Educating Our Children – Where Did We Go Right?

Allen A. Kolber
Monsey, NY

After 15 years as a ba’al teshuva and seven years of marriage, the crisis finally came. It wasn’t over my non-frum family, which shul to daven in, whether to wear a velvet or knitted yarmulke (I had settled long ago on the black knitted compromise). No, the crisis finally came when we had to choose a school for our first born son.

Our first mistake was thinking that we would interview the schools. The reality is that the schools interview you. And, in any interview situation, the reality is that you are being judged, in a very short period of time, and relative to the other parents who are hoping to have their boy admitted in to the same yeshiva. I don’t envy any Rosh Yeshiva who has that responsibility.

My wife and I were then, as now, progressing slowly in our yiddishkeit. The truth is we did not look yeshivish, we did not look modern orthodox, we did not look chareidi, we did not look chassidishe, we looked ourselves. That is advice I always give to other ba’al teshuva, dress and act like yourself, don’t dress and act to please others. But maybe that advice did not work too well for the sake of my son when being interviewed by yeshivas.

Our first choice was a ‘yeshivish” school with strong secular studies. Most of our chevra sent their children to this school. So, when we went to be interviewed at this school, after five minutes, the Rosh Yeshiva asked us, ‘After high school, do you envision your son going to Beis Midrash or College?” We answered honestly, “Wherever he wants to go.” We had never even given a thought to whether our five-year-old boy, thirteen years from now, would be going to Beis Midrash or College. The Rosh Yeshiva then made his decision. “I think you should try school A, that will be more compatible for you.” We were stunned. School A was never even on our radar screen. It was a mixed gender school and more modern than we would ever look for. We told the Rosh Yeshiva, “School A is not even an option for us.” The Rosh Yeshiva responded, “Really, trust me, you won’t get along with the parent body in our school.” We responded, “But all our friends send their children to this school.” Clearly, the interview was over.

We were stunned. We were disappointed. We were devastated. We felt rejected. We called for a second interview and had our Rov call for a second interview. I wrote a letter and we had our Rov write a letter. Finally, I was mercifully told the truth by my friends who had children in the Yeshiva, “Did you wear a suit with a white shirt? Did you wear a hat? Did your wife wear a sheitel?”

We had messed up, big time. I had worn slacks and a blue shirt with my black sruga. My wife had covered her hair with a small hat. We had unwittingly walked into the Rosh Yeshiva’s office looking ourselves. My Rebbe put it succinctly. There are parents who are black and white oreo cookies, they appear black on the outside, but they are a bit white on the inside. And then there are parents like you, who are reverse oreo cookies, you appear white on the outside, but you are a bit black on the inside.

What bothered us most was that we had been examined, judged and sentenced within the span of five minutes. In five minutes there are only two things that a person can judge you on, your outward appearance and the few comments you are able to make during that brief conversation.

As we walked out of the yeshiva, my wife commented to me, “He’s right and he’s wrong. He’s right in that this yeshiva is too yeshivish for us. We don’t conform. He is wrong because he tried to sum up our hashkafa during a five minute interview and got it totally wrong.”

Looking back on the situation, I have learned two important lessons. The first lesson is that I was inadvertently attempting to legitimize my own frumkeit through my children. Maybe I thought on some subconscious level that if my son wore a big velvet yarmulke and payos behind his ears that people in my community would accept me as a legitimately religious Jew. On the other hand, I felt if my son wore a knitted yarmulke with a Mets logo that, by projection, others would refuse to view me as a serious religious Jew.

The second thing I learned was a lesson in equanimity, and by extension, to trust in the hashgacha that Hakadosh Baruch Hu has in my family’s life. The definition of equanimity is “steadiness of mind under stress”, the ability to accept a situation with composure. When faced with success on the one hand or challenges on the other, we should not react with inordinate ecstasy or inordinate disappointment. We should always understand that Hakadosh Baruch Hu is directing this moment in our lives toward a goal which we may or may not be able to see at this time. When I walked out of that school I was disappointed but I should have had more faith in G-d to know that this disappointment was merely one step toward His plan for our children’s education.

