Navigating The Mesivta Maze

bachurimONLINE EXCLUSIVE: [Full article to appear in this week’s Mishpacha Magazine] The array of mesivta high schools available for our young men today is dizzying. Any township in New Jersey worth its salt now has a yeshivah in its midst, to complement the dozens of choices in the densely populated frum communities. How can parents and their eighth-grade sons determine which schools are for them, and how can they maximize their chances of being accepted into the school of their choice? In the heat of the application season, Mishpacha turned to leading mechanchim and placement experts to get insider secrets into the decision process – from both the parents’ and the schools’ perspective 

Shimmy Blum

Sruli Feinstein and his parents are facing a dilemma. Sruli is in eighth grade, on the verge of entering mesivta high school. His three older brothers all attended a local yeshivah, with varying levels of success in their learning. Sruli is dead-set against attending that yeshivah, because none of his friends are going there. Besides, he knows he’s not as scholastically inclined as his brothers, and he’s worried that the rebbeim will expect him to follow in their footsteps.

Similar dilemmas are under discussion in frum houses across the globe these days, in some form or another. Whether the bochur is a bechor (firstborn) without family precedent to consider, or has siblings who have already graduated mesivta, choosing a school is never easy. Just a few decades ago, there was only a handful of options, and the choice was a relatively easy one. Now there is a veritable forest of mesivtas out there, but the dizzying rows of trees aren’t nearly as identical as they look. The mesivta application process has grown from a blip on the screen of a child’s development, to a daunting ordeal that can be as lengthy — and consequential — as choosing the right shidduch.

Mishpacha turned to a team of mechanchim and mesivta-placement experts to learn how to navigate the confounding maze.

No Child Left Behind: The high-pressure race among parents and eighth-grade boys to get accepted into the “best” mesivtas leads to fear that if a bochur doesn’t ultimately get accepted by his first choice, he’ll either end up receiving an inferior chinuch, or he’ll wind up “on the streets.” Observers say that those fears are unfounded — precisely the fact that there are so many mesivtas on varying levels means that boys need not necessarily aim to attend the same mesivtas as their peers.

Rabbi Moshe Schmelczer, menahel of the Telshe Yeshiva–Chicago, which has a “two-track” system in part of its mechinah/high school, explains: “The principle of ‘chanoch l’naar al pi darko’ [educate each child according to his path] can be easily applied under the current system. Boys who can learn on a higher level get to learn in a more stimulating setting, and those who are not as motivated get a curriculum and environment geared to their needs.”

Remediation and placement expert Rabbi Shmuel Gluck is the founder and director of Monsey’s Areivim organization, which helps boys who find the yeshivah system challenging, and critiques the yeshivah placement scene. He maintains that, in the broader picture, the system works.

“The system has its flaws, but it works well for everyone overall. Practically every bochur, at any level, can find a reasonably suitable yeshivah that is ready to accept him.”

According to Rabbi Gluck, the emotionally charged contention that bochurim are left out in the cold is generally not due to anything the yeshivos can control.

“We’re often dealing with parents and bochurim who are unrealistic about the boy’s level and won’t consider the options that truly fit their needs. Many are looking to get into a yeshivah that is at somewhat of a higher level than them, or at least one in which no boys are at a lower level. Their expectations are unrealistic, of course, and foster disappointment when they cannot get accepted into the mesivta of their choice.”

Disappointment that is, for the most part, unwarranted.

Rabbi Yinon Ben-Mashiach, who taught upper elementary and lower high-school grades in Edmonton, Alberta, and has been an eighth-grade rebbi in the Lakewood Cheder for nearly a decade, relates that the selection of mesivtas works particularly well for less-motivated bochurim. “Mesivtas geared towards bochurim who are at a lower level do a fabulous job turning their talmidim around by the time they leave yeshivah.”

