Back To School

August 19, 2021

From the desk of Rabbi Eliyohu Meir Schmelczer

Dina Steinberg

Two sharpened pencils and a crisp new notebook may be what we envision as we prepare our children for the new school year (and a three-inch binder, a Hebrew-English dictionary, six highlighters, and a four-pocket folder with fasteners, of course).

In truth, school prep extends far beyond Staples and begins way earlier than the dawn of September.

We spoke with Rabbi Eliyohu Meir Schmelczer to learn some of the things to keep in mind when getting ready for the new year.

Rabbi Schmelczer has been involved in chinuch as a rebbi and a menahel for close to 30 years. He began his career as a mesivta rebbi in Yeshiva Gedolah of Montreal and after several years, moved to Miami in the capacity of menahel of the mechinah. He is currently sgan menahel of the eighth grade at Yeshiva Orchos Chaim and rav in kehillas Flair-Jackson. From the vantage point of over two decades of chinuch experience with children from every type of home and background, Rabbi Schmelczer shares tips, tools, and advice for parents, students, and teachers as they prepare for the new school year.

A childhood of chinuch

Growing up in Chicago, Rabbi Schmelczer was fortunate to be educated under the tutelage of his illustrious father, Rav Chaim Schmelczer, rosh yeshivah of Telz-Chicago, and Rav Avraham Chaim Levin, both of whom served as role models to their young talmid. Later, when he left Chicago for Brisk, Rav Avraham Yehoshua Soloveitcik made a deep impact on Rabbi Schmelczer, helping to formulate his hashkafas hachaim.

“My house was a home of chinuch,” Rabbi Schmelczer relates. “It was a happy home, a loving home. My father taught me that our job is to help create happy, motivated bnei Torah. We have to love our talmidim and connect with them. My father formed lifelong relationships with his students. He was with them under their chuppahs and later at their children’s brissim, bar mitzvahs, and weddings. This is something I always try to follow, keeping in touch with my bachurim and supporting them even after they graduate.”

Yeshiva Orchos Chaim

With close to 1,400 students, Orchos Chaim is one of Lakewood’s most well-known modsos. The school’s entire staff is dedicated to each student’s needs. If a child needs extra attention, tutoring, or help in another area, there is a team of professionals available to work with him. Orchos Chaim’s staff are on top of every issue, and they make sure to get each boy the support he needs.

“Our vision for our talmidim is to infuse the boys with simchas hachaim. We want them to be bnei Torah, to have a drive, a cheshek, and to reach their full potential, to be the best they can be,” Rabbi Schmelczer shares.

When hiring a rebbi, he looks for three things. “First of all, the rebbi has to be a role model. He has to walk the walk and live the life; he has to be for real. Another critical element is the ability to connect with kids regardless of their background and level of learning. He has to be able to understand and build a rapport with the students. Finally, the rebbi has to be engaging; he must be able to give over a lesson in a way that holds the attention and interest of the class.

Chinuch conundrums

For Rabbi Schmelczer, chinuch is everything. As such,the Voice took this opportunity to present the venerated menahel with several chinuch questions which will provide readers with invaluable insight.

Question: My primary-age son is scared to go to school for the first time. What can I do to calm him down and help him with the transition?

Answer: For a typical child, it is just a matter of getting over the hump. Rather than babying him, try to calm him down and coax him out to school. He may cry for a day or two, but after that, he should be fine. 0f course, if your child is dealing with a deeper issue like anxiety, the situation needs to be handled differently.

Question: How can we prepare our eighth grader for mesivta applications? I’m also wondering what the yeshivah is doing to help get our son ready for the daunting and intimidating process.

Answer: It is important to try to minimize the stress and trauma of getting into mesivta on your child and the family. Don’t pressure your son; don’t make him do things or learn things “to help you get accepted in mesivta.”

Reframe your outlook. Tell the child that eighth grade is an important year, a formative year. It is a time when he can develop new skills and gain a tremendous amount of knowledge, and he should invest a lot of effort in his learning. Support your bachur; encourage him to do his best—but do it without the pressure and without the ulterior motives.

If your son needs extra help with academics, be proactive. Get him tutoring as early in the year as you can. In school, we reinforce the learning very much in eighth grade. Without discussing mesivta, we do a lot of chazarah and bechinos; we want the knowledge to stay with the boys when they need it. We are also very on top of the boys who need extra help. We offer tutoring as well as a special pre-teaching shiur for those who can benefit from it.

In Lakewood, the mesivta process is especially trying. With so many mesivtos, there are a lot of options. Parents often decide to apply to a mesivta that they think is right for them, even if it is not necessarily a good place for their  son or it isn’t a place their child will get accepted to. It is important for parents not to overshoot or undershoot and to rely on the cheder’s hanhalah for recommendations.

A rebbi may not want to tell parents point-blank that their child is weak, but he tells them in a hundred other ways. Listen to what he is saying; don’t remain oblivious. Be realistic about what you can expect from your son and where he can be most successful. Applying to mesivtas is an arduous process, but you have to trust the rebbi. The rebbi knows your child.

I will say that, in general, our boys all get into mesivtos. Maybe they don’t all go to their first-choice places, but Hashem has a way of making sure they go to the mesivta that will be good for them.