The other night, my wife and I went to parent – teacher conferences at our son’s yeshiva (neither the first Yeshiva nor School A). We stood in the hall with the other parents waiting to meet with our son’s Rebbe. My wife’s hair was uncovered, her sleeves and skirt long, the way she always dresses at this point in our life. I pushed my payos behind my ears and adjusted my black knitted yarmulke. I looked at the other parents. A man in a black suit with a black hat. A man in jeans with a beard and velvet yarmulke. A woman with a sheitel and funky boots. I looked at the pictures of the boys on the walls outside the classroom. My own son, with his small velvet yarmulke and payos behind his ears. His friend, J., with a big black velvet yarmulke. His friend, M., with a kippa sruga with an Israeli flag on it. Everybody seemed to be themselves and everyone seemed to be happy.

20 comments on “Educating Our Children – Where Did We Go Right?

  1. Very interesting post. Remembering going through this with our oldest just a few years back at both the local “black hat” yeshiva and the local modern-ivrit b’ivrit-and-excellent-secular-virtually-a-prep-school. The prep school told us that we’d be by far the “frummest family in the place” (that’s verbatim) and our child the only one with peyos. The black-hat told us that, well, they don’t allow such colorful kippas, and our child would be the only one with such long peyos.

    If only we could pigeonhole ourselves as easily as strangers manage to pigeonhole us …

  2. We’re far enough away from Monsey that we had one choice of school, so that’s where our children went… and yes, we did move to another state so they could go to a school that was a better fit! One of my kids in particular, wasted an entire year b/c he happened to be far and away ahead of the class academically, (and the teachers were unable to compensate for that) but didn’t like the kids in the next grade (and I didn’t like their middos!) Here he’s just high average, which is so much better, and the teachers seem better equiped to deal with children at different levels in one class as well.

    When I came to interview the school/be interviewed, the Dean spent the conversation assuring me that kids came out of the school prepared for either Beis Medrash or college, and even more importantly, that the graduates of this school are known for their middos. He pegged me right… that was exactly what I wanted to hear.

    I’m glad you found the right school for your child. Guess the RY was “guided” from Above to turn you down.

  3. Sarah,

    I agree completely that parents will experience similar considerations about summer camps as they do about schools.Day camps and summer camps have a gamut of hashkafos and expectations of how rugged they are and what they expect from your kid in terms of participation. Visiting days are a great way to inspect a camp but it is even more important to realize that a kid who is not having the best summer should not be expected to return to an environment where he or she is unhappy. There are so many types of camping and summer programs out there for the entire orthodox community that it really pays you to check out the right program for your kid, as opposed to one which may lead to a miserable summe even if other local kids are there.

    We also went thru the gamut of day camps and sleepaway camps. Some kids may like a more rugged camp than others. I will note that all schools talk about achdus, etc. In camp, kids experience achdus and other midos tovos just by being in the same bunk and activities.That’s a far more real experience than reading or even learning about these midos. Some kids will meet and make lifetime friends in camp when they see and realize that there are other kids out there just like them.

  4. I once heard: There are no good Yeshivas nor bad Yeshivas, no good Rebbeim and Moros nor bad Rebbeim and Moros, no good students nor bad students. All there is are good and bad shidduchim between all of these.

  5. Mordechai,

    That may have been what happened, I guess there’s no way of really knowing. Even so, the fact that they accepted it, with love and understanding instead of feeling hurt that their children did not stay precisely on the path they intended for them makes them, IMHO, great parents.

  6. Re the parents with children all over the frum spectrum –

    How do you know that it was great parenting by the parents ? Maybe they tried to make the kids into copies of themselves, but didn’t succeed, so had no choice but to settle for the end result.

  7. It’s worth knowing that this is not a problem specific to ba’alei tshuva. My rav, a respected rosh yeshiva from an illustrious family, has oscillated between the yeshivish and chassidish worlds for years and, although he is eminently respected, he has struggled to find his place in the veldt for years.

    It’s painful for me to witness someone who has so much to give to Klal Yisroel find himself marginalized, but I derive some measure of chizuk that I am an emesdikke talmid by virtue of my own inability to define myself. My wife and I have never been completely accepted by much of the chareidi crowd since we pulled our children out of the local cheder and placed them in the day school. Similarly, I teach in a yeshiva high school that has a stellar reputation with yeshivos and seminaries, but is too frum for the left and too modern for the right.

    As Rav Mendel Weinbach has often told me when I complain about the state of Klal Yisroel: We’re in galus. There’s a reason why we’re still in it, and this is what it’s like.

  8. Steve Brizel:
    You and your family have a great attitude and approach towards chinuch and the school systems. Glad to hear you have survived it.

