Throwing a Desk at the Rebbe

Hesped for my father, Rabbi Dr. Chaim Feuerman ZT'L

(Reprinted from the Jewish Press)

On Tuesday evening, September 19, 2017, 29 Elul 5777 Rabbi Dr. Chaim Feuerman finished giving his two classes at Yeshiva University, said “I need to take a few minutes to rest”, and then stopped breathing.  The petira of this giant of a man, on Erev Rosh Hashana has many connotations.  One of the most meaningful ones told to us by Rav Gavriel Zinner Shlit”a was that it is a big zechus to die on Erev Rosh Hashana as it inspires others to reflect on life, death and good deeds prior to Yom Hadin.  While we can fill pages about our father’s life and the impact he had on tens of thousands of students throughout his 67 year career as teacher, rabbi, principal, and professor, we will keep focused on the mission of this column, which is to address the intersection of Torah and mental health and therefore reflect on some his unique ideas about learning and psychology.

Rabbi Chaim Feuerman’s father was a simple, but honest, hardworking, and generous man.  According to family lore, he did not get a Jewish education beyond second grade, as he was “graduated early” out of cheder for throwing a desk at the rebbe.  Our father, unconsciously carried his father’s cudgel, and was constantly throwing desks at rebbes by overturning the accepted practices of chinuch, to make things more lively and interesting.  He had many unusual and beautiful shittos about how to properly educate and teach; in this article we will highlight a few powerful examples:

Rabbi Feuerman was utterly opposed to standard rewards and punishments.  He truly believed learning to be intrinsically pleasurable for children; after all, every healthy child learns to walk and talk, which is no small feat, and loves the sense of mastery and fulfillment that success brings despite the hard work.  If children were not enjoying learning, or feeling naturally motivated, he would assume the teachers, school or educational system did something to ruin that motivation.  He didn’t just teach; he practiced what he preached.  When he taught middle schoolers, instead of rewarding children for good test scores by giving them prizes or more recess time, he would reward them by giving them opportunity to have a special shiur and learn extra.  He used to comment to us, “Why reward learning by getting more recess, or less homework? This makes learning seem like a punishment! One would think, if a child is doing well, he or she wants to do even better, so give him exciting extra learning projects!”  As impractical as it sounds, because our father sincerely believed it, and the children felt it, they were truly happy and honored to learn extra as a reward.  Years later, sometimes decades later, students from very ordinary non-learned backgrounds would stop him in the street and tell him words of Torah they had learned in those extra shiurim.  He would say, “They never forgot the extra learning they did with a full heart.”

Dad disdained tests and thought they were nonsense – amounting to educational superstition.  He would quote the research that children forget 90% of the material a few days after the test.  He wanted children to love to learn and not feel ashamed.  He would feel personally offended if a teacher marked a test in red ink; he would say, “Why are we trying to embarrass this child?”  

Dad was a great believer in listening, and was careful to not allow his urge to speak and offer advice overshadow and stifle the learning process.  He insisted that teachers must pause several seconds after asking the class a question, even encouraging no child to raise their hands yet, so that other children who need more time to think would not be overshadowed or intimated by those who were quicker.  He usually led by quiet example, not by criticism.  He made sure to never speak during davening, from the first beracha to the last kaddish.  One time, a man who clearly had a lot on his mind, spent the entire davening chattering away at him.  Every now and then, as the man would pause for breath or perhaps to mumble a few Hebrew words, he would say, “Rabbi, what do you think?”  Father would not shush the person, he just would smile, and show an inflection that looked like he understood or was reflecting upon it. At the end of davening, the man said, “Rabbi Feuerman, you know what I like about you?  You say the smartest things!”

Father’s attunement and practice of silence, allowed him at times to intuit and notice matters in such a way that bordered on Ruach Hakodesh.  One time a student came late to his class out of breath, it was early in the semester and Dad did not know him well.  Dad called out to him, as he walked in, “So, did she say yes?”  - of course Dad was right, he was late because he was engaged. Another time, he told an assistant principal who was complaining about his work situation, “Don’t worry your boss will be fired shortly” – and he was.  When he was on an airplane that was hijacked to Cuba in 1979, the stewardess began to tell the passengers one by one quietly about the situation.  When the stewardess came over to him, “He said, yes, I know, we are going to Cuba”, and comforted her.  One last story, which we would not believe except that we heard it from his own mouth: He was visiting a school as a consultant, and while meeting several children in a class that he was observing, he began to name each child whom he never met, correctly.  He said, “You look like a…Reuven!  You look like a….Malkie!  You look like a Dovid!”, going through a whole lineup of children!  He shared with us, from time to time, he would have such a strong intuition that he knew something without an obvious reason for knowing it, but believed that he was picking up on subtle unconscious cues.

In the end, Rabbi Feuerman’s greatest lesson was that to teach well, instead of talking, one must listen in every sense. This is no doubt how he was zoche to achieve so much in his lifetime, which will extend way beyond his years on this earth.