young man snowboarding

By Larry Gordon

It’s called intersession, but it is really just an interruption of the rhythm of the school year, with about ten days of vacation and another week afterward for everyone to get acclimated back to the routine.
I cannot recall anything of the sort from my time as a student. One way or another, we were always in yeshiva, and no one–not the school administration or our parents–would have it any other way. When it came to schooling, I have more vivid memories of staying in school for extra hours and additional days than the opposite.
Who had entire long weekends off? It was unheard of. As for our teaching staff, they must have been very intellectually and educationally developed because as far as I can recall, they never needed a staff development day. We had school just about nonstop, except for the yamim tovim.
Keeping us in yeshiva so we wouldn’t find anything alluring about whatever lurked outside the four walls of our building worked a few decades ago probably as well as it works today.
I can clearly recall a Thanksgiving where instead of being dismissed at the usual 5:00 p.m., we were held in yeshiva with basically nothing to do until 6:30 p.m. just to make sure no one had any plans for a turkey dinner with family anywhere.
It so happens that in my parents’ home that year we were having turkey dinner, and relatives whom I did not see too often were joining us. The late dismissal made me unhappy. It was eighth grade, which means I was about 13 years old and, as I recall, I was seriously thinking about just leaving. But that would have displeased my parents, so I stayed and missed part of the dinner, though not all of it.
Today the attitude toward Thanksgiving has changed dramatically. Someone in authority over the last few decades made a calculation and figured that teaching people to observe a holiday about being thankful was not a bad thing and we did not need to be protected from it. If anything it was to be encouraged and celebrated by us along with the rest of the country.
Sometimes it seems that with each passing year the school year somehow keeps shrinking. School starts and then there are three weeks of yom tov. Then it starts again and two weeks later there is one of those off-Shabbos weekends. Then Chanukah happens, followed pretty quickly by the period we are in now–winter vacation or intersession.
Everyone seems to need a break. But what changed between then and now? And for added intrigue, some yeshivas do not fancy giving their students vacation for so many days, which created the need to simply repackage the off days and call them something other than days off.
That reminds me of an old bungalow colony story and how frequenting this certain resort/shanty town became a point of contention with a yeshiva in Brooklyn about 30 or so years ago. Without detailing the reason, this yeshiva decided one year that they had enough of talmidim whose families attended this bungalow colony. So fed up were they that they declared toward the end of the school year that any child who goes to this certain place would not be allowed back in school the following school year.
This was potentially a problem for about two dozen families who sent their children to this yeshiva. The parents got together to decide what to do. After days of deliberation, they reached a consensus. They changed the name of the bungalow colony and told the yeshiva that they were no longer going to the place that had the name of the colony in which the yeshiva forbade them to spend their summer.
Here’s a vacation story I was recalling this week that I have not related in print before. It was Chanukah 1990, my father’s first yahrzeit. Most of the family traveled to Israel to observe what was a sad as well as momentous time for us. Our two oldest boys at the time were 9 and 4 years old. The girls had more days off than the boys, so we took the liberty of keeping the boys out of school a few extra days in Israel.
We were young parents, perhaps naive, and just did not know how strictly this business of being out extra days over winter recess was being enforced. Apparently, it was evolving into somewhat of a serious problem for yeshivas. I understood that it was a bad precedent for yeshivas to allow some children to swim and frolic in Miami Beach or Orlando while others had to be in school. But my kids were missing school because they were in Israel and for their Zaide’s yahrzeit. What could be more sacred, memorable, and meaningful?
Anyway, we arrived back in New York early on a Thursday morning, got home, and rushed the boys to yeshiva so that they wouldn’t miss an extra day. My wife was home and I was on the way to work in the city when she received a call from the school principal. Essentially he told her that the school was suspending my sons, a third-grader and a preschooler, and that she should come to the school immediately to pick them up and take them home.
I still find the episode as astounding as I did back then. I went to the school the next morning to argue my case. The person in charge listened to me, and I will never forget what he said after I finished my piece. He said he thought it was unnecessary to take kids that age to Israel. And then he said to me, regarding my 9-year-old, that before doing something like that again I should ask myself the following question about taking a young child to Israel: “When he grows up, will he daven a 20-minute Shemoneh Esreih?”
“What?” I said. “That’s the criteria for determining whether we should take our kids to Eretz Yisrael or not?” He stood his ground, as I did mine. I called around to other school principals, rabbanim, and roshei yeshiva in Brooklyn. I could not accept the situation as it was. Frankly, it was wrongheaded thinking by the principal and an outrage. They wanted the boys suspended for a week, I guess as an example to others. I don’t want to tell you whom I called, but they were leading educators and communal rabbis. The end of the story was that the kids were back in class bright and early on Sunday morning.
Would such a thing happen today? I don’t think so. School rules need to be enforced, but if you need an extra few days here and there, so be it. These days I’m not sure if these intersession days are for the benefit of the students, the school staff, or the parents who want to take their children with them on vacation (for some reason).
This is not a complaint, but I don’t recall going on vacation with my parents. I don’t think it was ever considered or even discussed. They did what they had to do and we were where we had to be–that is, in school all the time.
I remember walking to school at this time of year when, if things were different, we would have been on our intersession vacation. We walked to school because there was a snowstorm and the buses weren’t running. We didn’t think about staying home. When we finally trudged the two miles to school, we found that the boiler had broken down and the classrooms were freezing. But there we were, midwinter, snowing, no buses, and freezing. There was nothing else to do except go to yeshiva. No, I’m not sure any of the teachers showed up that day.
From the outside, these days, it looks like about half the parent body that cannot get away for vacation because of work or other economic considerations are drawing the short straws here. Young kids are at home and need to be tended to by parents who have to make all kinds of alternate arrangements because there is no school scheduled for these few days.
On the one hand, we cannot expect everyone, students and teachers, to run through ten consecutive months of school without a break. For the people who don’t go away, for whatever reason, these few days are hassled and pressurized. Sometimes it’s tough to catch a break whether you are home, away, or stuck in school. v
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