Chanukah and Chinuch
December 10, 2020
Chanukah and Chinuch
Insights from Rabbi Binyomin Ginsberg
Chanukah, which means dedication or inauguration, shares the same root as chinuch, education. We turned to Rabbi (Shalom) Binyomin Ginsberg, a veteran mechanech and prolific writer, for his insights and messages with regard to chinuch in our times.
Respect and independence
Rabbi Ginsberg describes his parents as “exceptional people.” His father, Rabbi Moshe Yosef Ginsberg zt”l, taught his children not to worry about little things and gave them emotional tools to deal with challenges. His mother, tblc”t Mrs. Leah Ginsberg, is, in Rabbi Ginsberg’s words, a “model of bitachon,” which was evident in her reactions to many challenges over the years. Natives of Vienna and Hamburg, they instilled in him the Yekkishe traits of punctuality and respect for time.
His father allowed each of his children the independence and freedom to choose his or her own derech in life, as long as they followed the mesorah. The children did indeed choose slightly different paths, yet until today, they all display tremendous achdus and respect for each other and maintain extremely close and peaceful relationships. Rabbi and Mrs. Ginsberg have raised their children with a similar philosophy of spiritual autonomy.
Growing up in Boro Park, Rabbi Ginsberg was educated in the traditional yeshivah system. While he had some wonderful rebbe’im, he also has some “not-so-pleasant memories of cheder.” However, he does not blame anyone, nor does he use a few negative experiences as an excuse to resent the system; rather, he uses them to inform decisions he makes as an educator of his own impressionable young charges.
A Rebbe for life
After graduating from cheder, while learning in Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland, Rabbi Ginsberg once chanced upon a sefer containing teachings of previous Slonimer Rebbes. He felt a sudden urge to learn from these Torah giants. He traveled to Yerushalayim and learned in Yeshivas Bais Avrohom under the leadership of the Slonimer Rebbe Rav Shalom Noach Berezovksy (1911–2000), now known by the name of his transformative series of sefarim, Nesivos Shalom. Rabbi Ginsberg developed a unique and special relationship with the Rebbe, who would become his guide for life.
The Rebbe made himself available to the bachurim, and Rabbi Ginsberg often approached him with questions. Rabbi Ginsberg relates that the Rebbe was incredibly special, warm, and loving and understood people.
Why was an American bachur drawn to the Slonimer Rebbe’s teachings?
“Growing up, some things were confusing and unclear, and I wanted an explanation,” explains Rabbi Ginsberg. Slonim is, in his words, “a small, quiet chassidus,” and the Rebbe was not one who dwelled in the realm of the mystical and miraculous; rather, he was practical and down to earth. The Rebbe combined a chassidishe lifestyle with a litvishe learning style. This was very different from any of Rabbi Ginsberg’s previous learning experiences, but ever since he got accustomed to it, he lives with it every day.
The Rebbe allowed for more awe than fear, so that one could feel “relaxed” to be frum. He promoted “normalcy” and understanding of what is ikar, of primary importance, and what is tafel, of secondary importance, in life. “He wanted us to live with a focus on connecting to Hashem,” Rabbi Ginsberg relates, a concept that he believes “can speak to everyone at different levels.”
Spreading the light
Of all sifrei chassidus, Nesivos Shalom has become one of the most widely learned by broader audiences due to its relevant and inspirational approach to avodas Hashem.
While the current Rebbe was hesitant to allow the translation of the Nesivos Shalom’s teachings, Rabbi Ginsberg did not give up and kept asking for permission. Eventually, the Rebbe gave him a bracha for hatzlachah.
Rabbi Ginsberg has thus far published 15 volumes of English translations of the Nesivos Shalom; each has its own story of siyata d’Shmaya of how it came to light. He has received hundreds of phone calls and emails from readers of all demographics, sharing how the writings have transformed their lives. Rabbi Ginsberg believes that the Nesivos Shalom is enjoying nachas from the sefarim and says, “I am convinced he will be thefirst one to greet me” after 120 years.
Teacher in training
The Nesivos Shalom encouraged his passionate young talmid to pursue a career in Jewish education. Upon returning to the States, Rabbi Ginsberg set out to pursue the Rebbe’s vision for him.
Two days before the start of the school year, a position for second-grade rebbi at Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway came his way. Rabbi Ginsberg admits, “I had no clue what I was doing, and I loved it.” Even with no training, the young educator intuited many important ideas with regard to the way chinuch should be.
He later attended a course by Rabbi Yoel Kramer at the Merkaz Center for Teacher Training, which provided a stipend in exchange for a commitment by the students to teach out of town for two years, which Rabbi Ginsberg fulfilled in Philadelphia.