Getting Started: In a typical scenario, the process begins as the vast array of yeshivos is narrowed to a few choices at the family kitchen table and in the elementary school classroom. Parents will have a clear idea of what the basic options are, based on where they, their friends, or their relatives have sent bochurim in recent years. Their son will typically have his own opinion on where he would like — or not like — to learn, based on discussions with his friends.

The next step is to discern whether the choices under consideration are indeed best for the bochur. Rabbi Ben-Mashiach urges that parents seek the counsel of their son’s eighth-grade rebbi, and give his opinion significant weight. “A competent eighth-grade rebbi has a keen understanding of the various mesivtas, and has the most objective view of the bochur’s performance in a yeshivah setting.” There are also independent mechanchim and placement experts who can help clarify the choices if necessary.

Another tried-and-true method highly recommended by Rabbi Nosson Muller, menahel of Yeshiva Toras Emes Kamenitz of Brooklyn and a former eighth-grade rebbi in Yeshiva Tiferes Torah, is for father and son to visit the handful of choices to help define the differences between them, and ensure that they will both be comfortable with their ultimate choice of mesivta.

“It’s like a shidduch date,” observes Rabbi Muller. “If a father and son go to the yeshivah one night, learn for an hour, and daven Maariv there, they’ll get to see firsthand whether the environment ‘feels’ right for them. They’ll see the learning environment, the middos that bochurim display towards each other and towards visitors, and the sincerity with which they daven.”

How much consideration should parents give to their son’s opinion? Certainly, say mechanchim, the bochur deserves to a player in the decision. But parents should be sure not to take temporal concerns that seem crucial to an adolescent mind too seriously, and allow him to nix a yeshivah that will provide him with a superior chinuch for the long term. Considerations as trivial as which yeshivah has the best food — or even ones that have some importance, such as where his friends are going — need to placed into perspective, so that he ends up in the yeshivah that will make him grow most in Torah, yiras Shamayim, and emotional health.

Does that portend a drawn-out, contentious battle? Actually, mechanchim relate that serious skirmishes between parents and bochurim on this topic are exceedingly rare. Rabbi Muller says that in a healthy family, a fair parental wish will be generally be accepted. “Children should be accustomed to respecting their parents’ decisions by the time they reach eighth grade. If that hasn’t been achieved by then, then there’s a parenting issue that extends well beyond mesivta placement.”

Rabbi Gluck warns, however, that in the rare instance in which a child is adamantly opposed to his parents’ choice and the dispute cannot be resolved, caution is in order.

“Know your child,” he counsels. “If there is a real risk that he’ll remain strongly opposed to the choice even once he’s there, then it’s usually advisable not to fight him. Even if his concerns are illegitimate, his stubborn negative attitude can sabotage the chances of him being content and successful in his surroundings.”

“The Human Factor” One of the risks inherent in any confusing decision process is getting ensnared in technicalities and overlooking some of the most important factors. While yeshivah “levels” and social pressures will often dominate the decision process, mechanchim warn that such factors often cause parents to miss the forest for the trees.

Renowned mechanech and lecturer Rabbi Fishel Schachter, who has spent nearly three decades as an eighth-grade rebbi in Yeshiva Torah Vodaath and currently teaches bochurim in the mesivta there, borrows a term from the traditional yeshivish vernacular.

“We must put more focus on the ‘gavra’ [personal] aspect of the bochur than on the way the yeshivah under consideration looks in the abstract. If a bochur is happy in yeshivah and is content with what he’s doing there, chances are that he’ll thrive, b’siyata d’Shmaya.”

Rabbi Gluck’s experience substantiates this notion. “I’ll often recommend two yeshivos to a parent, and they’ll give me a bewildered look, because the two appear to be so different ‘on paper.’ In truth, however, they share intangible common strengths that bochurim require, such as warm rebbeim, peer groups they will feel comfortable with, and inviting classroom environments. Affording bochurim emotional health and life skills is a prerequisite to making them successful in ruchniyus. Aiming for the stricter environment without taking the human factor into consideration can be very counterproductive.”

