An Interview with Rabbi Yosef Adler

AC: You function both as an educator/administrator in a flourishing yeshivah high school, the Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC), and as the rabbi of the relatively large Congregation Rinat Yisrael. Both of these sound like daunting commitments; together they are undoubtedly difficult to manage. How do you balance these two roles in your life? How do you resolve potential conflicts? Do the roles inform or influence each other in any way?

RYA: There’s no doubt that had I applied today for either position, I would never consider them both. No one would be able to handle both. I started at the shul when it was in its infant stage, literally fifteen families, and was not paying a living wage, so I had to have another job. At the time, I was teaching in Frisch, then I went to Hillel in Deal, and I went to Ramaz for a year. I knew I had to get a little closer because the shul was getting a little bigger. I started at the shul in 1979, and this was already 1991. The shul was growing, and I experienced conflicts. A woman’s mother passed away and, at that time, I was not the officiating rabbi at the funeral, since they lived somewhere else. All I would have done is gone to the funeral, said hello to the person, “I’m sorry,” and so on and so forth. I was in Deal at the time, and I would have to give up almost a whole day of teaching just to go to that funeral at 11:00. And I had to make an evaluation: What’s more important? To go to the funeral, to say hello for two minutes, or to teach a whole day? In my mind, teaching a whole day was more important. But that woman never forgave me. Never. And I came to realize that I can give the greatest shi’urim in the world, give good derashot (sermons), but the most important thing for members of the shul is what I do for them in their time of need.

So, I made a decision: I have to get closer. I can’t be 62 miles away everyday. I moved to Ramaz for a year; I was a little closer. Then this job opened up, a school with 66 kids in it – very small. I figured I could handle both. Had my children been younger at the time, very young, it would have been doing them a disservice. They were getting a little older already, and now as the shul and the school have really blossomed, my kids are all married already, so I work full-time, both jobs, whatever that means. I don’t have a day off a week. Weekends are a very busy time for the social calendar in the shul. It’s incredible how many bar and bat mitzvahs I have to go to. Last year, I counted 114 bar or bat mitzvahs, weddings, or l’chaims. That‘s not even counting levayahs (funerals) and things like that. That’s also considering that there are several weeks a year during which you can’t have any bar or bat mitzvahs, during the three weeks and during the omer, and so on. But if there is a conflict, I give first priority to the shul. If there’s a levayah, or someone in the hospital, I leave the school and I go, and the school board knows it. They’re aware of it. The president of the school is a member of the shul. Everybody knows about it. They understand it. I have capable people working in the school and things have been going smoothly. It’s just that I have forfeited any private time; I don’t have any. During the week I’m in the school, and on weekends I’m in the shul. I teach in the shul three shi’urim a week, at night. So I don’t have evenings, daytimes, it’s just full-full-time. But as long as I’m healthy and I can do it, and I can help my kids out financially as a result, I’m continuing to do it.

AC: Presumably, the people of the shul see you primarily as a shul rabbi, while the people of the school, particularly the students and parents who do not live in Teaneck, see you primarily as the Rosh HaYeshiva. Has that ever been a problem?

RYA: No, it has not. And in the shul, people know that I’m involved in education. A lot of my teaching and thinking and derashot harp on educational themes very often. But people are aware of it. They accept it. I have not had anyone say, “Maybe you should step down from one of the positions.” Not one person in either place.

AC: Tefillah education is a major struggle for yeshivot, particularly at the high school level. How can schools better teach students the methods and goals of prayer?

RYA: Davening is one of the great challenges of American Jewry, not just high school kids. Tefillah emerges from a recognition of need and dependence upon ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu. If you have everything, it’s difficult to engage in meaningful prayer. It’s very difficult. If you wake up in the morning and you don’t have to worry about where your next meal is coming from, where to find a roof to put over your head, the only thing that you have to worry about is, “Am I driving a Lexus or a Honda? Do I have a Blackberry or an iPad?” Those are the only major decisions that you have to make, so it’s difficult for American Jewry to engage in serious prayer, and it has nothing to do with high school – high school kids are just a reflection of that. And it’s a real challenge.

