H aving just taken leave of Purim, with its emphasis on the unique power of Jewish children, I got to thinking about a conversation I had a few weeks ago with an old friend.

As taught by Chazal and referenced in the piyut for Taanis Esther, it was the tefillos of tinokos shel beis rabban that helped evoke the mercy of Heaven and bring salvation to a Jewish Nation standing at the precipice of annihilation. It once occurred to me that perhaps this helps explain why the individual who is portrayed in the Talmud as the teacher of Jewish children par excellence is the Amora named Rav Shmuel bar Sheilas.

The Gemara (Bava Basra 8b) describes him as someone of surpassing dedication to his talmidim, never ceasing to think about them and their needs. But according to one reading of the Gemara (Sanhedrin 96b), this very same Amora is the “descendant of Haman who learned Torah in Bnei Brak.” Perhaps, having joined Am Yisrael, Rav Shmuel bar Sheilas sought a means of eradicating every last trace of Amalek’s influence from within himself, and felt the best way would be to specialize in nurturing those who can be called Amalek’s archenemies: Jewish schoolchildren.

Rav Tzaddok HaKohein teaches that at each juncture in Jewish history when Klal Yisrael was poised to commence the building of the Beis Hamikdash, thereby bringing Hashem’s presence powerfully into our world, Amalek pounced. As we marched from Mitzrayim toward Eretz Yisrael, in the days of Dovid Hamelech and again at the time of the Purim miracle, G-d’s sworn enemies sought to scuttle His Temple. Certainly, then, Jewish children, whose Torah learning is so precious that it may not be interrupted even to assist in the building of that Temple (Shabbos 119b), are surely in Amalek’s sights.

And that’s what got me to thinking about a conversation I had while in Lakewood for Shabbos, when I ran into Rabbi Moshe Heiman, a friend since we began ninth grade together a few years back. For over two decades, Reb Moshe has been a rebbi in the early grades of the Lakewood Cheder, and considering the stock he comes from, I’m sure he’s a very good one, too: His father, Rav Yisroel Meir, was an exalted person and influential rebbi, his mother a highly respected girls’ school principal.

As we caught up on life’s goings-on, Reb Moshe began unfurling for me the canvas of his activities on behalf of a population that seems to be off the communal radar, with very unfortunate and costly results. For the past ten years, he has been working to raise awareness about a way to address in a smart, highly effective way the painful issue of kids at-risk — but before it becomes a complicated parshah in need of serious intervention.

His experience, confirmed by that of other mechanchim, is that when a child has instability of some sort at home, whether due to divorce, death, or dysfunction, or even just a parent who’s just not available for him, the effects will inevitably show up in the classroom at a young age. Years before a child begins acting out and overtly rebelling in the upper elementary grades, the discerning eye will pick up in even the very early grades the telltale signs of an at-risk future.

Anywhere between first and fifth grade, such a child may already have fallen by the educational wayside, just marking time in class as a nonentity to teacher and classmates, daydreaming or disrupting, and feeling all the while like a complete failure in what becomes a self-fulfilling cycle. There’s nothing sadder than for a child to be already resigned at such a tender age to an unspoken “understanding” with a rebbi of “I don’t bother you, you don’t bother me.”

Reb Moshe has never been the sort to spot a problem and just move on, and he didn’t when he became aware of this one either. He studied the issue and crafted a program called Lev L’Talmid that provides a simple, highly effective response, comprised of three elements: First, he assesses the child’s academic, emotional, and social issues by consulting with his parents, past and present principals and teachers in both limudei kodesh and chol, and relevant mental health professionals, if any.

Next, he hires a kollel avreich whose mission is to forge a relationship with the child. This avreich meets with the boy after school two or three times weekly to learn, but even more importantly, to befriend and encourage him and be someone who the child knows believes in him. Background checks are made and safeguards are implemented (for example, all sessions take place in public locations) to ensure the appropriateness of the mentors.

Reb Moshe tells these mentors that “this isn’t the creation of a chavrusa, but of a shidduch. The idea is to give the talmid a feeling that someone cares about the things he’s interested in, understands and listens to how he’s feeling at home, in school, with friends, and believes in his ability to succeed.”

The third essential component is that of a program coordinator to bring the classroom rebbi or teacher in sync with the mentor, both working toward small but specific goals for the child — academic and behavioral. In this way, a new cycle of positivity is launched in the child’s life. The coordinator also stays in touch with the parents to make sure the mentor and child are a good match.

Encouraged by this mentor, the boy can finally experience a bit of success in class — a completed worksheet, or active class participation, instead of launching paper airplanes — and the teacher, in turn, notices and comments and perhaps rewards. The child happily reports back to his mentor/friend, who celebrates his success, and the cycle of good feelings and good results continues.

Rabbi Heiman says he fields calls from therapists themselves to initiate mentoring for children — because therapists understand they alone can’t provide this kind of support — and he likens this to someone who wants to care for his lawn and hires a professional gardener to do so. But two things the gardener can’t provide are water and sunlight. “That’s the job of the mentors. These children are missing the water and sunlight.”

Thus, even for children who are seeing mental health professionals, this area isn’t something the professionals are in a position to address. One booster of my friend’s program is Dr. Norman Blumenthal, who believes even kids from the most stable homes can benefit greatly from a mentoring relationship of this sort. But even were it to serve only those from more problematic backgrounds, Rabbi Heiman estimates that would encompass a minimum of 10 percent of yeshivah kids, or 26,000 across the United States. In Eretz Yisrael, a coordinator for a similar mentoring program for 4,000 boys run by Yad Eliezer told Rabbi Heiman that with sufficient funding he could easily serve an additional 4,000.

Listening to my friend talk, it all made so much sense. Here is a way to strike at the root of a major communal problem at a point when remediation can be very effective, and far less costly in terms of money, time, resources, and heartache. Rabbi Heiman has a track record of success with his approach, in Lakewood, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Eretz Yisrael.

Obviously, as with any worthwhile initiative, there are costs. This is a program that simply cannot be run on a volunteer basis, because no yungerman can afford to donate that much time from his weekly schedule. While Rabbi Heiman pays his mentors the prevailing tutoring rate for kollel avreichim, he doesn’t usually hire rebbeim, which generally would cost even more.

To be honest, I walked away from my encounter with Rabbi Heiman both encouraged and troubled. Encouraged, because there are people like Reb Moshe who are thinking about other Jews’ problems and devising solutions that are simple, effective, essential. But troubled, too, that in the ten years since he founded Lev L’Talmid with the enthusiastic approbations of gedolei Yisrael, its growth hasn’t kept up with the exploding need, whether for lack of funding or other reasons.

For his part, Rabbi Heiman just wants this to be part of the communal infrastructure nationwide and beyond, because as he put it, “It’s not about me and my program, but that this support should be available to children in every community, with a safety net created around every school.”


Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 701. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com