He lists some common rules. “Boys who are not self-motivated should generally enroll in a yeshivah that has no more than fifty boys. A sensitive boy in particular needs more personal attention, a rebbi who will invite him for meals and notice every time he’s down.”

Home vs. Dormitory: Another emotionally laden consideration is the in-town versus out-of-town yeshivah debate. Leaving home for mesivta is the de facto choice of bochurim from communities that don’t have a mesivta, and an attractive option when those close to home are not on a comparable level to the out-of-town yeshivos. But what about boys who have a choice?

There are several positive aspects to dorming in yeshivah as opposed to sleeping at home. The primary one, says Rabbi Schmelczer, whose yeshivah offers both options, is based on Chazal’s dictum, hevei goleh limkom Torah — exile yourself to a makom Torah. “The maalos of being in a makom Torah are certainly compounded when you are immersed in it around the clock.” He adds that tending to one’s own needs, as a dorming boy must do, can help a young man mature and become responsible.

Dorming may be vital for bochurim who come from homes lacking family harmony or spiritual wellbeing. Aside from escaping a damaging home environment, Rabbi Gluck says, “Boys from difficult homes will be more like ‘everyone else’ when dorming out of town. Yeshivah staff members in out-of-town yeshivos tend to grasp the round-the-clock nature of their jobs, and make sure to keep an eye out for these boys and take full charge of their needs.”

That said, Rabbi Binyamin Strauss of Lakewood, an internationally renowned placement expert, warns that going out of town isn’t a solution for some issues. “If a bochur has social or emotional difficulties in getting along with friends, getting a ‘fresh start’ out-of-town will usually exacerbate the problem. Such bochurim are usually better off staying home and waiting for ‘the child’ to mature out of them.”

For those with healthy home environments, however, the general consensus among our interviewees is that it is preferable for bochurim to sleep at home for the first few years of mesivta.

“No one can replace parents,” says Rabbi Gluck, “and it isn’t a good feeling for a boy to feel unnecessarily ‘pushed’ out of home at so young an age.”

Rabbi Schmelczer warns that having young bochurim living together 24/7 comes with its own set of risks, particularly in our times. “A dormitory is a minefield of potential problems, especially for very young bochurim — both socially and b’ruchniyus. It is unfortunately impossible to have foolproof, round-the-clock hashgachah [supervision] over their conversations and activities.”

Others mention the fact that being constantly confined to a yeshivah campus can put too much pressure on a young bochur, especially in a yeshiva in which not all bochurim sleep in the dormitory, and the majority of the class goes home each night to “air out,” often causing the minority to feel that they are “stuck” in yeshivah. Parents should be sure that their son is ready for that sort of pressure before sending their son out of town.

If a bochur does go out of town, Rabbi Schmelczer recommends that parents ensure that there is the best possible hashgachah in the dorm. “Parents should be in constant contact with the person in charge of the dormitory and make sure that their son is maintaining a normal routine, schedule, and is exhibiting other healthy behavior.”

The Next Steps: Once all emotional and logistical factors have been considered, a few palatable options will remain. These choices are typically broken down by the unofficial “grade” each yeshivah is assigned. The “grades” usually follow the formula of the alef-beis, with alef denoting a yeshivah for highly motivated bochurim, and the subsequent letters denoting yeshivos geared for boys with progressively weaker skills. Discussions such as whether an “alef-minus” bochur fits into a particular “beis-plus” yeshivah, or vice versa, are commonplace.

The problem with this approach is that it can lead to endless debate over whether the “score” assigned to the bochur or yeshivah is accurate, and whether it was based on objective standards. Experts therefore advise parents to put aside innuendo about yeshivos and their staffs — and even the rating system — and isolate the most important factors, such as the quality of the rebbeim. While it is easier to find top-notch rebbeim nowadays, because the supply of highly talented yungerleit interested in chinuch careers far exceeds the number of available positions, parents should not expect every rebbi to be known — at least publicly — as a “star rebbi.” It’s important to ensure that rebbeim have the qualities that will promote their son’s development at this most crucial turning point in his life. For instance, the warmth that a ninth-grade rebbi, who “kicks off” a bochur’s mesivta years, exudes towards talmidim, and the zeal with which he delivers his shiur, are very important attributes. But observers caution that parents do empirical research into a rebbi’s success rate with his talmidim, because facts on the ground don’t necessarily jibe with common stereotypes. A rebbi who may not seem “geshmak” can be beloved by his talmidim and may end up having a lifelong influence upon them because of his genuine yiras Shamayim and ahavas haTorah.

