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Ask Shifra

Something Different... Answering questions and making curious observations (online) since 2005.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Nothing Special

Rabbi Horowitz has posted an article that really spoke to me. Actually most of his posts speak to me but this one really hit close to my heart but not for the reasons you might think.

In his post he writes about the plight of the "average" yeshiva student and the difficulties parents and children are having when it comes to gaining admission to "good" or "excellent" yeshivos. He tells the story of one wonderful but underrated boy to bring home his point but I'm sure that both Rabbi Horowitz and many of my readers know that the problem is far wider in scope than the mesivta yeshiva system. There are girls in Israel who cannot find a high school to attend, Bais Yaakovs, Yeshiva High schools, and seminaries send out scores of rejections every year. It's not just a "Jewish" problem either. The demand for nothing but excellence is so strong that college rejections are also at an all time high. In fact Harvard has decided to stop accepting early admissions applications to cut down on rejections and level the playing field a bit.

Of course as a parent I worry for my children. I want them to have a first rate education in a caring and enjoyable environment surrounded by "good" kids. I also want them to have a childhood, have time to relax, and be happy. But even those worries aren't what hit me the hardest when I read Rabbi's Horowitz's article. You see, I was an average child.

I attended a fairly right wing high school although my parents are your standard "oldschool orthodox" serious about Torah, learned, and shtick free. They felt I'd been a bit brainwashed in high school and felt a quick trip to college would be the best way to straighten me out. The school however, was selling a year in seminary and I was buying! If I could get into a great school, I figured my parents would have to let me go.

I listened carefully to the Rabbis who came to pitch their schools. I knew my skills weren't what they should be when it came to learning. I was always quite smart but learning disabled (undiagnosed at that point but the fact remained that reading Hebrew was a real struggle for me) and it kept me from being in the top classes despite my effort. That said my grades were decent (again not excellent) and I had a very good breadth and depth of knowledge and genuinely enjoyed learning. All of my teachers liked me (except Mrs. S. because I once ate an orange in her class "Do you sink I don't SEE you eating zat ORANGE in my class!?" she hissed at me. But I digress...) I was a youth group leader, I visited the nursing home every week, and was a peer counselor to the younger girls in the school. I was never in trouble, stayed away from boys, and was rock solid emotionally. I was involved in school projects, the paper, and other extracurricular activities.
I foolishly thought I had a chance.

One day a Rabbi came from a fairly well known seminary in Israel. He gave a good dvar torah and then talked about his seminary. He said that he found many seminaries were too focused on grades. What he wanted was special girls, girls with good midos, girls with potential.
That's me!! I thought He wants me!

There was a $50 non-refundable application fee which I didn't have, and I couldn't ask my parents for. Five friends gave me $10 each, knowing I wouldn't be able to pay them back (even with uniforms you can tell who has money and who doesn't.) I went to my interview with high hopes. The Rabbi barely spoke to me - I could have told him about my hobbies, my sick brother, my family, my interests but no, he wanted me to read a huge Ramban - cold.
I couldn't do it. I tried. I choked. I was not accepted.

I went to the vice-principal's office and cried on his desk. I told him about my parents, and the speech, and the Ramban, and the $50 dollars.
"I was tricked" said a very naive 15 year old Shifra "I was lied to! I'm so much more than an Ramban." "I know" said the very wonderful Rabbi behind the desk "you should tell him."
So I did!!! I wrote him a letter telling the Seminary Rabbi my story. About my life, about how his speech gave me hope which he crushed, and about the $50 I'd like back if he never actually intended to accept a "girl with potential." The vice principal even reviewed my letter, and I sent it.

When he got the letter he called my Vice Principal and asked him what kind of place he is running with such "vindictive students" who have so much "chutzpah and disrespect for authority." Even as the Vice Principal was telling me this horrible story I could tell he was so proud of me and even in the depths of my despair that gave me something to hold on to.

Since then there have been a lot of things I've not been good enough for most notably my mother-in-law who reviewed my "credentials" and pronounced me "nothing special"
which certainly hurt and still does.

