I don’t know if it’s just me, but I feel like every year we have to get a kid into a high school. First my daughter, then my son, then my other son … There was a gap year in there somewhere, but I don’t remember what we did that year. I think we made a bar mitzvah.
It’s not like elementary school, where you pick a school and you have a meeting or two and you’re done, and then when people ask, “Why that school, of all the schools out there?” you get to say, “Well, it’s in the town we live in, so…”
To get your kid into high school, you have to spend an entire year agonizing about it. You want a school that is not only good for your child, but is also one you can stand behind when other people ask you where you’re sending him for high school, because it’s important that you give them an answer they can stand behind as well, as someone who barely knows your son’s name. Or else they’re going to ask you things that make you question your entire decision and start over.
“OK, we’re starting the search again.”
“I couldn’t explain our choice to Mrs. Klein.”
“My friend from shul.”
“Oh. Where’s her son going?”
“Great idea! I’m going to ask her that.”
It’s getting late. It’s not like a hotel, where if you book with them at the last minute, they have a couple of slots they’re willing to give away, as long as you’re willing to have someone sleep on the floor. You have to sign up for a bunch of yeshivos right off the bat, because otherwise by the time the one you chose says no, it’s too late to apply to another yeshiva without looking like the type of family that does everything last minute.
You don’t even get a basic sense of how your child did on the farher, because the menahel takes your kid into a room without you, and then the kid comes out and says, “I think I did OK.” He has no idea, because he gave whatever answers he thought were right, and the menahel didn’t correct him on anything — he just nodded and made a mental note. Your son has never before been to a farher where he wasn’t corrected a single time! Now he thinks that those answers are right, and he takes those answers to his next farher.
So I feel like we’ve spent two years now going to open houses every weekend. Last year, we went to basically every open house we heard about, because we were keeping our eyes open for yeshivos for two very different kids so we wouldn’t have to do it again this year. This year, we have to go to all of the same open houses, because what if something changed since last year? Also, we can’t just hand in the application form we picked up that has last year’s dates on it. Speaking of looking like a family that procrastinates.
They start having these open houses right after Sukkos. They try to have them towards the beginning of the year, because that’s when they’re still enthusiastic about their school. If they had it closer to the end of the year, they’d be like, “I don’t know; I don’t care anymore. Register, don’t register, whatever. Just… the yeshiva’s fine. I’m going to put my head down.”
Here’s how the open houses work: First you show up, and they give you a stack of paper to flip through during the speeches, I guess. You have to, because some of the speeches will assume you already read the whole stack. Parents will try to make conversation with you before the speeches begin, but you have to say, “I can’t, I have homework to do here.” You never know who’s watching.
The good news is that there will be a brochure in this stack with pictures of various scenes from the typical yeshiva day. There will be several of bachurim learning, a picture of them arguing with a rebbe, and one with guys playing basketball. It’s never another outdoor sport. It’s never tackle football in the snow in the parking lot. Then, depending on the caliber of the yeshiva, there might be one picture of secular studies, to show that they take that seriously. If there’s no picture of secular studies, then either the yeshiva doesn’t take it seriously or the photographer doesn’t. Or he just couldn’t show up in the afternoon, because he had a wedding.
If there is a secular-studies picture, it will show a bunch of kids joking around with their least Jewish-looking teacher, preferably an African American, if the yeshiva can find one. Definitely someone with a mustache. That way the parents know it’s definitely secular studies. They’re not going to show the rebbe who teaches math, because everyone’s going to think it’s just a picture of students doing math homework during shiur. The level of secular studies of a yeshiva is determined by the number of teachers they hire who didn’t go to a yeshiva.
If the yeshiva is really serious about secular studies, there will be a lab picture featuring at least two students in goggles. No one wears goggles for limudei kodesh. Unless they’re doing a hands-on sugya about tumah. Either way, goggles = good yeshiva.
(To be honest, it’s hard to convey a yeshiva that has a particularly strong limudei kodesh department, so a lot of yeshivos try to do that by sheer number of learning pictures. [“Well, this yeshiva has 12 pictures, but this one has 22, so…”])
Some brochures also show a picture of the bachurim in the dining room, but I have no idea what that proves.
Then they include pictures that say a thousand words that the yeshiva doesn’t feel like saying in writing, such as, “Everyone wears a white shirt here,” or “There are tables and shtenders!” “At some of the mesibos, there’s dancing.”
The brochure has words, too — about the sterling, dedicated staff equipping students at this critical stage of pivotal development with tools and special emphasis, while being well-rounded in conceptualization since its inception to meet the challenges of remaining above the general reading level of an 8th-grader so that the administration can converse with the parents above his head, because all of this is, frankly, none of his business. The grown-ups are talking. Look, there’s ping-pong!
The paperwork includes an application, too, which asks, for example, what masechta your child is currently learning, so the menahel can learn it quickly before the farher.
The main thing about the open houses is their speeches, which extol the virtues of the yeshiva and how it accomplishes the mehalech that the particular yeshiva deems important. Every open house I go to, I hear their speech about what they consider more and less important, and I say, “Yeah, that sounds good!” And then I go to another open house and listen to a speech about what they find important, and I say, “Yeah, that sounds good!” I’m still trying to convince my wife to consider the yeshiva whose open house I went to but she didn’t. Every yeshiva’s carefully rehearsed speech sounds good. How do I decide?
I think these open houses should have a point-counterpoint given by a bachur or two, and not one chosen by the hanhalah.
“For the ma’alos of the yeshiva, we have the menahel and the secular-studies principal, and for the rundown on how it really works, we have one bachur who didn’t prepare his speech at all, and we were supposed to have a second bachur, but he didn’t bother to show up. We think he’s sleeping.”
There are also specific things you’re listening for in these speeches that make for a desirable yeshiva. For example, a huge thing in selecting a yeshiva is class size. All the schools say, “We have the smallest classes.” The smaller the class, the better. Like the best school in the world has zero students in a class. It’s just the teacher sitting there alone, talking to the walls. So ideally, you want a school with a teeny-tiny class size, but that will still accept your kid.
Some of the speeches talk about how they have limited spots. If there are limited spots, it’s a good yeshiva. I have news for you: There are always limited spots. No yeshiva has a limitless expanse of property for as many kids as they could possibly accept, unless the yeshiva is located outdoors.
When the speeches are over, the hanhalah asks if anyone has any questions, as well as the guts to ask them in front of the whole room. (TIP: Don’t take this opportunity to ask how much it would cost to send your child there. They’re not into discussing that at the moment. These speeches are about the ma’alos of the yeshiva.)
The idea of the open house is to get as many parents as possible to apply to the yeshiva, whether it’s the right place for their child or not, because that way they get to charge an application fee. Tuition never brings in as much as the yeshiva hopes, but application fees are non-negotiable, because your child’s education is not yet their problem. Application fees are the best way of making money from parents who aren’t going to end up sending to that yeshiva in the first place, and the point of the open houses is to make them think, “But what if I do? I’d better apply now, before it’s too late.” All the yeshivos are in on this. It’s an ingenious business plan. These are definitely the people who should be teaching our kids.
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of seven books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.