The Zilberman Method: Innovation In Torah Education

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Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World

By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum

Last week’s parashah, ParashasVayikra, is what little boys are first taught. Usually, when the little boy gets his first haircut, he is brought to yeshiva and given his first Torah lesson, accompanied by candy, toys, and song. Commentaries assert that the diminutive aleph of the word Vayikra, the first word of the parashah, suggests that the subject matter of korbanos (ritual sacrifices in the Mishkan) are directed for little boys. Just as the korbanos are spiritually pure, so are the little children who are just beginning to learn our holy Torah.

Rabbi Yitzchok Shlomo Zilberman
Rabbi Yitzchok Shlomo Zilberman

Throughout our history, religious education for children has always been the highest priority of Torah leaders. At Mount Sinai, when the Al‑mighty asked for a surety that the Jewish nation would adhere to the Torah, the people as a whole presented their children as collateral. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, codifier of the Mishnah, sent Rebbe Chiya and Rebbe Ashi on a pastoral tour of inspection. In one town they asked to see the “guardians of the city,” and the city guard was presented. Rebbe Chiya and Rebbe Ashi said that these were not the guardians of the city, which prompted the citizens to ask who, then, could be considered the guardians? The rabbis answered, “Those teaching Torah to children are the guardians of the city” (Jerusalem Talmud, Chagigah 76c).

In 1920, almost 3.6 million immigrant Jews resided in the United States. From 1880 to 1920, Jews represented almost 50% of all immigrants in America. At that time, in 1920, America’s 3.4 million Jews were 3.2 percent of the total population of 106.5 million.

Though many organizations were started by Jews arriving in the United States, Jewish religious education was not promoted. Many fraternal and benevolent organizations, as well as congregations, were established. However, yeshivas were just not part of the American Jewish scene at the time. Natural growth plus additional immigration should have increased the Jewish population to a minimum of 10.2 million Jews in America today. Instead, we number 6 million. The 4 million Jews unaccounted for were lost because of a lack of religious education.

The current resurgence of Orthodoxy may be the most profound, and is certainly the most surprising, transformation of Judaism in the past century. The upsurge is the direct result of emphasis on religious education within Orthodoxy. In recent years, despite the tuition crisis and adverse economy, yeshiva education for boys and for girls has become increasingly important.

Religious communities around the world continue to focus on improving religious education. We pray every day for assistance in “learning and teaching.” Torah leaders seriously deliberate on any proposed improvements. Recently, when an innovative idea was suggested at a well-attended b’ris, a Torah leader with a large following indicated that he could only respond a few days later. When those close to him inquired as to the unusual delay in responding, he shared that before making any decision regarding chinuch, he must first fast a full day. Since the idea was proposed at a b’ris, a seudas mitzvah, he had to wait for the following day to be able to fast an entire day.

Yitzchok Shlomo Zilberman was born in 1928 in Berlin and was orphaned from his mother at the age of three. His father, Rabbi Avrohom Moshe, zt’l (d. 1939), fearing the Nazi threat, moved his family to England. Unfortunately, Rabbi Avrohom Moshe passed away in 1939, leaving 11-year-old Yitzchok Shlomo without a father or mother. Parentless, Yitzchok Shlomo managed to board a ship leaving England, connecting to then Palestine, before the war halted sea traffic.

There, he was taken in by an uncle. At that time, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Schlesinger, zt’l (1898–1949), established Yeshiva Kol Torah in Jerusalem for young boys of German origin. It was the first mainstream chareidi yeshiva to teach in Hebrew, as opposed to Yiddish, as was routine at that time. This innovation had the crucial support of the Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, zt’l (1878–1953), revered author of Chazon Ish. Rabbi Yechiel Michel was succeeded as rosh yeshiva by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l (1910–1995).

Yitzchok Shlomo thrived under Rabbi Schlesinger’s watchful eye. Rabbi Schlesinger later declared that all his efforts in establishing the yeshiva would be considered successful even if it had produced only one student such as Rabbi Yitzchok Shlomo Zilberman. Yitzchok Shlomo later studied at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. At that time, he married Rebbetzin Yaffa Sheindel, a’h, daughter of Rabbi Yom Tov Zlotnik, zt’l. Together, they made their home in the Shaarei Chesed neighborhood of Jerusalem.