This post was a lot more personal and certainly a lot more painful to write than most things I put up here but the question I'm trying to ask here is: What is this "excellence" everyone is seeking?

Does it require us to force our kids to take extra classes, sports, tutoring, and music lessons to give them that "edge" they need to get ahead or do we need to look deeper into the hearts of our children and see their inner beauty, their natural gift and personalities and help them to develop what is special about them rather than force them into someone else's idea of perfection.
Although I'm crying as I type this post I will tell you that I really like who I am today. I am a unique, smart, talented, and passionate person and that makes me special and perhaps even excellent. I am truly blessed that no amount of judgement or pressure to the contrary has forced me to lose that spark that makes me who I am and I wish the same for my children and yours.

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At 11:27 AM, Blogger PsychoToddler said...

That seminary principal was obviously an idiot and I for one am glad that he didn't get a chance to warp your young mind and turn you into a Rambam-regurgitating drone.

Clearly there are problems with the present Jewish education system. I think back fondly to the days of fewer, more inclusive schools, when I was in elementary and HS, but it sounds like there were problems even back then which I was blissfully unaware of.

Maybe because I went to "Modern Orthodox" schools and wisely bypassed the Chareidi education system.

And yet we see now that so-called middle of the road "modern" schools are disappearing, with students being absorbed into systems on either extreme (certainly this has happened here in Milwaukee). Just when I think they are needed the most.

At 11:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amazing, touching, brilliant. Thank you.

At 11:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you are amazing.

At 12:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For a long time, I have been of the opinion that getting into schools (be it elementary, HS or seminary/yeshiva) should be similair to the process medical school students go through when applying for residencies. In other words, everyone gets in somewhere. I'm not talking about shipping kids off thousands of miles to go to school but each community/neighborhood/geographical area had to do what they can to make sure that no child is stuck without anyplace to go. You would think, with all we know now about how important confidence is in developing children (and in all of us) that we wouldn't be casting away everyone but "the very best" but unfortunately, no.
Touching post, Shifra.

At 12:10 PM, Blogger Jack Steiner said...

One of the reasons that I love my son's school is because they care about the emotional/mental well being of the children.

They have high academic standards as well, but not at the expense of the children.

Somewhere along the way we are losing sight of some very important things.

At 12:29 PM, Blogger and so it shall be... said...

Thank you for validating my views about Rabbis and yeshivas. These phony frummy assholes pose as holy educators while actively imparting the most vile characteristics and employing the most cynical tactics to boost their criminally outsized egos and ill-gotten fundraising portfolios.

I attended a middle of the road, though veering toward the right, yeshiva for the 12 years of elementary and high school. My experience was no different than that of a discarded piece of gum calcifying on the bottom of a classroom desk. I graduated with virtually NO torah learning skills. I could not translate a passuk, understand gemarah, or even understand why that should bother me.

I was once asked in a farher to name the books of the shulchan aruch. I got as far as kitzur. I wasn't even aware that the shulchan aruch has more than one. I certainly had no idea what they were called. I couldn't recite the aleph-bais sequentially until I was a teenager.

From this waste of my life, I went to a Modern Orthodox yeshiva in Israel. I was accepted ONLY because one of their shtarkest students had convinced me to go to Israel for the year. He asked the hanhallah to accept me and they did.

Unfortunately, my astounding lack of skills, my inability to internalize the importance of learning, and what I learned only recently is ADD and a mood disorder which rendered me capable of committing to a consistant schedule, regardless of how I tried, or the ability to concentrate on the classes when I did, impeded any success at all.

To the yeshiva hanhalla's credit, though they were not particularly nice to me, I was assigned to learn with two outstanding, compasisonate, and patient rebbeim who learned one-on-one with me to try and teach me.

As I said earlier, I wasn't ready to take advantage of even that extraordinarily kind and generous opportunity.

If the elementary school and high school I went to would have explored the possible reasons behind my decade+ long string of failure, perhaps I would have had a chance.

It's only recently, and no thanks to the yeshiva system, that I have tentatively begun to learn. This after years of conscious revulsion to the entire concept of learning.

