By Larry Gordon

With yom tov over and without the constant midweek breaks, schools are finally and earnestly under way. It is at approximately this time that our yeshivas begin to hit their stride for the year that lies ahead.

This is also the time of year when those who manage our yeshiva classrooms have to begin to draw conclusions about which students do not belong in the classes to which they were originally assigned and where to place them now.

In some cases, unfortunately, a determination will be made that places some of our children out of their yeshiva altogether. For decades, it was just considered part of the process that some kids would have no yeshiva to attend for one reason or another. Today, thankfully, that is no longer an easy option to exercise, though sometimes there is just no choice and, regrettably, it needs to be done.

What happens, or what is supposed to happen, the day after a young person is asked to leave his or her school with no alternative prepared in advance?

That’s a dilemma the community has been grappling with for decades. But at least one person has been intensely studying this issue, and while there may not be clear answers yet, Rabbi Elly Merenstein of Far Rockaway believes he has some solutions.

Rabbi Merenstein’s story is a long and good one that has taken a variety of directions. He says he may have even accidently stumbled across the formula that keeps our children on track, when once upon a time their struggle in yeshiva was their introduction to the exit leading them away from tradition and observance.

The rabbi, 39, his wife, and children lived in Israel for 18 years, until just a few years ago. During that time, for 15 years, he ran and directed Camp Emes, which was a very popular summer camp in Eretz Yisrael that always had a waiting list of teenage yeshiva boys wanting to spend a summer there.

He left Israel and came to live in New York to begin a new yeshiva that was very much in demand, mostly because as our population grew over the last many years, literal spaces in our yeshiva classrooms were at a premium and sometimes were just not available.

“It is a terrible feeling that causes long-term damage on a young person who has to deal with the school year beginning without a yeshiva for him to attend,” says Rabbi Merenstein. He adds that the quandary that many of our yeshivas face today is making that very difficult decision that marginalizes a young frum student, which sometimes results in devastating consequences.

His yeshiva, Sha’arei Pruzdor in Valley Stream, New York, is not for “bad” or troubled kids. After four years, the yeshiva produced its first graduating class last June. The class consisted of ten young men who had originally attended other yeshivas. At one point or another their yeshivas gave up on them, and in some cases the young men were on the verge of giving up on themselves.

Mesivta Sha’arei Pruzdor is not a yeshiva in which boys enroll and attend when they are out of options. It is a formidable, relatively new, and evolving yeshiva that over the short term has turned lives around and is producing mainstream yeshiva boys. As far as last year’s graduating class of ten young men, seven of the boys are now studying in yeshivas in Israel like Merkaz HaTorah, Ohr Yerushalayim, Tiferes Yerushalayim, and Imrei Binah, among others.

“Each one of those boys learning in Israel today was at one point shown the door by one yeshiva or another,” the rabbi says. “I’m not blaming anyone or boasting about it, but I am definitely proud of the fact that we set up these Jewish souls, these precious young men, to succeed.”

Over the many years that Rabbi Merenstein ran Camp Emes, he had more than 1,300 teenagers in the camp and had the opportunity to speak with them about their experiences in yeshiva high school. That led him to recognize what he believes can and should be changed in many of our yeshivas.

Today Mesivta Sha’arei Pruzdor has 18 boys enrolled in the yeshiva. At any time, that number can change as the school year rolls on. On any given day, Rabbi Merenstein can get a call about a young man who needs a change of yeshiva. And no, it is not about boys with alcohol or drug problems or other issues. Very often it is about a young man who is simply not connecting or lacking motivation in a traditional yeshiva.

So how does Rabbi Merenstein meet his financial responsibilities to make a yeshiva with so few students continue to function? Interestingly, Rabbi Merenstein attracts support from successful men and women who themselves struggled their way through our yeshivas or, in some cases, dropped out altogether but thankfully managed to persevere.

One of his supporters, who prefers anonymity, said that as a young man about 25 years ago he spent a lot of time at home in between yeshivas. “The impression exists and is accepted that a yeshiva is either good or bad, he said. “I don’t know of any yeshiva that exists today where students daven every morning and have shiurim and chavrusahs that can be labeled a bad yeshiva.”

He adds that over all these decades and to this very day there are practices in yeshivas that just plainly force kids to turn away. Two have nothing to do with education and seem rather innocuous to most: admission cards and report cards.

It is not the content of these cards that impacts so dramatically on young minds in some cases. It is the matter that in some yeshivas admission cards—or report cards, further into the school year—are withheld from students because tuition payments have not been made.

“I have friends who years later can only recall how ostracized and isolated they felt because one or both of these had been withheld due to tuition issues,” the supporter says.

For many the need that is not fulfilled in a more conventional setting is more nuanced. Jonathan Schipper of Flatbush took his son out of a popular Brooklyn yeshiva two years ago because he felt that the yeshiva was not addressing what his son needed. He adds that he has other children in the same yeshiva and they are doing just fine. So this is not necessarily about a shortcoming in any particular yeshiva or in yeshivas in general.

“My son just needed more—perhaps more warmth or more attention or both,” says Mr. Schipper, and at Sha’arei Pruzdor he received both. He points out that last year during the height of the corona pandemic when yeshivas had to close, Rabbi Merenstein drove to Brooklyn every day to learn with Rabbi Schipper’s son and another boy from the neighborhood who was a student in the yeshiva.

Today the young Mr. Schipper is doing extremely well at yeshiva Merkaz HaTorah in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Merenstein’s approach to chinuch is somewhat iconoclastic, and to some he is seen as a challenge to established methodology that is a given in most of our yeshivas. I asked him to name at least one thing that he thinks yeshivas need to adjust and he responded that he feels that categorizing students into an alef, beis, or gimmel class is often hurtful over the long run to these kids. “Boys in an alef shiur are frequently just not prepared for the vicissitudes that one needs to deal with as he grows into adulthood,” the rabbi says.

He adds that, in his estimation, our yeshivas have to teach more Judaism. While the learning in many yeshivas is on a high level, there is simply not enough room for Hashem in our classrooms. He very much likes the “Thank You Hashem” approach to instilling a love of Hashem and would like to bring more of that to our children in our classrooms.

Rabbi Elly Merenstein understands that some of the things he says do not sit well with some, but at the same time they cannot deny that he is plucking boys off a wrong and potentially destructive path and turning them into good and solid bnei Torah.

On the age-old debate of whether it is the yeshiva or the home that most influences a developing intellect, he says that there is no room for blame, as is often the case. “We need to work together; that is the only way we will succeed.”

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