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Keep Calm and Cheer Him On  

A mother’s guide to mesivta season

Illustrations by Esti Friedman Saposh

IFyou have a son in eighth grade, that means you already:

Chose a babysitter for him,

and chose a two-year-old playgroup,

and then chose a three-year-old playgroup,

and ditto for four-year-olds, which was a big year, because next year he starts school, so you did extra research before registering,

and then went through the whole application and registration process for elementary school (it took you until he was in seventh grade to recover).

So you would think that now, on the cusp of high school, you would be qualified to choose an appropriate mesivta for your son. I mean, you’re a pro by now, no?

No. The mesivta application process is entirely different, and all your previous methods for making educational decisions are useless here. But don’t worry, I did it, survived, and hereby present you with the mother’s guide to the mysterious and maddening world of mesivta applications.

The Chavrusa

This is how it works, at least for mesivtas in the US: You choose which mesivtas to apply to, then your son takes a farher at each one. Out-of-town yeshivos will mail you an acceptance or rejection letter, in-town yeshivos will tell you immediately if he’s accepted. (They will also report to your menahel, and you can check in with him to see how things stand.) Once you’re accepted, you have to accept the slot or decline more or less within a day.


So when my oldest son started eighth grade, I did what every self-respecting woman does: I called my older sister. She had a son in tenth grade, so she obviously knew everything.

“The first thing,” she told me, “is to get him a chavrusa.”

For the uninitiated, “chavrusa” in this context means a paid chavrusa, ideally a rebbi who teaches older grades, who will learn with your son in the evening to prepare him for farhers.

If you’re thinking: but my son is very smart or why can’t he learn with my husband, then you’re like me. But she was right, and I was wrong. Chavrusas of this sort are kind of de rigueur at this stage. The rebbi you hire is in the know of what eighth grade boys’ learning level is, and he’s familiar with the farher process, which your husband may not be. Also, it’s great for the boys’ self-esteem. They go to shul every evening like a real yeshivah bochur, learn for an hour with a chashuve yungerman, and get that satisfaction that comes when you’re really “holding,” and you know it. It transitions them from kid to bochur, and for that alone it’s worth every penny. (Yes, it’s a lot of pennies.)

(Why can’t he learn with your husband? You tell me. Some fathers are not up to it, having been out of eighth grade for too many years. Some kids are less inclined to cooperate with their fathers. Sometimes it’s just too much strain for the relationship. Some kids do better with the motivation and chashivus of a chavrusa. Don’t get stuck on the optics, choose the path that will bring the most success.)

Here I want to state the golden rule of parent-child relationships. The golden rule (I didn’t make it up — I stole it from Dr. Stanley Greenspan) is that whenever there are increased demands on your child, increase the time you spend with him. “Time” here means chilled, happy time schmoozing about nothing or doing some shared activity. In the run-up to mesivta season, your son is going to be working hard to prepare, going out at night to learn, and working harder in school. It’s normal for him to be nervous, worried, overwhelmed, drained, or in a bad mood. You can support him by finding ways to spend more time with him in a chilled and fun way. As life gets more intense, he needs you more.

To Dorm or Not to Dorm

When it comes to choosing a mesivta, the first decision to make is whether you’re looking close to home — a yeshivah in your city, or “out of town” — a yeshivah with a dorm.

The reason this is the first decision is because the “out-of-town” yeshivos (loosely translated as out of the Tristate area) generally begin the application process earlier than the “in- town” yeshivos.

I heard a lot of different ideas in the stay home vs. dorm debate.

There’s a strong sentiment out there that unless there’s a specific reason to send a kid out of town, it’s best to keep him close to home. The home environment is supportive and nurturing; it’s easier for the parents to stay aware of how their son is doing and to support him; the food is better (joke). One menahel told me, “The default is to stay home.”

What’s the advantage of going out of town? Maybe there are no good options for your son nearby. Maybe there are factors playing out that are making the home environment less than nurturing and supportive for your son. Those scenarios could lead you to look further afield.

There’s another advantage to going out of town: you access a certain immersive factor when you’re away from home — your entire life is based in the yeshivah, you’re immersed in a sevivah of learning and avodas Hashem. If your son has the maturity and resilience to cope without the constant support of his parents, that could be an advantage.

