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Issue 147 - Pulling in the Gangplank
The Customer is Always Right … Right??
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
This article orignally appeared in Mishpacha Magazine

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2/21/07

Almost ten years later, I can still vividly remember the pain, confusion and heartbreak in the eyes and voices of Yossi and his wonderful parents. When I met them, Yossi was a sincere, well-adjusted thirteen-year old bachur. He loved to daven and enjoyed learning chumash and halacha. So why had his parents called my house repeatedly begging my wife to clear some time in my calendar to meet them? I soon found the cause of the understandable agony that Yossi and his parents were undergoing at that trying time in their lives. Over a period of a few endless weeks, Yossi had been rejected by all the Mesivta High Schools he had applied to. Why, you ask? Because, despite his many fine qualities, Yossi had a ‘deal-breaker’ flaw. Truth be told, Yossi was … um … er … an average boy.

Average in gemorah, that is. Over the course of our conversations, I found Yossi to be far above average in middos and yiras Shamayim (interpersonal relations and spirituality) and flat-out superior in mentchlechkeit (decency and integrity.) In short, Yossi was the type of young man that we would be proud to have as a son – or son-in-law.

A few months before the Mesivta-application nightmare began, Yossi found a wallet in the street with over $400- in cash. Without hesitation, he returned the wallet to the owner. When the grateful owner gave him a reward, Yossi immediately gave it all to tzedakah!! (FYI; Yossi’s parents were of modest means, hence the money would have been very meaningful to him.) Yossi even wrote a beautiful letter to the menhalim who rejected him. He mentioned the story with the wallet, described his love for davening/learning, and begged to join the few Mesivtos that his friends were attending. I’m sad to report that his pleas were to no avail. One Menahel suggested that Yossi go to a school geared for weaker kids. But Yossi rightfully felt uncomfortable going there; as he had no ‘symptoms’ – yet – of the at-risk kids who attended that school.

More than a generation ago, Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner z’tl, the revered Rosh Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin, articulated the evolving mission of yeshivos in what was then modern-day America by comparing the mishkan (tabernacle used by the Jews during their sojourn in the desert) to the teivah of Noach (Noah’s ark). The mishkan, he said, was a place where Jews went to be inspired, to become closer to Hashem. Noach’s teivah, on the other hand, was the only haven available to avoid certain death and destruction.

Rabbi Hutner explained that in pre-war Europe, yeshivos were like the mishkan – places where spiritually elevated people went to grow in Torah and yiras shomayim. Those who did not attend yeshiva, however, were still able to remain committed Jews, raised in the nurturing environment of the pre-war shtetel. Due to the unraveling of the moral fabric of secular society in America, it was nearly impossible for a child to exist as a Torah observant Jew outside the walls of the yeshiva. American Yeshivos, maintained Rabbi Hutner, were more along the lines of the teivah – a structure that offered shelter and protection.

It is interesting to note that while Rav Hutner’s thoughts are often quoted, the context of his comments and their profound message is not as well known. Almost all the times that I heard this insightful quote, it was used to decry the state of today’s eroded moral values. But that is missing his main point!! Rav Hutner was saying how we must change the way that we view our yeshivos. He was suggesting that the holy yeshivos of Voloshin and Slabodka were primarily designed for a tiny percentage of the outstanding achievers in Torah, as the grinding poverty of pre-war Europe forced the vast majority of children above the age of thirteen to join the workforce. American yeshivos and Beis Yakov’s, Rav Hutner maintained, need to be geared for all children to find success and refuge.