Later, he attended many programs by education expert Rick Lavoie and took education courses in Harvard and Columbia Universities. He also participated in Torah Umesorah’s Yesod Maalah Principal’s Fellowship and has presented workshops and led training for Torah Umesorah programs. He also took advantage of visiting speakers and offered professional development opportunities for the faculties in his schools.
From rebbi to principal
Rabbi Ginsberg was a rebbi in San Diego, California, for six years. With the approval of Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky shlit”a, he instituted a two-week trip for sixth graders to New York to expose them to large frum communities. Even many years later, many of those students consider that trip as a highlight of their education.
The following eight years found Rabbi Ginsberg in Seattle, Washington. As a rebbi, he influenced talmidim in the classroom and on two-week trips for eighth graders to Eretz Yisrael. After just one year, he was asked to become the headmaster of the yeshivah day school, and he accepted. Looking back, Rabbi Ginsberg said it was “one of the worst decisions I ever made, because nothing is more exciting than teaching in a classroom.”
His next stop what Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he was offered the position of dean at Torah Academy. During his 12 years in that position, the community was graduallygrowing in their frumkeit, and the diverse parent body appreciated his sensitivity to all sides. While there, he earned a master’s in school leadership and curriculum development from the University of Minnesota.
In all his positions, Rabbi Ginsberg helped implement changes in the schools he worked in and fostered communication and growth. The result was that kids, parents, and teachers alike loved school. In Seattle and Minneapolis, the schools he led were each named by Torah Umesorah the School of the Year, reflected in the happiness and unity among the students, parents, and educators.
Eventually, Rabbi Ginsberg started training other educators and consulting at other schools. Torah Academy asked him to choose between focusing exclusively on them and educating others. He viewed that as a sign to make the next move and embraced the opportunity to influence not only those in his immediate school, but many thousands beyond.
When reflecting on those four decades in chinuch, Rabbi Ginsberg says, “There wasn’t a day I did not enjoy.”
Mishpachah on the move
Rabbi Ginsberg’s policy was always that his children “should neither benefit nor suffer” from having their father in the powerful and public position of principal.
A native Brooklynite, Rabbi Ginsberg is quick to admit that living out of town (read: out of Metro New York) with its hustle and bustle has many benefits for children. A downside is that before Yamim Tovim there is no Yom Tov atmosphere in the air. Still, New York and New Jersey are “just a plane ride away.”
How did Rabbi Ginsberg’s wife manage all the cross-country moves and changes? A scion of the Poupko and Walkin rabbinic families, Mrs. Ginsberg was no stranger to moving around for rabbinic positions. She was born at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base and military training facility in North Carolina, where her father was based as a chaplain. He later assumed several prestigious positions which brought the family to South Africa, Colombia, Mexico, and Detroit.
Rabbi Ginsberg credits her for being his support system and allowing him to travel. She sometimes worked as a secretary in the schools where Rabbi Ginsberg worked, and due to her time living in Mexico and Colombia, she has also worked as a medical interpreter for Spanish-speaking patients. Rabbi Ginsberg says she is a “role model of caring for the klal, being a supportive wife, and living for her children.” She currently devotes her days to babysitting their grandchildren.
The Ginsberg children have settled in Passaic and Lakewood, and four years ago, Rabbi and Mrs. Ginsberg moved to Toms River. They enjoy the peaceful lifestyle and many conveniences despite his commute to New York, where Rabbi Ginsberg does most of his current consulting work in elementary and high schools and teaches in seminaries. He maintains his positive attitude, believing that “Hashem sent me here.”
In print and online
Rabbi Ginsberg has been a fixture for many years of the chinuch and Torah columns in Hamodia and Yated Ne’eman, where his meaningful and sound advice has helped guide thousands of parents and educators. His website, ChinuchSupport.com, is host to his comprehensive educational consulting service for parents, educators, and schools.
He has written five books for parents, principals, and teachers, with another one coming out soon in which he sensitively guides readers through scenarios and articulately explains age-old pedagogical conundrums.
What does this experienced educator see as a major challenge affecting children today?
“We need to be honest about whether our approach is working and be open to other ideas. How many children ask, ‘When is Shabbos over?’ We must show our children the beauty in Yiddishkeit.”
The Sadigura Rebbe zt”l said that “ninety percent of the problem of children going off the derech could be avoided if they knew why we do mitzvos.”In an effort to combat apathy or ignorance, Rabbi Ginsberg was the educational director of the revolutionary book series Yahadus, a comprehensive, colorful curriculum which strives to portray Yiddishkeit in a beautiful and exciting way, giving children knowledge of every part of Torah and applying mitzvos to daily life.
