The True Meaning of Excellence

We present the following moving letter with the hope that it will lead to self-reflection and open discussion within our community about a very real and very painful issue. All names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals.

Dear Editor:

The images of their anguished faces are so powerful that, as much as I try, I can’t get them out of my mind.

Though he is a few years younger than I am, Motte has been a friend of mine for many years, long before he also became a neighbor. We have davened in the same shul all our lives, our children attend the same schools, and we share many mutual friends and acquaintances.

Motte is on the quiet side, but is respected by those who know him as a solid, ehrliche person, a real yerei Shamayim. I often observed and admired the way his children daven in shul, and the refinement and middos tovos they exhibit.

That is why, when I first learned about what was happening to his son Zevi, I was flabbergasted. Granted, Zevi, who is in the same class as one of my sons, was never a top student, and his marks are usually in the low- to mid-80s. But he always tried his hardest and got excellent marks for both effort and conduct.

Following the advice of a very caring eighth-grade rebbi, Motte made sure that in addition to sending in an application early to the yeshivah ketanah that Zevi wanted to attend — the same one all his friends were planning to go to — he also applied to two other well-known yeshivos.

It was only after most of Zevi’s classmates had their farhers and were notified that they had been accepted that Zevi began to panic. At first, Motte tried to calm his son, saying that it was only a matter of time before his turn would come. But as time passed, it became apparent that this was not the case. His first choice — the yeshivah where all Zevi’s friends were going — rejected him outright. The other two kept him waiting for months, insisting that they did not know if they would have room, before turning him down as well.

It was only last week, after Motte used every bit of proteksia he could — including asking our Rav to personally intervene — that a fourth yeshivah finally agreed to accept Zevi. But by now the light is gone from his eyes. He is so devastated and humiliated that he has lost interest in learning, and his parents keep saying that they can’t recognize their own son.

While I keep telling Motte that this is only a passing stage, and that Zevi will, b’ezras Hashem, be very matzliach in his new yeshivah, I know very well that he is right to be fearful. We both know too many boys whose Yiddishkeit never fully recovered after such an experience.

It is tempting for me to blame the hanhalah of the yeshivos, especially for keeping Zevi waiting so long before rejecting him. But after reaching out to them and hearing their side, I realized that things were far from simple.

“As much as we would like to respond promptly,” one administrator told me, “it really isn’t up to us. Because so many of the top bachurim get accepted by more than one yeshivah — and then take their time deciding where they want to go — we have to see who is coming before we can commit to taking weaker bachurim. On the other hand, if we give a prompt rejection to a weaker bachur, and we later do have the room, it would be unfair to that bachur as well.”

A member of the hanhalah of the first yeshivah — the one that rejected Zevi earlier on — was very blunt when I spoke to him about it.

“This is a yeshivah for metzuyanim. Let’s be realistic: a weaker boy wouldn’t be able to keep up here.”

Then there are those who blame the parents, arguing that they are not being realistic about their son’s capabilities. While that factor is certainly true in many circumstances, it isn’t in many others, including Zevi’s.

It is painful for me to admit, but the real reason I am so anguished about Zevi isn’t merely because of a sense of friendship. It is because I am consumed with guilt.

For you see, my own son is, baruch Hashem, a real metzuyan, a brilliant learner and masmid. He was immediately accepted by the first yeshivah he applied to, and the hanhalah has since reached out to me to make sure that we are, in fact, planning to send him there.

As a father of three boys over bar mitzvah — and with memories of my own yeshivah days, despite the passage of two decades, still fresh in my mind — I have many serious doubts about whether a yeshivah that only accepts metzuyanim really benefits their own students, let alone Klal Yisrael.

For one thing, why do only marks and lomdus count when it comes to defining who is a metzuyan? My son is a top learner, but when it comes to middos and davening, there are definitely things he can learn from someone like Zevi.

Even more importantly, in my own experience, I have found that a yeshivah which seeks to maintain a high level of shiurim, yet still takes in a number of weaker students and gets them extra help to keep up, is far more conducive to both the learning and middos of all the talmidim. The atmosphere in such a yeshivah is a more elevated one; the tone is about serving Hashem to the best of one’s ability rather than elitism and arrogance.

Furthermore, don’t we all have a sense of responsibility for each other? Indeed, the Ribbono shel Olam granted me a metzuyan for a son. But is it really His Will that I send him to a yeshivah that rejects weaker bachurim, and in the process destroys their hopes and their lives? If enough parents of metzuyanim would make a conscious decision to send to yeshivos that also take in weaker students, the yeshivos — which invariably reflect the wishes of the parents — will change their admission policies. Zevi is only one of a great many bachurim who would thus be saved from this trauma and its possible long-term effects.

I know that if I explain everything to my son, who is a very close friend of Zevi’s, he would likely agree to go to a different yeshivah. Yet I am not sure I have the moral courage to go against the tide, to be a Nachshon when it is far from certain that others would follow.

That is why I am writing this letter. I implore all other parents out there, parents whose sons have already been accepted — either because of their marks or their proteksia: We all know that our community is facing a real crisis. Instead of pointing fingers, let us engage in real soul-searching.

Ultimately, whether any specific bachur should attend a yeshivah for metzuyanim — or even whether such yeshivos should exist in today’s generation — is something for daas Torah to decide. But at the very least, let us recognize our power to impact the system and find the courage to take the right steps, one parent at a time, to at least mitigate the crisis.

An Anguished Father