Sadly, as I alluded to in an earlier column, exactly the opposite has been happening over the past ten-fifteen years. The bar to entry at High Schools in cities with large Jewish populations has gotten much, much higher over this period of time. The bottom line is that nowadays – with the waters of the mabul rising higher and higher – parental pressure has virtually forced the hands of our educators in large cities to pull in the gangplank of the teivah when ‘average’ kids apply. Why? Because accepting ‘average’ kids is the kiss of death for many schools in the eyes of the ‘customers’; parents of prospective children (that’s you). The caring principals who were once accepting and tolerant regarding admissions policies have had their schools relegated to second-or-third tier status by parents (that’s you, again) who now shun their mosdos. Other school heads and board members who watched this horror show of a school’s decline due-to-word-of-mouth unfold learn the ‘new math’ rather quickly. The equation is quite simple and brutal. More children in these larger cities, b’eh, means more schools in the same geographic area. More schools mean more competition. And which parent wouldn’t turn over heaven and earth to get their child accepted in the ‘best’ schools?

How have we defined ‘best schools’? Obviously, those with the most rigorous entrance criteria, and those who don’t accept ‘average’ kids.

Like … well … Yossi.

© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved



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Related Articles:
Issue 149- Rolling out the Welcome Mat
Issue 139 - Proactively Addressing the Chinuch Challenges of Our Generation
Issue 141 - Exit Interviews
Issue 143- It Doesn’t Start in Tenth Grade
Issue 145 - Training Wheels


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1. What to do?     2/22/07 - 1:35 PM
Anonymous

Reading your article made me shudder. I have a son in 7th that sounds very much like the child depicted. He has above average intelligence (based on tests), but has a mild learning disability which no-one has been able to figure out. Bottom line: he learns slower than the other kids. As a result, he has fallen farther and farther behind most of his peers. Boruch Hashem, the school has accomodated him, allowing him to learn what he can.

But what about highschool? Where DO we send him? Where ARE the yeshivos for this children?

I assume you are proposing existing highschools should accomodate weak learners. The big problem, besides parental pressure you mention, is space and money because these children need their own, small class.

Any ideas?


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2. scared     2/22/07 - 5:08 PM
yoni

from everything in my experiance in both public schools and yeshivos (I have been to both, and not all BT institution either.) I'm not sure I want my kids in ANY kind of regular institution of learning either public or secular.

its terrifying what the monster that frum judaism is creating is doing to our kids, and we have to stop it now. it's going to take everything that our yiddishkeit means to us and suck it dry.


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3. hm     2/23/07 - 12:47 AM
Anonymous - MA

My eldest son is starting kindergarten next year. Surprised to find that a school we like is using a lottery system, I started looking around. I looked at a yeshiva that is now known to take 'middle of the road' kids, and was saddened by what I saw. I saw teachers doing an okay job and children who were tamely following along. Teachers aides were handing out school supplies, one was reading a novel, another sitting on the computer - none were actually working with the children.

In desperation, I looked at a public school: the school accomodates children of all types, from the very bright to the mentally and/or physically disabled.

I asked the principal how the school manages to keep up with the state standards, let alone continue winning awards for scholastic excellence (which they do). He said, simply, the trick is to hire creative, innovative teachers, who prize the child over the curriculum. Then, he added, the school supports the teachers in any way needed.

The problem, I think, is that we let the yeshivos break themselves down into top notch schools, for top notch kids, versus the lower quality schools, for the "lesser" children. To me, this seems lazy. And missing the point. What about the benefits of the mixed classroom, where those kids who figure out a lesson early can then tutor their friends? What about building a community of caring children by having them help each other out, adapt and accept each other's differences? What about requiring our teachers to reach for excellence and innovation, no matter what kind of kid they teach, and in what kind of school?


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4.     2/23/07 - 6:58 AM
Yakov Horowitz - Monsey, NY

Yoni, all:

Please lets keep all the comments constructive in nature. These are very important topics and they need to be addressed.

But I do not want this to degrade into negative attacks. Thanks.

YH


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5.     2/23/07 - 8:49 AM
Anonymous

I know of many batei midrashim that are known for taking in average kids who are not at risk. (of course I would never do them the disservice of naming them in a public forum).