For most of my young adult years, into my 30s, I could feel the bile rise in my throat as well as a fog of incomprehensibility clouding my mind whenever placed into a shiur that required 'inside' learning.

Shifra, the problems you describe here leave permanet scars. Like a recovering alcoholic soon learns, we can learn to cope, live with, and accept the experiences we had.

But the pain, cynicism, and shock of those empty, lost years never goes away. Every now and then, something happens, someone says something, or we simply remind ourselves of the wasted years spent being average and ignored.

(by the way....a famous writer of articles was my rebbe for one of those wasted years. He was nice to me, and even recommended me to a special 'masmidim' program for the class retards such as myself. But in sum, it was just one more lost year of my life and one more never-to-be-recouped educational opportunity lost).

At 12:36 PM, Blogger Holy Hyrax said...

Shifra, amazing post. The more I think about it, the more I think seminary is an awful idea, unless its a real modern one.

Jack's Shack, what school do you send your kids to? You are the Jack from LA right? :)
If you want, you can email me at holyhyrax@gmail.com

At 12:58 PM, Blogger PsychoToddler said...

Once again, Shifra, you get people to spill their guts in your comments.

What's your secret?

At 1:04 PM, Blogger Shifra said...

It's a gift ;-)
Actually I think spilling my guts first helps.

Keep it up people! Let's figure how to protect our children from a fate far worse than we endured.

At 1:14 PM, Blogger Holy Hyrax said...

I just want to say that this blogging experience has been a mixed bag. I deeply gratiful to all of you that have explained to me what goes on in the schools and what to be careful of. My oldest is only 3 right now so I haven't had to deal with all this. But I am also scrared shitless. I have yet to find someone with a positive experience. Hell, public schools aren't great, but no one that I know have come out of it so scarred and angry.

Besides Jack, is there anyone here from Los Angeles that has had experience with the schools here?

At 1:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

holy crap, Shifra

You are absolutely special and it makes me furious that people (including your MIL?!) would put you through so much pain. Thank you for posting this, even though I'm sure it took a lot out of you. For whatever it's worth, I'm sure the experiences are helping you raise your kids to know their worth... but I don't know that that makes it worth the "price." Shame on all of them.

I always want to believe in a Jewish educational system that makes room for all students, because learning is one of the greatest mitzvot we have. But the more I hear, the more that doesn't sound like the case. I know that schools stay "competitive" by keeping the less-advanced students out (the same way hospitals and surgeons increase their success ratings by turning away the people who are the sickest and riskiest cases - again, sickening). But it just shouldn't work that way. Sigh.

Just sending you a hug.

At 1:30 PM, Blogger Shifra said...

Step Ima LIVES!
Yes I was absolutely shaking by the time I finished that post and I've gotten ZERO work done today (I did need that hug, so thank you!) but if it got you to comment it was all worth it ;-)

Seriously though, this is some important stuff.

At 2:40 PM, Blogger malgreen said...

Touching story.
After reading everyone's comments,
including your preface, I feel that this is
not relegated to just the Jewish community.
It is an American thing from the looks
of it. While there are private schools
abroad, many countries including Israel
have a public school system. The advantage that the Israeli public school system has over the US public school system is that it teaches Hebrew. I am unsure of the other subjects.
The American way has been "be the best of the best" and American Judaism,
regardless of your flavor, subscribes to that.

At 3:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If Shifra Jr. went to Seminary, there would be no AskShifra today.

At 3:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although the people in some of these stories might benefit from lessons in tact, keep in mind that the purpose of the admissions process is to find people who are a good fit for the school. If you don't get in, most likely it's because you are not the sort of person who belongs there and you would probably be miserable there. That's what they say about the college admissions process, job interviews, and it probably applies here too. Take it as a signal that you didn't know the place as well as you thought you did when you thought you wanted to go there, and move on. Seems like you have recovered gracefully enough.

At 3:39 PM, Blogger Shifra said...

Fan - I did go to seminary, eventually but that's another story for another time.

