We spoke with Rabbi Gamliel LaBrie, the Menahel at Mesivta Yam HaTorah, to get a feel for his unique approach to chinuch. Rabbi LaBrie learned in Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, where he received his Yoreh Yoreh Yadin Yadin s’michah in 2015. Rabbi LaBrie has been a rebbe at Yam HaTorah since 2015. He joined the administration in 2018, where he has developed genuine relationships with students while simultaneously implementing a culture of accountability and responsibility to engender positive choices by students to foster their success and growth.
What motivated you to work in a high school?
I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives by helping them experience meaning and purpose from a life committed to Torah and avodas Hashem. I always connected well with teenagers and enjoyed their ability to have intellectual conversations while overcoming the challenges adolescence presents to make a real difference during their formative years. There seem to be many students who go through the yeshivah system and don’t find real meaning and purpose from their experiences. I feel a sense of responsibility to do what I can to make a difference.
Can you describe the dynamic you referenced and the difference you are trying to make?
To oversimplify, I think there are three groups. One group is made up of those who flourish and would do so in most environments. Obviously, there are nuances that affect their ability to achieve their potential, but they would thrive and connect to what’s being offered in many places. Alternatively, there are those students who require more specialized and unconventional methods than a typical school environment. Then, there are those in the middle, who can be reached in a conventional school setting, but their success is highly dependent on the specifics of the school and their experiences. I think the numbers in that segment who aren’t being reached or walking away connected is growing. This is partially because there aren’t enough schools focusing on that segment exclusively, so they are expected to conform to the needs and expectations needed to create an environment for the top third. When they don’t, they often either go to the more specialized or unconventional settings due to their feeling rejected, or they will complete high school and walk away with a surface deep value and appreciation for what they received. We are trying to get those students to preempt those experiences and the predictable pattern that follows. That being said, this is a complex issue with many more factors beyond the scope of this conversation.
How would you describe the approach of your yeshivah, and how does that help reach those you described?
We meet our students with unconditional acceptance and respect of where they are at. We deal with them in a real and honest way, with mutual respect, and develop their appreciation and perspectives in a slow and consistent way. We focus on the ideas that really matter and let the smaller, less important things slide, which a larger yeshivah catering to the top third can’t accommodate.
A deep belief of mine is that the key to unlocking a person’s greatness or potential in any area is to develop their seichel to understand and deeply identify with the goals, ideas, and behaviors that foster growth in that area. This is especially true with Torah, mitzvos, and a life of growth. If we are pulling people or pressuring people to do things they don’t believe in or identify with, it won’t last. Every person wants to feel good, be successful, live a meaningful life, and realize on some level that Torah provides that. Our goal is to develop that feeling into a reality.
This is coupled with the reality that many teenagers don’t yet identify with our goals and therefore will take the easy way out, and make decisions that will be detrimental to themselves and others. Our accountability isn’t carried out in a way that takes away choice such as intimidating, demeaning, etc., but gives the freedom to choose, but to also take ownership of the natural consequence of their choice, while providing support and encouragement to get through the challenges that hard work entails. We choose to make fewer demands while consistently following through in order to promote a structured school environment without suffocating our students.
What do you perceive as your biggest challenge as you go forward?
I was talking with a fellow principal who shared a very astute observation. He said most parents try to go one level above what is truly best for their child. As such, many students suffer, since they are being pushed more than is appropriate for them in order to keep up with the pressure placed on them. The schools also suffer, since they have to add more pressure than they otherwise would feel is ideal.
What would you recommend for people having difficulty with that challenge?
One who walks on his path will fear Hashem; one whose ways are crooked will be embarrassed. The Vilna Gaon in his commentary says that no person has the same needs or challenges, and as such has different ways needed to grow. One who goes b’yoshro, meaning on his own personal path (even if others will look down at it due to their lack of knowing what he needs), that person is and will be a y’rei Hashem, since he is more concerned with his growth as opposed to others’ views. However, if one doesn’t do what he needs, due to the opinions of others, then Hashem looks down at him for prioritizing other people’s opinions instead of Hashem’s. Alternatively, the pasuk can be understood to mean that the person will come to despise Hashem since he is twisting his ways and all of growth is dependent on our midos. This means, the constant denial of our individual reality and needs is constantly undermining our growth, our ability to grow, and our appreciation of Hashem.
Thank you. We wish you good luck and success.