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Turn the Days Around

Rabbi Breyer calls summer vacation “an unfortunate work accident between parents and children.” He says it’s really a matter of matching expectations

 

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Photos: Elchanan Kotler, Flash 90

“I

 

did teshuvah when I was around 25, and it’s been an ongoing process ever since,” says Rabbi Pinchas Breyer, one of the most sought-after educators in Israel today and a star among bochurim, from the most insular and chassidish to those spiraling down to the fringe. Only thing is, he was already a maggid shiur in the Belzer yeshivah at that age, engaging talmidim and drawing questioning souls back to their Source.

He was certainly not a baal teshuvah.

“Sure, I was born frum,” says Rabbi Breyer, “but I also did my own personal teshuvah along the way. You know, one of the great mashpi’im of our times, a baal teshuvah himself, once said he feels sorry for those born frum. Many of them, he said, are like tinokos shenishbu and never had the opportunity to do teshuvah properly. They don’t know what it means to strive spiritually. They were just born into it.”

Rabbi Breyer’s knack for conveying deep concepts in relatable terms has given him tools to connect with both streams, those born frum and those who’ve discovered Yiddishkeit on their own. But that’s only part of his story: This Belzer chassid has also composed some of the most popular songs in the Jewish music world today, including “Hishbati Eschem” and “Yadati.” That happens to be a family thing — his brother Ahreleh collaborates with him, and his father, Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Breyer, is the venerated composer of the Belzer court with hundreds of songs to his credit, some of which have become classics — and not only in Belz. Perhaps his most famous is the Bircas Hamazon niggun sung by Jewish children around the world — it was actually a mandate from the Belzer Rebbe himself to create a new bentshing tune that would capture children’s hearts.

“My father saw music as a tool for chinuch,” says Reb Pinchas, “and I’m just carrying that forward.”

Rabbi Pinchas Breyer doesn’t let his distinctive Belzer garb and accent interfere with his invitations to speak and sing in front of a wide range of audiences, from litvish to Chabad to right-wing national-religious. And especially now, with summer and vacation mode upon us — a potentially challenging time for parents of teens — the messages he delivers are more important than ever.

“With just a little awareness and context, it’s possible to turn such times into days of positive energy instead of strife,” he says.

Rabbi Breyer calls summer vacation “an unfortunate work accident between parents and children.” He says it’s really a matter of matching expectations. “On the one hand we have the yeshivah bochur, who spends the whole year in a pressure cooker. Think about it: He’s generally far from home and in an atmosphere of intense competitiveness — in the dorm, the beis medrash. He’s constantly under the watchful eye of the mashgiach, and you know, in today’s yeshivos, there are also surveillance cameras. As the zeman starts to wind down, this bochur is already crossing out pages on the calendar, counting the days until summer break. Even the really good boy who’s been shteiging the whole zeman is probably looking forward to a little freedom, a little breathing space.

“And then you have the parents who are in the reverse situation,” he continues. “They haven’t seen their child in a while and can’t wait to have him around so that they can shep nachas from him — and then comes the inevitable collision. Two days pass, and the parents are shocked by the late hour their budding talmid chacham wakes up in the morning. Their hearts break as they watch him lying in bed, reading a newspaper or a book. That wasn’t what they expected. And the poor guy — all he wants is to curl up in his cozy bed with something to read, some peace and quiet, and a lot of love and understanding. Where can he be himself if not in his own home?”

Rabbi Breyer says that the biggest relationship issues stem from common parental misconceptions. They see how their bochur is during vacation time and assume that’s his real essence, they think he’s probably a goof-off all year, or at least he wishes he were.

“But I tell parents to think back to how they behaved when they were off from school,” Rabbi Breyer explains. “And don’t we parents also need time to chill out? Of course, even during vacation there are red lines that should never be crossed and it’s worthwhile to be on alert. Still, it’s not the time for chinuch — it’s the time to show love. I’ve yet to see a bochur who benefited and grew from his parents’ shouts and anger during his off time. Someone once asked Rav Steinman ztz”l whether to fight with bochurim about their wakeup time during bein hazmanim. ‘You want them to be goyim?’ asked Rav Steinman. ‘Then fight with them during bein hazemanim.’ ”

The relationship key for vacation time and all year-round, says Rabbi Breyer, is three words: Trust your child. “In some homes, the parents treat the teen as if he were a suspect under interrogation. Every time he leaves the house, the parents are on the alert: ‘Where did you go? Who did you speak to?’ They’re showing their child that they don’t trust him, and in this generation, trust is critical. Of course, parents shouldn’t hide their heads in the sand — they need very sharp senses and should always be watchful. But most of the time, there’s no reason to be suspicious. A yeshivah bochur has a chazakah in his favor.”

