| Double Take |

Making the Grade

“I didn’t realize he was on top of the hiring.” The words were acrid on my tongue. Was I personally rejected by my own father-in-law?

Chananya: I can’t mentor my son in law without jeopardizing our relationship.
Tzviki: Why wouldn’t you help me land my dream position?

 

Tzviki

Back when I was dating my wife, we discussed The Plan: kollel, for as long as we can make it work, and then chinuch. It wasn’t a question for me; my father was a rebbi, and my parents-in-law both were in the field too. As Ruti liked to joke, there was no reason for the two of us not to keep making the same mistake.

But for all its difficulties, teaching was in the blood. Ruti held a full-time position as a high school mechaneches, and I tutored in the evenings. Running a summer day camp rounded out the picture, and together with my kollel stipend, we made it work for a while.

Eventually, inevitably, the honeymoon was over. We’d been married a few years, the family was growing, and it became clear that my kollel days were numbered.

I’ve always been a forward-thinker. So when we realized that things would have to change in the coming months, I registered for a few highly recommended courses in teaching. Classroom management, interactive lesson, questioning and assessment techniques, approaches to teaching Gemara, handling emotional issues in students. Some of these were evening classes, some entailed taking off kollel, but I knew there was no choice.

I learned a lot at these course, and they also made me feel excited. Of course, the years in kollel had been a boon and a blessing, and I wished we had the means to make it work for longer. But if I had to leave the world of full-time learning, the field of education drew me like a magnet. I wanted to be the one up there in a classroom, unlocking worlds to eager young faces. I wanted to grapple with thorny discipline issues, untangle motivations, change lives. I knew teaching wasn’t easy — I had more than enough secondhand experience in the matter — but I also knew it could be immensely, superbly satisfying.

Still, when winter was drawing to a close, and the conversation at various courses took a tentative turn toward job applications and available positions, I felt a sudden apprehension.

What if, after all this, I couldn’t find a job?

What if I found a job but hated it?

What if this was all a big mistake?

“All you can do is hishtadlus,” Ruti said sensibly, when I brought up my worries one evening. “Let’s polish up your résumé, find out which yeshivahs are looking to fill a position, and apply. Then we’ll see what happens.”

Job applications. This was actually real. And now that it was becoming practical, I knew exactly what my first choice of yeshivah would be.

“I’d love to be a rebbi in Darchei Chochmah,” I said suddenly. “Do you think your father could help out, pull some strings?”

Yeshivah Darchei Chochmah was a large elementary school in the area. Besides being my alma mater, it was nearby, there was a fantastic staff, and my father-in-law had been a rebbi there for years. Now he was something on the administration, he arranged teacher training and was sort of an assistant menahel, I wasn’t sure exactly what. But I knew the school, it would be a great environment for me.

Ruti was a little hesitant at the idea of involving her father.

“Why not just find out if they have availability and apply?” she suggested. You’re one of their alumni, you have a good name, and you have the personality for it. I’m sure they’ll grab you.”

It would be nicer not to rely on pull. I decided to ask around, find out whether there were any openings at Darchei Chochmah.

 

Applications, résumés, interviews, positions. The room was buzzing. It was our last session at an eight-week intensive course on successful classroom management, and the mood was suddenly intense, focused, serious. This was no longer theory, notes to be jotted down on ruled paper, PowerPoint presentations with flowcharts and rules. This was going to be real.

I felt like I was on an army base, graduating basic training and getting ready to head to battle.

“So, have you applied anywhere yet?” Yoni asked me. He was a sweet guy, attended a few of the same courses as me, eager eyes and a ton of questions for the moderators. Super conscientious, too. He’d probably mailed out his résumé to every mosad in town already.

“Not yet,” I said vaguely. “I want to find out where they’re looking to hire… how about you?”

“Oh, I just applied everywhere, I’m open to anything, really,” he said, confirming my assumptions. “I’d love a younger grade, you know? But it’s really whatever comes up at this point.”