I would think that if every high school took in the best kids (when I say best I mean the most skilled kids although I believe family connections and money play a higher role in acceptance) that they could get, then it stands to reason that some high schools would be filled with average kids. I can't believe that their is a shortage of "average kid" yeshivos because here in Lakewood their is no shortage of average yungerleit.


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6.     2/23/07 - 8:49 AM
Anonymous

where is yossi now?


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7.     2/23/07 - 8:53 AM
Yakov Horowitz - Monsey NY

Thanks for asking.

Yossi got placed eventually. We did not maintain contact.

Every detail of that story is true, and over the past ten years, I met more Yossi's (and Ruchie's) that I can keep track of.

YH


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8. sorry     2/23/07 - 9:18 AM
yoni

I'm sorry if that came across as an attack.

For the past number of years we as a community have been possesed by something of a madness, and it scares me, that is all.

But I think that we should be doing something about this. I just wish I knew what it was. There is a certain amount of unhealthy competition amoungst our communities, and we have forgoten that there are many ways to be special, and many ways that kids can be exemplary and good.

But honestly I think our whole focus is wrong. We're so focused on being a superior learner as the only way to be a good torah true yid that we're kind of making this problem for our selves. We've limited our possibilities for success to one narrow avenue, and should we be surprised that so many are left behind? Being a mentch is important as well, and doesn't torah also stress how important it is to be able to earn ones own living? Isn't there a certain dignity that the torah accords to those who are self sufficiant, and doesn't it stress that our children should never be dependant on others, period, even for the sake of learning? I cant remeber the citatitions at the moment, but its all over the gemorah and other sources.

Why on earth have we had the chutzpah to turn that around?

Our communites aren't really safer than the shtetle and that should be evident by just looking at the rates of those who fried out in previous years to now. Not to mention the number of kids who just didn't learn anything at all. We really need a big cheshbon hanefesh. Sure glitzy success as defined in american culture is meaningless, but being self sufficiant (or largely so) is very important, and that would be a whole nother venue for children to succeed at. Plus why can't it be good enough to be a mentch and of outstanding character traits? does not avos teach us that derech eretz is identical to torah? if someone has that much derech eretz, obviously they cannot be lacking in torah either. Somewhere else there is mentioned that there are many ways to learn torah, and only one of them is learning in a book. It tells us that the greatest way to learn torah is to learn from practice. This means the everyday experiances that one draws torah out of what one sees and experiances in one's own life. Why have we just ignored that?

I don't have any answers. I wish I did.


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9. Chizuk     2/23/07 - 11:01 AM
Anonymous

any average boy that has great middos will be GRABBED by MOST yeshivos. it is unfair how you misrepresent the problem. not every boy has great middos. those boys even though they have GREAT POTENTIAL are the ones that are being overlooked. its there that you have a point. your over doing of this problem is very disturbing. you know from your school many an average boy yet with the sterling middos that your school so amazingly teaches, are doing very well in fine yeshivos. please retract your exaggerated, statment.


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10. What is Chizuk?     2/25/07 - 12:27 PM
tb

In the name of Chizuk, "Chizuk", we do not proactively address problems, we underestimate their importance. To truly be Mechazek the Klal, we must admit and address its problems. I am a teacher as I've noted other times on this website. I see the lack of Mentchlechkeit. I see the emphasis on proficiency in Gemara learning at the cost of everything else at all levels of education. This is a serious problem even if you do not see it. My Rebbe, Rabbi Blumenkrantz, ZATZAL, was an extremely knowledgable man, a real Talmid Chocham. But he is remembered most for being an unbelievable Mentsch. This recent loss that we have suffered when he left this world last week was not the Pesach book. Those who knew him know that that was only part of his greatness. They miss him for his character, his love of fellow Jews. "Chizuk", we are not sending our children the messages we need to. You are wrong. We owe it to them to make a Cheshbon Hanefesh and address this failure in our Chinuch system.


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11.     2/25/07 - 1:25 PM
Anonymous

I still maintain, an average boy with great Middos has no issue getting into highschool.


