The Derech Eretz Conundrum: A 21st Century Communal Challenge


Derech Eretz Kadma l’Torah….(Leviticus Rabba)

Since time immemorial, our communities and institutions have struggled with the continued challenge of how to effectively teach our children about the critical importance of derech eretz, middot tovot and character development.

Every year, thousands of books, articles, essays and divrei torah, complemented by a wide array of impressive lectures, workshops and conferences, have focused on this topic with in-depth perspective and analysis. These writings and conversations are in addition to the development and dissemination of creative and innovative derech eretz and middot curricula, as well as in-service teacher training in our Jewish day schools and yeshivot.

The literal meaning of derech eretz is defined as “the way of the land” and is a term used to describe proper behavior. This concept which is anchored in torah writings  states that derech eretz kadma l’torah ( Leviticus Rabbah 9:3) –  derech eretz is a prerequisite to Torah study. The term is further illustrative of the manner in which we view derech eretz as a top communal priority and responsibility, and, as a blueprint or roadmap for the manner in which we are expected to behave, interact and speak with one another. To be sure, derech eretz according to our Torah, is a mandate as well as a moral imperative.

Additional proof texts regarding the importance of Derech Eretz are found in Pirkei Avot (3:21) which states that Rabbi Elazar ben-Azaria says: “Without the study of Torah there can be no Derech Eretz; and, without Derech Eretz there can be no Torah.”

Finally, an amazing volume entitled Chovas haTalmidim (Chapter 6), the great Rabbi Kalonymus  Kalmish Shapira (the Rebbe of Plaseczna, 1889-1943)  writes that “one of the principle reasons that few Torah giants arise from our generation is because children grew up thinking that it is perfectly alright to contradict (or speak against) their parents and leaders.”

These are just a few of the numerous quotes, proof texts and passages which support the critical importance and significance of Derech Eretz.

In spite of the importance of this midda (Jewish value, virtue or character trait), why are so many communities, schools and families struggling to successfully impart these behavioral norms and standards to our children? Why are we as a community not experiencing and witnessing the positive impact or result of these efforts in our children? And, what would it take to ensure greater levels of commitment to the concept of derech eretz kadma l’torah.

Before I respectfully respond to these challenges,  it would be short-sighted for this writer to assume that our community is completely devoid of derech eretz, acts of chesed and respect. This is definitely not the case.

Today, we are witnessing exponential growth and a proliferation in the number of schools that are placing tremendous emphasis and prominence on the teaching and modeling of derech eretz. In fact, as a career educational leader, I can’t recall a time in recent history when there has been such a significant expansion of curricular materials, programs and educational initiatives focusing upon the teaching and modeling of derech eretz and character development in our day schools and classrooms.

As we know, there are those who feel that this phenomenon is but a mirror image of our society and zeitgeist, and therefore represents a reactive or “push-back” response to a community and society that is in dire need of stronger values, structure and a moral compass or sense of direction. Then, there are those who strongly suggest that this phenomenon represents “business as usual” and is a natural/normal response or expansion of our tradition mesora or chinuch mandate – especially as it relates to what today’s generation of students are expected to know, understand and embrace.

These two opinions or perspectives are at best interesting and revealing. But, they do very little to advance our understanding as to why our communities have by-and-large failed to instill in or youth a shared responsibility and obligation regarding character development and derech eretz.

So the question still remains…..with all the intensive focus, sincere interest and resources now being invested in teaching and modeling derech eretz and character development in our schools, why are we still experiencing a growing gap and vacuum in our communities regarding this critical area of need? In other words, why are our efforts not translating into positive results in our schools, homes and communities.

As I have written and lectured on several occasions, one has only to observe or witness the variety of behaviors, language, actions and speech of our youth in our  shuls, market places, school hallways, lunchrooms, basketball courts and even classrooms in order to more fully comprehend the daunting erosion of derech eretz of our children and students. This painful reality extends to a lack of respect for the physical space of others, poor manners, inappropriate language and speech as well as mannerisms which are contradistinctive to the efficacy, standards and values of the very essence of derech eretz.

So as we step back, take a deep breath and a hard look at today’s reality, what emerges is a very straightforward challenge – namely the inability of our community, parents and families (as partners) to support and reinforce the values and norms which our schools are so desperately trying to teach and model.

It goes without saying that our schools, their teachers, rebbeim and staff are trying desperately to infuse their classrooms with best/model practice as they relate to the teaching of derech eretz and middot tovot. We also know that irrespective of how hard these schools try, students leave school and return to their homes where there is very little supervision, and no reinforcement or continuity of what is being taught in our schools. This lack of continuity, consistency and partnership presents significant challenges.

In light of these realities, our communities cry out for change in the narrative. As opposed to wringing our hands or placing the blame at the feet of parents when a child goes “off the derech”, it is time for our communities to help parents respond and navigate these growing concerns before they even occur.

It does indeed take a village!

There are those in the educational field (self-included), who feel that the parent “blame-game” is useless, and that schools must now create new realities by reaching out beyond the four walls of the school and into the home. In order for this to be realized,  parents will require significant help, guidance and direction from our schools, educational communities and its institutions.