Another few men joined the conversation. “There’s a new yeshivah opening up, they have a few openings, Rabbi Blau’s behind it, you heard?”

“Temporary position… fourth grade…” I heard someone else confiding in a low tone.

“And did you hear, one of the seventh-grade rebbeim is retiring…”

I pricked up my ears. One of the seventh-grade rebbeim — could that be in Darchei Chochmah?

A few days later, I had my answer.

“That’s the position I want,” I told Ruti, as she expertly edited the graphics on my résumé. It was a bit sorry-looking, not much experience or anything, but Ruti was good with words, and she dressed it up well. I’d listed all the courses I’d been on, hoping that would help my case. Besides, this was my old yeshivah, they knew me. Hopefully that would sway the case in my favor… there were a lot of people after these positions.

“You’re the best one that they could get,” she said loyally.

But I didn’t hear back from the yeshivah. Not that week, not the next. Then I received a short email thanking me for my application and saying that regretfully, due to the large volume to applicants, they would not be able to offer me the position. But I should have a wonderful day and feel free to be in touch regarding further opportunities.

I stared at the screen. My heart hurt. Was this it? A rejection, without even an interview, a face-to-face meeting, a trial?

On impulse, I texted Yoni: How is the job hunt going? Any luck?

A few minutes later, he replied, I have two interviews next week.

Later, I called him and confirmed my suspicion: he was being interviewed for the seventh-grade position at Darchei Chochmah. So it hadn’t been filled yet. But I had been rejected from the running without even a chance to prove myself.

I didn’t tell Ruti about the interviews. Just showed her the email and let her commiserate and felt even worse.

I met Yoni again at another lecture, this one part of a series on Chinuch and Today’s Teenagers. To be honest, I’d lost some of the motivation, but I’d paid for the series up front, and besides, Ruti was so excited for me to attend.

“This speaker, he’s unbelievable, remember they brought him in to my school last year for the staff luncheon,” she gushed. “You’re going to love it!”

Well, I wasn’t sure about that, but I’d attended, that was the main thing.

“Tzviki, how’s it going?” Yoni slid into the seat beside me. “You know what was really funny? When I went for that Darchei Chochmah interview, I realized the guy doing the interview, Baum — he’s your shver, right?”

Ruti’s father did the interviews? He’s in charge of that?

“Oh — really?” I managed. “I didn’t realize he was on top of the hiring.” The words were acrid on my tongue. Was I personally rejected by my own father-in-law?

“It was three of them in the room, but he did most of the talking,” Yoni said, blissfully unaware of my racing thoughts. “It was pretty intimidating, to be honest. And I’d rather have a younger grade, anyway, I had an interview somewhere else for a first-grade position, but that cheder means a long commute every day… so we’ll have to see.” He winked at me. “All up to the Eibeshter. Right?”

“Right,” I said thickly. Or all up to my father-in-law. He could have pulled strings there, with all his involvement in the hiring process. Why didn’t he?

The question plagued me so much that eventually I plucked up the courage to ask an acquaintance, who happens to be on Darchei Chochmah’s board. He looked at me strangely when I brought up the subject, stammering a little with the discomfort of it.

“Your application? Yeah, well… it was just uncomfortable, I guess. It was nothing personal, you’re a great guy, and I’m sure you’ll make a great rebbi. It was just…”

I leaned in, agitated. “Just what? You can tell me, Chaim, I really need to understand this.”

He sighed. “I mean, isn’t it obvious? Your shver didn’t think it was a good idea to mix work and family, you know?”

It was a slam in the gut, even though I’d sort of suspected it all along. “Oh,” I choked out. “I see.”

Not a good idea to mix work and family — what a nice way to couch an insult. That he thought I wasn’t capable. Not up to the job.

I thought of the copies of the résumé that Ruti had printed, ready to mail to other yeshivahs in the area. I thought of carefully worded cover letters and a list of available positions on a Post-it by the computer.