Full article will appear in this week’s Mishpacha Magazine.

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  1. The same people who donate 1800 to a mesivta with a total of 15 bochurim in 4 classes will donate 25 dollars to a girls high school with 500 girls in 4 classes . That is why there are dozens of mesivtas with far fewer girls schools

  2. very good idea… when i was in 8th grade my parents had set there mind which yeshiva to send me to and i didnt get in. so they ended up sending me to some place that was totally not for me cause they thought i was a bad kid cause i didnt get in so i droped out a year later and that was the end of my yeshiva life…………………………………….

  3. Is general studies not even a factor deserving of mention? Ironic that in Lakewood mesivtas offer no general studies at all, and yet the article discusses chinuch legavra.

  4. People,
    Listen to #6, his message is very strong. Forget about what your dream is for your child & focus on the best place for your child. Yes, you need to actually take time out and think about where your child will be the most HAPPY. It’s a very confusing task, but very rewarding at the end when you see your son/daughter feeling happy with themself.

  5. 1) Don’t forget the ‘Stigma Factor’ involved in enrolling in a ‘second class’ Mesivta.
    2) Having dozens of Micro Mesivtas may give more choice, but it harms everyone trying to raise funds. Do we really need so many small Mesivtas with the duplicated expenses each one costs? If ther’s a wealthy donor/supporter to underwrite his pet project – that’s his business.

  6. Speaking form experience.Avoid out of town if you can at all costs.And if you have no choice other then going out of town make sure you or your son will be able to get a decent (I won’t say good) night’s sleep.It won’t be easy.

  7. I would only consider a Mesivta that has general studies, 100% of all boys need it and can not handle a full day of learning. Those that send to a Yeshiva without general studies are setting themselves up for an at risk child.

  8. when i was in 9th grade, the yeshiva did not work out for me. All these ‘expert’ mechanchim were in business, and still nothing helped. I spent 2 years out of yeshiva until a big tzadik came to save me. Parents should not think that their is a set list of rules for each boy. A boy and his parents must find someone who knows them WELL, to help them. Just going for a 5 min interview, will not solve all problems. B’h i am now married and i put this all behind me. To everyone out there- a boy out of yeshiva is going thru gehenim in this world. Try to reach out to him. Dont assume other people are helping him, because they usually are not.

  9. #13 is 100% true!! Some people are under the misconception that a bocher can be ‘titched’ up in a few minutes. Someone that knows the ENTIRE situation, can render a true decision. People should know that just because someone knows YESHIVA’S, does NOT mean that he knows the boy that he is dealing with. Unfortunately, sometimes this will end up in a disaster and make it a worst situation then before. Parents should do alot of their OWN research, before making such a life-changing move of switching their son’s yeshiva.

  10. After doing my research about different Yeshiva’s, speaking to friend’s that have kids in Yeshivas, and going down to see them, I decided on a certain Yeshiva. I went down for the Farher and my son got accepted. Now my son’s Rebbe insists strongly that I am making a terrible mistake if I send my son there, that he will get lost there and not have Hatzlacha. How do I decide?

  11. How about when the yeshiva has 3 successful years then it goes for the big fish. This year we are looking for the top AND THE REBBEIM ARE IN KEHUTZ WITH THEM.