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12. Reason for Yeshiva's admission criteria     2/26/07 - 1:59 PM
Goldy - New Jersey

Yoni writes: We're so focused on being a superior learner as the only way to be a good torah true yid that we're kind of making this problem for our selves. We've limited our possibilities for success to one narrow avenue, and should we be surprised that so many are left behind? Being a mentch is important as well, and doesn't torah also stress how important it is to be able to earn ones own living? Isn't there a certain dignity that the torah accords to those who are self sufficiant, and doesn't it stress that our children should never be dependant on others, period, even for the sake of learning? --------

Unfortunately in many circles this is not true. Many girls would not even consider going out with a boy who has gone to college or is planning to work right after marriage, or who is currently working! They are told that the ONLY way to have a bayis ne'eman b'Yisrael is to marry someone who will learn for x amount of years after marriage. It is up to the parents of both boys and girls to start changing this around, because it is not going to be changed by those who run yeshivas and seminaries. The boys' parents need to force their sons to get some kind of education before they get married, and stop paying all their bills for them when they are in their late teens and early twenties(if that means a summer job, or a small part time job during the year, then let them work!)This way a boy will understand better the value of money. There are frum colleges available these days that boys can attend at night, and still continue to learn during the day The parents of girls have to encourage their daughters that there is nothing wrong with a boy who will follow the words of the kesuba and support her and their future children, as long as he is kovei itim at the same time. These same parents of girls have to STOP buying husbands for their daughters by agreeing to give a monthly check of x amount for x amount of years. How many households can one family support??? And if there is no supply, then there will be no demand. Will everyone stop and think for a moment - does it seem fair that everything falls on the girl and her family's shoulder? Not only does the girl have to maybe work during the day AND go to school at night AND take care of the kids and her husband, but HER parents have to support the couple as well! I know the boy is contributing his Torah learning to the picture, but might this be a form of using your Torah knowledge "as a tool for earning a livelihood"? (see Pirkei Avos 4:7). And also, does any care about the babies of today who are dropped off at the babysitter or day care center at six weeks of age! We have a whole generation of babies being raised by others than their mothers! Is this the Jewish way??

This all ties into the yeshivas wanting only the best learners..because all the girls want these best learners for their spouses. If we can all join together and start putting the average learner/good middos/financially responsible boys on the same level as the bright/full time learner but no earner boys, then maybe the yeshivas will start changing their admission criteria.


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13. many married women work because they want to     2/26/07 - 5:53 PM
Nechama

I don't agree to the assertion that the pressure on the women to work is coming from the Yeshivas.

I think that much of it comes from the fact that girls go to school, just like boys, are pressured to do well in tests and perform well in this environment, and what are they equipped and confident to do at the end of all this?

To work.

Most mothers who work say that they honestly prefer work days to holidays. What they mean is that they do not feel that they do a good job of their day to day parenting of their kids. Looking after children takes time, skills and patience.

It seems like nobody notices the steps on the way to your child's improvement, nobody thanks you for parenting and nobody pays. But all parents know, that if you are doing it right, you get an extra special gleam in your child's eye. And when that gleam is repeated day after day, you are well rewarded.

Many women feel (and are) ill-equipped for the intensity of being with children so many hours a day. Of course they *can* do it, and should be encouraged, but the generation to generation teaching that would have made this stage easy has been lost to a large degree.

That's why I think that financially providing for mothers to be able to be their child's main cargiver is not enough. We need to also help develop girls' confidence in their child rearing abilities.

As well as confidence we need to show it's really important to us. We need to stress parenting in girls' formative years, and destress marks and scholastic success. We also shouldn't be making such a big deal of those kids who organize events like school shows.

Instead we need to show that what we are honestly more impressed with is: girls that help at home, girls who care about their siblings and girls who learn how to problem solve.

We also need a parenting resource like Rabbi Horowitz shlita's proposed teaching resource, that helps parents with advice, as to how to deal with children, in their various personality types.