Aaron - I'm no saying that every school should accept every applicant I'm saying that there should be a broader range of criteria (criterion?) considered.
Also Principals shouldn't lie to prospective applicants and take their money :-)

At 4:25 PM, Blogger Shoshana said...

I also had a tear in my eye as I read this, Shifra. It's a sad commentary on our society that unless you're perfect, you're second-rate. I feel very much for you, but look how great you turned out!

At 5:04 PM, Blogger Looking Forward said...

Things like this, and so much else of what I experianced in yeshiva and in public school (my experiance must have truely been unique...) has made me decide that I'm not even sure I'm going to send my children to the jewish schools highschools and not to the public schools if I have any say over it.

Thank g-d my children will have the genes for the intelegence I may be able to use to keep them out of this mess. Nothing like thrusting them in to college (if they're willing) at the age of 12 or 13 because they're ready and totaly blew away their ACTs and SATs.

THis monster that has grown up from the jewish community is so repulsive that I couldn't in my good concience subject my children to such a horrible atmosphere. it's wrong! They're imparting all the worst midos and all the worst of what a person can be and totaly eating kids alive who are different.

I just hope I can provide for my kids a better alternative.

At 5:18 PM, Blogger projgen said...

I agree that it's not just a trend in the Jewish education system. I was a solid A-/B+ student, in "advanced" classes, lots of "worthwhile" extracurricular activities and volunteered for a number of charitable organizations. Solid citizen, right?

Yet, I was never "good enough." I couldn't get into the universities I wanted to, wasn't good enough to get any scholarships and wound up in a university that wasn't a challenge for me. They were concerned with their high graduate rate, rather than their higher education.

As a child, I adored school. I loved my classes, loved doing homework (I know, nerd) and was always doing well, even if I didn't get an A. I was encouraged to learn by my elementary school teachers. The principal took a personal interest in all the students, and knew them all, at least by face.

What a shock for me when I moved to a new city, into a different school system, one that was all about focussing on the honour's students, the creme-de-la-creme. The rest of us could go rot. And this was a public school.

Not long ago, I worked in a place where kids could take extra-curricular classes. If a teacher ever had to cancel a class, it was murder to try to reschedule. The kids were so booked up with music lessons, after school groups, band, soccer, karate, art class, etc., etc. I felt so bad for them - when did they have time to play and just be kids?

If Gd ever blesses Hubby and me with children, I know I want them to be who Gd intends them to be, and not what some yeshiva thinks they should. Inner sparks should be nourished and given lots of oxygen, never, ever smothered.

Thanks for such a personal, moving post, Shifra.

At 6:25 PM, Blogger RaggedyMom said...

Shifra - thanks for sharing such a personal and moving account. Unfortunately, the "excellence" problem is a problem in the wider society also and I think that since frumkeit has a focus on striving to improve and perfect oneself, the idea of a 'personal best' gets lost in the shuffle of some objective 'best'.

I see so much comparing nowadays - who's child reached the milestone when, who moved to a house sooner, who upgraded their car, who remodeled, who got into the more competitive preschool (!!) and it is sad and sickening.

I went to the other local normal school besides PT's (where his sister was my teacher) and it was more inclusive than the schools of today on an intellectual level. Of course, we had just moved back here from Israel, and when my father asked about tuition assistance, the man he was speaking to pointed a finger across the street to the local public school. But that's another story.

For high school, I went to a modern yet academically competitive school where midterms pressure (and everything presure) was so bad that one year they brought in a psychologist to talk to us about relaxation techniques (!!!)

I worry about my kids' education and about what these attitudes are doing long-term. There's a difference between healthy competition and an obsession with the cream of the crop to the exclusion of all others.

At 10:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"nothing special?"
has she actually met you?

At 10:56 PM, Blogger Ayelet said...

Thank you, Shifra, for an amazing post. Your words and those of your readers have inspired me to think about my own husband's role as a rebbe and how proud I am to know how dedicated he is to his students - his boys.

At 12:37 AM, Blogger littlejerseygirl said...

