Rabbi Zecharya Greenwald. As told to Ariella Schiller
I am privileged to be working, living, and breathing chinuch. (Sleeping isn’t really part of the lifestyle.) It’s something I’m grateful to Hashem for every day. The downside? Hands down it’s the months spent reviewing seminary applications, leaving my family and flying around the world to interview hopeful young girls, and sifting through the piles of information and references I’m handed. That part I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
What was once about chinuch and growth has for many turned into a race of reputation and “success.” People are making skewed choices, choosing seminaries based on brand names, when they should be looking at the sincerity of their choice, the chinuch they’re seeking, and whether my school will be a fitting match for the student in question. This would lead to less rejection — any system that can reject a hopeful Jewish girl is flawed.
The scariest thing is that because of this flawed system, we end up hurting people; we are portrayed as the big bad wolves picking off the lambs one by one. When a girl walks into my office for an interview and bursts into anxious sobs before I even have a chance to hear her name, then it’s obvious that there’s something wrong with the entire setup. Why should girls cry, doubt themselves as students, as successes, as people, just because of the stressful (though important) process of seminary acceptance?
But this is the current system, and so, working within that framework, I want girls to understand that as hard as it is for girls to come and be evaluated and feel judged, it’s just as hard, if not harder, for us to do it. We need to sit behind a desk in Monsey or Boro Park or Chicago and meet 10 to 25 girls a day. And we owe it to each girl to be as alert and enthusiastic by the 25th as we were by the first. Baruch Hashem, I think we’re usually matzliach, but it is enormously draining.
We need to actually sift through the handwritten biographies, the references, the fluff, the grades, and make our decisions without damaging anyone’s self-esteem. As one of my students once observed, “The closest anyone ever comes to perfection is a girl on her seminary application.” Every girl does chesed, every girl is creative and smart and tzniyusdig and popular and loves her family. I can prepare extensively for each interview, read the application from back to front, and walk away knowing nothing about the person. It’s become an impossible task. So, I’ve started asking each girl a question that I hope will break through this facade of perfection she insists on erecting. And sometimes that shakes the girl up or even — although baruch Hashem rarely — makes her cry during or after the interview. And I feel terrible, because it’s never about shaking her up — it’s about getting to see the real person so I can see if she is a good fit for my school.
And of course, even if she is not a good fit, that says nothing about her. There are so many wonderful schools, each catering to a unique variety of students. I can say “no” to a girl to being my student, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want her to marry my nephew or son.
Whether you are a good fit for my school says nothing about your character. Sometimes it’s just a matter of space — we have a limited number of beds — or maybe it’s about academics, the number of applicants from your high school, or a myriad of other factors. But one thing it never will be is that you are not good enough. As a bas Yisrael, you already are good enough.
It pains me terribly that girls will walk away from meeting me or anyone else thinking less of themselves; it causes me physical pain to think I’m the source of that.
And then there’s the knowledge that I make mistakes. It can be very hard to get clear information. One girl may be motzei chein b’enei kol roeha, but it’s a farce — she has terrible middos —while another girl, who’s inarticulate and does not come across so well, has a neshamah just waiting to blossom. Some high schools aren’t helpful, some are, and some are downright detrimental. And three teachers can have three different opinions regarding one girl, so who do we listen to? Sometimes, I’ll unknowingly turn down the girl I built the school for and accept the girl who will ruin the year for others.
The only way I can get through this is to juggle the belief that I know what I’m doing with the knowledge that I don’t, but that I’m human, and humans make mistakes.
At the end, every single year, it boils down to siyata d’Shmaya.
I’d like to challenge all those reading: If you can come up with a better system, a system that won’t hurt the girls involved, that won’t leave the mechanchim sleepless over hurting people, come forward. Together, we’ll ensure it comes to fruition. Right now, I see no other way — and that’s what I want you to understand.
People ask why I keep doing it. They shouldn’t ask that. It highlights the hard parts too much. I do it because I believe in what I’m doing, in the chinuch I’m providing. I just wish there was a better system.
It’s all worth it when:
- When you see the light go on in your student’s eyes during a class; when a student tells you that the year in seminary changed her life perspective; when she thanks you for the greatest gift she could ever have received — herself.
- When you hear from your students five, ten, and even 20 years later that their lives have been built on the foundation they received when they were in seminary. When a student feels challenged and asks you to help steer her through it. When a student falls and knows she can come to you for chizuk and comfort.
- When a student from years ago calls because she is going through a difficult patch and feels that there is an address she can turn to. That’s when you can sleep at night with satisfaction; that’s when you know that you’re lucky to be a mechanech.
Best thing to say:
My rebbi, Rav Wolbe ztz”l, called me once and said, “Someone sent me to call you to get her daughter into seminary, but I’m not going to say a word. You just do what you think needs to be done.” That shows the gadlus of a person. He will ask because a Jewish mother asked him to, but he is well aware he doesn’t have all the information — that things aren’t as simple as just “accept her.”
Worst thing anyone can do to me:
- When a mother calls me up crying, asking me to take her daughter. I truly don’t understand how you can put me in a situation where I have to say no to the tears of an eim b’Yisrael. And what do you want me to do? Unaccept a different girl so your daughter can get in, so that the other mother will call me crying?
- An acquaintance once called and asked me to accept a girl whom I simply could not.
He was not amused. “Is this what our friendship is worth?” he asked angrily.
“I hope not,” I said. Yet I haven’t heard from him since….
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 630)