The thing is, many 14- to 17-year-old boys don’t really function optimally 100 percent of the time. They might go through periods when they need a little space, a place to be other than the yeshivah. If they’re dorming, they don’t have that, and that can lead to them getting into trouble.

On the flip side, kids occasionally have the opposite need — they need to spread their wings a little and the dorm environment gives them that opportunity.

If you’re confused, great, it means you’re paying attention. Go talk to your son and his rebbi and his menahel and your rav (and your mother and your sisters and your best friend and your neighbor) and daven your heart out.

(Side note: I heard someone complain that, “The mesivtas let the boys live like slobs.” Public service announcement: the mission of a yeshivah is to transmit Torah. The mission of a yeshivah is not to domesticate teenage boys in the wild. That’s the mother’s job. Good luck.)


The next step is choosing where to apply.

My sister, the one who enlightened me about the chavrusa thing, told me about her husband’s unique research method: in the months leading up to mesivta season, he gives mesivta guys rides whenever he can. That gives him the opportunity to get to know what type of guys are where and learn a little about each place.

I wondered how he gets more than single-syllable answers out of these teenage boys. But apparently, he doesn’t actually need to ask them any questions other than where they learn. That gives him all the information he needs.

As a woman, this creative method of information gathering is closed to you. But all is not lost. Your son’s rebbeim and menahel are a crucial resource. They know everything about your son and about the mesivtas and the application and acceptance process. The mesivtas consult with the rebbeim about the boys and the hanhalah probably has a pretty accurate idea of where your son will do well and where he has a good shot of getting accepted. In many schools there’s actually a formal process for consulting with the rebbi and together choosing which mesivtas to apply to, so this is probably your number one resource.

Caveat (there’s always a caveat): some schools favor sending their boys to a few specific options which they’ve found to be a good fit for their student body. If your son is not 100 percent “in the box” and self-motivated, don’t look only at those options. You’re the parent, and it’s ultimately your job to do your due diligence.

If you’re looking at in-town mesivtas, you can also stop by to check them out. (Not you, of course; your husband, or another available male.) Just by checking out the beis medrash during seder, he can get a feel for the kind of boys and rebbeim there are, and the general atmosphere.

I found that people talk a lot about the learning level of a yeshivah (that’s what they mean when they call a mesivta a “top” mesivta — they mean the learning level is high and the bochurim are focused and engaged).

In my conversations with rebbeim and menahelim, many stressed that the level is a very important consideration. The goal is not to get him into the highest-level yeshivah, but to send him to the yeshivah that’s a good match for his abilities and personality, so he can grow and succeed. Remember, the farher is 15 minutes, but he’ll be in the yeshivah, b’ezras Hashem, for four or more years. Just because he can get in somewhere doesn’t mean he should go there. There are some other things to take into account. Look at the numbers — how many guys in a shiur, how many rebbeim, how much support staff. If your son would benefit from a little more varmkeit, he might not thrive in a shiur with 40 bochurim and one rebbi. Talk to your son and his rebbeim to determine what kind of environment gives him the best chance of success.

The Question Booklet

I’d been told that in-town farhers don’t start until Shevat, and the process is really fast — by Tu B’Shevat it’s mostly over.

On Rosh Chodesh Shevat, the phone rang. Three times. It was like a conductor had pointed his baton and three roshei yeshivah from the three mesivtas we applied to called to schedule a farher.

(This actually surprised me, that in some cases the roshei yeshivah themselves call. I don’t actually know why they do that, and some unorthodox part of me felt like saying, Oh, but since I have you on the phone… but I controlled myself.)

So there we were with three farhers scheduled in the space of two days. At that point, I panicked slightly. I called my next-door neighbor, a rosh kollel, and asked him if he could give my son some time. He agreed (to my vast relief) but asked that we get him a copy of “the question booklet.”

“The question booklet” is kind of the yeshivah version of CliffsNotes. It’s basically pages and pages of tiny print with questions on the shakla v’tarya. No one knows who compiled this booklet or when it was invented, but everyone’s neighbor has one. We got a copy from my baby’s babysitter.