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inchas Breyer doesn’t have a PhD in educational theory, and in fact was pegged by the Belzer Rebbe to go straight from yeshivah to chinuch. Still, pedagogy is in his veins. He was born in the Ashdod of the 1980s, where his father, Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Breyer, was one of the kehillah founders. For as long as he can remember, life was about shlichus, chinuch, and music.

“My parents were pioneers,” Reb Pinchas says. “The Rebbe sent them out of the chareidi centers of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak to create a chareidi enclave in a mixed city, which became a model for other cities in Israel.”

He remembers what it was like to be in the first class of the founding Belzer cheder in Ashdod. “Our class had only seven students. In the winter, if a few children were out sick, you could have a private class with the melamed.”

But those memories serve him well today, in his capacity as an advisor to quite a few start-up yeshivos. While it’s true that very small classes lack the atmosphere and energy of a larger group and can also contribute to social problems, there are advantages as well, the main one being the special attention for the individual student.

“Today, when people starting a mosad are afraid of beginning with a small group, I tell them about my cheder, which started out with seven kids and is today one of the largest chadarim in the country.”

Admittedly, expectations were considerably lower then. “True, those were days of building. We had nothing. We started from scratch: schools, institutions, even kosher grocery stores. It was all fresh,” he says. His father was charged with running the cheder, while his mother became principal of the fledgling Beis Malka high school.

“By the time I finished cheder,” he says, “I really wanted to go to a large, established yeshivah, but just then they decided to open the first Belzer yeshivah ketanah in Ashdod, Beis Mordechai. We were the first class, and were fortunate to have an outstanding menahel, Rav Asher Zelig Weiss. I think the seeds of my own chinuch career were planted during those years.”

It was from Rav Weiss that Reb Pinchas says he learned the most important rule in chinuch: trust. “He trusted us implicitly, seeing us as partners in the yeshivah’s founding. He never doubted us, so for example, if a staff member couldn’t come one day, he appointed one of us students to substitute. Maybe that’s why my class produced a number of first-rate, well-known educators. That’s how you build a child, by trusting him. It works.”

Rabbi Breyer laughs about how he was destined to spend all his student years in a founding class. He’d had a pioneering cheder and yeshivah ketanah, and when it was time for yeshivah gedolah, he thought he’d finally join other bochurim of the chassidus in the flagship Belzer yeshivah on Agrippas Street in Jerusalem — but in fact, he was in the first class of the new Belzer yeshivah gedolah that had just opened in Bnei Brak.

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abbi Breyer credits his success in chinuch to the Belzer Rebbe, a forward-thinking leader who handpicks many of his chassidim for education and therapy-related fields when he spots their talents. From the time he was a bochur, he was privileged to have many private audiences and receive personal guidance from the Rebbe, and although he’s not eager to discuss the contents of those conversations, he does share one example of guidance he received. “When I was already serving as mashgiach in the yeshivah, the Rebbe said something powerful that continues to guide me: ‘The successful bochurim will thrive with or without you. Those who need you are the ones who are struggling. It’s not as glorious, but that’s where you should concentrate your efforts.’

“Baruch Hashem, things have changed in the yeshivah world,” he explains. “Not so long ago, whenever there was a problem with a bochur, there was one very easy solution: He was thrown out. The Rebbe was a pioneer in this respect, because when you’re responsible for an entire chassidus, you don’t have the luxury of dismissing a few ‘problem’ kids. Thus a method evolved whereby every bochur can find his place somewhere within the yeshivah world. We’ve seen this not just in Belz, but in all the various networks — today it’s obvious, but then it necessitated a major attitude shift.

“Mashgichim and roshei yeshivah had to change their mindset. No longer were they working in their yeshivos with talmidim, but in their families with souls. And when you’re dealing with a soul that’s a member of your family, you’ll do anything not to lose it.”

In his own life, Rabbi Breyer went straight from yeshivah bochur to mechanech. “That gives me a type of advantage over others who left yeshivah, learned in kollel for a few years, studied education, and then went to teach. I’ve never actually left the yeshivah, so in a way, I guess that means I’ve also never stopped being a yeshivah bochur.”

Parallel to his work in yeshivah, Rabbi Breyer began answering a helpline for yeshivah bochurim, a job that triggered what he calls his “chazarah b’teshvuah.”

“It was like giving first aid. You answered phone calls from anonymous bochurim who poured out their hearts to you. And that was a turning point in my life. While I listened to their questions, I was actually listening to my own.