I worry so much about this. I was an average student, fairly happy, but so stressed out. I had such a fear of disappointing everyone.
I have 3 children, and 2 of them are in school. My son is fine. He is bright, memorizes like a sponge, is focused and persistant. My daughter, at the ripe old age of 6 has already been categorized as "out of the box" or "not fitting the mold". She doesn't have a disablity or anything, she is just not picking up on things as quickly. She needs some pushing and prodding with her reading and writing.
I just want her to be happy. She is so yummy. She loves to act and draw and do gymnastics and twirl and dance in my living room. It hurts me so much to see her getting frustrated over her homework, and I am petrified of her being in a state of misery for the next 12 years of school. I already told her that how well she does in school does not matter as much as how good a person she is inside.
I may be panicking prematurely. She may end up being at the top of her class by the time she graduates high school. But either way, I made a promise to myself that my children will know that grades are not the be all and end all of life. I want them to be confident and happy and to do the best they can. (Hopefully well enough so that they can go on to higher education and go into a field they enjoy).

At 3:10 AM, Blogger mother in israel said...

The comment from your mother-in-law is painful. A woman like that, you can only pity. At least you will know what not to say to your sons-in-law.

At 8:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shifra, what was so amazing about your post is how just about everyone can relate to it. for elementary school i went to a chassidish school and i was one of the smarter girls there, but the girls who werent were just tortured--by teachers, principals and students. Today my kids go to a "modern, zionistic, to the right" yeshiva. my oldest fits the mold, and is doing great. the other two, bright kids, but some attention issues, not the number one kids in the class, and they suffer because of it, but i tell them, its not the important thing in life. still, hard to convince a child whose teacher has called her a "mess" and doesnt see the creativity she brings to the class. this is painful and i worry about their future, because this our whole culture--"perfection", in school, college, work and shidduchim.

and dont get me started on how they teach these children, spend one day on a concept, and then move on, because state tests are coming. never mind that 80% of the class has no clue. and then tell me to get tutoring (so the state tests can be better)--this after $35,000 in tuition!!

does bob grant still say "sick and getting sicker"?

great post!

At 10:00 AM, Blogger miriamp said...

Okay, we are so not moving again, ever.

We moved here for the school, because the one where we lived before just couldn't deal with my oldest. Mostly because he was ahead of the other kids and they were trying to hold him back to let the others "catch up." He was so bored that he refused to do any of the work, so the teacher refused to believe that he could. And that was only 1st grade!

Anyway, (sorry, Holy Hyrax, we're nowhere near LA) the school here is absolutely amazing. I'm not sure if it's "officially" modern or what (we're more right-wing than that) because it's such a mix. Many of the parents are "black hat" but certainly not all. Balanced (secular/Judaic) curriculum, middos stressed as much as academics, co-ed for the younger grades, gradually split for some classes (like gym) starting in 4th, completely separate by 6th, I think. And most importantly, my kids are no longer automatically the top of the class, but are more high average (yes, I think that's a good thing!) but more to the point, the teachers deal with each kid at his or her level!!

Oh, and perhaps because it's the only local Orthodox Day School, they make every effort to take all available students, regardless of academic ability or parents' ability to pay.

At 10:23 AM, Blogger DTC said...

In our quest to make a school for each sub-community, we sometimes tend to forget what we're really trying to produce. Instead, we're just trying to recreate Lake Wobegon in our own image.

Competition can be a blessing for so many schools provided they remember that they are not competing for souls. Too many times I've heard people reject the school that my children go to with the words "but why should my children have to deal with 'THEM' ("them" being children from a perceived lesser hashkafic family without willing to realize that there are plenty of "them" in their choice of school) without pausing to think about their potential impact upon the larger community.

BTW, the HS principals do theoretically meet after the first round of acceptances to allocate the "less preferred" candidates among schools.

At 11:04 AM, Blogger PsychoToddler said...

It's interesting that even in a community as large as Queens where I grew up we still think in terms of small circles.