Over the next two weeks, my neighbor spent an hour each night “mock-farhering” my son. My son’s delivery became confident and polished, and he became comfortable with the process of a farher. No one had told us to do this; it hadn’t even been exactly what I asked my neighbor for. But it was amazingly helpful, and I highly recommend it.

The Mother’s Job

Now we come to the part that only the mother can do (YES! Finally). Aside from being tested on the Gemara, “soft skills” matter also — how they act, how they’re dressed, their overall presentation. Make sure he looks put together and presents as his best self: dressed appropriately, neat and clean, fresh haircut. Coach him on the social niceties — handshake, greeting, eye contact, how to answer questions, say thank you. If you’re unsure of what’s normal, ask your son’s rebbi. You’re not bothering him. He wants your son to succeed.

I can’t tell you what takes place at the actual farher because I wasn’t there, and when my son came home it was not the right time to grill him. But it makes no difference, because your job at this point is to be as chilled about the whole thing as possible. (Your son is nervous, so that’s covered.) Extra points if you can create a “this is exciting” matzav — but even if you can’t, you want to avoid the “Oy, hatzlachah” vibe.

When I started dating, the first boy I went out with said no to me after just one date, after all the excitement of getting a yes, information checking, clothes shopping, and drama. But my mother just laughed, it wasn’t a crisis, and when the shadchan tried to give her chizuk by telling her what a great girl I was, my mother retorted, “I know what I have.”

I think that’s a pretty good template of what your reaction should be with farhers. At this point, your son did his best. There’s nothing for anyone to do except wait and see how things play out. Give your son the gift of emunah and the serenity it brings by accepting the outcome the way you accept a gift from someone who loves you.

Sometimes it gets dicey. What you really wanted didn’t pan out; you feel like someone sabotaged you in some way; your son gets hurt and you’re helpless. If that happens, it’s even more important to stay positive and serene. If you rail against the system or badmouth the roshei mesivta, you’re sabotaging your son’s ability to succeed at whichever mesivta he does eventually attend.

In the weeks leading up to mesivta season, I met Rebbetzin Leah Trenk. She’s a psychologist, and the wife of Rav Dovid Trenk ztz”l. I told her (too smugly) that I had assured my son we would do everything possible to make sure he was accepted, and he didn’t have to worry.

“That’s not the right thing to say,” she advised me. “You should tell him, ‘Every mesivta wants a kid like you!’”

A short time later I was with my son and met a friend. “Nu,” she said knowingly, “what’s with mesivtas?”

Without missing a beat, I replied, “The mesivtas are fighting over him!”

Honestly, this has nothing to do with eighth graders. Every kid (every person) needs reminders that they are worthy and valued. You’re his mother; who else should tell him?

And the last thing you can do, which is also the first thing, and really the only thing, is daven. Hashem knows your son, knows where he needs to be, knows all the variables and factors and moving parts that are impossible for you, or anyone else, to know. Although this paragraph is pretty short, if you’re going to remember one thing from this whole article, pick this. Your son has only one mother, and you can do for him what no one else and nothing else can do: daven from a mother’s heart for your son’s hatzlachah.

Mesivta season is not for the faint of heart. You might not be able to fix the system or control the outcome or protect your son from all disappointment and pain. But as his mother, you can prepare and support him. Most of all, you can believe in him. You’re his cheerleader in chief. You can make sure that he gets through it secure and confident in his own worth, his parents’ love and approval, and the goodness that we all receive every day, in every situation, from Hashem.

Getting It Right

Rabbi Yossi Bensoussan
Mashgiach Ruchani, Yeshiva High School of Cleveland

The main thing to keep in mind is that what really matters is what the child needs and wants. What the parents need and want is important, but secondary.

You need to be honest with yourself and realistic about who your son is and what he needs so that you get it right the first time. “Right” means meeting the child where he’s at and finding him a place where he can grow. Sometimes parents choose a mesivta hoping their son can make it there, but secretly they have their reservations. They just close their eyes and hope he’ll kind of fly under the radar, and maybe by some miracle he’ll be positively influenced by the environment.

