In recent years, more attention is being given to both special needs and to individualized education. The first method fulfills the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s vision that every Jewish child has a right to learn Torah and that parents, and we as a community, have a responsibility to make sure that this vital need is provided. The second method, individualized education, is crucial to ensuring that each student is motivated and develops a person incentive to succeed. These efforts are more than commendable, they’re lifesaving.
Special needs educational focuses on the age old Jewish principle of maximizing every individual’s potential. The Lubavitcher Rebbe would famously point out how children with certain challenges are called “special” because of the holiness of their souls. This is also readily perceivable to those who interact with children who have these challenges.
Individualized education fills a very different and much more common void. It is based on the well known principle that while many students may flourish in a general classroom setting, some will struggle to keep up while others, who are not challenged by the general level of learning, will lose interest out of boredom. The Torah (Mishlei 22:6) tells us “chanoch lenaar al pi darko – teach a youth according to his way,” that every student is a unique individual and needs to be taught on his or her level. Another meaning of the verse is that each child needs to be inspired, captivated and motivated in the specific way that reaches his or her heart.
Individualized education is more crucial today than ever. Many gifted and talented children have, may G-d Almighty protect all, fallen off of the Torah true path because of lack of interest. Their classes were not meaningful to them and neither was the method of instruction. There is no greater suffering for a parent and there is no greater loss to Klal Yisroel, the Jewish community as a whole, than the spiritual loss of a child. This is easily preventable and as New York yeshivos and chedarim (Torah schools) catch on and focus on this new lifesaving method of education, we as shluchim and leaders in our communities need to as well. We are not just responsible for our own kids, but also for the children of the community and for those whose parents seek our guidance.
Mainstream cheders are now realizing that there are gifted kids who become easily bored in the regular class setting. Others are very talented in some ways (above the class average), yet struggle in other areas of learning. Other children just need more one-on-one instruction and need a mentor who will motivate them both spiritually and academically. One such mainstream cheder which recognizes this and implements a personalized curriculum that has turned around many students, setting them on the path toward a lifetime of learning, is Yeshivas Chok LYisroel in Crown Heights (www.choklyisroel.org). Its founder, Rabbi Hershel Moss, filled a void that was seeing smart boys fall behind in classes that did not talk to them and the great success of many is attributable to him.
The Talmud in Eruvin (54b) relays a fascinating story of Rav Preida. This great sage would teach one student 400 times before the latter would comprehend the lesson. One day, Rav Preida was called to engage in a mitzvah, but continued to teach his student, who this time didn’t grasp the lesson, even after 400 times. When Rav Preida asked, out of concern, what was different that prevented the student from understanding the lesson, the student answered “from the moment (that Rav Preida) had been asked to engage in a mitzvah, I could not concentrate, (all the while thinking) now my teacher will get up.” Rav Preida asked the student to give his attention and taught him again another 400 times. At that point a Heavenly voice went out asking Rav Preida if he’d prefer for 400 years to be added to his life or if he’d rather be guaranteed to enter Gan Eden (heaven) along with his entire generation. When he chose heaven for his generation, Hashem decreed that he should be given both blessings. Certainly Hashem appreciated the primary importance of teaching every child.
There is no greater task and no endeavor that is more worthy than that of transmitting our Holy Torah to the next generation. It is what makes us Jews and it is our eternal covenant with Hashem. There is also no greater obligation. The story of Rabbi Preida is recorded in the Talmud after pointing out the obligation to teach each student until he not only understands it well, but can also to repeat the lesson properly to others. These obligations are learned directly from how Moshe Rabbeinu taught the People of Israel.
In truth, we do not need to go as far back as the Talmud to see the true importance of giving each and every Jewish child the Torah education that works for them. Only a generation ago, the greatest of scholarly chassidim risked their lives under the nose of the dreaded KGB, may their memory be obliterated, just in order to teach a child Aleph Bais. Indeed, many were killed for having performed this holy task. In this generation, we are blessed with the ability for Torah and Torah teaching to add length of days. All we have to do is dedicate ourselves to training each child.