Middos, Mentchlichkeit, and a Love for Torah

Spotlight on a Mechanech: In a unique interview, popular mechanech Rabbi Zalman Schapiro shares chinuch insights and parenting tips that are guaranteed to interest every Lubavitch parent.

As reported on Anash.org, Igud Hamelamdim, the Lubavitch organization dedicated to “chinuch with heart and soul,” has just released the first issue of the “Baneinu” chinuch magazine. The following is an interview with star mechanech Rabbi Zalman Schapiro, today a melamed at Cheder Zichron Shmuel, a Lubavitch cheder in Nyack, NY.

Rabbi Scheur Zalman Schapiro

  • Years in Chinuch: 21
  • Yeshivos: Cheder at the Ohel, Queens NY; Oholei Torah, Crown Heights; Cheder Zichron Shmuel, Nyack, NY.
  • Position: Kita Gimmel-Daled

Rabbi Schapiro, how did you get involved in chinuch?

Chinuch has always held a special meaning for me. I feel especially connected to it since My elter zaideh, R. Schneur Zalman Vilenkin was the Rebbe’s Melamed and I am named after him.

As a bochur, I found success in Shlichus. After I got married, I pursued various Shlichus opportunities which all just never seemed to materialize for various reasons. It seemed to me that I was being directed towards something else.

I always had a geshmak, and a love for teaching, and Boruch Hashem I have been able to see much hatzlacha in it. It is especially enjoyable when I see my talmidim have their individualized hatzlochos. I feel that it is a big zechus for me to be able to teach, and I believe that the talmidim feel that. Witnessing them grow and building the next generation – it’s the best place to be.

I tell my wife repeatedly, “The moment that I lose this chayus, take me out of chinuch.” As long as my talmidim smile every day as they walk into the classroom, I know I am doing things right.

I now teach at Cheder Zichron Shmuel in Nyack, NY. It’s a small Yiddish-speaking Lubavitcher cheder outside of Monsey.

What do you find especially meaningful in your role as a Mechanech?

It’s especially meaningful when the talmid absorbs what I am teaching, and then presents me with questions that reflect the personal way that he’s trying to understand the Torah. I know that he wants an answer that is beyond the text; he’s asking me to help him make what he is learning relatable to his own life. In such conversations, talmidim might refer to the melamed as, “Tatty,” since it becomes more like a father-son conversation. When a student says, “Thank you, Rebbi,” with sincerity, he’s thanking you for that care.

It’s also very meaningful when I receive feedback from parents about the things that the students have learned and given over at home. This year, I had a student that went from not knowing any Yiddish, to explaining a sicha in Yiddish to his family. Hearing this brings me tremendous nachas.

As a melamed, you are a shliach of the parent in educating their child. Receiving this type of feedback fuels me even further in my endeavors. It gives me personal satisfaction, that is beyond any type of material compensation a teacher can ever receive.

Which of your teachers impacted your teaching today?

I frequently think of my first grade melamed, Rabbi Avrohom Kass. I can still see him in my mind’s eye, his glasses slipping down his nose due to the perspiration he built up while teaching us with such chayus.

One memory that I refer back to often is during the week of Parashas Va’eira, and Rabbi Kass was teaching us about makas barad. It was a snowy day outside, and our classroom was situated on the roof with the exit door behind the Rebbe’s desk. Rabbi Kass opened the door and scooped up a ball of snow, packing it tightly into a nice snowball, and placed it on the table. Rabbi Kass then took out a lighter and placing it under the snowball which he had picked up, proceeded to demonstrate how it melted. “This is nature,” He exclaimed. “In makas barad, Hashem brought fire and ice together, and the ice did not extinguish the fire within it.” I am sure our eyes didn’t blink for that entire demonstration. He was so dedicated to our chinuch.

It is this type of chinuch that I want to impart onto my students. Yiddishkeit is alive. “S’iz geshmak tzu zein a Yid!” There is nothing like being a Yid and having a part of Hashem inside of us. I try to bring that to my talmidim. Being a Yid is not doing things by rote. It is not just going through the motions. Yiddishkeit needs to flow through every part of us, truly making us alive.

How do we influence our children for life?

Kinderlach are emes. Their pure nature can detect whether we mean what we say and teach. There is nothing more important than truly meaning what we teach.

There was a story that Rabbi Avremel Shemtov shared, when the Rebbe visited Camp Gan Yisroel one summer. Rabbi Shemtov overheard the child speaking to his father, “This summer was something special!” the child exclaimed. “The Lubavitcher Rabbi came to visit us!”

“What did he say?” The father asked.

“He said that Moshiach is coming,” replied the boy exuberantly.

“But,” his father protested, “I also tell you that Moshiach is coming.”

“Yes,” replied his son, “but he meant it!”

This truly illustrates how children think and learn. A child will see right through to the truth. If you mean it, the child will know. A teacher should be excited about the lessons he wants the talmid to take from his class and into his life. The ones that the talmid will eventually give over to his own children. Nothing can replace that.

How do you foster positive middos and good behavior?

It is crucial that a melamed “catches” a talmid when he is displaying good middos and behavior. The child must be complimented on this, and have a big deal made of it. This type of feedback from a teacher brings about very good results.

One day this year during lunch, I noticed a student who wanted to get up, but could not because a teacher, who was still eating, was blocking the narrow space. The boy didn’t say anything. He waited quietly and respectfully for the teacher to stand up and get something before he went through to where he needed to go.

I stopped everyone and made an announcement praising the talmid’s Derech Eretz and show of respect. The children pick up upon what a Rebbi celebrates and brings a lot of positive attention to. They then internalize this, and it brings them excitement as well. There is nothing that impacts a child more than the Mechanech’s full attention. They pick up every single reaction on a teacher’s face. That cannot be stressed enough.