When parents complain about their children, he reminds them that Hashem is the third Partner in the child. “Tell Him about the problem. We can’t take away the problem, but He can.”
Focus on faith
Rabbi Ginsberg explains that the Nesivos Shalom focuses on three topics which are mentioned in most of the Rebbe’s writings: Shabbos, connecting to Hashem, and emunah. “One shouldn’t live his whole life with a child’s level of emunah,” the Rebbe taught.
The Rebbe often shared a spin on the traditional understanding of one of the questions that await one at the entrance to Olam Haba, “Nasata v’nasata b’emunah?” It is usually translated as, “Did you engage in business dealings honestly?” The Rebbe explained it instead as, “Did you discuss and have a give-and-take about emunah?”
“Emunah is the energy of the Jew. That’s what the Maccabim needed in order to fight.”
So how can we can teach emunah to our children nowadays, in a world of uncertainty, change, and challenge? Rabbi Ginsberg believes we should expose them to daily sights and events in life through the lens of emunah. For example, upon driving over a bridge, we can reflect on how it was made, which is a feat of engineering not pondered or easily understood by all. We can give over to our children that “just because we don’t understand it, doesn’t change the fact that it exists. We don’t have to understand everything.” And of course, we cannot fully understand the Ribono shel Olam and His ways.
At one school assembly, Rabbi Ginsberg taught the students a memorable lesson which is now replicated by mechanchim around the country. He called the White House and asked to speak to the president. Even after insisting, “But I have a relationship with him and want to talk to him!” he was told repeatedly that the president was not and will never be available to speak with him. This drove home the message of the opportunity we have that Hakadosh Baruch Hu, the Creator and King of the whole world, is available to us all day, every day.
May the miracles of Chanukah imbue us with the emunah and simcha in Yiddishkeit that we need to persevere through our challenges and the darkness of galus until we see the revealed light of geulah, b’meheirah b’yameinu.
Below are some excerpts from Rabbi Ginsberg’s writings or conversations on some of the hot topics in chinuch.
Do rewards motivate students? They motivate students to get rewards.
Students who are encouraged to think about grades, stickers, or other “goodies” become less inclined to explore ideas, think creatively, and take chances.
We need parents to stop raising their children on a foundation of rewards.
Punishments and rewards are not really opposites, but two sides of the same coin. Both strategies amount to ways of trying to manipulate someone’s behavior—in one case, prompting the question, “What do they want me to do, and what happens to me if I don’t do it?” and in the other instance, leading a child to ask, “What do they want me to do, and what do I get for doing it?”
Praise can create a growing dependence on securing someone else’s approval.
The key question is, “How can we accomplish what we want in a better way?”
The best reward is knowledge of results, for the child to know if they are successful or not. The Nesivos Shalom believed and led his students by giving them a way to be successful.
We should verbally affirm that we are proud of or disappointed in what they did.
Tests are often used as a form of accountability for the teacher’s teaching or of the students’ learning and to communicate that with the parents.
Many positive “reasons” for tests are outweighed by the many negative pressures and feelings caused to students.
Educators and administrators advocate testing primarily because of pressure from the parent body. Parents have been trained to use test scores as the measure of the quality of their children’s education. Educators would be more than willing to change the testing procedures and systems if there would be less pressure from parents.
Students who are not formally tested with a written exam are more likely to learn better, learn more, enjoy learning, retain the information, have a more positive attitude toward learning, and be less academically competitive than those who are tested regularly.
Effective learning and retention can occur via other methods of checking for understanding and teaching for application rather than memorization.
Rabbi Ginsberg understands those parents and educators who believe in potential benefits of homework (in elementary school-aged children). But in reality, studies have proven that homework does more harm than good. Many years ago, the Mashgiach Rav Matisyahu Salomon shlit”a asked him to write, “Homework is society’s abuse of the civil rights of children and families.”
Many families point to homework problems as the cause of so much conflict at home.
Many homework assignments require too much work and assistance of the parents.
Contrary to what some parents think, “The more homework, the less is accomplished in class and the poorer the lessons being taught.”
The homework becomes a crutch that allows the students to not learn in class. In many situations, the child is first learning the material when the homework is being done.
So much time is used in the ordinary elementary school classroom for homework.
Chazarah (review) should happen in class with the teacher checking for the students’ understanding.
It is simply amazing to see how a no-homework policy increases the students’ natural desire to learn and how it cultivates children who want to learn simply because they enjoy it!
“We can try to figure out Hashem’s message, but all we know is that this is what was supposed to happen.” Rabbi Ginsberg sympathizes with children’s social and emotional setbacks and is not as worried about their academics. He hopes that now, “Parents appreciate teachers more.”