1/25/2012

Notes on the Jewish Week Article about Rav Bina

The New York Jewish Week has a feature article this week about Rabbi Aharon Bina, the Rosh Yeshiva of Netiv Aryeh. It describes his "tough love" approach and how it inspires much love and much loathing, and very little in between. If you couldn't surmise who is behind the article, it was co-written by Gary Rosenblatt.

The article is very solid, but there are two elements that I think could have enhanced it immeasurably:
1) Rav Bina's approach is explicitly modeled on that of his father's, Rav Aryeh Bina. The elder Bina was a legendary educator and founder of the prestigious Netiv Meir yeshiva high school, whose alumni is a virtual Who's Who among prominent Religious Zionists (incidentally, the list skews left by Religious Zionist standards, and Junior has come to the defense of some of his father's students). Rav Aharon Bina, however, is not his father, and does not run an elite institution like his father did. In order to really understand who Rav Aharon Bina is and what he is trying to accomplish, one must start with his father, and with the relationship between father and son.
2) This issue gets back to the problem of the "charismatic educator" (let's define charisma as the condition in which the educator's personality overshadows the material being taught) that I've written about several times, most recently when the Motti Elon scandal first broke.Rav Bina fits Paul Shaviv's description of a "Pied Piper" rabbi (cited in that post on R. Elon). Let's see:
A charismatic teacher will deeply affect and influence some students, but will almost always leave a trail of emotional wreckage in is/her wake.
Check.
The emotional dependency and entanglement between teacher and student leads to boundaries being crossed.
Check.
 
The teacher becomes party to knowledge about students and their families that reinforces the teacher’s view that they are the only teachers who ‘really’ are reaching the students. The teacher, however, is neither a trained counselor nor a social worker. That knowledge becomes power.
Check.
A really charismatic teacher can end up running a ‘school within a school’. 
Check (until he started his own school).
The teacher will often employ techniques (and texts) which take students to the extremes of emotion or logic, and will then triumphantly show them how they are holding they key to resolution (‘At this moment, you have agreed that life has no meaning -- but here is the answer’).
Check.
As soon as they are disillusioned or dropped, they are written out of the teacher’s story. Often such students, very hurt, leave the school.
Check (once had a kid at my Shabbat table tell me he was no longer religious because of R. Bina. There are other such stories, and some appear in the NYJW article. I suspect many of these kids would drop observance anyway, but it's telling that Rav Bina becomes the object of their loathing).

Mild characteristics of cult leaders may be observed. 
Check.


I don't think Paul Shaviv is a prophet, and I don't think he was writing about any particular educator. He's been around the block a few times, and he has learned to identify global issues. The NYJW article misses something when it makes the issue about Rav Bina specifically, since the problem is present in virtually every school, even if he might be an extreme example of it.
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