I met with Rav Yitzchak Berkovits a few weeks back to discuss the benefit of early intervention tutoring for boys starting Gemara — a subject recently dealt with in this magazine at length. Though I have sat with Rav Berkovits, the rav of one of the largest English-speaking chareidi communities in Jerusalem, many times, this particular discussion was arranged by a young avreich named Rabbi Meir Oratz, the founder of Lamdeini, a service for professional tutoring in Jerusalem.

We often forget at our peril precisely how hard Gemara learning is, and all the initial obstacles. Many of those difficulties are technical, which is not to say that they are minor. The text is in an ancient language, which is no longer spoken; it has no punctuation nor any paragraph breaks. Those helpful transitions found in ArtScroll’s Schottenstein explaining where one is holding in a Talmudic sugya are not to be found in the standard Gemara in which young talmidim learn.

But the technical barriers, including the names and status of the relevant players — e.g., the difference between Tannaim and Amoraim — are the least of the problem. Talmudic reasoning is highly sophisticated, which is why “Talmudic” is often used as an adjective for the ability to make fine distinctions, and to keep throwing new variables into the equation. The Gemara might, for instance, test a proposition by bringing a case involving the contrapositive.

There are a percentage of boys who intuitively grasp the basic elements of Gemara learning. Most do not. The latter are often labeled “weaker,” but that is wrong, says Rav Berkovits. Some very bright people, for instance, have little ability to pick up new languages. And so it is with respect to grasping Gemara quickly.

As Gemara learning today has become a mass activity — as opposed to the state of affairs in Eastern Europe, where most young men were working from around the age of bar mitzvah, and every shul had its Chevra Mishnayos and Chevra Tehillim for those who did not learn Gemara — lots of effort has gone into making understanding the mechanics of the Gemara easier. For instance, tips and exercises emphasizing key words, breaking down the shakla v’tarya (back and forth) of the Gemara, and the inclusion of graphs and drawings. A great deal of this work was designed to help beginners catch up quickly.

But little of that effort is likely to be reflected in the classroom of the average Israeli cheder, Rav Berkovits points out. Tradition is the watchword. If it was good enough to produce the great gedolim of Europe, it is good enough for us.

But for too many boys it is not good enough. And when it is not, trouble can follow. Some — perhaps most — of those who don’t intuitively grasp the Gemara’s methodology will keep plugging until eventually things start to fall into place. In the long run, they may even be better off for the fact that Gemara did not come too easily to them. Rav Berkovits quotes his rebbi Rav Nochum Partzovitz as frequently saying kishronos (great abilities) are often a trap in Gemara learning, for it discourages the development of hasmadah.

But others will come to believe that various levels of confusion are the norm and even doubt that the Gemara is supposed to make sense. Rav Steinman ztz”l once told a group of yeshivah- level maggidei shiur that a shockingly high percentage of young men reach yeshivah gedolah without being able to make a fluent leining in the Gemara. Of those, some may have developed the ability to discuss the lomdus of a sugya. But without a command of the basic mechanics of a sugya, there are limits on how far that can take them.

Finally, there are those who go into a panic mode as they find themselves struggling at the outset vis-à-vis their classmates. The situation is particularly hard for cheder yingelach in Eretz Yisrael. Their whole life, Rav Berkovits points out, they have been told that Gemara learning is “where it’s at,” life’s highest endeavor. Often their fathers are kollel yungeleit. And the expectation with which they are raised is that learning Gemara full-time is how they will spend the next decades of their life.

The panic that sets in only makes matters worse and prevents the boy from concentrating. He just falls further and further behind, with the attendant loss of self-esteem.

In certain modern circles, the failure to “get it” in Gemara may be an irritation and make Gemara class a torture, but it need not affect the young man’s entire self-image. He is, after all, not growing up with the expectation that he will be a kollel yungerman. Droves of young men who have passed through 12 years of religious education show up at gap-year yeshivos in Israel every year with only the most minimal ability to read a Gemara. But they do not experience the same feelings of humiliation and of being trapped in a system in which they will be permanently marked as failures that talmidim in a chareidi cheder might.

And those feelings are dangerous. For those who do not find satisfaction in Gemara learning, the street offers many other satisfactions. For those suffering from low self-esteem, the street is very accepting.

ALL THIS is by way of explaining why early intervention tutoring is so important, and why providing that tutoring to those who need it is both a familial and communal priority. Rav Berkovits relates with obvious dismay that some parents refuse to seek a tutor for their sons because they fear stigmatizing him. “Why don’t they compare the stigma of receiving tutoring at ten to the stigma of being off-the-derech at fifteen or sixteen?” he wonders.

The tutoring process begins with a thorough learning evaluation. I spoke last week to Rabbi Yeshaya Weber, an educator with 50 years’ experience, who has trained over 2,000 rebbeim and professional tutors (more of the latter) in a 72-hour course. His center in Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood produces learning evaluations, including for avreichim who realize one day that there is something lacking in their enthusiasm for Gemara learning.

As further confirmation that the failure to pick up Gemara learning naturally is not an indication of learning disabilities or some cognitive deficit, Rabbi Weber emphasized that the most important aspect of the evaluation of the boy and his learning style is to pinpoint his strengths. Those strengths are the place to connect him to Gemara learning, and from there it is possible to start working on deficits as well.

Once a proper learning evaluation of the boy‘s personality and learning style is made, it is possible for a private tutor to start working on breaking the Gemara down into its component parts so he can grasp the form and development of different topics. Ideally, the tutor should himself have supervision and those with whom he can consult about a boy’s progress and how to find the optimal learning style for him.

A second major function of the private rebbi is to provide encouragement and self-confidence to those who come to him with their self-esteem battered. Even the most talented classroom rebbi cannot provide the same attention and warmth to each boy that a private rebbi can.

Rabbi Yaakov Rushnevsky, who for more than a decade ran an organization called Chavrutah (supported in part by private philanthropy) that provided tutoring for up to hundred boys at a time, once told me that the optimal situation is when the private tutor works hand-in-hand with the classroom rebbi. The private rebbi can, for instance, alert the classroom rebbi to something that his student knows well so that the rebbi can ask him questions he can answer confidently.

THERE IS NO REASON to despair of any Jews’ ability to connect to Gemara at some level. Every gap-year yeshivah with which I’m familiar can point to dozens of young men who at some point flipped a switch and transformed in a few years from weak Gemara students with poor skills to becoming serious students in the Mir.

But there is no reason to wait until the late teens. By then negative associations with the Gemara and the system itself may have accumulated to the point that it is too late. That is where early intervention tutoring can play such a large role and produce its own miracles.

I remember one boy whose father had nearly despaired of his future in learning. But with a couple of years of intensive training, he not only caught up to his class, but even skipped eighth grade to go directly to yeshivah ketanah. Today, he is a shpitz lamdan writing hundred-page kuntrasim in Kodshim. The tutoring for him was literally life-changing.

Unfortunately, many families lack the resources for tutoring, as a consequence of which many boys lose their enthusiasm and become alienated from Gemara and the system into which they have been thrust. When those alienated youth reach a certain critical mass, they become a magnet attracting others into their orbit as well.

That is the communal interest. Programs to offer tutoring on a large scale and with proper supervision and guidance are an important communal investment.

As Rav Berkovits put it to me, “If this isn’t pikuach nefesh, what is?”

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 697. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com