to instilling a love of learning Torah in the hearts of their students: a return to the classical formula of Hevruta study in the Beit Midrash

By Moshe Glanz, ARUTZ SHEVA NEWS (translation)

YBA yeshiva high school students in the Beit Midrash
In the ongoing discussions over the past several years about how to make Gemara (Talmud) study more popular among yeshiva high school students, the YBA educational network began developing two years ago a new method of teaching Talmud, which has gained momentum in the past year. This year the method was applied in 16 different Bnei Akiva yeshiva high schools throughout the country, and the network plans on expanding the system to more schools next year. The goal is to double the number of participating students from 800 to 1,500, with the assistance of the Religious Education Department of the Ministry of Education.

Not like Math and English

On of the initiators of the change was Rabbi Meir Toiber, Rosh Yeshiva of YBA Netiv Meir in Jerusalem. In an interview with B’sheva, Rabbi Toiber explained that the decision for the change was made after a gradual decline in the total number of hours dedicated to Gemara study in yeshiva high schools over the past 15 years for various reasons. As a result, the Beit Midrash (study hall) was hardly being used for the purpose of independent learning. "We realized that in order to instill the love of Torah in our students we would need to turn the situation around 180 degrees."

What was the method of study before the change?

"The students perceived the Morning Seder (study session) in the Beit Midrash as preparation time for the class in Talmud that followed, in which the teacher would cover everything they needed to know anyway. This created a feeling that Talmud was just like any other subject. We finally came to the conclusion that the reason why our students were lacking motivation to study Talmud," he says. "was that they felt the same, whether studying for a Talmud lesson, a math lesson or an English lesson. But if we look deeply into the concept of Torah study, we understand that the Talmudic competence is acquired not only from hearing a lecture, but through struggling to understand a passage in the text through the give-and-take of independent study with a hevruta (study partner)."

The Talmud consists of the Mishna, Gemara and commentaries
Rabbi Yehuda Felix, who until six months ago, was the head of Education Department at Yeshivot Bnei Akiva educational network, properly understood the need to change the equation. , and together with Rabbi Toiber and the financial backing of YBA benefactor, Mr. Benjamin Landy, it was decided to change the Morning Seder both literally and figuratively. "This is a significant change;" Rabbi Toiber states. "it is not just about learning in an hour and a half. We moved the Talmud lesson to before the Morning Seder so that everything learned in the classroom becomes preparation for the Seder session itself, where students sit with their study partners and actively acquire the skills for learning Talmud." According to Rabbi Toiber, this self-instruction experience leads to a love of Torah because it provides the natural connection to the Torah that was so lacking before.

The results were not long in coming. A few months after some of the yeshiva high schools decided to adopt and began implementing the system, the initiators realized that they had caught a wave. "I had students tell me happily: ‘Before Talmud was just another subject for me; now I understand that what I am doing is learning to learn Torah.’” That proves to me that this is a big change," Rabbi Toiber says enthusiastically.  "Just recently, I went into the Beit Midrash of one of our yeshiva high schools to look for a certain teacher, and I saw dozens of boys sitting and learning with their hevruta partners. I looked to my right and to my left and couldn’t find their rabbi. When I approached the students and asked them where he was, they replied: ‘He is in reserve duty [in the IDF].’"

Rabbi Toiber could not resist and asked: “So why are you sitting and learning in the Beit Midrash instead of playing ball outside?” The students did not understand the question. "It's an amazing thing," he continues smiling. "This shows that the change worked. The students understood that they acquired Torah by sitting and learning with their hevruta. This should not to be taken as a given – these are fruits that we had not seen before. At the end of the year we visited all the Yeshivot and met with students, teachers and yeshiva heads. They filled out feedback sheets, and we discovered a huge surge in love of learning Torah. All the measures of attention, attachment and motivation were well above anything we had ever seen before."

Does not contradict matriculation

It is no secret that in Bnei Akiva yeshiva high schools there is tension between the desire to study Torah and the connection to the real world. But according to Rabbi Toiber, the struggle between different forces only proves that Torah study must receive greater expression. "Over the years the students have come to expect and demand high achievement levels in both general and Judaic studies matriculation scores. This “wanting it all” demands that we provide enrichment in both directions," he explains. "Ultimately, the ideal of the yeshiva is that Torah should influence every aspect of life - everything," he says. "Our concept is: be a military man, be a lawyer, be a farmer, merchant or be anything you want; but on one condition: that you stay connected to the Torah. The connection to Torah must not be just intellectual; it must be a spiritual link. It is clear to me that students should learn for matriculation tests, but all subjects must be wrapped up in the connection to Torah."

Following the success of the initiative, YBA wants to expand to an even higher level. "We want to eventually include another measure of success – we hope to have our students writing term papers on the Talmudic issues they dealt with during the year."

When learning Torah becomes achievement oriented, don’t you lose something of the value of learning Torah for its own sake?

"First of all, that’s a great question. And you’re right, that is a difficult challenge," says Rabbi Toiber. "But it is important to emphasize that we are not talking here about just a positive learning experience." According to him, the bottom line must be that the students master in depth the Talmud they were studying during the year. "When we ask the students what is the conclusion of a Talmudic passage they learned, they need to know the answer, and not just that they enjoyed studying it. That’s not how you raise Talmidei Chachamim. We need to work simultaneously on both aspects, so that on the one hand they will learn the proper tools of Torah study with their hevruta that will serve them later in life, and on the other hand to professionally measure their scholastic achievement."

How do you intend to move the process forward in the years ahead?


"We are moving forward in two ways: first by training our Talmud teachers to use this method effectively. We are already doing this and we will do even more next year. Secondly, this year we included 16 Bnei Akiva yeshiva high schools, and by expanding next year to 22 schools, the number of students participating in the initiative will double. Thus, gradually we believe, we will succeed in bringing back the sounds of Talmud study to all the yeshiva high schools in the Bnei Akiva network." Rabbi Toiber explains, "Our goal is to increase Torah and glorify it."

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