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Top Priority

Rabbi Shaya Cohen dissects the most acute chinuch challenges educators and parents are facing today

Photos: Itzik Roytman

Rabbi Shaya Cohen is one of the happiest people around — even as he’s immersed in the troubles and crises of the generation.

“There is no greater pleasure in this world than to elevate the lives of Hashem’s children,” he says with a combination of humility and satisfaction. “I can listen to tzaros all day long, because if I can move people just a little bit in the right direction and see results, there’s nothing like it.”

As rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva Zichron Aryeh and Kollel Ner Yehoshua in Bayswater, New York, and founder of Priority-1 and the newer “Teach to Reach” initiative, Rabbi Cohen is a popular address for parents and mechanchim in need of guidance as they face uncharted challenges. Priority-1 and Teach to Reach may not have been the first initiatives to deal with chinuch issues, but Teach to Reach is perhaps the first to offer a multi-pronged approach that incorporates hashkafah, Torah psychology, and chinuch methodology into one holistic, integrated approach that addresses both the head and the heart.

Of course, Rabbi Cohen points out, you cannot engage the head until you’ve connected to the heart. Today many educators complain that students’ attention spans have attenuated, yet he notes encouragingly, “Attention spans can be increased when there’s a strong rebbi-talmid relationship. It makes the student want to engage, because he knows he has a friend.”


abbi Cohen isn’t a person who likes to talk about himself. Instead, he gives the credit to his parents for instilling in him the values that have propelled him. He describes his father as having been possessed by a fiery passion for truth. “In his eyes, lying and cheating were the worst sins a person could do,” he says. From his mother, whom he describes as “a sensitive soul who would do anything for anyone, who felt their pain and did chesed for them,” he absorbed the ability to listen to others’ problems and the desire to help unconditionally.

As a young man, Rabbi Cohen’s proclivity for helping others together with an affinity for science led him to consider medicine as a career, and he enrolled in a pre-medical track in college. But he was also learning at Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim in Queens under Rav Henoch Leibowitz ztz”l, where he became so captivated by the Torah that he dropped out of college.

He continued his learning in Eretz Yisrael at Yeshiva Beis Aryeh under Rav Lazer Platchinsky ztz”l, a son-in-law of Rav Aryeh Levine (and hence a brother-in-law of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv), whom Rabbi Cohen describes as “a giant who was a talmid of both the Chazon Ish and the Brisker Rav, something that was almost unheard of.” Rabbi Cohen would have the privilege not only to earn  semichah with Rav Platchinsky, but to marry his daughter (a granddaughter of Rav Aryeh Levine).

In 1975 Rabbi Cohen was offered the opportunity to jump-start a yeshivah high school in LA’s San Fernando Valley suburbs, which at the time was virtually a Torah midbar. It didn’t take long — through giving classes, doing outreach, and running SEED programs staffed by Chofetz Chaim bochurim, he helped turn the community around (one young man who came along with him was a young mechanech who also liked to compose songs, by the name of Abie Rotenberg), to the extent that today it lacks for nothing: The Valley now boasts a day school, a yeshivah, a kollel, and shuls — all the infrastructure of frum life.

“In yeshivah, I had been imbued with two very basic, fundamental ideas: the receptivity of the Jewish neshamah to Torah, and the power of Torah to turn your life around,” Rabbi Cohen says. “In California, I saw it all to be true.”

The Cohens saw great success in California, but they also suffered a devastating loss, when their five-year-old son was killed in an accident. It seems, though, that Hashem had prepared a small refuah before the makkah. A few weeks before it happened, Rabbi Cohen had organized a Melaveh Malkah in which he asked someone to entertain the guests with a thought-provoking discourse. The speaker related the tale of a couple who had been childless for many years, but after obtaining a brachah from a rebbe, finally managed to have a son. Yet five years later, when the wife was no longer able to have children, the child became sick and died. The heartbroken couple returned to the rebbe to ask, “What kind of brachah did you give us?”

The rebbe responded, “Your son was the reincarnation of a ger tzedek, who converted at age five. He regretted that during his first five years he ate non-kosher food, so he was allowed to come back to this world to make up for those five years.”