I’ll save you some time and frustration: it doesn’t work. What actually happens is that he goes there, it doesn’t go well, it drags on, eventually he leaves and goes to another yeshivah, sort of like the first place. He limps along there for a few months until that fizzles out also, and then finally ends up in a third yeshivah, where he should have been all along. The problem is that although he could’ve done great there if he had started there, by now he’s been through the wringer at two different places, and his defenses are up. He’s at a disadvantage, and the yeshivah is at a disadvantage.

The odds that any yeshivah is “perfect” for any boy is slim to none. But if you’re honest about what you expect and what your son needs, you and your son will have an easier time navigating this amazing opportunity for growth.

Erase the Anxiety

Rabbi Gedalia Weinrib
Menahel, Yeshiva Ohr Yehuda, Lakewood

IF I could change one thing about the whole process, it would be to erase the anxiety. When you stress, you’re giving your son the message that if he isn’t accepted to the mesivta you chose, his life is ruined forever. That’s not the message you want to give your kids, and it’s not the attitude you want them to live their lives with. Give your son the message of emunah: Hashem knows which mesivta is best for you, and He’s in control of the process. Do your best, daven, and we’ll be okay with whatever Hashem decides because we know that’s what’s right for you.

Imagine for a minute that your son is not accepted to the mesivta you were hoping for. You’re going to tell him, “It’s okay, it wasn’t bashert, you’re a great kid and you’ll do well in another mesivta.” But if you’ve been dead set on this mesivta until now, and projecting sky-high anxiety all along, you’re not going to suddenly be able to sell your kid that it’s “okay.”

In the months leading up to mesivta season, your son will be doing extra learning and preparation. But instead of making it all about the farher, the language and the message should be about your son growing. Don’t focus on getting in/not getting in, but on your son growing into his greatest self. That’s the message he should hear from you, and that’s the message that will ultimately build him.

When choosing a mesivta, don’t get distracted by the hype and labels surrounding the process. We all have high hopes for our kids, but putting a kid in the maximum-pressure environment isn’t usually conducive to growth.  The question is not, “Can he get in to mesivta X?” but rather, “Will he be matzliach there?” Doing this gives your son the greatest chance of success both during the farher and when he’s actually attending the mesivta.

Ultimately, the mesivta a boy attends (or doesn’t attend) isn’t the single deciding factor in how his life turns out. Although there can be a lot of stress in the process, it’s in your power to diminish that for your son. There’s no one in the world who believes in a kid more than his mother. The support and confidence of his parents can turn this potentially stressful experience into a process of growth and achievement.

When Your Son Doesn’t Get In

Chaya Isaacs

When your child doesn’t get in to mesivta, you feel like you failed your child, and like the system failed you.

It was excruciating to watch my son bounce around from one interview to the next and keep getting rejected. It was so embarrassing and humiliating to personally beg for consideration and still be turned away. My husband and I remember this as one of our worst parenting experiences.

But no matter how painful it gets, remember: you are the parent. It’s your job to be strong for your child. If you’re strong, your child feels safe, and knows you are there and will help them. If you fall apart, the child feels terror, like there is no solution and no one to help him. Even though you’re so hurt and so angry and so frustrated, don’t let your emotions show. Present a calm and confident attitude. “You’re going to get into a place that’s great for you, it’s okay if it takes time.” Your child will mirror you. You might not be able to fix this problem immediately, you might not be able to give him a mesivta on a silver platter, but you can give him a calm, confident mother, a safe place, and the security that he is okay and everything will be okay.

You’ll need to flex your emunah muscle. You don’t choose a mesivta; Hashem chooses the mesivta. Rejection is redirection. It’s a learning experience for your son — not an experience that you would pick, but a way for him to grow, if it does happen. I told my son, “You are growing into a great person because you’re holding on now.”

One mistake I see people making is that they rely too heavily on the rebbi or the school to guide them. The schools do their best but they can’t possibly know everything. Spread a wide net, learn about lesser-known options, be proactive. The yeshivah my son was eventually accepted to was a place I heard about by mistake. If your child is at risk of not getting accepted, apply to more than just two or three places. To the best of your ability, set them up to get in.

The experience took a lot out of my son. He needed a lot of support from us. But he overcame it. He developed muscle. He worked hard in the yeshivah he went to and did well, baruch Hashem.

There’s a lot you can’t do. You can’t change the system. But you can be their rock. That you can do.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 821)

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