Can you share a special moment that made you appreciate your impact?

When I teach my students about Yaakov Avinu offering gifts to Eisav, I explain that Eisav faked a refusal by saying, “yesh li rav,” I have a lot, implying that he would want even more. I teach my talmidim the difference between a Yid, who lives by the principles of eizehu ashir hasameach bechelko, and a goy, who might have a lot, but always wants more.

Following this particular lesson one year, I received a call from a mother.

“What did you teach my child today?” she began.

 “Did I do something wrong?” I asked, taken aback by her tone.

“Absolutely not,” She replied. “Tonight, I offered my son an extra treat, but he said to me, ‘Mommy, yesh li kol. I’m happy with what I have’. This nachas is too great to put into words. This is what I live for.”

As long as what you are teaching the talmidim is emes, they will be absorbed and internalized. This then will become a part of their life and future, and more often than not, the teacher will never know. A Rebbi needs to put in the time and effort. This recipe will ensure long-lasting results.

How do you make sure that each child gets enough attention?

Firstly, my talmidim know that I am completely present with them in the classroom. I do not take out my cell phone unless it is to contact an appropriate person to address a specific topic that we are learning. I will often call my mother, who has a strong background in education, to have my talmidim hear her way of explaining a concept that she has found success in giving over. I also will have sick talmidim call in over the phone so that they can participate in the shiur that they would have otherwise missed being at home.

At the start of the year, I make it very clear to the parents that if a child is sick, he has the option of calling in to join the class. Not only joining the class, but participating as if he was there in person: he partners with a chavrusa and earns the same rewards. He will even get extra attention since he is on loudspeaker so that he can be sure to hear everything clearly.

Sometimes, a child may feign sick in order to receive extra attention, which is fine with me as well. If a child is asking for attention, we should not ignore it. On the contrary, we need to try and understand why he is seeking attention, and find a way to give it to him positively. The Rebbe always raised and lifted people up.

What can we do to optimize our children’s learning?

My father related the following story to me. My elter zeideh, Rabbi Zalman Vilenkin, told over of how Rebbetzin Chana always made sure that her sons were well fed and properly dressed before sending them to cheder. A child must have all of his physical needs met in order to ensure that he is ready to learn.

At the start of every day, I greet each child by name with, “gut morgen,” and inquire how they are feeling and if they have eaten that morning. If a child is sad, or hungry, it will impact how they conduct themselves during the day, and how they will learn. This is invaluable information for a Rebbi to know. I encourage them to add, “Boruch Hashem,” as they express their feelings. “I’m sad, Boruch Hashem. I’m frustrated, Boruch Hashem.” All feelings are created by Hashem. Hearing such expressions are normal in my class. With this information, I can better understand each talmid, and what is needed for him that day in order to bring him actively into the class and have success in his learning.

If a child hasn’t had breakfast, the Rebbi should facilitate him having something. By addressing this most basic need of the talmid, the child knows that the Rebbi cares about every aspect of him in and out of the classroom. The message of, “you’re here, you matter to me, and I am here just for you” is truly felt. Once a father shared with me that they had a relative’s simcha, a bris, and his son did not want to go and miss out on his, “Gut Morgen.”

A connection to the talmidim is the biggest key to success in chinuch. When a melamed cares, the child trusts him, and that prevents many discipline problems.

How could the community better support mechanchim and chinuch?

It is beyond imperative that the Moisad and the community work together in order ensure that their Mechanchim are taken care of. In order to invest in a community, to see it thrive and flourish, the two must come together in order to ensure that they are invested in keeping the Moisad full of Mechanchim who will raise the next generation the way that the Rebbe wanted.

There must be an understood commitment that for the Rebbi to be Mechanech the children of the community, the Rebbi himself must not be allowed to flounder in caring for his own family. A Mechanech must be free of financial worry, and other worries that can be addressed by the community, in order to be entirely present in his classroom as every parent wants the Rebbi of their child to be.

As parents, you are entrusting your prized possessions to us, which is a responsibility that we take extremely seriously. You need to be totally invested in your part as a community to ensure that the Melamed has no material worries. Does your child’s Mechanech have an adequate place to live, food to eat, able to meet the needs of his own family? Can a Melamed pay the tuition of his own family? If a melamed is weighed down with worries of not being able to provide for the needs of his own family, the success in his classroom can be affected.

Too often I hear from fellow Mechanchim of their crushing personal financial responsibilities that they have no idea how to meet. Within each community, someone needs to be asking these questions to their teachers, with the intent of offering a real solution.

I can tell you, that the times when I came the closest to leaving chinuch, is when my worries of how to meet my financial burdens became too much to bear. Unfortunately, this issue is too common among Mechanchim. Investing in the community’s Mechanchim is an investment in the future of the community.

How can parents set an example for their children to ensure a bright future?

It cannot be stressed enough that parents need to spend more time with their children, and less on devices. But that is just basic, there is a deeper issue that I would like to share as a Mechanech and a parent. My zeideh raised his children to be Chassidishe Yidden just through chinuch b’derech agav, indirect influence. You do your avodas Hashem with all of your chayus, show it and live it the best you can. Indirectly, your children will pick it up.

A father should learn in a central part of his home, where his children will see him. By doing this, the image is implanted in the child’s mind that this is what we do. Don’t give your children ‘packaged Yiddishkeit.’ Instead, let them observe your Yiddishkeit. When our children see what Torah is about, they will come to appreciate and follow it.

Click here to access the full issue of Baneinu magazine.

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