When you can win them over as a ben Torah, then the davening is part of the package. It’s not that difficult. If somebody wants to be a ben Torah, he understands that just as you want to observe Shabbat, you want to observe Kashrut, you want to learn Torah, you want to daven properly as well. For those that are not yet in the benei Torah community (and there are some in the school, many of them, certainly not a majority, but many of them), we try things. Three times a week we don’t daven as a shul. Three times a week we daven as a shi’ur, everyone in his own classroom. Five, six minutes every day – ra’ayonot ha-tefillah (ideas about prayer). Every month, we rotate rabbeim. So you’ll get seven, eight during the course of the year – different perspectives of their understanding of tefillah. Does it make a real impact? I don’t know. But it’s one of the real challenges of yeshivah education in general, and it usually goes hand-in-hand: The kids who are serious learners generally daven well. Kids who are not into learning at all, not into shemirat ha-mitsvot (observance of mitsvot), davening is one of the casualties that comes through it as well.

People are shocked at how much of a disciplinarian I am in shul. I am the cop in shul. I stand in the middle of the shul during hazarat ha-shats (the cantor’s repetition of the amidah) and leining (Torah reading), and if there’s anybody talking, I go over to them and I say, ”Look, you know…” So I control the tone and tenor in the shul. I work very hard at it. And I am proud that there is hardly any talking in shul whatsoever. But if the rabbi’s going to sit in a seat on the pulpit, and just forget it, it’s not going to happen automatically. And stopping davening is not enough. I’ve done a lot of tefillah education in shul. For six months, before we moved into the new building, for ten minutes after davening, besides for the regular derashah, before we said Adon Olam, I said something about tefillah. I shared with them many of the Rav’s ideas on semikhat ge’ulah le-tefillah (juxtaposition of redemption blessings to the amidah), and so on and so forth. And it seems to have had an impact.

AC: Do you think that in today’s economic climate, with increasing financial pressures on families, there is a “tuition crisis”? If so, what can be done about it? Are you, in your position as Rosh HaYeshiva of TABC, pursuing any solutions to lower (or at least not increase) tuition?

RYA: The idea of tuition crisis has been bantered about so frequently, and yet PEJE, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, recently came out with a study that shows that enrollment in day schools across the United States has experienced modest growth in the last three years. The only educational network that has suffered drastically during this time is Solomon Schechter.1,2 Now, that tells PEJE and everybody else something very significant: If Jewish education is your bottom line, you know that it’s a priori, the number-one function in your life, no matter how difficult the struggle is financially, you are not going to give that up. When you’re dealing with a community that’s somewhat less religious, however, and now the demands become so severe financially, they don’t feel uncomfortable going to public school. So we have not noticed a serious decline in Jewish education in the last three years, since this tuition crisis started. In fact, schools across the United States have experienced a modest increase.

Now, there’s no doubt that schools have taken a look at themselves and tried to cut things, tighten things up a little. There’s no doubt. We have managed not to raise tuition for two consecutive years. Tuition is still high – still $20,000 a year. We’re below some of our competitors – Frisch is higher, MTA is higher, SAR is considerably higher. I just saw the packet from Ramaz – it’s $35,000 for high school. It’s unbelievable. But for two years in a row, we have not raised tuition. And I think that this is going to continue – that the overwhelming majority of people will recognize their responsibility, though I haven’t found a full-fledged system yet. In Bergen County, we have what’s called NNJKIDS, which has raised more than a million dollars over the last two years, so that every elementary school has gotten $300 per student a year for the last two years. Now, that’s $300 a year, which means preventing another $300 increase in tuition, above and beyond whatever they did increase. The idea is to try to shift responsibility for tuition not just to the tuition payers, but to the community at large. We have not yet accomplished our objective. The OU has a proposal, which I’ve pushed in my shul, and they have to get this going across the community. Rabbi [Hershel] Schachter says that 75% of your tsedakah allocations should remain right here in your backyard. (Here the community decided that might be a little too aggressive, so they’re trying 50%.) Of that, 50% should be directed to Jewish education. So if somebody gives $15,000 a year to tsedakah, $7,500 has to stay here in Bergen County, of which 50% has to be given to Jewish education. That’s your tsedakah allocation. If this were to be implemented, this would make an enormous impact on Jewish education in our community. It would pump in thousands of dollars, and it would not cost a person an extra penny, because instead of giving it to yeshivot in Israel, hospitals in Israel, and things like that, Rabbi Schachter would say, instead of giving to Yeshivat Har Etzion and Sha’alvim, give it to your local schools. He’s spoken publicly about this. He’s spoken at the OU.

