Thursday, June 12, 2008

Author Interview: Project Y.E.S. Director Publishes Straight Talk Book on Parenting

Rabbi Yakov Horowitz is the dean of Yeshiva Darchei Noam in Monsey and the director of the Agudath Israel's Project Y.E.S. (Youth Educational Services). He recently published Living & Parenting: A Down-to-Earth Guide, his first book with ArtScroll Mesorah Publications, which features some of his best, most pragmatic solutions for helping all of today's Jewish youth – mainstream and at-risk – maximize their potential. For over 25 years, he has specialized in reaching out to marginalized Jewish youth and assisting their parents in raising them effectively. His results have been significant and some former students have admitted "this rabbi saved my life". He spoke to broadcaster Gavriel Aryeh Sanders in this exclusive first-person interview.

GS: Rabbi Horowitz, every book has a process of germination. What was yours for Living & Parenting?

RYH: It wasn’t so sophisticated, actually. I've published numerous articles over the years on the subjects of parenting, education and dealing with pre-risk/at-risk youth. I felt that presenting the most practical ones in a single volume would help parents raise their children more effectively.

GS: What’s the meaning behind the title of "Living & Parenting"?

RYH: Parenting is really a reflection of our own lives, as all-too-often, the challenges that we face with our children are really related to issues that we face as adults. I wanted to address the bigger picture and help parents, along with educators, improve their quality of life while equally helping them help their kids do the same.

This book is all about helping parents think outside the box and develop a multitude of approaches and solutions to child rearing. Using a tool analogy, if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. My goal is to give students, parents, and teachers more tools to manage their lives better.

GS: You started out at 22 years old teaching a weaker class of eighth grade boys. Did you know what you were getting into?

RYH: Colleagues said I'd be pigeon-holing myself, that I'd never get a strong class. But the naiveté of my youth worked to my benefit. I believed I could do it. More importantly, I believed the kids themselves could rise to my level of expectation. It often took some individualized and unique approaches, but they were often effective with children who had never previously succeeded in school.

GS: How so?

RYH: Rabbi Abraham Twerski told me years ago that spiritual health is invariably linked to healthy self-esteem and conversely that spiritual deficiency was linked to weak self-esteem. Poorly performing students tend to have pretty low self-esteem; they don't easily trust authority figures, either. I took the approach of empowering my students with incremental successes which affected their educational, social, and familial worlds. I remember one case where I inherited a new class. Nice kids but very passive; lots of quiet desperation in their lives. My first action was to take them outside for a spontaneous half-hour of baseball. That earned me the right to hold their attention on matters of learning.

GS: What is your approach to learning, especially Talmudic skills?

RYH: You said the right word. It's skill-based. Many kids today are in "sink or swim" mode. They don't have a solid foundation in the essentials of understanding language, which is the key to understanding thought and meaning! This applies to Gemara, Chumash, even the Siddur. The bright ones figure it out; the average ones lope along; and the rest sink into a malaise of despair, always running but never catching up until at some point, they start dropping out of the race. Adults may view it as defiance; I view it as exhaustion. I've worked hard to create systematic, consecutive, and success-based steps which have kids smiling to themselves. Early on in our learning, they sense that I believe they can do it. The tipping point occurs when they believe they can do it.

GS: How did you structure Living & Parenting?

RYH: As I said, it's a compilation of articles I've authored over the years. There are 50 chapters, many quite brief. Each was selected for relevance to our contemporary challenges in raising kids to become bnei Torah. Two chapters comprise a checklist to determine if sending your teen to learn in Israel is in their best interest. Three chapters are devoted to understanding and nurturing your child's unique learning patterns. Eight chapters detail a methodology for constructive criticism. I discuss life skills, independent learning skills, dealing with kids who've lost a parent. I share my experiences of talking to kids who are angry, disenfranchised, confused, and sometimes just plain bored. I even have a chapter on kiruv (outreach) for our children.

GS: You mention mastery of the rudiments of Lashon Kodesh. Why?

RYH: Take the study of Chumash, for example. More than ninety percent of all words that appear in Chumash are variations of only 270 root words! There are 26 verbs and 38 nouns that appear in Chumash more than 500 times each! If we were to give children a proper rudimentary understanding of these, teaching them the shorashim (roots) and the shimushim (prefixes, suffixes, etc.) at the time they start to learn Chumash, we'd be giving them the educational training wheels they need to succeed. One cannot master Rashi's commentary without this basic knowledge.

The same thinking applies to Gemara. Think about it. Once boys start learning Gemara, we remove the nekudos, introduce Aramaic, and dive into lengthy exchanges of logical interplay. A little time invested up front in the early learning stages can make all the difference when the student reaches the teen years. I believe it's a significant component of academic self-esteem.

GS: How independent are your methods and views?

RYH: I'm certainly no maverick. My life, work, perspective, and values are based on the best of wise counsel - what we call Daas Torah. The first chapter in Living & Parenting explains what that is and why it's so important. Perhaps what makes me a little different is that I've never become jaded by the job. I still do what I did back when I was 22 in that first eighth grade class - I see students not as they are, but rather as they can become.

GS: Hatzlacha rabbah with the book, the yeshiva, with Project Y.E.S. and with every student and family you help.

RYH: Thank you. Early feedback on the book has been very encouraging. What makes all the time put into the book worthwhile is when I get a note or email from a grateful parent informing me that they are finding child rearing easier now that they have more tools in the box.

View Table of Contents and Sample Pages from Living & Parenting here.

Order the book online here.

Visit Rabbi Horowitz's website here.

Hear Rabbi Horowitz's recent radio interview here.