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Basic Training

Yocheved Lavon

Are our children being rushed through crucial basic learning skills before being propelled into learning Chumash, Nach, and Talmud? Two passionate, groundbreaking educators believe a surprising number of children — and adults — are seeing Torah through a fog of confusion and illiteracy. Rabbi Dovid Abenson and his mentor, Rabbi Zvi Zobin, say it’s never too late to acquire the language and learning skills never mastered in school.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I didn’t know what I was getting into. I originally set out to write an article that would survey the state of kriah education today. I began interviewing my contacts, but instead of hearing about current methods of teaching children to read Hebrew, and how the little pupils are faring with these pedagogical techniques, I encountered educators who passionately contend that today, lashon kodesh skills are nothing short of crucial to a Jewish child’s development into a thriving adult who takes joy in Yiddishkeit.

Rabbi Dovid Abenson, a freelance educator who helps boys, girls, and adults all over North America acquire the language and learning skills that they haven’t mastered in school, and his mentor Rabbi Zvi Zobin, both say that nowadays, it simply isn’t enough to learn Torah with a translation, memorized or not, that teaches students the basic meaning of the pesukim in English. From his visits to many Jewish communities, Rabbi Abenson has learned that children who do not have a firm and clear grasp of the actual Hebrew text, and therefore can’t appreciate the significance of every letter, will grow up with a foggy understanding of fundamental Torah concepts — with potentially disastrous consequences.

Often, the fog sets in early, when little children are taught kriah (Hebrew reading). Rabbi Zobin cites statistics that roughly 30 percent of children are learning to read well in school, and 40 percent require tutoring to bring their reading up to par. The remaining 30 percent are managing to get by, but their reading skills aren’t what they should be. There are people, he has found, who are going through life without ever having really mastered the alef-beis. By using all sorts of desperate tactics, they manage to cover up for it well enough to reach high school or beyond without anyone discovering their deficiency — until a crisis hits.

We are not talking children who haven’t had the privilege of a Jewish education. These statistics refer to talmidim in mainstream, frum Jewish schools. Of course, the system being practiced in schools today is effective for the many students who can read fluently by the time they start learning Chumash and Gemara. But it seems that a sizable minority isn’t keeping up, and some are slipping through the cracks unnoticed. Rabbis Zobin and Abenson would like to raise awareness of this situation, and they offer an approach to detection and remediation that promises to put these students back on track with their learning.


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