April 14, 2024
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Creating a Culture of Respect

“Character is higher than intellect.” This quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson captures a critical goal of all educational institutions, especially yeshivot, namely values-based education. At the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy (MTA/YUHSB), our goal this year is “creating a community of respect.” While character may seem fundamental and something we often preach, our educational system often seems more naturally structured to intellect or the transmission of information and skills, the cognitive domain, rather than the affective realm of trying to inculcate values. However, as Thomas Hoerr, a respected educational leader, notes, “Who you are is more important than what you know.” How do we instill this aspirational goal of developing the character of our adolescents? Specifically, how do we try to inculcate respect in our teens?

As a starting point, it is important to reflect on what respect is and why it is so fundamental to us. The answer includes a multilayered understanding, focusing on self-respect, respect for Hakadosh Baruch Hu, respect for our peers, respect for authority and respect for place, such as proper respect for a beit midrash and cleanliness of our spaces. Rav Shlomo Wolbe, author of Alei Shur, suggests that respect is a reflection of what we value and our aspirations. We respect others if we value them as people, as a tzelem Elokim. Our mandate to respect our parents and rebbeim is because we should aspire to be like them and to follow the path they have paved. Self respect is also a reflection of the belief we must have in ourselves. Respect for a place, such as a beit midrash or a home, is to value that space and what it represents. In this regard, respect really symbolizes both our values and our aspirations.

Our deeper understanding of the what and why of respect now opens the question of how. How can we try to inculcate this value of respect in our yeshiva community?

Collaboratively, we have been working on a multidimensional approach, which can be described as the ABCs.

1. Activities: Through programming, yemei iyun, chesed trips, and shabbatonim, we strive to provide a forum for discussion, reflection and experiential learning. These exploratory experiences create rich structures for our talmidim to consider, discuss and learn about the various areas of respect articulated above. As an example, chesed experiences such as sukkah building, cemetery cleanup and volunteering at a soup kitchen are empowering, providing opportunities for our talmidim to see the impact we can have on others. These activities also help us learn about a variety of other people, which provides us with the ability to develop respect for others, especially those about whom we may have preconceived notions. Finally, it provides us with the opportunity to engage in the chesed shel emet, final respects by volunteering in a free burial association. These are a few examples of activities that can tap into the affective domain of an adolescent.

2. Bragging: What we celebrate says a lot about our values. If our commitment this year focuses on respect, this should be reflected in what we choose to celebrate. While schools may typically celebrate academic, learning, athletic or extracurricular accomplishments, a focus on respect means focusing on moments of respect and “bragging” about them. This includes sharing the positive feedback we hear after a Friday night tisch, a Shabbos Shuva program or a simchat beit hashoeva when the talmidim stay behind to help clean up or make sure to thank the host for opening up their home. We should boast about accomplishments in chesed. Careful attention and positive feedback must be paid to those times that a student engages in respectful behavior to his rebbe or teacher. Choosing to celebrate these anecdotes is an expression of what we value. Devoting time at parent teacher conferences to a student’s accomplishments or struggles in the area of respect is an expression of the regard in which we hold this value. As Dr. Pelcovitz has often noted in his lectures, every family or community has a bumper sticker of what they celebrate. A commitment to creating a culture of respect means choosing to celebrate respect as our bumper sticker.

3. Curricular: The first two areas approached respect through the affective domain and what we discuss and promote. However, our focus on classroom learning also provides us with powerful opportunities to focus on learning about, reflecting on, and inculcating respect. Each discipline is choosing a unit that will enable our talmidim to learn about respect. Whether it is through mussar, Chumash, Halacha, Gemara, the humanities or sciences, there are sugyas, sefarim, novels, historic events and rules that provide a powerful springboard to analyze and develop this sense of creating a culture of respect.

As teenagers are not monolithic, it is our hope that the variety of opportunities and modalities included will provide a framework to inculcate a sense of respect in our teens. Hopefully, the ideas and approach described is also helpful on a family level in approaching values-based education.


Rabbi Joshua Kahn is head of school of the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy/Yeshiva University High School for Boys (MTA).

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