Whether we hold parents accountable for their lack of parenting skills, or blame parents for their children’s lack of derech eretz or middot tovot, one thing is clear –  they cannot go it alone. They require more chizuk and education which many of them are either not receiving or sadly chose not to receive.

Bottom line – we must stop blaming parents who are ill prepared to respond to these issues and we must create a communal environment and culture which will help these parents support and reinforce what we are trying to teach and model in our day schools and yeshivot.

Yes, there is plenty of blame and guilt to go around. But, once we all agree that parents and families have defaulted in their obligation and achrayut (responsibility), we must move forward post-haste in order to help them.

Chazal teaches us that when we see that a child is having difficulty walking (at a developmental  stage in the child’s life that requires self regulated physical mobility) it is the parents obligation and responsibility to help correct this deficit; and the parent must do everything (repeat everything) possible to reverse this physical manifestation. This simple example and its implications, should be crystal clear.

The Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE) Initiative: A Modest  Proposal:

As envisioned, the Torah Im Derech Eretz Initiative (“TIDE”) proposes that all participating Jewish day schools and yeshivot require parents to participate in a series of well-developed parent education programs.

These mandatory programs will provide parents with the character development skill-sets required to help them (in part) support and complement what schools are trying to teach their children.

This parent-school requirement will demand that parents enroll in parallel school-sponsored parenting classes, courses, programs, workshops and consultations.

To take this requirement one step further, our community’s Rabbis and poskim will need to mandate this requirement. This means that unless there are cases of extreme hardship, every parent of a child enrolled in the school, without exception must participate in order to enable and guarantee continued enrollment of their children in the day school/yeshiva.

Project TIDE must become an integrated normative component of a student’s day school/yeshiva education.

As I write this BLOG, I am fully aware and cognizant that there will be significant pushback for a wide variety of legitimate reasons. Having said that, we no longer have viable choices. To be sure, we are all exhausted and tired of blaming parents, society and schools for the ever increasing erosion of derech eretz, midot tovot and character development in our children.

It is now high time to take decisive action lest we run the risk of losing a generation of children to a society which does not promote or support these values and which continuously support behavior, values, norms and standards which are the antithesis to Jewish values and Torah education.

Several of the mandatory sessions to be offered by Project TIDE, may include, but not be limited to following topics which parallel, support and complement the school’s middot and derech eretz curricula:

  • The role and responsibility of parents as role models in promoting and supporting exemplary character and  middot;
  • Shmirat HaLashon and Shmirat HaDibbur ;
  • When and how to speak with your children about kindness, chesed and respect;
  • How to support and recognize positive middot in our children;
  • Consequences, boundaries and structure in the home: a sine qua non for effective parenting;
  •  Developing a reward system in order to incentivize exemplary middot;
  • The uses and misuses of technology in our homes, schools and communities;
  • One-on-one parent guidance and counseling sessions by experienced professionals.
  • How to reinforce at home what is being taught in  school as it relates to middot, derech eretz and character development.

The above topics are just a sample of the types of information which would hopefully advance parent understanding and engagement.

It is obvious that this requirement may create a level of push-back, anxiety and even age, especially for parents who are time-starved, or over extended with other family and work commitments and obligations. Nevertheless, like everything in life (including taxes), there are certain requirements and expectations that must to be followed. This requirement is just a small price our communities must pay for years of unintentional neglect as it relates to our collective dereliction of duty in instilling derech eretz and proper middot in our children. The alternative is not an option. Will it be demanding? It will indeed. But, so is responsible parenting and child rearing.

Finally, it is important to note that for parents and families who cannot attend these sessions in person, there will be remote (not virtual) options. via zoom, etc,

One of the most significant challenges emerging from this mandatory requirement will be the ability and willingness for parents to self-regulate participation. This means that once a parent signs a school contract committing themselves to PROJECT TIDE, they will automatically become part of an honor system; and, will be expected to fulfill their parental obligation.


In conclusion, as I was committing my thought to writing (for this BLOG), I also began to reflect how unfortunate it is that we are in the state that we are in regarding our children’s middot.

It is with very heavy heart that I was compelled to write this piece. We know all too well how difficult and challenging it will be to create and implement PROJECT TIDE, or for that matter any other initiative which taxes our parents. But, we also know that the status quo is no longer acceptable. To be sure, our schools are saturated with derech eretz and middot programs; and, many are ready and able to redouble or even triple their efforts in this area. But, as we also know, our Jewish day schools and yeshivot will never be as effective as they should or could be in the absence of true parental commitment, parental buy-in and ongoing support.

It’s time for all of us – schools, parents, families, rabbinic and communal leadership – to rally and coalesce around this challenge. We must begin to play catch up for years of benign neglect. To use an overused expression –  failure is not longer an option.

It is my hope and prayer that HaShem will grant us the wisdom, chizuk and will required to inspire our children with the necessary values, middot tovot and character. And, it is my hope that parents will embrace this evolving  responsibility with all of their hearts and conviction.

Let’s make it happen!

About the Author
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is Executive Director of the Sha’arie Bina Academy for Girls, Hollywood FL., executive coach and consultant. He served as president and CEO of the central agency for Jewish education in Baltimore and in Miami. He has published and lectured extensively on topics relating to education, strategic planing and leadership development. Dr. Botwinick is Author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness”, Brown Books, 2011
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