    We always tried to be so careful with school choices, from preschools to high schools. Even when it meant daily traveling on our part from Kew Gardens Hills to Far Rockaway for years, sitting in rush hour traffic. We did what we hoped was best for our family. In the end it’s all a Bracha from H”.

    That goes for camps as well. Too many choices for sleep away camps, (day camps as well), the stories you hear, etc. Haven’t been through the sleep away camp issue for girls yet, but it’s inevitable. In the end that’s also up to H”.

    It is good to “fit in” with a parent body though. Comfortable for the parents, more important for the child I feel, and his peers and friends. And the administration.

    It’s also hard to come to terms with the reality that our children are not carbon copies of us. They may lean more to the right or the left. That is another thing that is hard about schools “checking out the parents and making a judgement based on that”. It’s important to be VERY respectful and appreciative of school administrations and most of all be sincere. Most honest interviewers will pick up on this and act accordingly. Everybody wants “team players”.

  9. Been there, still doing that. Still haven’t found a school we like where we live, so we will have to move to a new state (!) to be near the school we like.

  10. The schooling issues are so painful because they involve our children and we feel more helpless.

    Rebbetzin Heller says of the three major types of suffering, problems affecting out kids are the most painful, followed by health problems and then financial issues.

    I had an experience, where the school wasn’t even taking applications from outside their neighborhood. It was so painful. But like in your case, my son ended up in a school that was better for him and is giving him what he needs to grow.

  11. Our children have been thru the full gamut of the Orthodox educational system. Without discusing the problematic issues in each school,we recognized that we would have to supplement the hashkafic deficiencies and attitudes towards Chinuch , etc that existed in each school without undermining the hashkafic message and expectations of the school. It is not easy, but it can be done.

    In other words, it can be fairly stated that the administrators and Limudei Kodesh faculty members in all schools are in chinuch because they believe that they can make a difference in a child’s life and provide some building blocks towards helping the child towards taking their place as a Jewish adult. They are extraordinarily dedeicated individuals in a tough profession wherein they have to walk a fine balance between their own ideals and the perceptions of a school’s board, parents and students. They are not there because Chinuch is an easy or well paying profession.

    Different parents have different expectations towards where their kids will be at the end of high school. I think that some parents even change their own orientatation in this regard, but they may be a small albeit growing number. The one factor that underlined all of our decisions was that we knew that we were not married to any school and that we would transfer our kids to a different school if they were profoundly unhappy in the school.

  12. Allen-

    ‘After high school, do you envision your son going to Beis Midrash or College?” We answered honestly, “Wherever he wants to go.”

    Do you think it was this exchange that decided things? Your attire? or a combination? In other words if you’d answered “Bais Medrosh or BM by day College at night” that the interview would have had a different outcome?

  13. Your son’s school sounds a bit like mine (but we’re not in Monsey). The children learn to be tolerant of difference, regardless of where they come from – or where they daven on Shabbos. My husband keeps re-considering the more right wing school in town, but the English academics are weak there.

    And I want my kids to understand tolerance – of my non-frum family, of friends of different racial heritage, of people with physical disabilities.

    But other parents still form opinions based on appearances. My husband was shocked to learn that a classmate’s father went to a Jewish day school K-12 based on externals.

    And I know another rabbi with many children (OK, FFB) whose married kids range the spectrum from various branches of chassidic to thoroughly litvish. It goes along with educating children “al pi darcho”.

  14. Allen,

    An excellent piece. It could very well be that the RY who originally interviewed you was genuinely thinking he was saving you from problems, not just that he was trying to get rid of you or judging you negatively (which was the impression I got from your description).

    One such RY confided in me once how the kids of BT parents way too often have difficulties in mainstream schools.

    I don’t know what the answer is. It sounds like you found something closer to what you really need. It’s really such a difficult and often painful process: first us fitting in vs. retaining integrity to where we came from, and then our children. It’s certainly an imperfect world.

    Often I think our best we can expect — and God’s expectation, so to speak — is to just wrestle with it, like Yaakov wrestled with the malach, not that we can expect to win. The goal is to withstand the onslaught, changing ourselves and changing others in the process. If we do that we will eventually be declared win (Yisrael: he who fights angels and wins in the end). But it’s not a win by knockout. It’s a fifteen round win by decision.

  15. The importance of foundation, direction (continued growth) and preciousness of Yiddishkeit are values I think most would agree on.

    Alan’s post highlights the difference in sub-communities, where I think the major issue is how high do we build the walls between our Torah world and influences that fall outside of it.

