Educators everywhere grapple with the question:  how do you reach today’s adolescents in a meaningful way?  The administration at Yeshivat Shaare Torah has come up with innovative programs to do just this – reach their students in ways which appeal to them on many levels.  Over the past two years the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Hillel Haber, and the principal, Rabbi Amram Kuessous, have worked closely with the junior high school Rabbanim to institute a number of exciting programs with great incentives that are creating a buzz among students and parents.

A very successful program for the sixth through eighth grade boys is given by the sixth grade rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Bijou.  Once a week he meets with the boys, and gives a short talk on some aspect of emunah.  In addition to teaching hashkafa, Rabbi Bijou gets the boys to connect to their inner feelings, and helps them to tap into their own creativity.

After the lesson the boys are encouraged to write out their thoughts on the subject Rabbi Bijou discussed. A recent assignment was, “Explain why there must be a creator in the universe.” The boys took up the challenge, and wrote many diverse and interesting pieces. Albert Harari, a seventh grader, pondered the workings of the heart. Sixth grader Jacob Sutton waxed poetic about the beauty of an orange. Over fifty boys participated. The top fifteen entries were entered into a raffle; the first prize winner received cash and a copy of Rabbi David Ashear’s book Living Emunah. The next three winners were awarded Rabbi Ashear’s book. All the entries were posted on a bulletin board for everyone to enjoy.

Other programs help students gauge their own and each other’s academic and spiritual development. By doing so, they become invested in the process itself.

Their Shakla Vetarya Be’al Peh program requires students to memorize the give-and-take of the Gemara’s arguments. Each boy receives a score card to keep track of the pages he has memorized, which his rebbe initials.

And it’s not only the rebbe who does the testing. Friends can test each other too, and the same amud can be repeated over and over. The program allows for excellent boys to excel and for weaker boys to feel a sense of accomplishment. Every checkmark on the score cards goes towards a grand raffle to be drawn before winter vacation. First, second, and third prize winners receive cash awards.

To help the boys with their memorization, their seventh grade rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Abboud, broke down the sequences of the Gemara’s arguments and printed them on business cards, which the boys keep in their pockets. The end result is that Gemara becomes more than a subject to be studied within an allotted time slot, but something tangible to be carried with them at all times.

For most, praying with kavanah is a challenge. To help meet that challenge, Rabbi Abboud worked extensively with Rabbi Heshy Kleinman, author of Praying with Fire, to develop a Biur Tefilla program that explains the concepts behind every prayer and blessing.

The sixth graders currently work on Pesuke Dezimra while the seventh and eighth graders learn the Amida. Together, the students produced a booklet that highlights each blessing’s dominant idea. For instance, above the beracha of chonen hadaat, the word “knowledge” is printed; the boys contemplate how the ability to think comes directly from Hashem. “The process engages the boys; they feel more plugged-in to their tefilla,” Rabbi Kuessous explained.

But how do you keep teenagers quiet during tefilla without endlessly coming down hard on them? Enter the Shetika b’Tefila program. Every Tuesday morning following minyan, Rabbi Abboud discusses the underlying hashkafot and the halachot of tefilla, pointing out where the restrictions on talking are more severe. Students have created another booklet which helps Rabbanim teach these halachot and hashkafot to their students.

As with the Shakla Vetarya Be’al Peh program, the boys receive score cards.  On these cards, the prayers are divided into six sections. Every boy checkmarks the section in which he was quiet and fully concentrating. It’s based on the honor system.

“Nobody is looking over their shoulders,” Rabbi Kuessous said. If a boy checks off five out of six categories he’s entitled to a hot breakfast or Danish every Sunday. Also, all participants’ photos are framed and posted in the hallway as marks of distinction. “Instead of making the boy feel badly about himself [if he doesn’t pray with the properly concentration], we’ve turned tefilla into a positive learning experience.”

The positive effects of these programs can be felt in the large number of students who voluntarily participate twice weekly in the yeshiva’s evening learning programs, which are headed by Rabbi David Mansour and Yeshivat Shaare Torah’s high school principal Rabbi Shelomo Haber.

The Mishmar Learning program for grades six through eight, which is given by twenty-year-veteran Rabbi Moshe Cohen, takes place Thursday evenings. “When night learning is saturated with quality time spent with your rebbe, life-long relationships between rebbe and talmid are created. When the rebbe gives of his private time exclusively for his talmid, the talmid feels it and knows it deep within,” Rabbi Abboud said.

Yeshivat Shaare Torah strongly believes that by providing students with many opportunities for growth, and much encouragement and positivity (mixed with a little creativity), children will be equipped to truly reach their full potential.