A Matter of Principle

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The story of a master educator and true academic innovator, Rabbi Binyamin Steinberg, zt”l, was the renowned principal of the Bais Yaakov School of Baltimore . Everyone who values teaching – and learning – will be inspired by the practical wisdom of this maverick pedagogue, who created a school where all were welcome and encouraged to excel. This is a fascinating chronicle of the evolution of religious education for women throughoutAmerica.

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Excerpt

Rabbi Steinberg knew that every student in his school was a "precious individual" and an "important young lady." Unfortunately, not all the students realized this about themselves, and, clearly, no young lady can grow into an eshes chayil unless she has some appreciation of her own worth. Binyamin Steinberg understood very well that a lack of success in school could convince students of their utter worthlessness.

It was for this reason that he felt that Bais Yaakov, as a comprehensive educational endeavor, could not afford to be a one-dimensional institution. Not every student could master Navi. Not every student could achieve a combined score of fourteen hundred on her SAT. But every student could excel at something. Not every student was the daughter of arosh yeshiva, and not every student was destined to make her mark as a teacher, rebbetzin and kollel wife. But every student could sanctify God's Name through careful observance of mitzvos, chessed, and refined behavior. It was the school's responsibility to bring this message to its students — to each student individually. There was far more to schooling than just demanding excellence in studies.

No student ever felt that she did not belong. No one in Bais Yaakov of Baltimore ever heard the phrase, "Act like a Bais Yaakov girl," or even received the impression that the school was trying to make her into something she wasn't, or impose a particular outlook on her.

Rabbi Steinberg told students from Chassidic backgrounds that they should be proud of their history. He told the same to students whose forbears were Misnagdim. He also commended those who were members of youth groups for their activist approach and idealism.

~~~~~

As a rule, whenever a problem arose in Bais Yaakov, Rabbi Steinberg was always the first responder. That day was no exception and he was the first to hear the cries emanating from the school kitchen. He was there in a flash.

Rabbi Steinberg took in the situation at once: right next to the food processor lay Rachel, writhing and screaming in pain and missing most of her right index finger. There was blood everywhere. Rachel's classmates, who were beside themselves with fear and horror, reacted the way most ninth graders might in such a situation: they shrieked and screeched uncontrollably, doing little to remedy the situation. The casual observer would have been hard pressed to discern who was the actual victim.

Thanks to Rabbi Steinberg's quick thinking, the girl and her carefully wrapped, severed finger were rapidly dispatched to the hospital's Emergency Room. But before this obvious and vital step could be accomplished, yet another obstacle had to be overcome: a horrified and hysterical friend who had witnessed the accident insisted upon accompanying Rachel. Rabbi Steinberg realized that the presence of this frenzied, albeit well-meaning, teenager would not only deny comfort to the patient, but would likely hinder the medical treatment.

Rabbi Steinberg was impaled on the horns of a dilemma: his first concern was Rachel's recovery, but leaving her frantic classmate behind in the school was also a liability. The solution required wisdom, an agile mind, insight into human behavior, and genuine concern for his students — all of which this administrator had in great abundance.

After dealing with the medical emergency, Rabbi Steinberg invited the hysterical eyewitness into his office. He found a way to zero in on her wavelength and then calmly explained that as a close friend and responsible Jew, the critical issue she had to be concerned with was Rachel's recuperation. It was therefore incumbent upon her to do everything in her power to achieve this goal.

Then Rabbi Steinberg — principal of a school of hundreds of students, in the midst of a hectic day punctuated by mishaps — cajoled the ninth grader into sitting down and joining him in a recitation of Tehillim on Rachel's behalf for 45(!) minutes. This charitable act was of doubtless merit for Rachel (whose finger was indeed saved) and her now-composed friend.

Review

A Matter of Principle is a critical book for every one to read, and the fruit of the investment will be an education in education.
The subject of the book, Rabbi Binyamin Steinberg, former principal of Bais Yaakov of Baltimore, was such a towering, educational figure, that the inevitable consequence about learning about his life and methodology is the internal implantation of a GPS for those not-yet-involved and those uninvolved in education.
Fundamentally, everyone is, or at least should be connected in some fashion to education, be it with children, co-workers, subordinates or associates. Every one of Rabbi Steinberg’s lessons can be applied in and out of the classroom. We all encounter people with tempers, who are hair-brained, indolent, self-destructive etc. Not to mention that we also possess our share of drawbacks.
This is where Hanoch Teller marshals his remarkable storytelling abilities to relate and teach at the same time. The great problem of admonishment is that no one wishes to hear criticism and invariably counters with, “Yes, but…” The great advantage of storytelling is that when one hears or reads a story about someone else, the natural walls of defense are not raised and the message stands a chance of penetrating.
This is what A Matter of Principle is all about. It should be required reading for anyone involved in education and recommended reading for everyone else.
Reviewed in The Jewish Week

Words of Praise

“To understand the emergence of a strong, vibrant, Torah community, one must recognize the components which made it possible. Rabbi Binyamin Steinberg, as head of the Bais Yaakov School for Girls in Baltimore, was a central figure in the development of Baltimore into such a community. No one is better equipped than Hanoch Teller to vividly describe Rabbi Steinberg’s mesirus nefesh, dedication and understanding of his students as individuals who would go on to create Torah families of which Baltimore is so proud. Rabbi Teller is to be commended for his work which will enable others to learn how a true mechanech works to help establish a true Torah community in an American city.”

Rabbi Naftoli Neuberger, President
Ner Israel Rabbinical College

“Written with the verve that characterizes all of Hanoch Teller’s books, this biography of a master mechanech can well serve as a manual for any Jew concerned with education. It elucidates warm concern with every student, helping to develop the Divinely given potential of every individual – these are the key prerequisites for successful chinuch which Rabbi Steinberg embodied to the highest degree, and which every educator and parent is well-advised to emulate.”

Rabbi Joseph Elias, Dean
Rika Breuer Teachers Seminary

 

Additional information

ISBN

Page Numbers

296

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