The timing was fortuitous. We were driving into New York to see family, and listened to the 18Forty podcast interview with Rabbi Yissy Kaminetsky, the Rosh Yeshiva of DRS, an all-boys yeshiva high school in Long Island. Now, when I finish a podcast I just go straight to the next one, but my wife has (patiently) taught me to stop after and reflect, or ‘debrief’ what we’ve learned or heard. Turns out stopping to think is a good thing! So, we debriefed a few of Rabbi Kamenetsky’s ideas, including one about how to create expectations for our kids. He described his approach as being lower on expectations/obligations of religious practice, yet very high on modeling and encouragement. My wife and I felt that this could work up to a point, but after all, isn’t it appropriate that we have expectations of our children? And isn’t there a bar below which we can’t just model but need to have expectations? Would it be ok if they simply wouldn’t daven? Or don’t say thank you to someone? Or eat kosher??
As it happened, I’d arranged to visit DRS the next day, and after davening I introduced myself to Rabbi Kaminetsky. I mentioned how much I enjoyed the podcast, and that I had a few questions that arose from the conversation with my wife. He was genuinely interested in my sharing the questions, which I did, including the one above. His responses were really insightful.
The first thing he said is that he believes the best outcomes happen when we as educators create the best environment, and allow the environment to do the heavy lifting to influence kids behaviors, rather than demanding that an individual child meet specific expectations and holding them accountable. I thought this was a very insightful use of social expectation and group culture. It means putting a lot of focus into what that culture is and how it operates, which he clearly does.
The second thing he said was a deep insight about leadership. He said, and these are pretty close to his exact words, “I love every Jew. I’ve always loved every Jew.” (As an aside, in my mind, I was in awe, and wished I had that ability!) The result of being this kind of person, he said, is that his yeshiva, which he founded over 25 years ago, reflects his approach to other Jews, rather than one with a stronger disciplinary approach. He said, “for better or for worse, this place reflects who I am.”
I thought that was such a powerful insight. Organizations often do reflect the values and character of their leaders – for better or for worse. Rabbi Kamenetsky has doubled down on that, intentionally creating an institution that reflects the best of who he is, even as he realizes it comes with downsides that he acknowledges. Yes, the leader’s job is then to compensate by hiring people around him (or her) who have the strengths they lack – but they shouldn’t forget that at the end of the day, the leader, and who they are, has the greatest influence on the culture and spirit of the institution. This is both humbling and empowering – and best utilized if owned fully.
In the end I’m not quite sure how Rabbi Kaminetsky would answer the questions above, though it’s clear he has a love of the Jewish People that goes a long way.