After the negative report from the Miraglim, one of the less discussed quandaries was the vacuum in leadership left behind. The entire generation would have to die in the Midbar. Moreover, the Nisiyim from nearly every Shevet were to die as well. True, Moshe Rabbeinu would be with them for most of the 40 years, but he too would not be going into Eretz Yisroel. 39 years were left to develop youngsters and raise the new leadership to replace those that were not going to be there.
In 1945, Klal Yisroel faced a similarly daunting task. How to replace the Gedolei Hador who were lost in the Holacaust? Thousands of Torah giants, the backbone of our people, taken from us, practically all at once. Enter 3 great Torah giants, Rav Ahron Kotler, ZT”L, Rav Yaakov Ruderman, ZT”L and Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky,ZT”L, who took upon themselves the task of rebuilding Torah in America. Their charge, to groom and replenish the unfathomable losses of WWII. Add to the predicament a backdrop of an America with a largely assimilated Jewish population and the challenge was daunting indeed. They set out to open Yeshivos and support the founding of day schools so that the few committed Jews in America could be groomed to be the next generation of teachers, Rabbeyim and Gedolim.
What a legacy. Over the next 60 years Torah flourished in America in unprecedented numbers. There are now more people learning Torah, more Yeshivos and more Torah Giants than at any time in our history. This was no accident. Our yeshivos and our day schools were designed to develop precisely such a valuable product. Indeed, the emphasis on Gemara study, practically to the exclusion of all other areas, was with an eye on developing true Talmidei Chachomim and Gedolim.
Fast forward to the present and we have largely the same structure and curriculum in our Yeshivos and day schools that was designed in 1945. There is one whopping difference. In 1945, the only hope for developing tomorrow’s Torah scholars was to fashion a method of study which encouraged and cultivated within each precious student the drive and the foundation to become a Gadol B’Yisroel. Today, among the tens of thousands of day school and Yeshiva students, only a very small percentage go on to become Gedolim. The vast majority of students become learned, Shomer Shabbos members of the community. Yet, they spent the majority of their years studying a curriculum for something they were not going to be. It’s no wonder that many of our Yeshivos are “accused” of teaching to the “top third of the class”. That is precisely what they were designed to do. Moreover, it is also why so many boys coming out of Yeshiva today know a fair amount of Gemara but precious little in the way of practical Halacha like Hilchos Shabbos or Kashrus. The Yeshivos were meant to develop Torah scholars who would master Halacha after they became Talmudic masters. Simply put, the Yeshivos were never intended to educate all Torah youth in a manner which helped them become productive, functioning, educated frum Jews.
Today, when we face serious challenges of disenfranchised youth (spending years in a system which was never intended for them), a dearth of unemployed Rebbeyim (trained for positions for which there is now a 300-1 surplus), and frankly an unfamiliarity with basic Halacha that cannot be serving us well, we plod along perpetuating the same system which was so successful in producing Gedolim. When was the last time today’s leaders sat down and tried to honestly assess the needs of today’s frum community and today’s youth. Instead, heroic efforts are made to teach a small percentage of each class what they can grasp with the assumption that it must be right because that’s the way we’ve always done it. Moreover, our day schools have an unprecedented number of “tutors” and “kids who can’t make the grade” than ever before when in fact the vast majority of them are completely normal, just laboring in a system which was designed for the academically elite. Many of them cannot help but feel their inability to put in a 10 hour day, mastering a dual curriculum means there is something wrong with them or something wrong with all of us.
Similarly, how many families that simply want to do the “right thing” have bought into this concept that sending 13 year old boys away from home to study, often until they are “ready” to get married, is a good idea? With few exceptions, it is not. Boys in dormitory yeshivos are exposed to some terrible things, as bad as anything available on the internet today. The dorms are largely unsupervised before bed time and teenage boys often find ways to make less than good use of their spare time. These critical years are not spent observing how their parents treat each other and work through challenges and difficult times. Conversely, for teenage boys who stay in-town, each night when they come home his parents can pick up on subtle changes in his demeanor, behavior etc. which are critical clues for when extra “parenting” is needed. These valuable opportunities are lost when a boy comes home once a month or even once a week.
The simple truth is that the trend of sending boys away to Yeshiva was started when there was really no choice. If you wanted your child to have a Torah education, there were only a few cities where this could be accomplished. Prior to 1960 the idea of a local boy staying in a Yeshiva dorm was ridiculous. Dorms were a necessary last resort for boys who had to leave home in order get a Torah education. It is not a coincidence that this derech parallels a major shift in parents entrusting their children’s chinuch almost entirely to schools and Yeshivos. THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR GOOD PARENTING. Not even great Rebbeim and Yeshivos. Ideally, a partnership can help each child reach their full potential. You will not find anyone qualified to speak on the subject who advocates sending boys away from home for Yeshiva at age 13, outside of those who have a vested interest in perpetuating the dormitory system. Your children are your treasures. Noone, NOONE loves or knows your child better than you do.
The time has come for such a reevaluation. We cannot look at the children that don’t make it as “statistically acceptable”. Many of our youth who have trouble are a direct result of being round pegs in square holes. Many of our boys who are unprepared for marriage are a direct result of being away from home from the time they were old enough to observe how a healthy marriage functions. Many of the people who appear to be totally observant Jews until we find out they are engaged in blatantly criminal behavior are a result of an inadequate emphasis of the basic Halachos of our Torah.
When Klal Yisroel faced this challenge in the Midbar they did not start encouraging everyone to assume the mantels of Nisiyim. Surely some did, but many continued to be groomed as farmers, sailors and shepherds. There were always important contributions from all sects of every Shevet. Once again, we were never all supposed to be the same. Yehoshua became the next leader, new nisiyim were appointed and the zekeinim took on a more prominent role as a check on future impulsiveness.
“Change” can at times be a dirty word. It should be looked at quite differently when we are “changing back”. Rav Yitzchak Hutner once explained that Yeshivos in America post 1945 were like the Teiva – places of refuge where the only hope of raising children to be Shomrei Torah U’mitzvos existed. He lamented how in prewar Europe, yeshivas were like the Mishkan – where only a few went to reach the highest heights of Torah scholarship. Inertia and momentum are not good justifications for the way we educate our children. We need to rededicate ourselves to the principals enunciated by our sages of being “Mechanech Naar L’fi Darco”.
 I am compelled to point out that my children have always been part of that “top third” and the system has worked well for them. This is not the writing of someone who the system has failed. Rather, it is a cry for compassion for those who never had a chance.
 Ironically, the other boys who sought out a dormitory were those whose parents were not willing to pursue a Torah education for their sons past Bar Mitzva. Many of those same boys are not even welcome in mainstream Yeshivos today.