“When the speaker gave over that story, I wasn’t happy,” Rabbi Cohen says. “He was asked to entertain the crowd, not depress them. Yet two weeks later, I was on a plane to Eretz Yisrael, bringing my own five-year-old son to kevurah.”

Yet people who have suffered heartbreak become better positioned to understand and empathize with others who have known tragedy. “It gave me a whole new level of credibility for those who needed the chizuk,” he says.

By 1987, the other Cohen children were approaching the age when they would need higher-level yeshivos than were available in the Valley, and so the family returned to New York. There Rabbi Cohen eventually founded Yeshiva Zichron Aryeh and Kollel Ner Yehoshua. Meanwhile, one of the local balabatim, Mr. Murray Katz, would call him repeatedly, often in tears. “We’re losing kids! We’re losing our kids!” he’d cry to Rabbi Cohen.

Rabbi Cohen suggested they bring together a group of rabbanim to address the problem. They organized a meeting between themselves, Rabbi Yisroel Lefkowitz, Rabbi Murray Friedman, and Rabbi Velvel Pearl. From that small meeting, Priority-1 was created.

“Until then, most of the focus in the Jewish community had been on assimilation and intermarriage,” Rabbi Cohen explains. “We had established the big kiruv centers and the Arachim seminars. But now we realized too many of our yeshivah-educated youth were drifting away.” After so many years worrying about kiruv rechokim, it was time to devote energy to kiruv kerovim.

Rabbi Shaya Cohen is the address for uncharted challenges. “You can’t engage the head until you’ve connected to the heart”


he Priority-1 initiative, which has since evolved into a network of yeshivos and training programs that serve as valuable resources for Jewish communities internationally, led to the creation of its own high school in 1996, and later a branch in Eretz Yisrael, as well as community workshops, events, and training programs. According to executive director (and talmid) Rabbi Yaakov Jaffe, Rabbi Cohen is one of the busiest people he’s ever known, with barely a minute to himself. But that in itself generates the energy to keep him going.

Those first talmidim wound up being a tremendous source of nachas to their parents and rebbeim, and are among the yeshivah’s staunchest supporters today. Working with young men who were struggling showed Rabbi Cohen that too many young people born and raised frum were falling prey to apathy and disillusionment. The solution, he realized, wasn’t just about steering errant lambs back to the fold, as he’d done at the beginning. The solution was to attach them to Hashem, Torah and their rebbeim so strongly and lovingly that they’d have no inclination to stray.

Rabbi Cohen has spent the last two decades giving seminars in various communities. In the last two years, however, thanks to the generous contribution of an anonymous donor, he’s been able to expand the program into a much larger initiative, Teach to Reach, developing a small library of materials and a 16-session, intensive training course for mechanchim, which he hopes to tailor for parents as well.

“We’re combining the best of kiruv, the best of chinuch, and years of experience working with struggling kids,” he says. “It reflects my own 40-plus years of trial and error.” He emphasizes that he’s not just trying to reach the drifters. The program is aimed at reinforcing the mainstream.

So, what then are the main issues we need to address today in order to build upon the many successes of our chinuch system? Rabbi Cohen shares his wisdom:


How important is the personal relationship between teacher and student, and how can we strengthen it?


Developing a caring, close relationship between a rebbi and talmid, or morah and talmidah, is critical in chinuch. Healthy relationships of that kind become the conduit to having a positive influence on our students.

The Rambam, in his discussion in Sefer Hamitzvos regarding connecting to talmidei chachamim, writes that one of the benefits of such interaction is that it causes a person to accept the truth of their words. When there’s a close, sensitive relationship, mutually felt by rebbi and talmid, it makes the talmid much more likely not just to listen to what his rebbi tells him, but to actually believe what he tells him and accept his direction and influence.

Many years ago, I had a talmid who was exceptionally difficult — the type of kid you worry will destroy the yeshivah. Suddenly, after six months, he turned around. When I called him over to understand what had just happened, he told me, “You did it!”

“What did I do?” I said, perplexed.

“You believed in me,” he said. He genuinely sensed that I felt he was capable of changing, and that I had his back. Today he’s a fine, upstanding Yid living in Eretz Yisrael.