Maybe I should give up on getting a job in the field. Especially if an expert like my father-in-law thinks I can’t handle it.

Poor Ruti was caught in the middle, and it wasn’t her fault at all.

“I’m sure there’s a misunderstanding here,” she tried reasoning with me one night. “Maybe I should just speak to my father…?”

I shoved aside the stack of envelopes she’d prepared. “No way. That’s mortifying. He didn’t want me. It’s fine, I don’t need that job, there are other opportunities… I’d rather just forget it.”

She raised her hands, a little despairingly. “Fine. But then let’s not miss the other opportunities, Tzviki, we need to send these out already…”

I was too tired to argue. And she was right; I needed a job, and what other options did I have?

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll mail them tomorrow.”

Finally, I was on the job-hunt treadmill like everyone else. Some rejection, some interest, an interview or two, cautious hope. Nothing came of the first few interviews — maybe they realize, they’re probably thinking that I can’t be any good if my own father-in-law wouldn’t hire me for the seventh-grade position — but eventually, I was offered something in a small yeshivah in another neighborhood. Third grade, small class, it was a fledgling school, but it was something.

I told Ruti, and we celebrated with pizza for dinner. I mentioned it in passing to my parents — they were happy for me, they didn’t know any of the backstory, and any job was a good one in today’s economy. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell my parents-in-law — or to let Ruti tell them, either.

Then we took the kids over for a visit, one Sunday afternoon. Ruti sat in the kitchen with my mother-in-law, noshing on babka and filling her in on news, and I supervised the kids in the backyard. My father-in-law was in his element, playing some ball game while skilfully quizzing the kids on Tanach trivia. Once a rebbi, always a rebbi, I guess.

Again, I felt a surge of bitterness. H e didn’t think I was up for the challenge? Was he watching my interactions with the kids, questioning my approach to chinuch? Was I too strict? Too easygoing? Levi and Boruch started arguing and I went over to break up the fight, feeling self-conscious. Was he going to watch how I dealt with this now? Or had I already been deemed incapable long ago?

It was a tense visit, and I was glad when Ruti appeared with popsicles and told everyone to go thank Bubby, it was time to get going. We herded kids and popsicles into the car — there’d be a sticky mess tomorrow, but it was a small price to pay to have a quiet ride home — and I turned to say goodbye to my father-in-law.

“Much hatzlachah,” he wished me, giving a firm handshake. “And let me know if I can help with the job search. I’d be happy to put in a good word for you with some of the schools in the area… I’m sure you’ll do a great job in the field.”

I stared at him. Well, not good enough for you, apparently.

“Thanks, but actually, I’ve taken a job already. Third grade in Bais Shmuel,” I said stiffly. Nothing as prestigious as Darchei Chochmah, and not a seventh-grade position either. But I wasn’t the one who ruined my chances of that.

Ruti’s father opened his eyes wide. Was it surprise? What, I’m not even capable of a third grade? For a moment, I wondered if he was hurt that I hadn’t told him sooner. But didn’t he realize why?

If I could tell my father-in-law one thing, it would be: Do you really think I won’t be successful? Why did you stand in the way of my dream opportunity?

 

Chananya

I’ll be honest: there are days when I wonder why I ever signed up for this.

I’d been the eighth-grade rebbi at Yeshivah Darchei Chochmah for years, but it was only recently that I’d stepped into a more administrative role. They called it Staff Supervisor, but I preferred to think of it as a teachers’ mentor, without the capital letters. The boys called me the rebbi’s rebbi, and they basically got it right: I mentored new rebbeim, observed lessons and did performance evaluations, and guided rebbeim to handle issues of classroom discipline, chinuch difficulties, covering the curriculum, and so on. I organized staff training sessions, sometimes implemented new programs, and occasionally gave a shiur to the older grades. That was geshmak, a taste of simpler times, the pure joy of teaching.