Because I think that many women are trying to work because it is their only option.


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14. Nechama is right...     2/26/07 - 7:14 PM
Goldy

Nechama, your words make a lot of sense! As you say, we need to tell young ladies that being a mother to their childen is the most important thing they can do - and the most rewarding. However, when they are also told that supporting their husband while he learns full time is the most important thing they can do - and the most rewarding - they are left in a bind. They cannot be two people at one time! Thus, the powers that be have to really figure out which of these two options is in fact the most important for women (which should really translate into - which of these options will keep future generations committed to Yiddishkeit) and then teach, train, mentor girls to make their true path most successful and rewarding to them.


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15. I'm with you     2/26/07 - 8:56 PM
tb

I have been saying this forever. We women need to stand together. We need to stand in the offices of our Rashei Yeshiva, we need to stand up in print and in body at Kol Korai type gatherings, the kind that have been organized in recent years with Tzniut as the theme. The theme of these meetings with our Rashei Yeshiva, these articles, these letters, these gatherings should be: The Children of Klal Yisroel--Who is Raising Them? Why? What Can We Do About It? How can we get the Mommies back in the house and feeling proud of it? "Bemakom SheAin Eesh, Hishtadel Lihiyos Eesh." We should not wait for others anymore to make changes. How can we organize?


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16. Ideas     2/26/07 - 9:11 PM
Goldy

TB - I do not know how to get together on a communal level but I can offer two suggestions on a personal level. The first is that all parents who agree with us should not send their children to yeshivas and seminaries that do not agree with our point of view, and we should not support them financially either. We should put our money and our children into those schools who are training men to have a parnasa, and training women to understand that these men are QUALITY men to marry one day. Next, parents must, as much as possible, make sure that their sons are getting a college education or some kind of vocational training BEFORE they get married, and to not let them start dating until they are well on their way to a path of parnasa. They should not keep giving theirs sons money at a certain age, but make them pay their own way through part time jobs. If parents do not do this, they are giving their sons the impression that money grows on trees. And parents of daughters should do their best to instill in them how important it is to raise their own babies when they are blessed with them (show them articles that you may come across that support this), and to tell them that boys who want to fulfill their obligations in the kesuba should be admired and respected, not denigrated. Encourage them to date such kinds of boys, and explain that you are not willing to "buy" them husbands.

If parents will stop perpetuating the system, then the system will fall apart and we will go back to the way it used to be in the Jewish world.


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17.     2/26/07 - 11:15 PM
Anonymous

Back to Rabbi Horowitz's article. I have 2 high school age sons- niether one is a "Yossi". They both B"H have good Middos. One is a well above average learner and one is well below average. We to had a very difficult time finding an appropriate Yeshiva for the slower one. His elementary school accepted him, but the boys in the "bais shiur" were not a group he was comfortable with. The reality is that the weaker boys benefit fron the environment that the stronger boys have to offer, but the stronger boys will learn better when kept seperate from the weaker boys. Rabbi Horowitz alludes to this catch 22 situation. A school that is willing to accept both strong boys and weak boys, will rapidly lose the ability to attract the stronger boys and will turn into a school for weak boys. Unfotunately I don't believe there are any answers in this world.


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18. Any suggetions?     2/26/07 - 11:20 PM
Tziri - ejfink@verizon.net

An anonymous writer on 2/23/07 writes the he knows many Batei Medrashim who will accept an average bachur who is not at risk. This information would be very helpful to me. Would he e-mail this info to the above address? Thank you.