We know that the power of love and friendship can melt the most resistant heart. We learn this in its most extreme form from the way Yaakov sent messengers bearing gifts to Eisav. This was the same Eisav who harbored an unrelenting hatred for Yaakov, nursed deep grievances against him for twice deceiving him, and planned to kill him. And yet, Yaakov’s respectful yet minimal show of friendship — sending some generous gifts and relating what had happened to him in the house of Lavan — succeeded in penetrating the heart of his mortal foe. That’s the potency of an overture of friendship.

It’s true that some talmidim make themselves very hard to love. I once gave a talk in which I compared Jews to olives, and said that often you have to squeeze Jews hard for the precious oil to emerge. After that, someone even did a painting of me with a tallis over my eyes, squeezing an olive. You see, every talmid has something precious in him, and you have to cover your eyes to all the rest. If you just look at the outside, you’ll never see the inner beauty.

One of my students was completely indifferent to Yiddishkeit — as far as he was concerned, it didn’t even exist — but he had one very good middah, which was his inability to lie or accept falsehood. It was that middah that turned him around, because when he confronted the truth of Torah, he couldn’t turn away from it. Today, believe it or not, he’s a rosh yeshivah who influences hundreds of talmidim.


As our yeshivos grow and the classes get ever bigger, granted, it becomes harder and harder to forge and foster those connections. But we have to do everything in our power to develop and maintain them, because they’re the crucial conduit for passing on the mesorah to the next generation.

Rebbis and morahs need the right training to be effective in the classroom, because they won’t be fulfilled in their jobs if they feel inadequate. And fulfillment is crucial in a job that’s notoriously underpaid and underappreciated. Once a rosh yeshivah came with one of his key supporters to discuss my program with me, and the fellow asked, “How does a person become a rosh yeshivah?” The rosh yeshivah answered, “You’re born that way.”

But I’m not sure about that. I believe that maybe 20 percent of roshei yeshivah and rebbeim are born to do the job. They have so much natural talent they don’t require much training. Another 20 percent shouldn’t be in the field at all — they’re just naturally unsuited for it. But that vast 60 percent in the middle? With the right training, they could be stars.

There are two essential things incumbent on a rebbi. First, he should be a person who is clearly working on himself. I was attracted to Rav Henoch Leibowitz because he was so obviously working on himself. The other thing is that a mechanech should pray for his students. You’ve probably heard the famous story of a rebbi who consulted Rav Steinman about whether or not to expel a student from the yeshivah. Rav Steinman said, “I’d like to pray for him. Can you give me his name?” The rebbi admitted he didn’t know the boy’s full name, indicating that he had never prayed for him.



What role should the teaching of emunah and bitachon play in our educational system?


For many years, the chinuch world didn’t emphasize the transmitting concepts of emunah and bitachon in our schools. Today, however, we recognize how central it is to convey to our talmidim the basic tenets of Jewish belief and trust in Hashem. The Vilna Gaon advocated the study of the Sefer HaKuzari, which, he stated, is the basis for our fundamental Torah beliefs.

It’s critical to clarify for our students the unique nature of Jewish belief, which is based on the historical reality of a public, nationwide revelation, which was then recorded in the Torah and passed down through the generations. The foundational beliefs of Yahadus are utterly unlike anything that exists among other nations and religions, and when our students come to appreciate that, there’s no greater source of pride in and commitment to a Torah life.

It may be inevitable that there will be those who drift away from Yiddishkeit due to temptations that beckon from surrounding society or because of challenges in their lives. But we can’t address the deeper personal issues that led to their alienation without first dealing with their problems with belief, since those serve as excuses to drift away from the Torah world.

Bitachon is a super-critical element in education. The Vilna Gaon writes that the primary purpose of the giving of the Torah was in order for Klal Yisrael to develop trust in Hashem; the absence of such trust is what brought about the Churban Bayis Sheini, since sinas chinam and other interpersonal strife can only take hold when we’re lacking the belief that everything comes from Hashem.

But that doesn’t mean bitachon should be taught as an academic lecture. We need to help our talmidim make it an integral part of their everyday lives, putting into practice what we say in Shemoneh Esreh, “ki l’yishuascha kivinu kol hayom, for Your salvation we hope all day long.”