There’s another program, which I think can have a lot of potential if people will buy into it. In Chicago, there’s this one guy by the name of George Hanus, who came up with “the 5% plan.” Every shul you go to has a big sign listing the people who’ve signed up five percent. Five percent of your will is to Jewish education.3 We haven’t done that yet. We’re not a community that’s dying yet, thank God. But in several years, that could make a substantial difference. In Chicago, it’s made a big difference. Every single person knows five percent of his assets have to be given to Jewish education. Those types of things, in the long run, can generate a lot of funds. But with this 50%, remaining in your keep, your tsedakah money, you don’t have to ask the person for one extra dollar, just change the priority. That’s important. That can raise big money. And I’m hopeful that it will make an impact.

AC: Some schools have come out against expensive summer camp experiences, insisting that they will not grant scholarships to students who attend summer camps. Advocates of camps will claim that the informal educational setting of camp is a necessary counterpart to the formal setting of scholastic education. Which side do you support, and why?

RYA: From a principal of a school, I’m in favor of that idea. If you can’t afford yeshivah high school, you can’t expect a full-paying tuition customer to support your son going to Morasha for the summer. Because when you give a scholarship to a needy family, who’s paying for it? The person who can afford it. The school has to pay its bills, so when you give away, let’s say, a million dollars in scholarships, the million dollars has to be made up some place. So the full tuition is now determined based on the fact that you have X number of dollars in scholarship. That’s how every committee makes up their tuition line. So, the question is, does the full-tuition-paying parent have an obligation to make sure that this other kid can go to NCSY Kollel? I don’t think they do. That’s a luxury. It’s an important, valuable educational supplement. There’s no doubt. I push it all the time. TABC used to offer financial discounts, $500 off your tuition if you sent your kid to NCSY Kollel, but then we realized that it’s not fair. It’s not fair. And, in effect, by giving a scholarship because you’re paying for Morasha, Moshava, or NCSY, the full-tuition-paying parents are paying for that kid to go to summer school, to summer camp. If you took that to a parent-body vote, they’ll vote it down in a second, and I think they’re right.

AC: How should yeshivot deal with students who display problematic behaviors, including drug abuse, drinking, smoking, and abuse of peers? At what point is it appropriate to consider dismissing such students from the framework of a yeshivah day school or high school?

RYA: Yeshivot are in the business of education. We want to give everybody an opportunity. On the other hand, there are guidelines that have to exist in order to create an atmosphere conducive to producing benei Torah. So there are guidelines that every yeshivah high school has to have. We, and many other high schools, have signed up with an OU policy in terms of drug use and alcohol use: the first time you are caught, the school maintains a commitment not to throw you out, but you must submit to going to professional therapy. Whatever the therapist recommends, the student has to be willing to abide by. That is clearly stipulated. If you peddle in school – if you sell drugs, promote and facilitate, that is grounds for immediate expulsion, because you are a danger to somebody else. And, as an administrator, I have an obligation to protect students in the school. And if somebody is a threat to their safety and security, I have an obligation to throw that kid out of school. And if he is going to public school, I have no compunctions whatsoever. I would hope he would get into another yeshivah high school, but if he doesn’t, the kid blew it himself. I feel bad, but there is no alternative.