The two schools where Raggedy Mom and I went as kids (albeit in what sounds painfully like different generations) were part of the triumverate of schools that were the sum and total of all the options that I thought were available:

Dov Revel- the Zionist MO school which more or less tried to feed into the YU system

YCQ- which was probably more yeshivish but still pretty modern

Tiferes Moshe- which was like the place that none of us wanted to go, very yeshivish, no girls. I felt sorry for my friends who were compelled to go there. And yet I think it was still a pretty good place.

Oddly Dov Revel and TM merged some time down the road. That was the last thing I would have expected.

Now, I thought there were only these three. I'm starting to think maybe there were a whole lot more little places that were completely off my radar. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe that's how it is now.

As a side note, when I was in 8th grade at DR, my rebbe took us to the local Chofetz Chaim in an attempt to steer us that way instead of MTA or YHSQ or MHS (Riskin's old place).

I remember walking in there, seeing what the place looked like, and smelling it, and thinking NO WAY.

And now I send my boys to Chofetz Chaim!

Also, oddly, our local CC has a national reputation as being one of the best (if not the best) branches, and most of the class is out of towners. As a result they are pretty picky about who they accept. They don't let in the trouble makers.

I actually like that. However, they have a mandate to accept any local kid who applies (long story, but since they are the only Yeshiva HS for boys in town, and want town support, it makes sense). Net effect is that I get tee'd off when they accept the LOCAL troublemakers into the school.

A weird perspective for me.

At 11:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing that Shifra. I've watched my stepdaughter agonize over college admissions -- where ten points on your SAT score can make the difference between acceptance and rejection. Nobody likes being reduced to a number, and those rejections hit the kids at a particularly vulnerable age. I'm glad you came through it a stronger person.

At 12:29 PM, Blogger Shifra said...

In those days I was very "reserved" shall we say but I still had a lot of fight in me when it came to thinks I felt were important.
In terms of what made the most difference in my life, writing that letter and facing my opposition no matter how out matched I felt set more of the tone for who I am today than accepting the rejection itself.

At 12:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shifra-Thank you so much for this post...You are wonderful!

I'm having so many problems with my daughter's BY. We put her there with the best of intentions-she herself wanted to go to a more religious school-at age 10! and we were upfront about her educational difficulties. But no matter how far she comes along-religiously, educationaly and keeping her mouth shut in class-ly!,they are never happy. They've used her as a scapegoat, told her friends they better not talk to her, and have made up absolute LIES about her! Now-I'm not a mother who is in denial about her child-I get the "best" of it at home, butI investigated each instance so I know what I'm talking about! My daughter is lively, sensitive to others' feelings, creative...just a nice kid and I feel this BY is going to crush the life out of her and make her hate frumkeit! I personally keep thinking that had I known that this is what I'd have to put up with as a frum person-I might have stayed FAR away!
Does anyone know of a frum school in the NY area that will help me nurture my child's other good qualities and frumkeit, without beating her over the head educationally?

At 2:59 PM, Blogger Elie said...

Shifra: Haven't been commenting (or posting) much lately but I have to say that this was an incredibly wonderful and important post. I'm sure it was very hard for you to write, but you should be proud that you did. You really did some good for the world.

It's terrific that you were able to grow and learn from your humiliating and painful experience.

The general topic of appropriate Jewish education for different kinds of children hits me on a personal level. But as a non-anonymous blogger I don't think I can elaborate here.

Once again, yasher koach!

At 4:59 PM, Blogger Holy Hyrax said...

Does anyone know of a frum school in the NY area that will help me nurture my child's other good qualities and frumkeit, without beating her over the head educationally?

There has to be something in a city like NY. I know of a good place, but its in L.A. Sorry.

At 8:52 PM, Blogger Eliyahu said...

Shifra, may you be awesomely blessed for your holy chutzpah! whoever said you're nothing special doesn't know what first prize is! (although, G_d knows, i have done the foot in mouth thing a few times myself. maybe they were off their meds.)

At 5:36 AM, Blogger rockofgalilee said...