In our school in Los Angeles, I used to run a contest for the best story of Hashgachah pratis. One kid had a family story about how his grandparents were fleeing Budapest to escape the Nazis, but they had no transit visas for the border guards. When they arrived at the last stop in Hungary and the border police came aboard, the policeman first turned to an old man with a long white beard to inspect his papers. He then simply moved on without asking to see the family’s papers, allowing them to escape the country. The old man disappeared, and they’re still convinced he was Eliyahu Hanavi.


I once gave a shmuess about how a Jew will never become poor from spending money on Shabbos or Rosh Chodesh. As a result, one of my yungeleit decided to take his wife to a fancy restaurant in Manhattan on Rosh Chodesh Kislev. He almost fainted when he saw the 230-dollar bill — he had never spent so much on a dinner in his life. That Shabbos Chanukah, he approached me at the kiddush to say, “I listened to you, and I saw how Hashem really does take care of me!” He proceeded to relate that he’d gone to a Chanukah party that week where there was some sort of game, and he’d won 235 dollars! But what was the extra five dollars for? “Maybe it was for babysitting, gas and tolls,” I offered, although all that would have cost more than five dollars. But wait — the babysitting was done by his in-laws for free; there were no tolls because they took the 59th Street Bridge. But the gas came to about five dollars. The young man told me, “I’ve learned about emunah and bitachon my whole life, but this has completely refocused me.” When you believe with conviction — in your kishkes — that you can trust Hashem to come through, you see miracles.

There are, of course, many levels to bitachon: at its most basic, it means knowing that Hashem is all-benevolent and controls all that happens in the world as a whole and in our individual lives. From there bitachon progresses to a higher level which enables a person to maintain hope in the face of the greatest challenges. And then one can grow to possess an inner confidence that the Creator will indeed help even when things seem extremely bleak.



How can we explain the centrality of limud haTorah to our students?


Many yeshivah-educated people appreciate and enjoy their learning and succeed at it, too. Yet if you ask them to articulate why learning Torah is of such primary importance in Yahadus, they’re at a loss to explain it. But if we can’t explain it, at least to ourselves if not to others, how can we hope to maintain the intensity of commitment to Torah throughout our lives? So this needs to be addressed more directly in our schools.

Today the world has no moral baseline — it’s completely hefker. We can’t trust our judges, our politicians, our leaders in any domain. Yet we as Jews have a Divine directive passed to millions of people and perpetuated through the generations. By studying Torah, we communicate with our Creator. As someone said, “When I pray, I talk to G-d. When I study Torah, G-d talks to me.” If you get deep into the learning, extracting the meaning — Hashem’s concepts, not yours — you feel that Hashem is talking to you.

Someone once told me that Rav Simcha Wasserman traveled weekly to Santa Barbara to teach Chumash to a group of non-religious Jews, who eventually became observant. There was only one condition he insisted on with these students: They had to recite birchos haTorah before the class began. I don’t believe he did this out of frumkeit. He did it because it conveyed a message to these students that this was the Word of Hashem that they were about to study.

One of our problems in getting these ideas through, though, is that we teach too much through lectures. In this generation, attention spans are no more than three minutes, so the learning needs to be interactive. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I’ll remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”

If you get a kid the right mentor it can change his life, especially because students have different learning styles. Parents sometimes tell me, “My child is shvach in learning.” I tell them, “No one ever hurls the epithet, ‘Stupid Jew!’ in my presence.” Then I’ll sit down to learn with the boy, and what do you know — he’s bright! He just never had the motivation or powers of concentration to learn, which can turn around if we accommodate his learning needs. My daughter, teaching fifth grade many years ago, had a student who told her, “I’m a zero student.” It turns out this girl simply had a block where written tests were concerned and couldn’t pass them. But when she was evaluated in other ways, she did great.



What can we do to reinvigorate the tefillah experience and turn it from lifeless, rote ritual into something we look forward to and grow from?