Question: My son refuses to do homework. What should I do?

Answer: You have to know your child. Do they have any other struggles or challenges? Do they feel like a failure? Do they know the material and feel like homework is a waste of time? Children are good; they want to be good. If your child is refusing to do homework, find out why.

In general, I feel that homework is necessary for reinforcement of information that is needed for any continuum. Gemara and, l’havdil, math are both subjects that build on the previous day’s material, and they need to be reviewed at night.

Homework helps with retention as well as fostering independent learning. It reinforces the idea that limmud haTorah must take place outside of school too.

Question: My child has difficulty sitting and staying focused. What tools can I give him at home to stay on task or at least not disturb? What can the rebbi do to help him? How can we work with the school to help him?

Answer: Again, you need to search for the root cause. I would recommend sending the child for testing. Does he have a visual or auditory problem? An attention issue? Is the workload overwhelming for him and causes him to tune out?

Minimize the challenge for him. Parents should work with the child and the rebbi to figure out what would make the school day easier for their child. He can earn extra breaks, have a motivational contest with the rebbi, have the work broken up into more doable segments, or learn with a tutor during a portion of class time.

There are endless ways to diminish the difficulty for a student who cannot focus.

Question: In the past, my child was a consistently average student. Now he is in seventh grade, and he has downgraded to getting mostly 70s and even failing some tests. Would you recommend a tutor, a homework helper, or something else?

Answer: The workload and information get harder as the grades progress. Until fifth grade, the workload consists of a lot of memorization and easier material. In upper-elementary school, the focus is on skills, havanah, and more difficult information.

That being said, if a student is declining academically, I would consider it an orange flag. I would find them   a tutor and try to find out why they are slipping in their studies.

In recent years, we had a student who was not performing at all in the classroom. He had become a dysfunctional student who sat and did nothing all day. Several months later, we found out that there was something going on with this boy that was distracting him from the classroom.

My point is that talmidim need and want to learn. We have great, engaging rebbe’im who build a rapport with each student. Our rebbe’im will take a walk with a child during recess, call a child on the phone at home…they are really there for the talmidim. If the child isn’t succeeding, there has to be a reason.

Question: I teach seventh grade, and one of my students has no interest in most subjects. He sits in his seat and doodles and doesn’t listen to a word during class. He hands in blank tests and refuses to take notes when I teach. How can I motivate him and get him to care about the material?

Answer: A good boy (and all of them are good) should never be totally distracted. A disinterested preteen would worry me. Dig deeper; the child may be challenged or for some reason he has been turned off.

Question: Can schools incorporate more extracurricular activities into their programs? There is an uptick in ADHD diagnoses as well as kids who just can’t sit so long, and recess isn’t enough for them. If our boys and girls can have more outlets, they’d be able to accomplish much more on the school front.

Answer: Within the learning, there is plenty of extracurricular. There are contests and other motivational programs. Additionally, the students aren’t sitting and learning from sefarim all day. There are plenty of lighter subjects and times during the day, as well as recess and meals.

School is not long enough for us to replace the learning with activities like leagues, woodworking, etc. Children should engage in extracurricular activities at home. There are too many hours for an older boy to fill between dismissal and bedtime. The evening would be an excellent time for leagues. Sunday and Friday afternoons are also great opportunities for activities; they don’t have to replace learning.

Question: Our schools recognize and award results, which we know isn’t the Torah mehalech, as effort means everything. How can we properly recognize children who aren’t whizzes in the classroom but put their all into their studies? How can we make sure they don’t suffer burnout?

Answer: There are so many aspects to children’s personalities that we can accentuate. It isn’t all about the marks. We can emphasize their davening, their efforts, or their middos and sensitivity to others. There are also duties like gabbai tefillah, etc. that can give a feeling of importance.

At Orchos Chaim, effort is incorporated into report card marks. Hours spent studying will be reflected on the report card despite low test scores. It is clear to the child and his parents that we are acknowledging his effort as opposed to his marks.

Question: In European and Eretz Yisrael the school day is broken up, with students going home for lunch in middle of the day. What do you think of that mehalech? Is it a good idea and/or possible to model it?

Answer: Buses play a large role in the schedule here. I don’t think such a system is practical for Lakewood, where children can easily spend two hours on the bus just getting to and from school twice   daily. However, in an area where there are neighborhood schools, there can be benefits to that model. In our town, it is just not feasible.

Question: What do you wish parents would address in their chinuch at home?

Answer: Show your children a united, healthy front. Have a respectful relationship with each other. Model everything you want your kids to be. Respect the school and the rebbe’im and communicate with them when questions or issues come up.

Validate your child, but recognize that not necessarily every report that is brought home is totally accurate, such as, “Everybody has a…” or “Nobody likes…”

Be careful to be mechanech your children with moderation. Avoid excesses and luxuries that may spoil them. There is an unprecedented proliferation of gashmiyus pervading Lakewood. These standards of living are creating a formidable challenge to maintain any appreciation of ruchniyus. Remember, gashmiyus was designed to help us build our ruchniyus, not to squash it! We don’t want to ruin our kids with all the excess surrounding us.

Above all, we need siyata d’Shmaya to make the right decisions and to raise our children properly.