    One major component that Shayna seems to be alluding to is the generally reverse relationship between the height of the wall and the acceptance of others who fall outside it’s boundaries.

  16. Shayna,

    Point well taken, though this rav himself was a BT from back in the 60s.

    I think we also have to be cognizant of the fact that children of BTs, while being FFBs, are a different breed altogether. There are both tremendous rewards and challenges to be found in this but it probably, at the very least, an issue for a separate post. Any takers?

  17. I appreciate your thoughtful points, David, but he was an FFB and had the security, a home base, from which he could allow his children to explore. Plus, you must admit that his happy ending is rare–and risky!

    Also, which BT kids are intolerant toward other levels of frumkeit–when they grow up accepting and respecting their secular grandparents and other relatives, as well as friends their parents have picked up along the way who may not have arrived at the same destination? And, as an early exchange emphasized, we are super-sensitive about bigotry toward secular Jews, non-Jews, and African-Americans (did I offend anyone?!).

    I’m just being pragmatic; trying to learn from everyone around me–those who I emulate and those who make the mistakes so I don’t have to.

    I am resolute in my belief that we must present a firm foundation and direction in order to raise secure FFB’ers, who appreciate the preciousness of their lifestyle.

  18. Shayna,

    I’m not so sure that communicating to a child that “who they are” is a growing person, a growing jew, is vacilating. IMO, setting standards and limitations for our children is not incompatable with instilling the notion that none of us are completed projects. If a child sees that his parents are constantly seeking to grow in their mitzvos and middos and the child learns that there are many legitimate paths of observance and that it is wrong to judge one as better than the other then that child has a solid foundation.

    Children may go off the derech for many different reasons. IMO, this phenomenon is often due to the fact that they are presented, by their parents, schools and\or communities with one way of being frum. If they don’t fit that mold or are uncomfortable with it, they leave it.

    Many years ago, when first becoming interested in yiddishkeit, I became acquainted with a well known kiruv oriented Rav. This Rav had many children (perhaps ten). I used to think that they were the strangest of families since they were all so different. Having had the opportunity to spend a shabbos together fifteen years later, things hadn’t changed much. One son wore a leather yarmulke, another wore a black hat, another a kippah sruga and had, I believe, just returned from serving in the army in Israel. The daughters, as far as I could tell by their way of dress, were just as different as their brothers. My perspective had changed and I thought that this Rav and his wife are geniuses. They realized that each of their children were individuals and they let them take their own paths to Hashem. I’m sure that the Rav may have wanted all of his sons to be as “yeshivish” as he. But, from talking with him (no, I didn’t bring it up), I could tell that he loves each and everyone of his children and thanks Hashem that they were all shomer mitzvos, had found their own paths and were all growing and giving Jews. And isn’t that what its all about?

  19. Your anecdote sums up the entire experience. I admire your devotion to being true to yourself. You’ve managed to avoid the dilemma faced by BTs–and endlessly tossed around in this blog.

    My question: how comfortable are you “being yourselves.” The funky booted woman, the blue-jeaned man–are they BTs, too? It sounds lonely, unless you’ve found a chevra of “self-ers”? For, doesn’t becoming a BT demand conformity to some standard? Yes, halacha is somewhat elastic but one has to pick a level to follow. Living a frum life, whatever the material of your yarmulke, is not reflex for us. As uncomfortable as it may be for us to acknowledge it, as parents, we have to play at the role until it becomes real. Our children’s point of reference for their entire lives rests on our hashkafa. It’s not about shidduchim (for who do we think we’ll fool when it comes time?), it’s about their futures. We may flounder or question or feel insecure, but especially because they don’t have a universe of FFB relatives surrounding them, we have to create our own support system of classmates, neighbors, teachers, friends. We want our children to have the security of feeling accepted, a card-carrying member of a supportive community, whether M.O., Yeshivish, etc. I’ve seen so many BT parents vacilate in communicating to their children about what’s acceptable and who they are; many of these kids, having grown up with this message, experiment themselves, and “fall off the derech”. I think the only solution for us is to focus on an FFB mashpia or “type” and emulate. Will you prove my theories wrong?

  20. Great post. Perfectly sums up the issues – but it’s not just a BT issue anymore. I’m not close to sending any kids to school yet, but I’ve rarely seen a school I’d be comfortable sending my kids too – biases exist all over.

    Heh – made me think of my blog’s header, from my wife: “Be yourself, because the people who care don’t matter, and the people who matter don’t care.” Fitting.

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