But there’s also nothing like being able to make a difference on a wider scale, and helping countless rebbeim reach their students that much better is a joy all its own.

Then again, there are the days with a barrage of phone calls, the menahel is worried about one of the sixth-grade rebbeim who can’t seem to make progress through the curriculum, and I’m late to observe the first class in a lineup of three. Today was one of those days.

There was a knock on my office door just as the phone — which I’d just hung up — started ringing again. I pushed my scribbled to-do list to one side and hoped I looked calm.

“Come in!” I called, and picked up the phone. “Hello?”

“Rabbi Baum? There’s a parent on the line for you. Feldman from the fifth grade…”

Shiller, the substitute, poked his head in. “Rabbi Baum? Oh… you’re on the phone?” He looked crestfallen. I motioned to him to wait.

“Tell Mr. Feldman I’ll call him back, I’m just about to start a meeting,” I told the secretary. “Reb Menachem, please, take a seat.”

Nachi Shiller placed himself hesitantly on the edge of a chair. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything important,” he said.

“Nothing more important than our rebbeim,” I said genially.

“Thank you,” he said, sitting up a bit straighter.

I should’ve been the one thanking him, seeing as he’d just saved me from another tirade from Fishel Feldman, self-appointed chinuch expert and the most helicopter parent I knew. Yes, there was an issue in the fifth grade, and yes, Rabbi Stern wasn’t handling things exactly right, and yes, I was probably going to have to deal with it. But that didn’t make dealing with an irate parent any easier.

But first things first. “How has this morning been, Reb Menachem?”

He sighed, leaned back, and launched into a detailed description of the disaster zone he’d left behind in the classroom. I shifted into damage control mode — this was a classic case of Substitute Syndrome, and the main thing was to help the substitute rebbi get through the rest of the day with his dignity somewhat intact.

By the time Nachi Shiller left the office, he was happy again. And I was happy to have helped, but my mind was back on Stern from the fifth grade and his problematic incentive program. He was a great rebbi, so meticulous and structured, planned things down to the last detail. The problem was when things needed restructuring.

I set up a meeting with Rabbi Stern, and tried to figure out how to put things over most tactfully. It would be an uncomfortable interview, that was for sure. But what choice did I have?

There was a stack of résumés in a neat pile on my desk. Hiring a replacement for the beloved seventh-grade rebbi was not going to be easy.

I took the pile and headed for the menahel’s office.

“How does word go out so fast?”

Rabbi Segal laughed. “Reb Binyamin’s retirement is no secret.”

Back in my office, I riffled through the stack of résumés. Rabbi Segal wanted me to select a few to interview; there was no way we could have 50 candidates coming to try out for the job. It was hard to choose based on résumés alone.

The name Tzviki Mandel jumped out at me. My son-in-law was applying for this position?

I pulled his résumé out the pile and studied it. Nice graphics, I recognized Ruti’s signature creativity. It was a great résumé too, nicely written, the cover letter said all the right things. And Tzviki had a fantastic personality and good understanding of kids — he’d make a good rebbi, especially with the right training. But.

This was never going to work.

I thought back to the new rebbeim I’d mentored recently. Not one of them had come in perfect, not even the ones with the best natural skills and training. They’d all needed support, some in relating to the students, some in planning lessons, some with pace… I observed the veteran rebbis once or twice a year, but new staff had monthly evaluations and meetings. I helped them set goals, perfect technique, they shared their struggles, and we figured things out together.

I thought of my son-in-law again. We have a good relationship, not close, but pleasant. It would never work to have him working here. For both of us: Tzviki would be uncomfortable being under my scrutiny, and definitely wouldn’t want to reach out to me for help. And from my side, things could get super sticky. If I didn’t treat him the same as everyone else, the other rebbeim would be upset. What if parents called in with complaints about Tzviki? What if there was a Rabbi Stern fiasco in his class? What would that do to our relationship?

No, this could never work for any of us.

