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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