Influence of shuttered Block Yeshiva will continue

Rabbi Yonason Goldson’s latest book is “Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages,” a collection of practical insights from the Book of Proverbs and the Mona Lisa, available on Amazon. 

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

Ask any teacher. Ask any informed parent. Educational standards are in free fall across America, perhaps around the world. And in St. Louis, an extraordinary institution has closed its doors. 

Block Yeshiva High School did not come into existence as something new or revolutionary. Its roots reach all the way to the ancient traditions articulated by the sages of the Second Temple period, and its style expressed the more recent articulations of one of the most influential thinkers of the past two centuries.

In 1851, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch relinquished his pulpit and his seat in the Moravian Parliament to accept a position as leader of the Torah community in Frankfurt am Main. In response to the rapid assimilation of West European Jews, Hirsch developed a movement that embraced both secular knowledge and passionate commitment to Torah study and observance.

The approach that became known as Neo-Orthodoxy was built upon a rigorous 12-year primary and secondary education system providing Jewish children with the fundamental skills and philosophic outlook to remain strong in their traditions while simultaneously preparing them to flourish in the professional world of gentile society. By doing so, Hirsch created a bulwark against the sweeping tide of secularization while establishing a model to produce fluent and committed Torah Jews for generations.

For 38 years, St. Louis has boasted a school that has earned an extraordinary reputation among both American universities and Israeli yeshivos and seminaries. Following the trail blazed by Hirsch a century and a half ago, Block Yeshiva High School graduates have distinguished themselves in medicine, law and business, as well as in the world of Torah scholarship. Perhaps more significantly, as a group, Block Yeshiva graduates have retained an extraordinary commitment to Jewish tradition and values, to the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, and to the refinement of moral and spiritual character that is our true legacy as a nation.

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Here are a few examples of what Block Yeshiva has produced:

• A translation and exposition by an alumnus of the biblical commentary of the Ramchal, perhaps the deepest thinker and ethicist of the last 300 years.

• Two winners of the national Chidon Tanach competition, both of whom went on to place second in the international competition.

• Currently, at least five recent Block graduates serve in the Israel Defense Forces, including two in special forces. One alumnus was named IDF Soldier of the Year.

• Publication of an innovative curriculum as one of the most comprehensive overviews of Jewish history and philosophy available in English.

• A record of scholarship awards, standardized test scores and college placements rivaling the most prestigious preparatory schools in St. Louis, from a school averaging 30 students and having no academic admissions restrictions.

In 2012, when Block Yeshiva underwent review to renew its accreditation, a panel of local educational experts visited its classrooms, interviewed its students, and scrutinized its curricula and administrative records.

After the investigation, the head of the panel sat down with Block’s principal, Rabbi Gabriel Munk, and said, “Rabbi, we only have one question: Why is the whole city not breaking down your doors to enroll their children in your school?”

It was a good question then, and it is now. Why did so many parents fight against educational standards that would prepare their children for success? Why did a small community seek so many ways to cut itself into pieces instead of pursuing a course of peace, cooperation and unity? Why were the politics of personality allowed to sow strife and dissension in a way that will ultimately cause a community’s children to suffer from the loss of an institution that served so many so well?

These questions contain their own answers.

But whatever justifications may be claimed, it’s worth giving voice to just a few reflections of those who appreciate how much they gained:

I learned science, math and English. I learned bible, practical law and philosophy. I played sports and learned how to sing, dance and act.

Yet I really learned more. I learned how to do acts of kindness for others. I learned how to pray with concentration and sincerity. I learned honesty and integrity. I learned ethics and values. I learned how to be a mensch. I learned how to work hard but also make time for fun. I learned how to study. I learned to love Israel. I learned sportsmanship and teamwork. I learned how to be a Jew.

And I learned all of this not just by the subjects taught, but rather by the role models – the faculty and staff at Block have given me the foundation I strive to live my life by.

— Alumna, class of 2011

I cannot give enough thanks to all the rabbis and teachers who touched the lives of my children. These people we only expected to teach our children were also there to rescue, nurture, encourage and comfort. 

Let no one say Block Yeshiva has failed. You need only look at their graduates to know that in every way, Block Yeshiva was and will always be a success and a blessing.

— Parent of alumnus, class of 2013

I was a student at BYHS at its inception, coming from public school. That first year was one of the most important and exciting years of my life because I was able to learn about Torah Judaism in depth for the first time.

For me, BYHS had the perfect blend of Torah values combined with secular knowledge. To top it off, I even got to be part of a girls’ basketball team!

BYHS played a big part in forming my Jewish identity and commitment to live a Torah way of life.

— Alumna, class of 1982

In 1892, activists of the Jewish enlightenment succeeded in lobbying the Russian government to impose educational reforms upon the illustrious talmudic academy of Volozhin. Unwilling to compromise the integrity of his institution, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin closed the doors of the 200-year-old school. It was truly the end of an era.

There will always be zealots, well-intentioned or otherwise, who believe they know what is best for the world. Sometimes they will win a battle here or there. But the commitment to educational and cultural integrity will ensure that authentic values and principles will survive, that discipline and moral clarity will prevail.

Block Yeshiva High School may close its doors, but its influence will go on and on and on.

Rabbi Yonason Goldson’s new book is “Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages,” a collection of practical insights from the Book of Proverbs and the Mona Lisa, available on Amazon. He lives in St. Louis, where he teaches, writes and lectures. He was a longtime teacher at Block Yeshiva High School.