  12. This article is a little late in the game. All the “aleph” mesiftas have already closed registration and most of the next tier are pretty much full as well…

  13. to #17- Hence, the problem. People think that if they are not accepted by chanuka, then they ‘missed it’ and will have to settle for less. It is not true. Not always does something work out, for whatever reason. Besides, for a parent to tell that to his son, will greatly damage his self esteem and can have a lasting affect. To #15- Your sons rebbi knows him pretty well, and while his thoughts may not be the deciding factor, they still carry weight. Speak to other people who know your son and can help make a responsible decision. The worst resort, is to go to someone, who does not know your situation at all.

  14. as a father of 4 mesifta bochurim let me tell ya “the trick isnt getting them in, its keeping them there”
    the last thing that you want is a call from the menahal that we are having problems with your son…..( loi alienu )
    do what is best for your child not what “posses” for you.

    it will be much harder to do your glick shiduch if they get thrown out of a mosad that was way over there head!

  15. some mesiftas arent giving answers yet & holding up the system.

    a vaad should control this & make a deadline of when answers have to be given to parents.

  16. Does anyone here know of a mesivta that will have small classes and put effort into the boys, but doesn’t have boys with problems and negative influences.

    Thank you very much.

  17. Lakewood Mesivtas need to start a fully accredited English Dept.There is too much down time.I went to Torah Temimah English was taken very seriously.Today many of these graduates have become top mechanchim.Why don’t they push English in the mosdos that they currently teach in .Philadelphia Yeshiva also has a strong English Dept. It is know that they too have a very choshuve alumnus. We need to have Mesivtas in Lakewood with a full English Dept. with teachers that have degrees.Not Kolel Yungeleit that practice their lessons by the red lights on the way to teach !together with dormitories so that bochurim are close to home yet in a yeshivah atmosphere the entire week.

  18. Sorry if my previous comment wasn’t understood.

    I’m looking for a mesivta with small classes, that gives a lot of individual attention to the boys, those that maybe can’t keep up elsewhere. Often however, in these B or lower level mesivtas the boys may have behavioral issues or be “in-to” things they shouldn’t be – such as internet, movies etc.

    Does anyone know of a mesivta that will have the benefit of the small class and have weaker boys, but have boys who will not put my son at risk.

  19. they all start off with those intentions, however , they find out quickly that you cant survive financially without 25 boys in a class & paying tuition… so they are forced to accept all those that can help them…
    including troubled boys..
    at the end of the day, its your responsibilty to look your son in the eye every night & see that he looks happy & content, & that
    ” nothing new” is in his life…

  20. There are many good Mesivtas with wonderful boys that have English in or near Lakewood.

    Mesivta Keser Torah – Belmar
    Yeshiva Ohr Yissochor – Lakewood
    Yeshiva Emek HaTorah – Howell

  21. #15
    Do for your son what is best for HIM-not for you & his type of family etc…-if he goes to a Mesivta that is his style it will help him move up to become a better bochur. Even if he was accepted to a Aleph yeshiva, but if its not his style boys or too much learning etc… then he should go to HIS Bais yeshiva & move up from there HATZLACHA

  22. TO Justincase
    you wanted to know what a higher level yeshiva means?

    most people would agree that a high level yeshiva is based on more deeper learning-including lots of meforshim with gemara-& more serious-no time for anything else besides learning-any other time is spent on meals,sleeping & a drop of time for sports exercise etc…

    CAN YOUR SON HANDLE THIS LEVEL & ONLY THINK TORAH WHILE IN MESIVTA? if he thinks of music & news etc… a higher level yeshiva is not for him HATZLACHA

    i won’t mention any yeshiva names. but most people looking into mesivtas know which one are Aleph & which are bais etc… from experience

  23. Glad to see that many of you put value into boys receiving at least a minimum amount of English education. Boys need to learn to formulate sentences, communicate properly – even when taking Klai Kodesh jobs later in life. Not every boy is cut out to spend their lives learning in yeshiva. We also NEED FRUM DOCTORS, ACCTS, etc…My husband is graduate of Philly Yeshiva – English & sciences were taken seriously because Roshei Yeshiva didn’t want bochrim wasting their time.

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