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Only With Love

Eliezer Shulman

The Torah community is still reeling from the loss last week of one of its elder roshei yeshivah, Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz ztz”l, who carved his niche in the chinuch world of youngsters, investing decades as rosh yeshivah of Ponevezh L’Tzi’irim for teenage boys. This was his mission: to teach generations of boys to love learning. Five years ago, he granted Mishpacha,an exclusive interview, and shared his insights on chinuch. That wisdom continues to serve as an eternal guide to parents across the globe.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

On Monday evening, shortly after the news broke that Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz ztz”l, rosh yeshivah of Ponevezh L’Tzi’irim, had passed away, my cell phone rang. The number on the screen sent me back five years, to 2006. The man at the other end of the line spoke in a trembling tone. “When is the levayah?” he asked.

“I’ll find out,” I replied.

We were both silent for a long time, then wished each other “besuros tovos” and hung up.

We hadn’t spoken for five years. In 2006, he was a young man who had already been through several yeshivos and was about to be expelled from yet another one. His father called me in desperation and asked me to arrange a meeting with Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz. “They say that he has an amazing impact on boys like my son,” the father explained. I turned to the rosh yeshivah’s family, and they were remarkably quick to arrange the meeting.

Two weeks went by and I had nearly forgotten the incident, but then the father called again to thank me.

“What happened?” I asked curiously.

“They spoke a few times, and I believe there has been a change for the better,” the father said, without going into details. I did not press for any more information.

I turned to Rav Michel Yehuda’s family and asked if I could schedule an interview to discuss chinuch topics. They responded immediately that it would not happen, but they asked him anyway, and he overruled their objection. “It’s important to provide guidance,” he explained. I was shocked when I received a phone call informing me that if the discussion would revolve around chinuch issues, I was welcome to come.

When I entered his house, I found him immersed in learning. He appeared to be literally immersed in the Yam HaTalmud, and I was reluctant to interrupt him. “Sit down and then he’ll notice you,” a family member told me.

I sat, and after a moment, he did notice me. Marking his place in the Gemara, he said, “Yes?” I told him that I was a journalist and I had a few chinuch questions, and I wanted permission to quote him.

“Let’s hear the questions,” he responded.

I presented a list of questions dealing with Torah study and toiling in Torah. He answered most of them at length, but in the middle of the conversation, I saw that he was not satisfied with the route that the interview was taking. He stopped speaking and asked, “Do you think that a child has an opinion and understanding of what he should learn?”

I responded in the affirmative.

“Should we take his opinion into account?”

I was silent.

“Torah study is an important thing,” the rosh yeshivah said. “But parents must invest a tremendous amount into building a bond of love with their children. They must foster a pleasant, open atmosphere between parents and children. It’s impossible to educate children merely by giving them instructions. They must be taught to love the Torah, to love mitzvos, and to be exacting in their observance of halachah.

“Do we have to make a child love learning?” he went on to ask. “Maybe it’s not necessary to love learning; maybe parents should teach children to learn simply because Hashem commanded us to do so?”

I was silent again.

“What do you think?” he pressed, fixing me with his gaze.

Five years have passed since that moment, but I still remember being gripped with awe and starting to tremble.

“Do you instill love of the Torah in your children? Do you learn alef-beis with your three-year-old son, or do you learn only Mishnayos and Gemara with the older ones?”

I remained silent.

He smiled pleasantly and said, “We succeed in teaching our children to learn by giving them encouragement, closeness, and a sense of pleasure and geshmack in learning. You can’t transmit a love of learning by force. On the contrary, if a father is too firm with his child, it could bring about the opposite. A father must learn patiently with his son, and display admiration when the son understands what he has learned. It’s very important to study alef-beis with a child.

That moment marked a turnaround in our discussion. He felt that it was important to communicate to parents how to raise their children. I recall that I left the house feeling privileged that he had chosen me as the vehicle to transmit his message.

After some time, I returned to his home once again to discuss a different matter. I found out that he had been pleased with the publication of our discussion. Yet I still remained indebted.

“What’s with alef-beis?” he asked. I replied that I had been learning alef-beis with my son and giving him treats. “Even if he doesn’t know?” the rosh yeshivah asked.

“Especially if he doesn’t know,” I replied. “So that he doesn’t become dispirited.”

“Wonderful, that’s very important,” the rosh yeshivah said approvingly. “You should have a lot of nachas from him and from all of your children.”

I remembered that conversation as a result of the phone call from that boy, who has since become a regular yeshivah student. When I called back to apprise him of the time of the funeral, his father answered the phone.

“My son is only a member of the Torah world today because of those conversations,” he told me, adding, “Our entire educational approach changed.”

“Yes, I know,” I replied. “From personal experience.” I related the story of the guidance Rav Michel Yehuda had given me about how to make a three-year-old child love learning.

Now, as we have been left bereft of this giant of spirit — a man who spent the last seven decades of his life as rosh yeshivah of a yeshivah l’tzi’irim, for young students, considering imbuing young men with a love of Torah and mitzvos to be his ultimate calling — the thoughts he shared during that interview provide a resounding profile of the man and his message.


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