Tefillah is the highest expression of trust and bitachon, during which we approach Hashem as the Kol Yachol, the One who can give us whatever we ask for. Years ago, my then-eight-year-old daughter wanted 75 cents to buy a soda for camp the next day, but I didn’t have it on hand. “What should I do?” she said. “Say some Tehillim,” I answered. I then left to shul, returning later to find my daughter ecstatic — she had procured her 75 cents. How did it happen? After she began davening, a friend from the other side of town remembered that she’d borrowed 75 cents from her at the Purim mesibah the previous Adar, and sent her the money that very night. It was a lesson in the power of tefillah that would stay with her all her life.

We have to understand that tefillah isn’t for Hashem. It’s for us. It creates and strengthens a relationship with Him, transforming us and bringing us closer to Him. You have to keep working on any relationship to keep it from becoming stale (think of a marriage).

When we daven, it’s not enough to know what the words mean, although of course that’s important, too. We need to understand the concepts, like Hashem’s love for us.

When we pray, it’s a precious opportunity to ask Hashem for the things we feel we need, even if we don’t deserve them. One might ask: If we don’t deserve them, why would He give them to us? The answer is that through the deep connection we forge in tefillah, we elevate ourselves to a higher level of relationship, which makes us worthy of a new, different response. If Hashem doesn’t give us what we want, we have to accept that He knows better than we do what’s best for us. Maybe He wants more tefillah from us, or maybe the tefillah has helped in ways we aren’t aware of. Sometimes Hashem answers our prayers before we even ask. That’s called Hashgachah pratis.



How can we enhance our fulfillment of mitzvos?


We all do mitzvos, but oftentimes our mitzvah observance is perfunctory. Understanding what we gain from mitzvos can do a great deal to transform the experience. When we contemplate the overall goal of the commandments, in Chazal’s words, l’tzaref es habriyos, to refine human beings, that can be a tremendous motivation. Every mitzvah becomes a priceless chance to elevate ourselves and to emulate our Creator, and the more we become like Him, the closer we draw to Him. With this understanding, doing mitzvos becomes exhilarating, empowering and enticing.

It’s essential to show talmidim how mitzvah observance benefits them. The Sefer Hachinuch states that we have to explain the reasons and benefits of all the mitzvos, even seemingly obscure ones like bringing honey and leaven on the Mizbeiach, or our children might rebel. The Chinuch was a Rishon, during a time when there were so fewer distractions and temptations, yet he still emphasized the danger of not giving talmidim reasons for the mitzvos and showing them the individual and global benefits.

Today, students live in a society where everything is about being “happy.” If you can’t show them how Torah will make them happy, they’re not interested. Of course, true happiness has nothing to do with the fleeting pleasures hawked by media ads and Instagram posts. True happiness comes from feeling good about oneself — validated as a human being and connected to a higher purpose.



How can we help our talmidim take their connection with Hashem to the next level?


At a certain level, our success has been our undoing, since our young people live in such an immersive frum environment that Hashem is taken for granted. Someone once said to me at a convention of rabbanim and mechanchim, “I felt like I was Avraham Aveinu introducing Hashem into the world.” Despite the fact that this was a conference on Jewish issues, no one had spoken about Hashem. Yet for us to live truly spiritual lives, there needs to be an ongoing focus on Hashem’s presence.

After a talk I once gave in a yeshivah, a young man came up to me and said, “I think I heard you mention Hashem’s name more times in the last 45 minutes than I heard it in the last four months here in the yeshivah.” We need to convey to our talmidim that every challenge we go through in life is designed to make us face the reality of Hashem’s existence and the need to trust in Him. Every mitzvah, every brachah we make is an opportunity to connect.

This is a training that prepares us for life’s curveballs. Someone I know who went through a family tragedy told me, “If I hadn’t developed a positive connection with Hashem, I never would have gotten through this. And because I had that grounding, I was able to discover levels of spirituality I never imagined existed before.” In other words, if students have the proper spiritual preparation, they will not only be able to survive life’s challenges, but will grow from them.

The bottom line is that we need to always be moving in an upward growth path. The Vilna Gaon teaches that there’s no such thing as treading water, maintaining equilibrium. At every moment, we’re either ascending or descending, and if we aren’t doing one, we’re most assuredly doing the other. This applies not only to individuals, but to our chinuch system, too. We either grow or we stagnate.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 932)

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