A small flicker, a smoldering ember. If left unchecked, it can become a raging inferno, consuming everything in its path. Unless someone stands tall and douses the flames. Four tales of courage
As told to C. B. Wahler
He’s a busy man, the menahel of a large yeshivah high school in a nice-sized community. He has acceptance letters to send, dozens of shy applicants waiting.
There are fewer interviews this year, though. Fewer interviews, fewer acceptances, a smaller class. There’s competition, a new yeshivah that promises to offer a curriculum similar to theirs, only better. Better, better, he muses as he looks at the full-page ads extolling the in-depth learning, state-of-the-art building, exceptional rebbeim, and individualized attention of the yet-untried new yeshivah.
Some of the board members have been nagging him, worried about what this would do to their enrollment, but he knows it’s up to Hashem. “We’ll focus on the students we have, on what we can give to them,” he says repeatedly.
Still, he can’t deny that it hurts a little. It hurts when parents who’ve sent six sons through their system turn their backs and eagerly enroll their next bochur in the New Yeshivah. It hurts when a prized rebbi is lured over to the New Yeshivah by the promise of a huge raise and a leadership position. It hurts when he hears, through the never-failing grapevine, how the staff of the New Yeshivah subtly disparaged his methodology, his hashkafos, his management of the school.
The new school year starts. The seventeen boys of the New Yeshivah’s ninth-grade continue to be a hot topic of conversation.
“They make fun of us,” he overhears a student complain.
“Yeah,” another chimes in. “They think they’re better than us, that we’re goyim just because they have more rules than us.”
Everyone in the city has an opinion. Suddenly, he’s branded; more than once, the room goes quiet as he enters.
But he’s a busy man, the menahel, so he puts the matter aside resolutely, and moves on. The year progresses: parent-teacher conferences, staff meetings, and as winter peaks — next year’s applications.
He has worried about this, about what will be, but strangely enough there are plenty of applications, even more than the previous year. He throws himself into bechinos, meeting the fresh-faced eighth-graders and picturing a new class coming together.
He hears the rumors when everyone does: the New Yeshivah, somehow, inexplicably, is failing. There are barely any applicants for the coming year. He files the information away, focuses on his own job. But sometimes the thought flits through his mind: what next?
What comes next is a bombshell: the New Yeshivah decided not to open a new ninth-grade. They have a single class, moving into tenth grade. No growth, no achievement. The state-of-the-art building remains mostly empty for another year, and the New Yeshivah falls into debt.
The star rebbi leaves; he has no ninth-grade to stay for. Three students move to a thriving yeshivah in another city. They’d rather dorm in a good place than remain in a failing one.
It’s a dying venture, the New Yeshivah, with its glamorous ads and golden promises. When no one can deny that any longer, when the New Yeshivah makes the decision to close its doors after two short years, he starts getting the calls. First tentative, then pleading.
“Our son has nowhere to go next year. Please, please accept him for eleventh grade.”
“The yeshivah is closing on us. We’re desperate.”
“My son is a sensitive boy… he’s too young to dorm. He needs to be home. Please, you’re our only hope.”
He calls a meeting, the mashgiach and the English principal and the administrator and the board. He reads out a list of names. Fourteen boys, tayere neshaomos, fourteen futures on the line. They have nowhere to go.
The other high schools in town service a completely different crowd, the boys will never go there. They’d have to beg for acceptance in out-of-town yeshivos, they’d have to start afresh in eleventh-grade, far from home; they’d face so many rejections. His voice almost breaks as he thinks of it.
The faces around the table are not as sympathetic. So let them dorm. They made their own beds. Why is this our problem?
He reads the feelings in their eyes, and he shakes his head.
“Rabbosai,” he says, and this time his voice cracks. “Rabbosai, we are the only ones who can help them. We can do it. We have to do it. We have an achrayus to the neshamos. To ourselves.”
The room is quiet.
Then someone, somewhere around the table, slowly nods a head.
There is a “yes,” then soft echoes.
But he is not finished yet.
“It’s not going to be easy,” he warns. “The boys are frustrated, betrayed. They’ve been fed with a lot of negativity against our policies, our school. If we accept them half-heartedly, if we make them feel like second-class citizens, they’ll be out the door before the first zeman is over.” He pauses, looks around the room. The atmosphere is thick with tension.
“And that’s why we’re not going to do it half-heartedly,” he continues, pounding a fist on the table. “These boys are ours! Ours! They’re a responsibility, they’re a priceless treasure.
“We are going to go above and beyond for them, we’re going to give them everything. Extra support. Extra attention. Extra patience and positivity and tolerance and security. Their futures are hanging in the balance, and if we’re determined, we can make this work for them. For us. For the community. For Klal Yisrael.”
Once again, the men around the table nod, solemnly.
The words sink in, settle, a demand and a promise.
The meeting has come to a close. He stands up to go. After all, the menahel’s a busy man. And right now, he has acceptance letters to send.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 691)
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