The same thing is true for theft. I do not have any tolerance for someone who does not respect someone else’s property. Two years ago, we had several problems with theft, and then we finally caught the guy, and I asked him to leave the next day. That is threatening the safety of other students, and he has no right to do that. You have a right to go to public school, by virtue of the fact that you pay taxes. But coming to a yeshivah high school is a privilege, not a right. And if you forfeit that privilege, you forfeit it. Students know the rules and regulations; they are clearly indicated in the handbook. We have a very strict bullying policy. It is a serious issue; we do not take it lightly. I am not going to throw out a kid the first time that he does it, but if it happens, there are serious disciplinary consequences. If he does it again, he is prone to being asked to leave. If he gets into another yeshivah high school, that’s fine. But I do not think that I have the responsibility to carry this boy, because he has a Jewish soul, at the expense of him oppressing another kid who is smaller or weaker, more prone to being taunted. I have a responsibility to protect the people who are here who want to be here, who want to cooperate. If you are not interested in doing that, then I do not feel any responsibility to you.

AC: Is this all for behaviors that are expressed within the context of school, on school grounds, or are there ever occasions where what they do outside of school can carry in-school consequences?

RYA: Obviously, there is greater flexibility if it takes place off school grounds. But we advise parents and students that issues like drinking and drugs may have an impact on their future at TABC, even if it does take place off-campus. Certainly in terms of mandating that they go for therapy, that for sure is going to happen.

AC: You have been involved with teaching and administration in several schools, including both co-ed and single-sex environments. In your experience, what are the deficiencies inherent in each model?

RYA: The primary deficiency in coeducation is coeducation. For young men with hormones and young women with hormones, social interaction becomes a primary concern under those circumstances. I believe that coeducation is not as effective for that very reason. I don’t think it is a problem halakhically, and I don’t think there is a problem with young women studying together with, and being able to compete with, young men. When I taught in Frisch, some of my best students were girls, with co-ed classes all the way. There was one girl my second year in Frisch whom I used to call Berel – that was the Rav’s nickname – because she was so good. However, I think that the social interaction is such an all-encompassing issue in a co-ed school, and that does not exist in single-sex schools. There have been studies done by Princeton University that showed that girls’ SAT II scores are considerably higher in the sciences in separate educational environments. They concluded that girls are ashamed to ask questions in the presence of boys, because they don’t want to look like fools. I see this in my shul also. I have a mixed Gemara shiur on Monday night – a handful of women come, but it is mostly men. The women are generally very quiet. I have a Wednesday night Mishnah shiur, only women, and they question non-stop. Several men have asked me if they can because I am against a mixed shiur, but because I want to give the women the opportunity to feel comfortable. When the men are sitting there, the women think, “I’m going to look like a novice, asking a question in front of this guy; he’s been learning for twenty years already!” So I think there are educational advantages to separate education.

On the other hand, I think that boys behave better in the presence of girls. Immature, stupid behavior is an issue far more compelling in a separate boys school as opposed to a co-ed environment. There they are much, much better behaved in that regard. The boys don’t want to make fools out of themselves in the presence of girls. But educationally, I think separate education is better.

AC: Education in matters of faith and belief has classically been marginalized in favor of the study of Gemara be-iyun, Halakhah, and Tanakh. Is this justified, especially for a generation in which fealty to tradition is simply insufficient to retain believing Jews?

RYA: That is a very good question, and we have come a long way in recognizing the need to enable students to explore emunot ve-de’ot (beliefs and outlooks) issues. Now, besides Gemara, Humash, and Navi, there is one Judaic Studies elective where they can choose between emunah u-bittahon, understanding the masorah, more practical Halakhah options, introduction to Hassidut, and Jewish philosophy. We recognize that students like to pursue such issues. But for the students who have struggled with these issues, I have found that when they go to Israel, they have twelve hours a day to explore those issues. In Israel, there are no other pressures and no requirements, and I think that that is a much better environment to pursue those issues, where there can be a lot of one-on-one. In a class environment, a guy is going to start talking, “I don’t believe in God.” It is difficult to launch such a discussion in a public forum. When you are dealing one-on-one with a rebbe, you can talk to him any time you want, and the discussion can go on for hours, as it typically does, where they have the time for it.