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19. idealistic, but practical     2/26/07 - 11:50 PM
tb

Goldy, I appreciate your suggestions, and in my own home my husband and I have taken measures to set my children on this path. We cannot guarantee they stay on the path we have set for them, but we have made clear definitions for the path and chosen their schools wisely. What I don't accept is that we must leave it up to individuals to change the tide. The tide is unfortunately overwhelming. I hope I am not being overly naive in believing that these blogs serve a purpose other than mere dialogue, which in itself can be healthy and reaffirming. I believe that Rabbi Horowitz and those who comment on this blog can be a force for communal change. In our culture that change must come from the leadership, but the Klal must be clear about the need for it. I am disheartened that we cannot find a way to do this. I am more than happy to speak to leaders alone, but that will get us nowhere. Why can't we organize somehow? Recently, Rabbi Horowitz did a printed Cheshbon Hanefesh regarding this site/blog. I would like to challenge those of us who comment so sincerely on this site to try to make their own Cheshbonos Hanefesh and make this more than just a place to vent and nod our heads in accordance.


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20. encouraging Torah study     2/27/07 - 3:16 AM
RP - Israel

The goal of our chinuch system seems NOT to be mechanech the average child, but to produce g'dolei Isroel. Why do I say this? Because (especially in Israel): 1) schools are geared to a very high level OR for "at risk" kids. There are almost no institutions for the less-intelligent yet still menchlich type bachor. 2) In the girls schools, they are told that if you don't marry a kolelnik, you are nothing. If your father is not a kollelnik you are nothing.

While we need Talmidei chachamim, I think the way we are doing it is costing us too many korbonot.Rejected children quickly discover that the less-frum world values their abilities. Their siblings, also, learn that "protectzia" (strings, pull)and money means more to the yeshiva world than doing what is right. I'll wager that a very high percentage of "Yossi"s and also their siblings end up non-religious. I had two Yossis. One went to a yeshiva for "at risk" teens. He is no longer shomer shabbat (But I have hope for him, he is a good boy and has stayed attached to the family). My 2nd Yossi left the "at risk" yeshiva he was accepted to ("who can stay with such a bunch of wild boys?") and is still frum, but modern. Their sister, a very intelligent girl, was so put off by all this (and the attitude in the girl's school)that she HATES the frum. Yes, she went to the "best" school. And while there were other contributing factors involved, I am convinced that none of these three would be where they are today if our society truely accepted the "average" boy. When will we wake up?


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21.     2/27/07 - 8:15 AM
yoni

RP, isreal, our systems aren't producing gedolei yisroel. We're hemoraging them out. You wouldn't beleive just how many of the "at risk" kids are total geniuses, and it's our loss really.

My bet is that of those real potential illuyim who could become gedolei yisroel we lose not less than 50%

and goldy, tb, I for one plan to be able to earn a living and fulfill the obligations on my kesuba. :-) And does having gone to college and getting a job translate out to being finished with college and actively having a job, or perhaps being in college with a definite career in mind and actively working towards it, with good grades and all that?


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22.     2/27/07 - 5:34 PM
Goldy - NJ

YONI - yes, being in college with a definite career in mind and actively working toward it is wonderful! The main thing is to have a plan, and be actively pursuing that plan BEFORE you get married. Hatzlacha Rabbah!

TB - My husband and I are also pushing our children in those directions, and you are right - they may end up not following our wishes, but all we can do is try. I really do not know how to organize a grassroots effort to change the status quo. But I think as more and more people talk about these ideas openly, it gives moral support to others who think they are the only ones who feel this way, and thus gives them the courage to do what we are doing with our children. It also helps when those who are involved in shidduchim for their daughters seek out boys who are earner/learners, or in college working toward a parnasa of some sort. As I wrote previously, the rule of supply and demand is powerful. By chance do you have any sons who fit that mold, because we have daughters :) ?


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23.     2/28/07 - 6:12 PM
tb

Goldy, you're right about supply and demand. It just seems to be an incredibly slow moving process for the Klal. It's taking too long for people to catch on. Once again, if sincere frum yeshivish folk think that the Gedolim want them to live this way, they will continue to "work" toward that goal. As for the Shiduchim, sorry, but my kids are still young. I wish you hatzlacha.


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24.     3/1/07 - 9:37 AM
Goldy

TB - it certainly is a slow moving process, but at least it is moving! (Thanks for your good wishes.)

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