Learning ‘IT’ 

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When I came to Yeshiva University in September 1968, it was a culture shock. Arriving from a quiet suburb of Boston to Manhattan Island was itself difficult, but going from public high school to yeshiva was even harder.

The double academic schedule of secular and Jewish studies was back breaking. But my biggest problem was that YU wasn’t Gan Eden. Coming from my Orthodox youth group, NCSY, to yeshiva had a sense of fulfillment to it. Theoretically, I was living the Ba’al Teshuva dream. But it didn’t feel that way.

Minyan attendance was poor, Shabbat in the dorm wasn’t very spiritual and many of the students didn’t take their Jewish studies seriously. I was a bit depressed.

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The person who turned my experience around was a true pedagogic giant (of quite short stature), Rabbi Moshe Besdin (1913-1982).

Rabbi Besdin fit many of the categories we have discussed in these posts about the turnaround of Orthodoxy in the 60’s. Even though he was born in Lithuania, he came to the US as a child, went to YU and became a successful American style rabbi, after serving as a chaplain in the Pacific Theater of WW2. He also had a large part in the Day School movement. He helped to found the Moshe Soloveitchik Day School in Washington Heights, while rabbi at Beit Medrash Hagadol on 175th Street, and, later Dov Revel Day school when Rabbi at K’hal Adat Yeshurun of Kew Gardens, Queens. He spread Torah and honored his two beloved mentors.

But he found his true calling when Rabbi Samuel Belkin, President of YU, asked him to take over the Jewish Studies Program (JSP, later JSS) in 1958. This new program was intended to make Yeshiva education available to young men who attended Public School. It didn’t start well.

Many students complained that the new group from public schools were diluting the religious atmosphere on campus. There was a theory that they were recruited to improve the sports teams at YU. Soon, it was said that the initials JSP, stood for Jewish Sports Program.

Rav Belkin addressed a group of student leaders and promised them:

A student showing insincerity in his Jewish studies will be forced to leave… The flooding of the College with any students who are not sincere in their quest for a religious education with never be permitted.

Ultimately, Rabbi Besdin came up with a better preemptive formula to protect religious interests. The motto of his office would be:

“All the non-committed shall not be admitted.

To keep that promise, Rav Besdin took extensive notes while he interviewed us for the program. During my interview in 1968, he stopped writing for a bit to look up at me, and say, ‘I hope you’re not planning to play basketball. It takes away from your success in learning.’ He was still thinking about those days when his program was denigrated. I assured him that I wouldn’t.

During the interview, it became clear that I couldn’t read Rashi script, and he gave me an assignment to gain that skill over the summer. He would only put me in the section called A (actually A2), if I did. That group had a more intense program, and I wanted it.

Something must have gone wrong during his note taking, though. When I came to YU in September, I was in class with Rav Zevulon Charlop on Mishne Brachot, Rav Besdin came in to hear us read. The night before, I had memorized the commentaries in Rashi script, with a great mentor from the Semicha program, Ezra Lightman OB”M. So, I aced the reading. Then Rav Charlop asked if I had attended Yeshiva Day School, Rav Besdin thought a moment, looked at me, and said, ‘Yes.’ I totally forgave him for forgetting that I had no such background. I was so proud of my stellar, if faked, reading.

For the rest of the semester, Rav Besdin was tough on me in his Chumash Breishit class, and I actually took it as a compliment, that he had high expectations. He often used his toughest epithet, ‘Trombenick!’ Wicki dictionary defines: A lazy person or ne’er-do-well. I’ve been called worse.

Between semesters, I received an ‘urgent message’ to see Rav Besdin. I was often in trouble, and wasn’t concerned. However, when I came into his office, I was shocked. Rav Besdin, whose normal demeanor could be described as ‘Napoleonic’, was abashed and contrite. Now, I was worried. He apologized for a horrible crime. His transgression? Thinking I had gone to Yeshiva and calling me a trombenik! I told him it was fine because it spurred me to succeed. He then asked if I would be willing to move to A1 (not the steak sauce, the higher class). I was overjoyed, and sure that I got advanced because of his guilt.

This taught me a lesson which I tried to emulate as a teacher myself. I think that my students appreciated my apologies. It often drew me closer to them.

JSS had a stellar staff: Rabbi Riskin, Rabbi Blech, Rabbi Berglas, Rabbi Siff. But Rav Besdin shown above them all, and set a very high bar.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, OB”M, as President of YU, encapsulated Rabbi Besdin’s teaching method in his eulogy:

Of the Biblical Moses the Sages said, Mosheh safra rabba — Moses was a great scribe. He labored over every letter, over every dot of the text of the Torah. Our Moshe too was deeply devoted to the text…and passionately advocated teaching students the elementary techniques of how to master a text before proceeding to more abstract conceptualization. He coined a simple but meaningful dichotomy that has proven to be the guiding slogan of JSS… We teach ‘IT’ not about ‘IT’

But like Camelot, the halcyon days didn’t last. In those days, 30% of JSS had gone to NCSY, and another 20% had gone to YU’s Torah Leadership Seminars (TLS).  By the mid-70’s, TLS was gone, and NCSY was often sending their alumni to other programs. JSS was no longer the only game in town. I actually had the privilege of joining Rav Riskin and Rav Brovender at one of those competitors in the business of ‘teaching IT’, Yeshivat Hamivtar.

Rav Besdin paved the way.

Next: The Power of ONE!

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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