“And I learned something else as well: Under our noses, this generation has been undergoing a huge metamorphosis. In so many areas, today’s children are a lot more knowledgeable than their parents, even in the frum world, even in very insulated pockets. When we were their age, we didn’t know a fraction of what they know. They’re inundated with books, comics, magazines, suspense novels, and more. There is a tremendous thirst for knowledge, and they’re soaking it all up.

“But there’s one area where we’re not providing them with all the information,” Rabbi Breyer continues, “and that’s Yiddishkeit itself. People today are thirsty. The new generation isn’t capable of entering a Yom Tov or doing a mitzvah without reading up on it and understanding its inner dimensions. That’s why young people are running to mashpi’im like Rav Meilech Biderman and Rav Tzvi Meir Zilberberg — because they’re quenching a real thirst. If our zeidehs sufficed with the same Haggadah every year, stained by wine and a few tears, a bochur today sits at the Seder table with a thick Haggadah full of commentaries, trying to figure out what kavanah he’s supposed to have when his father breaks the matzah for Yachatz.”

He says that when he first started answering the helpline, he was pretty surprised by the questions. Young bochurim want to know, to understand why. Why must I wear a black suit in the middle of the summer? Why do I have to daven the same words every day? Why am I obligated to this or that minhag?

“The problem is that when they bring these questions to their maggid shiur or mashgiach, they get yelled at. ‘You should be ashamed of yourself! What kinds of questions are going through your mind?’ And that’s what led me to my own teshuvah. I would tell these bochurim, ‘That’s a good question. Let me check and I’ll get back to you.’ And that’s how I started investigating, learning, clarifying fundamental emunah issues I’d never felt a need to explore before.”

The irony, he says, is that chareidi chinuch today is among the most advanced in the world. Every cheder has a team of evaluators, kriah teachers, special ed teachers. “We have methods and solutions and resource rooms and truly, no child needs to be left out,” he comments, “but hashkafically, we’re way behind. Today’s chinuch focuses on details. We argue with bochurim over what they’re wearing, over hechsherim and minhagim. We argue with girls over the length of their skirts and the shade of their stockings. We fight against technology mainly through threats: Your children won’t be accepted to the schools, you won’t be buried in the community plot. Instead, what we need to do is cause people to want involvement with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. To love Hashem, not just fear Him. To understand, not just to be afraid of Him.”

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abbi Breyer has poured all his experience and passion into a series of books for bochurim and parents. The first volume, L’hisaneg Bein Koslei Hayeshivah, is printed in a unique square format that won’t fit on the standard bookshelf.

“I didn’t want the book to sit on the shelf,” he says. “I wanted it on the night table next to the bochur’s bed. I want people to read it. It’s based on questions I received from bochurim from across the country. Nothing is fictitious. I have all the original letters. You know, we tend to find it easier to help bochurim whose problems can be diagnosed with a few letters: ADHD, OCD, and the like. But what about the ‘easy’ problems that almost every bochur deals with: lack of interest in learning, social issues, how to manage with disappointment? I once heard a wise person sum it up: During the first two years of our children’s lives we teach them how to talk. After that, we’re busy teaching them how to be silent — not to ask questions, and mainly, not to embarrass us.

“I’ll never forget the day an electrician, a frum chassidish guy, came to my house to fix something. My young son was enthralled, and the electrician patiently explained to him how everything works, even letting him use the drill. He showed him the different bits, taught him how a plug works. My son was ecstatic — until he set eyes on me and immediately tensed up. ‘Tatty,’ he said hesitantly. ‘It was so much fun. Is it allowed?’

“I was shocked by his question. At such a young age a child already knows that so many things are not permitted. Not only that, but what’s fun is probably not permitted.”

Rabbi Breyer has contributed to one powerful way for young people to connect — through niggun. Although, he says, the challenge is not to get distracted. “I’ll tell you something interesting. A few years back, after I wrote my first song, I felt on top of the world, and I went to the Rebbe with a recording of it. The Rebbe smiled and said, ‘So, you’re also involved with that nonsense?’ At first, I was pretty shaken up, but after I calmed down, I understood that the Rebbe was really giving me an instruction for life — to put things in perspective. When you’ve written a few songs, music can so easily take over your life. You don’t even realize it but you’ve become the ‘famous composer,’ a persona that can distract you from your true mission.”

Rabbi Breyer says his father, who has many Belz albums to his credit, made sure not to glorify what could have been the glitter and glitz of the industry. “When we were young, he produced several albums with professional choirs and arrangements, but we kids were kept out of it. The microphone, the studio, were all beyond the pale for us. He could have saved a lot of time and effort by including us in his choir — we all sing well and we begged him to let us — but our educational future was far more important to him.