I was surprised Tzviki himself didn’t realize that. Maybe he didn’t realize how involved I was with the new rebbeim. Or maybe this application was a last resort, there were plenty of other schools he could be trying at the same time.

I cleared a space on my desk for the reject pile, and firmly set Tzviki’s résumé aside.

Interviews, even after narrowing down the selection to seven candidates, were a grueling process. I was glad I didn’t have to do this my son-in-law. There were three of us at every interview: myself, the menahel, and the chairman of the board. I’d been saying for a while that this was far too intimidating, but Rabbi Segal maintained that it was important to see that a potential rebbi could hold his own under pressure.

“Trust me, it’s a lot more intimidating stepping into a classroom,” he liked to quip.

This morning, we had a sweet candidate by the name of Yoni Something-or-Other, and it took less than a minute to see that he wasn’t seventh-grade rebbi material. Too eager, too vulnerable, they’d make mincemeat of him. Some things you just can’t tell on a résumé. Still, we had to play the game, do the interview.

“Nice to meet you, I’m Rabbi Baum,” I said, shaking his hand. He blinked in recognition.

“Oh — wait, I think I know — you’re the shver of Tzviki Mandel? He’s, we’re — I mean, we know each other, from the teaching courses…”

“You’re his friend? Nice,” I said, smiling a little. Then I smoothly changed the subject. This was a professional interview after all.

The candidate seemed to settle down as the interview went on, but he lacked a certain zing, an energy, a confidence. I realized again that Tzviki would be great in the classroom, he was dynamic, he had what it took.

Our loss would be another yeshivah’s gain. I made a mental note to find out how his job hunt was going, but I wasn’t worried. He’d ace any interview, no problem.

“I invited Tzviki and Ruti and the kids, they’re coming for the afternoon,” Bryna told me one Sunday. “They haven’t been over in ages. Must be busy,” she laughed.

She was right. We hadn’t seen the grandchildren in a while. Something niggled at me, but I brushed it aside. Surely this wasn’t anything to do with the job?

Over the afternoon, though, the niggle bloomed into full-blown suspicion. Ruti was chattering away, her usual self, and the kids were their usual exuberant selves, but Tzviki seemed quiet, self-conscious almost.

I decided to say something.

Just before they left, I shook my son-in-law’s hand. “Let me know if I can help with the job search,” I offered. “I’d be happy to put in a good word for you with some of the schools in the area… I’m sure you’ll do a great job in the field.”

Tzviki looked ill at ease. “Thanks,” he said, returning the handshake a little half-heartedly. “Actually, um, I’ve taken a job already — the third grade in Bais Shmuel.”

Bais Shmuel? That was a nice school, pretty new, but they had a sterling reputation. I was happy for him, although he really had the personality for an older grade. Still, starting out was always hard, and this would be good experience.

“That’s great,” I said, trying to hide my hurt at not being informed earlier. I mean, he’d had the whole afternoon to mention something…

“Yes,” Tzviki said. His tone was stiff. “Well, thank you for having us.”

And he made for the car, a bit too fast.

I stared after him. So it was the job, after all. This was so… frustrating. He’d totally misunderstood my intentions. I wished I could’ve spoken to him directly, but I hadn’t realized he was so serious about that application. Now, it seemed like the hurt was festering for a while, and it would just be awkward to dredge it up. What would he say already? It’s fine, don’t worry about it. The story was over already, he had another job, and hopefully this would be forgotten…

I sighed. This was exactly what I’d been trying to avoid: family conflict because of professional miscommunications. In the course of my job I’ve dealt with countless sticky situations, delicate communication, hurt feelings and resentment and even explosive feuds. But nothing left me feeling as helpless as I did now, with no easy way to fix things up.

I was right not to mix work and family, I thought bitterly as I headed inside. I just hadn’t realized they’d already mixed.

If could tell Tzviki one thing, it would be: Being your direct supervisor at work would become far too uncomfortable for both of us.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 816)

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