When Rabbi Zilberman’s children reached the age of chinuch, he explored contemporary yeshiva educational methods. He ultimately had 18 children, nine boys and nine girls. A well-to-do Torah supporter shared with Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach that he wished to make a generous donation of 60,000 lira, then a huge sum, to enable a kollel family to be pulled out of poverty. The hopeful donor asked to be referred to a kollel family that fit the bill. Rabbi Auerbach offered the donation to Rabbi Zilberman, whose family of 18 children was impoverished. Rabbi Zilberman considered the wonderful proposal and chose to decline. He advised Rabbi Auerbach that 60,000 lira, at that time, was not enough to pull the large family out of its deep debt and overwhelming needs.

Rabbi Yitzchok Shlomo Zilberman, seeking the best Torah education for his children, undertook an intensive study of the sources concerning the mitzvah of teaching Torah. After consulting with the Torah leaders of his day and receiving encouragement from Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky, zt’l (1886–1976), respected London Dayan, Rabbi Zilberman created the “Zilberman method.”

Rabbi Zilberman was convinced that the best method was that endorsed by Rabbi Yehuda Loew, zt’l (1520–1609), author of Maharal; Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, zt’l (1707–1746), renowned as the Ramchal; and Rabbi Eliyahu Kremer, zt’l (1720–1790), renowned as the Vilna Gaon. That method is congruent with Pirkei Avos 5:25: “At five (one should begin the study of) Scriptures; at ten, Mishnah; at thirteen (one becomes obligated in) the commandments; at fifteen Gemara . . .”

Rabbi Zilberman established Yeshiva Aderes Eliyahu in the Old City of Jerusalem using that method. His unique approach attracted a close following. Eventually, he settled in the Old City, joined by many followers, and started a close-knit kehillah with the yeshiva as the centerpiece. Since its establishment, yeshivas in Israel as well as abroad have adopted what is now known as the Zilberman method.

In Yeshiva Aderes Eliyahu, every day is a school day, including cholha’moed. Yeshiva is not in session on yamimtovim or Tishah B’Av. This is based on the principle of “We do not disrupt the Torah studies of children even to build the Beis HaMikdash” (Shabbos 119b). The schedule of instruction is as follows: Grades 1–3 study Chumash and early Nevi’im, with trop (melodious intonation) repeated 24 times so that the children know the material by heart. Grades 4–5 complete Nevi’m and begin Kesuvim. Grades 6–8 study Mishnayos with a special melody in the mornings, completing five of the six orders of Mishnayos, and complete the Kesuvim in the afternoons. The Megillos are studied before yamimtovim, and chazarah (review) is constantly on the agenda with complete chazarah several times throughout the school year. Gemara is first introduced in grade 9, after the student has completed thorough studies in ChamishahChumsheiTorah, Nach, and all Mishnayos, having gained a fortified foundation through the Zilberman method to begin Gemara studies.

The Zilberman method of Yeshiva Aderes Eliyahu is the forerunner to more than 40 elementary schools around the world that are based on the model. These schools are found in Israel as well as in Baltimore, Brooklyn, Johannesburg, Lakewood, Los Angeles, Toronto, and elsewhere. Additional yeshivas use modified forms of the Zilberman method.

The method has been replicated, both closely and loosely, and in recent years, it has increasingly spread abroad. While the method has earned approval from many who are greatly impressed by the fantastic amount of material that a child can memorize, the Torah education world awaits long-term evaluation. Rabbi Jonathan Rietti, popular speaker and educator, has composed a “whole Torah” curriculum based on the Zilberman method, restructuring the concept of day-school education from the ground up. Rabbi Rietti’s curriculum and the Zilberman model share key features such as active learning, where teachers create and promote child-centered learning environments, somewhat similar to the Montessori method.

The classic Zilberman-method student learns the entire Chumash by heart (chanting and translation) and many tractates of the Mishnah. They develop a methodology of learning that applies to all Torah scholarship for the rest of their lives. Zilberman-method children find the mastery of material empowering, motivating, and highly enjoyable. Slowly but surely, the rest of the Torah world—yeshivish, chassidish, and Modern Orthodox—is paying careful attention and adapting the Zilberman method.

Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at yeshiva613@aol.com.

 

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