What's funny is that when I speak to people about aliyah, the number one reason why they don't want to is the education. I went through the American system and the education in Israel is certainly in no worse shape.
That being said, I made it through yeshiva elementary school and yeshiva high school (PTs local right-leaning CC branch) without getting straight As. I went to the yeshiva I wanted to afterwards and to a decent university. I can't say I learned anything in high school, but I definitely had as good of a background as my fellow students from both public and private school. So something must have snuck in.

At 1:31 PM, Blogger Hila said...


Thank you so much for sharing this with us. You don't need to hear it from me, but you're a special person! I don't know you personally, but reading your blog makes me feel like I know you, even just a little bit, and the little bit I've gotten to know is A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!


At 4:59 PM, Blogger Scraps said...

Oy. That's gotta hurt.


At 11:46 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I didn't have time to read many posts the past week, and I'm almost crying reading this one. This post was amazing, Shifra...

I recently wrote about how I was so fortunate to have gone to schools that turned out to be so good (including PsychoToddler's kids' school). In the schools I went to, middos and the like were of the most importance; potential just behind. When my HS class began, we were referred to as the "Class of Potential" because of the group they'd managed to bring in. [We ended up a spectacularly under performing class, and I recently discussed that at a wedding with one of the rebbeim, but I digress...]

But not everyone is so lucky. A good friend of mine is dyslexic, and was forced to go somewhere she really didn't want to while she pursues her degree. So many friends have been shot down by schools they would have been so successful in and so desired to be in simply because "on paper" they weren't good enough. (And as for your mother-in-law... that's horrible.) And as you wrote, the same applies (often worse) for marriage.

My sister is a horrible test-taker. She had 100 more points on her total SAT score the first time around as I did on one of the parts. She couldn't get in to the seminary she may have wanted to... and barely got into Stern, IIRC. Yet now? She helps run a school.

Thankfully, it is not what people say that make us who we are, but we who do so. I think Shifra Jr. did an amazing job making the Shifra of today - just look at the responses to this post.

Side story, somewhat related, since the call to your Vice-Principal reminded me... When I - and a few others - were extremely unhappy and potentially going off the derech (or, in their case, doing lots of drugs) in a yeshiva we had switched into which was supposed to be "better", we switched back to our old - and much more pleasant - yeshiva. The one we'd been in for 5 months and had treated us like garbage called our new/old school and told them, "Please don't send us any more boys who need warm, nurturing care." It was nice to see how much they cared.

At 6:31 PM, Blogger mevaseretzion said...

What a powerful post. The injustice of a Rabbi (of all people) behaving in so callous a manner and hurting someone that he is responsible to protect in this world is terrible.

You should know that your story is inspirational, and the seminary and rabbi who 'rejected' you (in quotes because it is not really rejection when the rejector has no idea why he is doing it) deserve a restraining order stopping them from ever practicing pedagogy again.

This is the quality of teachers you get when a whole society throws everyone into teaching: those who truly have the intelligence and gift for education find something else to do, and those that end up teaching lack sensitivity, love and everything else that makes an excellent teacher.

At 11:56 AM, Blogger LittleBirdies said...

Wow--At least you had your vice principal's support. I heard stories where good girls with good grades didn't get into seminaries because they didn't get a good recommendation from the principal.

You really have guts to have written that letter. I probably would have just sat and cried and given up. I really admire that.

It is so sad how the average kid gets lost in the system. I always found the really smart or really slow got all the teacher's attention. I was the run of the mill and often felt lost. It definitely affects ones self esteem to feel like a nobody.

At 12:45 PM, Blogger Leah Goodman said...

I have to say - I went to Frisch, which is on the modern side of MO, and overall, they tended to accept hard workers even if they weren't brilliant.
Personally, I was above average intelligence and had the work ethic of a sleeping teddy bear. I kind of had to promise to straighten up (grades wise)to get in.
On the other hand, I found that many of the teachers were genuinely caring and loving people, and that I got a lot of support when I needed it (my first year of high school, I went through the death of my grandmother and a close friend in under a week.) I found that despite the cliques, I was able to make good, strong friendships. And when my grades weren't up to snuff, I got very little flack about it. I was just dropped from honor's classes.