“Look, I admit that I sometimes meet a bochur who I know will be impressed by my musical resume, but when I see the admiration in the boy’s eyes, I understand that my father’s chinuch saved me. There’s no other way to be able to compose songs that everyone knows, while still bearing in mind that at the end of the day, it’s ‘nonsense.’ I’m often invited to sing at camps and to talk about music, but my policy is that I’m willing to sing only if it’s part of a broader presentation. Music is the conduit, not the end.”

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espite playing down his musical side, Pinchas Breyer is an undisputed songwriter of caliber not too many others have reached. Is there some secret, some kind of process involved in writing niggunim the whole world is singing?

“There’s nothing much to tell,” Rabbi Breyer admits. “I was sitting in yeshivah one day learning Shir Hashirim, and when I reached the words, ‘Ma tagidu lo she’cholas ahavah ani,’ I read Rashi’s commentary, ‘that when Hashem will come to you nations for testimony, you will testify to Him on my behalf that I suffered harsh tortures among you because of my deep love for Him’ — that we bear our suffering in exile is because of our love for HaKadosh Baruch Hu. And then, all of a sudden, the tune came to me, just like that.

“The truth is, I had no idea at the time that I was on to such a hit. But by amazing Hashgachah, the Belzer dayan Rav Yehoshua Fink called me that day, and said that he needed a powerful song for a group he was leading. Right then, I sang ‘Hishbati Eschem’ to him, and he felt like he’d uncovered a treasure. He made me realize what I had.”

But in the wake of that success came the guilt feelings. “Chazal state in certain places that it’s inappropriate to makes songs out of pesukim from Shir Hashirim. But then I heard from someone in Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s household that on Purim they started singing it and Rav Chaim, who usually doesn’t pay attention to songs, lifted his head and started to sway with dveikus. After they finished the song, he asked to hear it again. One of his grandsons asked if it was permissible to sing it, and Maran repeated twice, ‘M’meg dos zingen, m’meg dos zingen — It’s permitted to sing it.’ ”

Without warning, Rabbi Breyer looks me in the eye and asks with no preamble, “Tell me, when was the last time you experienced spiritual growth? You don’t have to answer; just give it some thought.”

He apologized for being so forward, but explained. “We have a serious spiritual problem,” he says. “From the day we leave yeshivah or seminary, we stop growing. I’ve met thousands of people, and I’d say that 98 percent are still in the exact same spot they were when they got married. One who enjoyed the statues of a ‘good bochur’ when he married retains that status, and the same goes for the ‘balabos,’ the modern bochur, or any other description that has stuck to him since his youth.

“But what happens if he wants to change? If a 33-year-old suddenly decides to start intensifying his tefillah, his friends will quickly send in askanim to make sure everything is okay. Because people don’t accept change — after a certain age, it’s expected that you won’t have any more spiritual aspirations, that you’ll just maintain your spot, wherever that is. The way we see it, only teenagers have passionate religious fluctuations, and when we get older, we don’t want that instability anymore. But that’s where we’re liable to miss out. Today, there are coaches for every possibility. If you wake up one morning at age 42 and decide you want to learn how to succeed in sales even though you’ve never done it before, there’s no reason not to start now. When it comes to spirituality though, we think growth is strange, weird, unstable.

“And the sad truth is that we actually ascribe to that all-or-nothing mentality regarding our children as well. We want them to be great tzaddikim; we’re not always willing to accept them with their hardships and challenges. One of our greatest fears as parents is to see our children’s weaknesses. And you know why? Because our children are a mirror of ourselves, and that can be too painful to bear. We don’t like seeing our faults played out in the next generation.”

It’s no wonder that parents today are frustrated and pained by their relationships with their children — how their own flesh and blood are willing to speak to anyone else, to share their experiences with a coach or counselor — but not with them, their own parents. But that, says Rabbi Breyer, is because these parents don’t realize that a relationship with children doesn’t come naturally. It has to be built and nurtured.

According to Rabbi Breyer, something amazing has happened in our generation. Parents no longer have that acute sense of shame with a developmentally challenged child, and in fact the opposite is sometimes true — the special child has become a project for the whole family, someone they all celebrate. But if they have a normal child who averages 60 on his tests or doesn’t succeed in yeshivah or falls in with a bad crowd, the parents can’t accept that.

“So it really comes down to this,” he explains. “Your children want a connection with a figure they admire, they want to be around people who are happy, and what they really want above all else is respect and acceptance. Fathers and mothers, ask yourselves: Would you be willing to confide in someone who shouts at you as soon as they hear what you’ve done? Would you want a relationship with someone who behaves like you?”

Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 765 

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