We have recognized the fact that there is a need for it, and privately, the guidance counselors, many of whom are frum, deal with that. There is one guidance counselor, Rabbi Friedman – that is all he does, guidance with religious issues, and not so much classic academic guidance. It is very successful, but it is hard to do that across the board. There has to be ample time given for it, dedicated to it. Years ago we didn’t have anything, maybe just a question-and-answer session. But now it is given much more thought, rigorous study, and a little more proactive pursuit.

AC: Is the “Year in Israel” for everyone? From the perspective of a high school educator, what challenges do you see in the established system?

RYA: Overall, obviously with some exceptions, the year in Israel has been a very positive experience for the overwhelming majority of our graduates. Not only those who are already in the benei Torah camp, but even those who are not in the benei Torah camp. Many have experienced tremendous growth going for the year, and it has made an enormous impact on their lives. I am not saying it is for everybody. Obviously, Israel schools have to be careful and should be monitoring students a little more effectively than they do. They should set up the same guidelines that high schools do. You don’t want to join the program? Goodbye, Charlie! This is an option year, and there is no obligation that you have to be here. If you want to go drinking at Ben Yehuda, then this is not the place for you. They should let students know this right from the beginning. However, overall, our experiences with the year in Israel have been very positive.

AC: You are a noted advocate of the use of derekh Brisk (the Brisker method of Talmud study) in high school education.4 How do you respond to the concerns of educators who feel that high school is a time to focus on reading skills and general familiarity with the spectrum of Torah?

RYA: My number one objective in yeshivah high school education is to turn people on to learning. I try to show them that learning can be taken seriously and is enjoyable, and I hope to pique their curiosity to learn. I love to have guys who are budding talmidei hakhamim, but I want most of them to be baalebatim (laymen) who respect learning and I want them to get turned on to learning. My goal is not that every kid should know how to “make a leining” (read a passage of Talmud). I do not think that in the time that is allocated in yeshivah high schools of our orbit – an hour and a half or two hours a day – is sufficient to communicate that. It is, if it is your only objective. If your only objective is skills, then perhaps you could have kids read, and reread, and reread. But I think you will turn off eighty percent of them, because it is a little boring. I am willing to forfeit that for the experience of getting them challenged and letting their minds explore what is happening, let them get involved in the learning process and hopefully turn them on to make Torah-learning an incredibly important value in their life. I think that intellectual stimulation and lomdus and Brisker Torah is the way to go.

 

Rabbi Yosef Adler is the Rosh HaYeshiva of the Torah Academy of Bergen County and is rabbi of Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck.

 

Ariel Caplan is a senior at YC majoring in Biology, and is an associate editor for Kol Hamevaser.

 

1 The Project for Excellence in Jewish Education, “Enrollment Changes in Jewish Day Schools 2008-2009 to 2009-2010, Summary of Key Findings,” available at: http://www.peje.org/docs/Summary_of_Data.pdf.

2 Editor’s Note: According to the report, schools labeled “Centrist Orthodox” grew somewhat during this period, but schools described as “Modern Orthodox” decreased their enrollment. Jewish community day schools and Reform day schools (of the RAVSAK and PARDeS networks, respectively) also experienced decreased enrollment.

3 Sam Selig, “PROFILE Day School Champion Races Ahead with his ‘5 Percent’ Funding Solution,” JTA, July 7, 1999, available at: www.jta.org.

4 Yosef Adler, “Conceptual Approach to Learning and Hinnukh,” in Lomdut: The Conceptual Approach to Jewish Learning, ed. by Yosef Blau (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 2006), 131-144.