As for college, it's not a right that everyone has. It's a benefit granted to those who excel enough to warrant further education. I settled for my second choice school (Bar Ilan) and my second choice major (English linguistics) because my grades couldn't get me into what I wanted to study (psychology) or into Hebrew University.

As for your case, first, a seminary should always be willing to waive application fees for a student who can't afford it. Secondly, any rabbi who judges a student by their ability to deal with one single text... his smicha should be revoked. Thirdly, you were really brave and impressive in your letter. Fourthly, it's really awful to misrepresent yourself to impressionable teenagers (another reason to revoke said "rabbi's" smicha.)

And as to your mother-in-law, she obviously doesn't know what special is.

At 7:17 AM, Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Shifra, this conversation is also taking place at Wolfish Musings. I think BrooklynWolf really hit the nail on the head when he say, "I think that it is the responsibility of parents to try to find the best school that their son will fit in, and not necessarily the best school." Not every kid is Harvard and/or Kollel/Kollelet material. Hashem didn't create the human race with a cookie cutter. We should appreciate the talents that we (and our children) do have.

At 1:39 AM, Blogger queeniesmom said...


I'm sorry you went through such a horrible time and had undiagnosed LD. Unfortunately, what is known today about LD and other learning difficulties weren't available 10/15 years ago.

If all of us keep questioning and refuse to accept the status quo, things will hopefully change. my kids school is trying very hard to meet all the students needs and stay MO. It's a hard fight as many people say ".... isn't exclusive, demanding enough" Hence, the school is perceived as less than desirable by many and is bad mouthed by many (some even say it has a bad reputation). This school doesn't have major backers, so economically it's struggeling.

If you're in Queens or the 5T consider HANC or Har Torah. They may be a better fit educationally. Hashkafah of both schools MO, coed. Good Luck!

At 10:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Shifra,

I was absolutely shocked by your post. Like most of your readers I cannot accept that someone with your qualities could have been treated so badly.

I went to a high school where you had to be excellent at everything to gain any respect and where teachers always gave very low grades. The same happened in the first two years of college. It was tough.

When I became a teacher, some of the schools I taught at didn't ask anything of the students. That was also tough!

I recognize students should be pushed and strive for excellence - but not at any price! Bashing a student like the "rabbi" did is HARASSMENT, ABUSE and should be treated as such. Though it might be difficult to prove in a court of law, this is where the ethics of Judaism should come into play.

As for your MIL and any other people who don't have a hierarchical relationship with you, they are just jealous and insecure - their own cross to bear (so to speak!)

Don't worry too much about your kids : if you support, value and respect them, they'll be OK - even if they don't get to Harvard.

At 10:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's another vote for those who think you were better off not to get in. Unfortunately probably some variation of this has been repeated all too often.

Ichabod Chrain

At 12:09 AM, Blogger Lion of Zion said...

a great (in a sad way) post.

i'm glad you had the hutzpah to speak to your principal (kol ha-kavod to him, he sounds like a decent guy) and especially for writing to that mamzer.

application fees are a scam.

"I knew my skills weren't what they should be when it came to learning."

maybe this is my stereotype, but my impression is that guys "learn" (brainwashing aside) but girls are "taught." the girls in most programs are really not given an opportunity to "learn."

At 10:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can very well understand the hurt the thoughtless and unkind comment made about your being "nothing special" caused you.

On the contrary, as one who rose quickly to the top of your niche in the blogging world, one who is read avidly and regarded highly by many people from all walks of life, I think that you are very very special indeed.

You have convincingly disproved your detractors, essentially showing them up; you have demonstrated how shallow and small-minded they are by making your own worth obvious to so many people.

Kol hakavod lach.

At 11:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shifra, your post was amazing. I am truly awed. I grok. You are an incredibly brave person. Wow.

At 2:50 AM, Blogger Yehuda Berlinger said...


I'm glad this was linked to in the JIBs so that I got a chance to read it. Awesome post.


At 4:53 PM, Blogger We're the ones who have to put up with them said...

I agree with Yehuda. This is a wonderful post.


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