Rabbi David Samson
Rabbi David SamsonCourtesy

One of Israel’s foremost visionaries and Torah educators, Rabbi David Samson, was recently honored at a gala fundraising dinner by parents, graduates, and supporters of the Yerushalayim Torah Academy (YTA) which he founded fifteen years ago.

YTA is a unique yeshiva high school with separate schools for boys and girls, designed especially for English-speaking Olim, allowing students to participate in a full Bagrut (matriculation) program and to receive an Israel high-school diploma. The maverick school received little backing from the Israel Education Ministry in its early years, but through Rabbi Samson’s stubborn determination to help young olim from English-speaking countries, the school has provided a warm home for hundreds of students and boasts a long list of successful Aliyah stories.

Arutz Sheva English site, whose predecessor Arutz Sheva Radio Rabbi Samson helped to found many years ago, asked Rabbi Samson for tips for parents, especially those making or contemplating aliya.

Arutz Sheva: What do you have to say about the challenges of Jewish Education today and the problem of kids wandering away from the traditional track?

“In my experience, the main variable that pushes kids to the streets is a message that they are guilty and bad. If that message comes from the home, they will leave the home and seek acceptance on the streets. If that message comes from school, that is the point whereby the student stops being educated and becomes a drop out, even if his body is still in the classroom and even if he goes through the motions of being a student. The Torah commentator, the Sforno, says that Yitzhak loved Esau even though he was bad and that the proper educational method to deal with a stray son is through love. First parents and teachers have to love themselves and believe that they themselves are good. Once we don't have guilt feelings regarding ourselves and don’t have the need to dump our hang-ups onto our children and students, we can express the unconditional love that those who stray need so much.”

Arutz Sheva: How can parents better communicate with their kids?

“I have discovered with my own children and students that a conversation with a young person should be 95% listening and 5 percent talking. If it’s the other way around you might as well talk to yourself in the mirror. The same is true for teaching. At first I thought I had to fill up an hour class with my own non-stop oration. Later I learned that when students have the freedom to not only participate but to carry the brunt of a discussion themselves, the educational benefit is tenfold.”

Arutz Sheva: How is the Jewish Education in America different than the Jewish Education in Israel?

“The main difference between the education in the Diaspora and in Israel is that in Israel, especially in the Religious Zionist community, there is a oneness of religion and nationalism. They go together. We educate our students to join Tzahal because it is a mitzvah to participate in the rebuilding of the Israelite Nation in the Holy Land. We educate them to establish a family and to develop their talents toward a profession and to earn a livelihood because these are integral parts of the Torah commandment to settle the Land and further its economy and strength (yishuv Eretz Yisrael). Thus a student’s religious identity encompasses all aspects of his or her life. In America religion is one thing and statehood is something else, taken care of by the Government of America. This leads to a duality in a person’s identity, being Jewish and being American. In Israel, nationhood and religion are one.”

Arutz Sheva: What are the special features of YTA?

“One of our main principles is to accept and respect individual differences. We focus on each student’s needs and encourage him or her to maximize his or her capabilities without our getting in the way. While YTA believes in the value of traditional Jewish learning, a strict approach is obviously not for everyone. YTA strives to inspire students to build warm and deep relationships with Hashem, their teachers, parents, and friends. We especially rejoice in watching them mature and develop into positive and contributing members of Israeli society. Over the years I have met families who have thanked me so much, and they said that I saved their Aliyah, and that without YTA they simply wouldn’t have been able to adapt to Israel because they had teenagers who wouldn’t have been able to make it in regular Israeli schools.”

Arutz Sheva: Why did you found the school?

"I founded YTA for one student who had a learning disability in acquiring a second language. The boy dropped out of school and took to the streets only because he didn't know Hebrew. I thought why wait until kids like him descend into a deeply sloping pit to nowhere? Why not make an educational institution where children of olim can study in English?”

Leah Smolarcik, a mother of a YTA student, relates: “Honestly, I don’t know where we would be without YTA. Our son would have struggled being in a Hebrew-speaking environment. It wouldn’t have led to success. At YTA, the caring of the teachers and staff has been incredible. It has been a lifesaver and I don’t use that word lightly.”

The indefatgable Rabbi Samson is now embarking on a new video outreach project titled “Rabbi Samson Says.” The first two videos in the series can be seen and enjoyed at the Machon Meir Yeshiva website.

Highlighted by poignant illustrative backgrounds, in these videos Rabbi Samson presents capsule explanations of many foundations of Torah with the intention of inspiring the desire to learn more. The videos allow the viewer a clear and concise introduction to Torat Eretz Yisrael as illuminated by the teachings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook, the spiritual father of Religious Zionism. Future videos, Rabbi Samson says, will offer much deeper explorations revealing how the long-awaited Redemption of Israel is unfolding before our eyes today in the everyday, down-to-earth events of our time.

Rabbi Samson himself made Aliyah from Baltimore when he was fourteen, forging the pathway for his parents. After learning at the BMT yeshiva high school in Jerusalem, he studied for 12 years at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva under the guidance of HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook. Afterward, he taught Gemara for 16 years at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva High School, “Yashlatz.” Concurrently, to mention a few of his many roles, he served as a “Ram” at several Hesder Yeshivot, taught Tanach at the Machon Meir Yeshiva English Department, taught academic courses at the Lifshitz and Efrata teaching seminaries, served as Rosh Kollel in the Kiriat Arba Dayanut Academy and as the Rabbi of a Dati-Leumi congregation in Har Nof.

At several of those places he was a “moreh derek” leading students on field trips throughout the country, most often off the beaten paths, something that characterizes his approach to education. He also managed to find time to start the English-language Arutz 7 Radio with Baruch Gordon which developed into the Israel National News website. In addition, he co-wrote four commentaries on the writings of Rabbi Kook, and established and led the Maaleh Erev/Genobli High School for Israeli Youth at Risk, another one of his out-of-the-box innovations, for which he was recently honored upon concluding 20 years at its helm.

Now that he is stepping down from his leadership activities at both the Hebrew and English-speaking high schools, when asked what he plans to do now, the visionary educator smiles and says, “I plan to keep dreaming.” His eyes light up when he speaks about creating a school for prophets. “Rabbi Kook writes that the lack of prophecy in Israel is an unnatural disease that demands correction. When he first arrived in Yafo he wanted to establish such a school but with all of his busy rabbinical duties his dream didn’t come to fruition.”

Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Jewish Culture and Creativity. Before making Aliyah to Israel in 1984, he was a successful Hollywood screenwriter. He has co-authored 4 books with Rabbi David Samson, based on the teachings of Rabbis A. Y. Kook and T. Y. Kook. His other books include: "The Kuzari For Young Readers" and "Tuvia in the Promised Land". His books are available on Amazon. Recently, he directed the movie, "Stories of Rebbe Nachman."